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In the Hebrew Bible there is little mention of life after death. Basically, life in ancient Israel was here and now, and posterity simply meant the perpetuation of life through one’s descendants. In the story of creation, life begins in the Garden of Eden, or paradise, which lasts for only one generation (See Adam and Eve). Later, we find allusions to a netherworld called Sheol, where one goes after death, but it is never explained in any detail.

It is not until the post-biblical period that new beliefs in life after death and in reward and punishment in the next life begin to emerge. These new beliefs coincided with similar ideas in Christianity, the new religion of that time to which those beliefs were central. But even in Talmudic literature the ideas about heaven and hell remain vague, more allegorical than dogmatic. In Hebrew “heaven” is referred to as Gan Eden, or Garden of Eden, and “hell” is gehinom, the name of a valley outside Jerusalem where the scapegoat was sacrificed on Yom Kippur. In one Talmudic story, heaven is described as the place where the righteous people sit in a circle with crowns on their heads and learn divine wisdom directly from God.

In the Middle Ages, a time of supernatural belief and superstition, the idea of heaven and hell became well established and quite vivid, and many Jews lived in fear of hell and deep hope for heaven. In modern times, however, Reform Jews choose to believe in the immortality of the soul, while the Orthodox continue to believe in heaven and hell. Conservative Judaism leaves this belief to the individual.

A belief related to heaven and hell is the resurrection of the dead, one of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of the Jewish faith. Yet even Maimonides vacillates when he discusses this belief. Another related idea is the transmigration of souls, which appears in the Kabbalah as gilgul neshamot.

Regardless, however, of individuals’ belief in heaven and hell, the focus of Judaism has always been on life here and now, the time during which one must live a worthy life.

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