Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sheol, Gehinnom, Gehenna: Hell in Judaism

A Place of Remorse, not Despair.

Many times on this site I have mentioned that Judaism does not teach a doctrine of eternal damnation. Now I've noticed more Christian ministers are very publicly having these same Judaic thoughts - Bishop Drew Pearson a few years back, Paster Rob Bell more recently, for example. Welcome back to Torah, guys!

Since I have inquiries about this, let's look at the sources. First, in most of the Hebrew Bible there is only sheol ("the grave"), the destination of all souls, regardless of their moral state.

[Bookplate by Ephraim Lilien]

It is not until the later books fo the Hebrew canon that we start to hear the idea that there are different destinations in the afterlife. Now if you search non-canonical Jewish sources (apocalyptic literature, for example), the theme of the wicked being fated to eternal suffering in fire and ice appears repeatedly. Indeed, it is from this thread of Jewish thinking from around 100BCE - 100CE that Christianity, and later Islam, derive their doctrines of eternal damnation. But Judaism ultimately rejects this idea as incongruent with a God who both just (infinite punishment for a finite life of sin?) and compassionate. There is also an element of God being conscious of sharing responsiblity for our moral shortcoming. God designed us with this potential to sin built in, so how can the Creator totally fault the creation for acting within specs? (see RaSHI's commentary on Hagigah 15b,* for example, or the famous parable on Cain and Able in Genesis Rabbah 22:9). So what you find in rabbinic texts is the notion of Gehinnom (Gehenna in Yiddish/English), a kind of purgatory in which the soul confronts its sins and is purified before it returns to God.

What is Gehinnom? R. Joshua b. Levi stated: Gehinnom has seven names, and they are: Nether-world (or 'Sheol'), Destruction, Pit (or, 'pit of destruction'), Tumultuous Pit, Miry Clay, Shadow of Death and the Underworld. 'Nether-world', since it is written in Scripture: Out of the belly of the nether-world cried I, and Thou heardest my voice (Jonah 2.3); 'Destruction', for it is written in Scripture: Shall Thy Mercy be declared in the grave? Or thy faithfulness in destruction (Psa 88.12); 'Pit', for it is written in Scripture: For Thou wilt not abandon thy soul to the nether-world; neither wilt Thou suffer Thy godly one to see the pit (Psa 16.10); 'Tumultuous Pit' and 'Miry Clay', for it is written in Scripture: He brought me up also out of the tumultuous pit, out of the miry clay (Psa 40.3); 'Shadow of Death', for it is written in Scripture: Such as sat in darkness and in the shadow of death (Psa 107.10); and the [name of] 'Nether-world' is a tradition. But are there no more [names]? (to Gehinnom) Is there not in fact that of Gehinnom? — [This means,] a valley that is as deep as the valley of Hinnom and into which all go down for gratuitous acts. Is there not also the name of Hearth, since it is written in Scripture: For a hearth is ordered of old? (Isa 30.33) — That [means] that whosoever is enticed by his evil inclination will fall therein (Erbin 19b) Is there a duration to the punishment? Beit Shammai taught: There are three groups – one is destined for eternal life, another consigned to eternal ignominy and eternal abhorrence (these are the thoroughly wicked) while those whose deeds are balanced will go down to Gehinnom, but when they scream they will ascend fro there and are healed…but Beit Hillel taught: [God is] rich in kindness’ (Ex. 34:6) [He is] inclined toward mercy (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:3) This argument is reiterated elsewhere in the Talmud over the most wicked people the Rabbis could imagine – the generation that drove God to undo creation: The generation of the Flood have no share in the World-to-Come (M. Sanh. 10:3) 'The judgment on the generation of the Flood was for twelve months, on Job for twelve months, on the Egyptians for twelve months, on Gog and Magog in the Hereafter for twelve months, and on the wicked in Gehinnom for twelve months. (M. Eduyot 2:10; Gen. Rabbah 28:8) In the end, Hillel’s opinion prevails (as it always does).

The punishing afterlife is temporal; there is no eternal punishment. Jewish hell is about remorse, whereas Christian and Islamic notions of hell are all about despairRabbi Akiba said:…The duration of the punishment of the wicked in Gehinnom is twelve months. (Shabbat 33b) If there are any unredeemable souls, their fate is annihilation and non-being, not eternal torment: After 12 months, their body is consumed and their soul is burned and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous (Rosh Hashanah 17a) In addition, the tradition tells us that souls in Gehenna also get Shabbat and holidays off (thanks to the reader who reminded me of that)

A Medieval dissent (but its still not forever):

The wicked stay in Gehinnom till the resurrection, and then the Messiah, passing through it redeems them. (Emek Hammelech, f. 138, 4)

How to avoid Gehenna:
He who has Torah, good deeds, humility, and fear of heaven will be spared from punishment [in Gehinnom] (Pesikta Rabbati 50:1)

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

* It's a little obscure, so here's the gist. Hagigah describes God grieving over the execution of a criminal - "My [God's] arm is too heavy for me (Hagigah 15b)" [why is God so distressed?]...for I have created this one who died on account of sin (RaSHI).

Barack Obama, Rapture, End of Days, Israel, prophecy, revelation


Blogger Sara said...

Nice piece.

Don't they also get shabbatot and hagim off there?

12:31 PM  
Blogger Suecae Sounds said...

Thank you for a yet again interesting look into Jewish spiritual beliefs.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please comment on Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:4 and 5. They seem to contradict what you have stated.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Aha! So that's where all that Christian debate about whether people are dead or not until the resurrection comes from!

Chag sameach.


3:00 PM  
Blogger Purplesnoopy said...

A note on the jewfaq.org/death page confirmed my understanding of why Kaddish is only said for a maximum of eleven months,even though the period of Avelut, (mourning a parent) lasts 12- the most wicked souls require a full 12 months of purification;to avoid implying one's parent fell into that category, Kaddish is only said for eleven.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Dear anonymous, if you look at B.T. Rosh ha-Shanah 17bitiquing Tos. 13 on this issue, and limits the scope of this claim.

8:02 AM  

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