“With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)
As a synagogue rabbi attending to the dying and their anxious family members, I often received questions about what happens after death.
Most of us have certainly wondered whether there is life after death or the nature of heaven and hell. In her fascinating and well-researched book, Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife, noted scholar Dr. Leila Leah Bronner brings to light the Jewish sources on what happens after we die.
Interested in what Judaism has to say about the afterlife, Bronner begins her in-depth exploration with the Bible. “I have long taken issue with the general consensus among scholars that the Bible does not deal in any significant way with the concept of an afterlife,” writes Bronner in the introduction.
Journey to Heaven starts with the cryptic passage from Genesis, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him” (5:24). Where did the Lord take Enoch? Early on, the Bible seems to reject the finality of death and suggests some kind of continuity beyond the grave. Later Biblical prophets including Daniel, Ezekiel and Isaiah also describe the dead returning to life, and resurrection as a reward for the righteous.
Each chapter of Journey to Heaven is devoted to a different time period, demonstrating the progression of Jewish thought on the subject of the afterlife throughout the ages. While the Bible only makes subtle references to life after death, the Talmud explicitly discusses the topic at length. Although she comes from the world of academia, Dr. Bronner explains in an accessible and clear manner the difference between Jewish ideas of the “Garden of Eden,” the “World to Come,” and “Gehinnom.”
One of the most fascinating chapters in Journey to Heaven deals with the Jewish belief in reincarnation, which Bronner says only entered Jewish thought in the Middle Ages. She quotes the mystical work of Kabbalah known as the Zohar which describes the transmigration of souls as an example of God’s mission to perfect the world:
So God has planted trees in this world. If they prosper, well and good, and if not, He uproots them and replants them time after time. All the ways of the Holy One are thus for the purpose of achieving good and the perfection of the world. (Zohar, vol 2 187b)
Christian readers will be interested in Bronner’s discussion of the Messiah and compare the Jewish understanding to their own ideas. She describes how according to Maimonides, the Messiah would be, “a king of Davidic descent, a Torah scholar, a keeper of the commandments, an effective preacher, and a warrior for God.”
Nevertheless, according to Bronner, this view, “is certainly a contrast to the Christian idea that the Messiah is an incarnation of God with supernatural powers. While the Jewish Messiah had glimmers of supernatural elements, he was entirely human.”
In her compelling work, Dr. Bronner presents not one Jewish belief about the afterlife but an array of ideas found within the Jewish tradition that all have one thing in common. “Beginning with the Bible and continuing through the sacred texts” the Jewish view on the afterlife is always “infused with hope and faith.”
Even though conversations about death are often avoided, Leila Bronner explains in great detail how questions about what will happen beyond the grave have instilled in the Jewish people throughout the generations, hope rather than fear. As such Journey to Heaven is not only a fascinating book, but a comforting and uplifting work on a topic of the greatest interest and significance.