A while ago you were asked about heaven and hell and said you would deal with it in parts. I am an avid reader and never noticed the discussion. Can you revisit this now? Is there such a thing in Judaism as heaven and hell? Isn’t it just a means of luring people into obedience in anticipation of some eternal reward or fear of eternal punishment? If Judaism does believe in these concepts, how might that differ from other faiths who believe in the same?
Fair point and thank you for pulling me up on that. I have received this question in various forms from different readers of all backgrounds and will attempt to deal with it in three parts (consider it your summer reading). So here is part one:
The notion that there is a life after this one is a cardinal principle – one of Maimonides thirteen principles of faith. Let’s consider the following. A person is composite of body and soul. The body if you like is a biological product, procreated by the mother and father who brought it into this world. But the body in and of itself cannot function without the spiritual dynamic – without the soul which is invested by G-d. Kabbalah explains, and this is already really referenced in the Talmud, that the souls were all created already in advance. They existed before they entered the body, and they exist even after the body ceases to be. To be sure the soul needs the body much like a flame needs a wick. It cannot express itself or exist properly in a vacuum. Consequently it uses the body like a hand inside a glove. The hand is moving but what you see is the glove. Similarly the body is the vessel – the garment of the soul. That’s what you see. But it exists only because of the soul within. It is just the manifestation of the soul’s ultimate intents, actions and desires. But how does the soul operate when not en-clothed in the body? How does it operate on different plane? Of course we cannot properly fathom the answer because we can only relate to our reality which is the soul within the body. But let’s consider the following:
Hypnosis has been employed to sometimes take you back to a childhood experience in order to eradicate a problem that exists in your here and now. In other words that experience is very much present – embedded deep in your subconscious, you’ve just managed to block it out. Hypnosis is the ability to relax the mind – taking your filtering guards down and reaching into those places which, in a conscious state you would never recall. But in a sub-conscious state you most certainly can.
What would happen if your mind’s filtering system malfunctioned? What if it was removed and you could remember everything from your whole life all at once and see everything in your minds eye all at once, and hear everything in your mind all at once – where all your past experiences would come together? You’d have a system overload. It would be far too much for the mind to handle and you would become utterly confused. You are conditioned to just focus on the here and now of your life – the filter keeps you in focus with the present.
Now imagine that you don’t live on this plane anymore – that you were no longer restricted to the confines of time and space, hence there is no past and there is no future – or to put it better – you can live in the past and the future simultaneously, would there still be the same confusion? The answer is, no, because everything will fall into sequence. In this realm, if you tried to concentrate on all your life’s experiences, you would have an overload because you can only concentrate on one thing at a time. But where you don’t have this human restriction of the present, then you’re scanning numerous things at numerous times, and everything will fall into sequence of when they occurred and take on its individual moment.
Concentrate information in the human brain as we are a soul in a body would cause tremendous confusion. However all that same information is there in the subconscious – and as it stands beyond the body – where it transcends the body and is above time – it’s all there, laid bare in chronological order.
When the soul leaves the body then it is no longer restricted, it doesn’t have these confinements, the filter falls away. At that point of passing, the soul transcends onto a level where its whole life is laid bare from its initial descent into this world till its dying day. Everything as it transpired from the moment it came down into this world and into this body, till its final moment prior to leaving this body and this world, is in correct order.
Think of it in the context of a video. If I was to watch a video of my entire life up until now it would take me 55 years – the length of time that I have existed up until present. Parts of it would be quite comical. Invariably there are some sad moments. There would be elements of horror – like the day I became a Rabbi – and even some embarrassing moments. I couldn’t possibly recall it all right now – Why? Because it’s all shut out by the filtering system. But if my filter disappears – then everything is there open and revealed.
In IT, everything is stored on the hard drive. You can delete whatever you want from the computer but the fingerprints are there – on a slow burn it could all be pulled off the hard drive. You can dispose of the hard drive, but that doesn’t make it go away – just transferred from your computer to a rubbish heap. You can try and destroy the hard drive – but in the context of the soul – which is your hard drive – for one thing it’s not yours to destroy, nor can you destroy it because it is not something tangible that you could physically access.
All that information stored – the sum total of your life experience – even that which is stored in the subconscious – doesn’t go away. Even after a person dies, the information is still there. The computer may have crashed but the hard drive remains. And in that realm which the Talmud calls the world to come, the soul exists on a different plane where all that information is accessed and assessed.
This is the meaning of the words in Ethics of our Fathers: asid litain din vechesbon – we all ultimately have to give an account and be judged by a Supreme Divine Court for our actions. This means the moment when the soul – that information – the sum total of our life’s experiences presents itself to “Head Office” – to debrief on life. When you go for a
job interview you’re only going to discuss your strong points. When you’re dating you only disclose the good stuff – you don’t typically mention your failures or misdeeds. You can filter and present that which you want your boss or future wife to be impressed with. But upstairs there is no exclusive information. There is no filtering system where you can be selective and leave out the negative. Our sum total of information and experience is laid out before the Heavenly Tribunal for all to see.
Thus, depending on your actions in this realm – you will either experience a tinge of pride or you will be left feeling highly embarrassed. Basically, that tinge of pride is what we might call heaven and whatever embarrassment endured is what could be hell. In that world of absolute justness and perfection not only can you not try to explain away the truth of your actions – you won’t want to. Truth is the only absolute in that realm.
Think of a most embarrassing moment or one of the worst things you ever did. Now imagine putting it on video for everyone to watch – you’d want to disappear. This is, in mystical terms busha – a deep sense of shame. It’s Hell! And the worst part about it is you cannot leave the room, or hide your face, or turn the other way. There’s nowhere to run! Conversely, imagine having done something amazing and being lauded as it were, for it. That incredible sense of pride is what we might call heaven.
This is not about recall, because in that higher realm nothing is ever forgotten. G-d was, is and will be, so He was there when it happened. Wherever you go into your past G-d is there, He recorded it and now it is instant replay. Here and now you are making the film – you are the casting director. But once the film is released for public viewing, there’s no turning back. Like every director, you want the critics to be happy!
To be continued…