Afterlife: The Jewish View

Afterlife: The Jewish View
Jonathan Morgenstern with Rabbi Sholom Kamenetsky

Mosaica Press / 102 pp.

There is no one who doesn’t ponder what happens to them when life comes to an end. What is the afterlife like? What is the Messianic Era all about? What will it be like when we are resurrected and brought back to this world?

Jonathan Morgenstern has done a tremendous service explaining the normative[1] Jewish view of what happens to us after we die. The Afterlife is an exceptionally clear and easy to read presentation of all the relevant issues such as, the purpose of life, what happens when we die, reincarnation[2], resurrection, the Messianic era, the world to come, and more. Analogies are a prominent tool in making the concepts more understandable.

Here’s an excerpt:

When we hear the term “reincarnation,” we naturally thinks that upon death, the person’s soul – in its entirety - comes back to earth for another life; albeit in a different body. 

This is a misconception.  A person – meaning one individual’s consciousness – is unique.  He has but one chance at life.  That is why Judaism considers life so precious.  Yet, reincarnation is indeed about the spirit returning to this world in another physical form.

According to Jewish teachings, reincarnation is not the returning of one’s entire soul to another body or another form.  Instead, what gets reincarnated is only the part of a person’s soul – the part that has not completed its mission. Therefore, it is not really accurate to say that a person gets reincarnated or a person’s soul gets reincarnated.

The part of a person’s soul that has achieved its mission moves on to its next residence in the World of Souls and what follows.  This completed portion of soul remains as that person’s unique identity for eternity.   The portion of that person’s soul which did not complete its mission is what becomes subject to reincarnation.  This incomplete portion of soul is placed inside another body and becomes an entirely new person with a new consciousness.  This new person is not the same as the first person.  The first person has lost his or her opportunity to perfect that part of his soul which was formerly part of him.  The knowledge of this lost opportunity is part of the remorse one experiences in the next world.

Although the reincarnated portion of one’s soul is no longer part of that person and his or her unique identity, there will be a closer affinity between them and they will recognize each other in the next world.  This is similar to how we have an affinity with our family members, but exist as separate people. 

The Afterlife is a job well done, making it an important and worthwhile work. It is perfect for secular Jews, ba’alei teshuva, and those with otherwise limited backgrounds in Torah learning. It can also come in handy for those who work in kiruv and might want some ideas and assistance on how to teach these concepts. It is also appropriate for non-Jews who may want to know about the Jewish view on the afterlife and related issues.

To order the book:

[1] There is one sentence in the book that I feel is not reflective of the normative Jewish view. On p. 67 it is written that the Gehenom experience can last between "one second and one year" whereas the normative view is that it lasts for 11 or 12 months. I asked Rav Kamenetsky about this who kindly responded quickly with a slew of sources. While these sources can be interpreted as supporting this approach (I managed to look up some, but not all of the sources he sent me), as mentioned, it is not the dominant view, in my opinion. That being said, there is little certainty in all such matters. No one has ever been there and back to tell us what the Gehenom experience was like. See next footnote for another example of a dissenting opinion in an otherwise normative view.
[2] Although Morgenstern presents the normative Jewish view on all such matters, there are some lesser known opposing views on these issues. To name but one example, while reincarnation is indeed a normative Jewish belief, which Morgenstern presents in an exceptionally clear and easy to understand manner, it is interesting to note that there were great sages who completely rejected the concept. This list includes the likes of Rav Saadia Gaon, Rav Leon Medina, Rav David Kimchi, and Rav Joseph Albo, among many others. It was likely the influence of the Arizal that made reincarnation so universally accepted today. (R. Avraham Trugman, in his book on reincarnation “Return Again,” argues that we’ve misunderstood Saadia’s true position, and that Saadia would accept the concept of reincarnation as we’ve come to understand it.). For alternative views on the subject of resurrection see Marc B. Shapiro, "The Limits of Orthodox Theology," p. 149-156

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