When I was a Rabbi at Washington University it was common for students who were not very knowledgeable about Judaism to ask me, “Rabbi, Judaism does not believe in Heaven and Hell right?” I am not sure where this seemingly widespread impression came from, but my flippant answer was always, “No, but we do believe in heck.”
In the Five Books of Moses, the Biblical books of Genesis through Deuteronomy, there is no mention of heaven and hell. There are proscriptions of earthly punishments, for violations of interpersonal as well as ritual law at the hands of a court, as well as earthly punishments from the Almighty (holding back rain, defeat at the hands of our enemies, exile from the Land of Israel) directed toward the entire Jewish nation for not obeying the Torah, but nothing is portrayed beyond our physical world.
Though the Torah proscribes many punishments for the violation of commandments, in only a few instances does the Bible mention reward for correct actions. In the case of honoring one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:11) the Bible says, “You shall have long life on the land which God has given you” and for the commandment of shooing away the mother bird before taking her eggs from the nest (Deuteronomy 21:6), the Torah writes the same reward, that “it may be good for you and your days be long…”
The Talmud records an interesting story regarding faith and reward and punishment. A father told his son to climb a tree and shoo away the mother bird, claiming the eggs for himself. The boy obeyed and on his way down fell off the tree and died. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Alisha ben Avyah, watching the scene of the boy dying while occupied precisely in those two laws for which the Torah rewards long life, gave up his faith in God. The Talmud then asks, indeed, how do we explain the boy’s death?in light of his fillment of these two commandments? The Talmud answers that the torah does not mean long life in this world but long life in the next.
Normative Judaism does believe in an after life, usually referred to as Olam Habah, the “World to Come.” Maimonides railed against the branches of Islamic philosophy in his day (11c) that saw this reward as physical, since the body is put in the ground and only the soul meets its maker. Maimonides explains that through our actions in this world we cultivate our soul’s ability to reconnect with its Infinite divine source after the body’s death. What we have done in this world conditions the soul to be close to God or distant from God.
Closeness to the Divine is the ultimate reward; distance from it the greatest punishment. So we must be clear from a Jewish point of view that though we believe in reward and punishment (with out it, I think, what we do does not really matter) we should not mistake this for a vindictive King in the sky image casting humans into a Dantesque inferno. Rather our soul in the next world is a natural extension of who we have become in this world. The development of our moral and religious character which we achieve in the physical world, in a way continues on and “naturally” results in our proximity to the Divine, perhaps the greatest of all rewards and punishments.
In Jewish study and life in general one rarely hears discussion of Heaven and Hell. I think this emerges from Judaism’s very strong stress on this world, and doing what we should because we are commanded so, not because some non-earthly reward and punishment awaits us. As the first century Jewish moral work Pirkey Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers (4:17) puts it: “More beautiful is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World to Come, and more beautiful is one hour of spiritual satisfaction in the Next World than all the life of this world.”