Rabbi, I have a prob­lem

Rabbi Dr Naf­tali Brawer gives an Or­tho­dox per­spec­tive, and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Ro­main a Pro­gres­sive one, on prob­lems in Jewish life

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

QUES­TION: I al­ways thought that Jews don’t be­lieve in hell but then some­one told there is a place called Ge­hi­nom where wicked souls are sent. I find the whole idea of eter­nal pun­ish­ment trou­bling. What should I be­lieve?

THE JEWISH term for hell is Ge­hi­nom, which col­lo­quial Yid­dish cor­rupted to Ge­henna. The ori­gin of this term is ac­tu­ally Gei Ben Hi­nom, which means the val­ley of the son of Hi­nom. This phys­i­cal place is a val­ley just south of the old city walls of Jerusalem which in an­cient times was a place of child sac­ri­fice. Pa­gan priests would beat loud drums to drown out the hys­ter­i­cal screams of the vic­tims.

The Bi­ble it­self does not ex­plic­itly re­fer to Ge­hi­nom as a place of pun­ish­ment in the after­life. The Bi­ble’s term for this is Sheol. The term Ge­hi­nom as a place of damna­tion for souls first oc­curs in the Tal­mud and Midrash. Through­out this rab­binic lit­er­a­ture there are var­i­ous de­scrip­tions of the na­ture and pun­ish­ments of Ge­hi­nom mostly as­so­ci­ated with fire. Many of these de­scrip­tions find sim­i­lar par­al­lels in Hel­lenis­tic lit­er­a­ture and the pun­ish­ments de­scribed re­flect ju­di­cial pro­ce­dures at the time of their com­po­si­tion such as the con­cept of “mea­sure for mea­sure”.

There is a key ar­gu­ment in the Tal­mud re­gard­ing the length of sen­tence in Ge­hi­nom for sinners and the widely ac­cepted view is that with rare ex­cep­tion the long­est sen­tence does not ex­ceed twelve months. In this sense Ge­hi­nom is more like pur­ga­tory than eter­nal damna­tion.

How should a mod­ern Jew re­late to this con­cept and what place should it have in driv­ing our prac­tice of Ju­daism? There were pe­ri­ods of time, par­tic­u­larly in the Mid­dle Ages, when trav­el­ling preach­ers went from town to town call­ing on Jews to re­pent, in­cen­tivis­ing them with graphic de­scrip­tions of the tor­ments of hell should they ig­nore their call. In many cases this had the de­sired ef­fect.

Even to­day there are those who re­spond pos­i­tively to such ad­mon­ish­ments, al­though they are rapidly de­creas­ing in num­ber. Most Jews to­day want a pos­i­tive rea­son to be faith­ful to the To­rah and, like you, the idea of avoid­ing sin so as not to get pun­ished in the after­life is just not in­spir­ing or com­pelling enough. This is not to say that Ge­hi­nom does not ex­ist, it is sim­ply to ac­knowl­edge that we live in dif­fer­ent times and that we re­quire dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tions for ob­serv­ing the To­rah.

I would not pre­oc­cupy my­self with thoughts of the after­life. There is too much to do right here, right now.

THE TROU­BLE with talk­ing about hell is that, liv­ing in a Chris­tian coun­try, with its cul­ture around us in lit­er­a­ture and ev­ery­day speech, it is dif­fi­cult to dis­so­ci­ate the con­cept of hell from images of devils, fire and eter­nal damna­tion.

You are right : the idea of a per­son suf­fer­ing in agony for­ever does not sit eas­ily with the no­tion of a lov­ing God. You will be pleased to know, there­fore, that the Jewish con­cept is very dif­fer­ent. For a start, whereas Chris­tian­ity has a clear road-map of the here­after, with sign­posts to heaven and hell, and stop­ping off points in limbo and perdi­tion, Ju­daism is much more cautious about what hap­pens next.

To be blunt, we do not know, and those who claim to know are, at best, spec­u­lat­ing and, at worst, de­lib­er­ately mis­lead­ing. In­stead, Jewish teach­ing has al­ways tried to em­pha­sise the im­por­tance of this world. We will find out about the world-to-come in due course, but in the mean­time should con­cen­trate on the here and now.

Vir­tu­ally all the Jewish leg­ends about what hap­pens upon death — for ex­am­ple, be­ing asked at the gates of judge­ment “Were you hon­est in your busi­ness deal­ings?’ — are merely re­flec­tions on what we should be do­ing while on earth.

Of course, peo­ple are cu­ri­ous about the fu­ture and so no­tions de­vel­oped: one was the idea of phys­i­cal res­ur­rec­tion in the mes­sianic age, which is still main­tained in Or­tho­doxy, but is not fol­lowed by Re­form or Lib­eral Ju­daism, which hold only to a spir­i­tual after­life. But in ei­ther case, de­tails are de­lib­er­ately vague be­cause the only cer­tainty is now.

At the same time, our sense of fair play is of­fended by the sight of im­moral peo­ple be­ing ma­te­ri­ally suc­cess­ful, and hence the thought of them at least suf­fer­ing at God’s hands to com­pen­sate for them es­cap­ing hu­man jus­tice. But Ge­hi­nom was a for­mer pa­gan site of hu­man sac­ri­fices and the idea of be­ing sent there was sim­ply a metaphor for some pos­si­ble fu­ture ret­ri­bu­tion, not a def­i­nite the­ol­ogy of the after­life. I would ar­gue that we cre­ate our own heaven and hell in this world, through the re­la­tion­ships we cre­ate or wreck, the hap­pi­ness or trau­mas we cause. More­over, cheats and wrong-do­ers are al­ways look­ing over their shoul­der, ner­vous of what could be dis­cov­ered, whereas a per­son of in­tegrity may be poor but can look in the mir­ror and not feel ashamed.

If you have a prob­lem to put to our rab­bis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email ed­i­to­rial@thejc.com with de­tails

Jonathan Ro­main is rabbi at Maiden­head (Re­form) Sy­n­a­gogue

Naf­tali Brawer is rabbi at Bore­ham­wood and El­stree Sy­n­a­gogue

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