4. On the Afterlife

Greetings to all from snowy Allon Shevut.  I am glad to be able to present the next installment to the larger following the blog has picked up recently.  I apologize for the delay since the last post.  There has been a lot of feedback on the topic of homosexuality, and a follow-up post, a response to one of the questions raised with regard to the homosexuality post, will be forthcoming soon, be’ezrat Hashem.  Unfortunately, due to logistical considerations, we will be unable to address all the responses in this forum.  For those who are interested, there are links to media coverage of that recent post (and any other media coverage generated by the blog) along the side of the page of the blog.

Other topics on which I hope to post in the coming weeks: non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, community responses to scandal, and receiving berakhot from rabbis (and related topics).

While the topic of this post is truly timeless, I think it is particularly appropriate for a week blessed with so much precipitation here in Israel, as the gemara in Ta’anit compares a day blessed with rain in Israel to the day of techiyat ha’meitim, the resuscitation of the dead.

This post was adapted based on a sicha or discussion with Harav Lichtenstein held on 23 Kislev 5773, December 7, 2012.

Kol tuv,

-Dov Karoll

Question: I have found very little discussion of the afterlife in Modern Orthodox literature and I would appreciate guidance on how to think substantively and seriously about this issue. Even if, as some have suggested, the afterlife is not central to Jewish thought and existence, are there aspects of it that are significant or worthy of consideration?

It is true that in Modern Orthodox circles there is less discussion of the afterlife than in charedi circles.  What one needs to ask is: first, why, and, second, is it a good thing or a bad thing?  Some people will tell you that indeed the statement about discussion is true, but that this is the result of a weakness of faith.  To speak with certainty about the factual situation that you have in the afterlife includes two components.  Chazal were very severe about a person who is a כופר בתחיית המתים [denies the resuscitation of the dead], which is one kind of afterlife, and while, with regard to other doctrines, they don’t take a rigorous stance at every point along the line (there is no clear evidence that every jot and tittle of the Rambam’s 13 ikkarim [principles of faith] were part of the faith content of Jewish life), but with regard to תחיית המתים [the resuscitation of the dead] – whoever is kofer [denies it], the mishnah in Sanhedrin takes him to task very severely.  Now if one is not talking about תחיית המתים, but one is talking about details of the afterlife, how long people are punished – in one kind of a pot or in another kind of a pot – if a person does not accept fully all the details which the Ramban put together from the various gemarot, in Rosh haShanah and elsewhere – and arrived at a picture of a schedule, how long, י”ב חודש [twelve months], more than י”ב חודש, etc., I don’t see in the gemara that a person who does not accept that as such (unless you just make a blanket statement – anybody who does not have full conviction with regard to every single ma’amar Chazal describing what is a largely amorphous situation) – that anyone like that is outside our camp.  But if one doesn’t go that far and one says alright, Chazal also did not present a picture of total detailed knowledge, you’re talking about a conjecture – what you have in the gemarot there which the Ramban quotes are a picture of how Chazal understood and imagined different standards of punishment.

It should be noted that indeed if a person accepts every detail of this account, he encounters certain difficulties.  One of the great difficulties rishonim grappled with arises from the sugya in Kiddushin and the Rambam’s pesak following that, which addresses how sakhar va’onesh [reward and punishment] works.  At the beginning of the third perek [chapter] in Hilkhot Teshuvah, the Rambam, following the gemara in Kiddushin, says: how is a person judged?  You balance how many zekhuyot [merits] and how many chovot [obligations] he has, you check the scales – you see what’s more, more weight on one side or more weight on the other side – if the most are chovot, so he, for that year, will die for sure.  If it’s not just the individual but the community, and you take all the zekhuyot of the community and put them on one side of the scale and all the chovot on the other side of the scale, and the majority is chovot, then, for sure, that community, that year, will be decimated.  If a whole country is like that – the whole country goes down the tube; if the whole world is like that – the whole world goes down.  That’s what the Rambam puts down, based on that gemara.  You ask yourself: doesn’t the Rambam know that there’s not going to be second mabbul [deluge]?!  The Rambam himself, when he describes the nature of his time, in Hilkhot De’ot (6:1), says that if most of the world is immoral or amoral, as is the situation in our time right now – that’s how the Rambam speaks – then, what should you do?  You should lock yourself up, don’t go out in the street, you don’t want to be found amongst all those people, etc.  If that’s the view the Rambam had of his generation, how can he write what he writes in Hilkhot Teshuvah?

So the Rambam was aware of that, and he has resort to a fairly standard technique – he starts out with a purely quantitative approach – how much, or how heavy.  By the time he gets to halakhah 3, he realizes that any one of us is going to say: how can this be?  So his answer will be, indeed, if the calculation was only counted quantitatively, then so many cities should have been destroyed, but you need to look qualitatively – and, qualitatively, in light of this scale, the Rambam can maintain that a single aveirah [sin] committed by one who has presumably been trained in world of avodat Hashem [service of God] may outweigh a multitude of sins transgressed by one whose training has been seriously deficient.  Because it’s qualitative you are going to maintain your principle that people are subject to this cheshbon [calculation], but the count, or the scales, are different from the way you and I perceive it.  And who knows this cheshbon?  Only one source: the קל דעות [God of Understanding], the Ribbono shel Olam [God] knows.  This is the way the Rambam can maintain his commitment to the sugya in Kiddushin and not be overwhelmed by its problematic aspects

If someone takes the position that when the gemara speaks of what happens to resha’im [the wicked] after a year, that’s with regard to ordinary resha’im.  But there are some resha’im – only the קל דעות knows who they are, and how wicked they are; on the other hand, He knows that they give tzedakah [charity], they help out almanot and yetomim [widows and orphans], so they’re not totally bad, and the way He jots it up, on His computer, the cheshbon comes out differently.  Which, in a sense, means that a person does not follow the prescribed formula of the gemara in Rosh haShanah down the line, and does not follow the Ramban in Sha’ar haGemul down the line – does that mean he’s an apikores [heretic]?  I doubt it.

Someone could still say: let’s face it, the charedi world is, some would say more naïve, others would say not naïve but trusting, it’s a simpler kind of faith, and therefore, whatever they see written black on white in the gemara, that, for them, is absolutely certain.  That includes things which, admittedly, Chazal had no way of knowing.  The afterlife, as Hamlet described it, is that land from which no traveler returns, so there are no reports.  That being the case, maybe we could understand that gemara as being assertions of Chazal with regard to the afterlife but not news reports of just what happens over there.

That might still leave him, in our perception, short of the degree of emunat chakhamim [trust in the Sages] which the charedi world has, but not at a deep, broad level.  It may be that this is not the kind of issue that this person [the questioner] has in mind, which has to do with sakhar va’onesh.  But talking about the afterlife, leaving aside the issue of sakhar va’onesh, also has to do with questions of what is the nature of that existence.  What if one takes the following: Boswell reports that Dr. Jonson quoted an English clergyman who said that in the afterlife, a great many people are judged equally.  This is said not of the moral life but of the intellectual life: if there are two people, one of whom is born with a brilliant mind, and the other one is born with a very limited mind, do you have the same expectations for both?  That doesn’t seem very fair.  So, this clergyman said, the afterlife is like a glass: you have two people, you have two glasses, and both glasses are full.  But one glass is full with 8 oz. and the other glass is full with 4 oz. The quantity of Coca Cola you get in either glass is different, but being full, and having your desires satisfied, so you enter the עולם האמת [afterlife], as the Ramban says [based on Bereishit 35:29], זקן ושבע ימים, all your ambitions have been fulfilled, that’s true equally if you’re the Rambam or if you’re a shoemaker.

If a person would adopt such a position, I would not necessarily conceive his view as a problematic perception.  In effect, his view entails a differential conception of the afterlife, depending on whether judgment is here applied with respect to moral failings or to ethical flaws, as opposed to the amoral.  If the reason that a person from one camp has a different attitude from a person from another camp is indeed because of a lack of faith, and that one person, perhaps, would be glad to get this albatross off his neck, and not to be bound to תחיית המתים and being defined as a kofer [heretic] if he lacks that faith, and another person doesn’t regard it as an albatross, he regards it as a yesod in emuna [principle of faith] – that’s quite possible.  It’s true that people who are Modern Orthodox, if they are modern, they are generally less dogmatic; that’s part of what being modern is, meaning that you may have a bit more skepticism.  Not only about the afterlife.  Modern people, many of them have more skepticism, and are less easily manipulated in faith content than people from 1000 years ago.

But one needs to bear in mind that even if one assumes that to be the case, it’s not all a win-win situation for the charedim – some of the people who have this simple faith, this is just what happens to them after י”ב חודש [12 months] in Gehinnom, may tend to relax or to change their standards of truth, of probity, of morality – they might, and then again, they might not.  But I don’t think automatically, that once a person has determined or established the apparent fact that Modern Orthodox people are less inclined than charedi people, it’s all a loss for one side and a gain for the other side.  But, certainly, we have expectations of ourselves and of people in our community, that those elements which Chazal regarded to be yesodot [fundamental principles], and which, by and large, the Rambam regarded as yesodot – that this is part of the fabric of emunah.  At issue in this context is not only the afterlife as such, but rather the interface of our present life, within which the problem, inter alia, of remolding ourselves in the world which Chazal regarded as the prelude to the next.

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