When people find out that I am considering conversion, they always have lots of questions. Probably things they have always wondered about Judaism, but never had an "in-between" to go to for answers. It's often intimidating to ask questions about different people's beliefs, because you never know what is a sore point for each person.
One of the many questions people ask me is about Judaism's beliefs in heaven and hell. I think a lot of Christians ask this question because of the teaching that the only way to heaven is through a belief in Jesus, and obviously, that would be a sticking point in Judaism. Also, people who were raised Christian and no longer consider themselves so tend to ask because the idea that non-Christians are banished to hell is generally a hard pill to swallow.
Just like in Christianity, there is a wide range of Jewish beliefs on the concept of afterlife. There are opinions on cremation, burial, funeral services and even reincarnation. But here's the basic gist from Beliefnet.com:
"The highest good in Judaism is living a moral life; that is its own reward. The concept of an afterlife is emphasized in Orthodox Judaism, where it is usually referred to as Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. The Jewish idea of heaven is generally known as Gan Eden, or as the Garden of Eden, and hell is called Gehinnom.
"All righteous people, not just Jews, get a place in the world to come, but not all places are equal. A person's status in Olam Ha-Ba depends on actions in this life. Before going to Gan Eden, many people first have to spend time in Gehinnom, which is described by some as a fiery place of harsh punishment and by others as a place where the soul contemplates its past life and repents misdeeds. Except for the worst human beings, the maximum stay in Gehinnom is one year, after which the soul ascends to Gan Eden.
"There is debate about virtually every aspect of Jewish views on the afterlife, including the question of whether Judaism has a concept of an afterlife at all. For those who believe in Olam Ha-Ba, there is debate about whether the term refers to heaven and hell (Gan Eden/Gehinnom) or whether it refers to this world as it will be in the messianic era after the resurrection of the dead (tehiyat ha-metim)--or whether it is something entirely different."
I really like Beliefnet because it gives you a very basic understanding of a lot of different religions, and doesn't paint all Christians and Jews with a broad stroke. It points out the differences between say a Southern Baptist and Episcopalian and a Reform Jew and an Orthodox Jew. It also has an interesting, fun quiz. You answer questions about yourself and it matches you up with a religion. Has anyone used this site before? What did you think of it? Is it fairly reliable?
The afterlife has always been a curiousity for me. My sister died when I was 9 years old. In fact, next Thursday is the 15th anniversary of her death when she was only 7 years old. Naturally, as I child, I focused a lot on the afterlife to get me through my grief. My mom did, too, and started collecting angels. I never really worried about going to hell, though I'm sure some do. I never really thought it was a possibility that God would allow that, no matter what I did wrong.
I never was really taught that non-Christians were intended for hell. I don't think I even understood this concept until I had a Jewish friend in high school. In our tight-knit group of friends, she was the only non-Christian, and I could tell for some of the girls with more fervent, traditional beliefs, that her faith might be an issue. I never really heard it talked about much, but it was brought up maybe once or twice. My friends respected her religion, even went with her to services from time to time, but that didn't change what they were taught to believe.
It was hard for me to rationalize that. Part of me wanted to believe in everything I was told. And another part just couldn't.
I started thinking about all of this these past 36 hours after the shootings at Virginia Tech. I'm usually very detached from tragedies. I guess it's part of the job. I have to take a 20-inch story about a bus plunging off a mountainside in Mexico and turn it into a 50-word bite every day. But I guess my recent time in college and my fondness for the KU campus made this all touch home a little bit more. I've never felt truly depressed after a major event -- even 9/11 -- before. I just still haven't been able to shake this.
And I find it hard to believe that if there is a God, he would keep some of those 33 -- yes, even the shooter -- out of heaven for eternity. I don't believe we're here on Earth as part of a test. We're here to do as many good deeds as possible before our time runs out.
Sorry for the long post, but I've felt the need to ramble today. I'm almost done with The Chosen, and I've been marking it up like I'm a freshman in high school again.
But until a later post, I'd love to hear you all's struggles with the after life, beliefs or questions... Thanks for reading.