JUDAISM afterlife BELIEFS
Sheol, in the Hebrew Bible, is a place of darkness (Job x. 21, 22) to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, (Gen. xxxvii. 36; Ezek. xxxii.; Isa. xiv.; Job xxx. 23), a place of stillness, (Ps. lxxxviii. 13, xciv. 17; Eccl. ix. 10), at the longest possible distance from heaven (Job xi. 8; Amos ix. 2; Ps. cxxxix. 8).
The inhabitants of Sheol are the "shades" (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they are thought to be able to be contacted by the living, as the Witch of Endor contacts the shade of Samuel for Saul, but such practices are forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:10).
While the Hebrew Bible appears to describe Sheol as the permanent place of the dead, in the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BC – 70 AD) a more diverse set of ideas developed. In some texts, Sheol is considered to be the home of both the righteous and the wicked, separated into respective compartments; in others, it was considered a place of punishment, meant for the wicked dead alone. When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, the word "Hades" (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol. This is reflected in the New Testament where Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of the evil it represents.
World to Come
The Talmud offers a number of thoughts relating to the afterlife. After death, the soul is brought for judgment. Those who have led pristine lives enter immediately into the Olam Haba or world to come. Most do not enter the world to come immediately, but now experience a period of review of their earthly actions and they are made aware of what they have done wrong. Some view this period as being a "re-schooling", with the soul gaining wisdom as one's errors are reviewed. Others view this period to include spiritual discomfort for past wrongs. At the end of this period, not longer than one year, the soul then takes its place in the world to come. Although discomforts are made part of certain Jewish conceptions of the afterlife, the concept of eternal damnation is not a tenet of the Jewish afterlife. According to the Talmud, extinction of the soul is reserved for a far smaller group of malicious and evil leaders, either whose very evil deeds go way beyond norms, or who lead large groups of people to utmost evil. This is also part of Maimonides' 13 principles of faith.
Maimonides describes the Olam Haba in spiritual terms, relegating the prophesied physical resurrection to the status of a future miracle, unrelated to the afterlife or the Messianic era. According to Maimonides, an afterlife continues for the soul of every human being, a soul now separated from the body in which it was "housed" during its earthly existence.
Reincarnation in Jewish tradition
Although there is no reference to reincarnation in the Talmud or any prior writings, according to rabbis such as Avraham Arieh Trugman, reincarnation is recognized as being part and parcel of Jewish tradition. Trugman explains that it is through oral tradition that the meanings of the Torah, its commandments and stories, are known and understood. The classic work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, is quoted liberally in all Jewish learning; in the Zohar the idea of reincarnation is mentioned repeatedly. Trugman states that in the last five centuries the concept of reincarnation, which until then had been a much hidden tradition within Judaism, was given open exposure.
Shraga Simmons commented that within the Bible itself, the idea [of reincarnation] is intimated in Deut. 25:5–10, Deut. 33:6 and Isaiah 22:14, 65:6.
Yirmiyahu Ullman wrote that reincarnation is an "ancient, mainstream belief in Judaism". The Zohar makes frequent and lengthy references to reincarnation. Onkelos, a righteous convert and authoritative commentator of the same period, explained the verse, "Let Reuben live and not die ..." (Deuteronomy 33:6) to mean that Reuben should merit the World to Come directly, and not have to die again as a result of being reincarnated. Torah scholar, commentator and kabbalist, Nachmanides (Ramban 1195–1270), attributed Job's suffering to reincarnation, as hinted in Job's saying "God does all these things twice or three times with a man, to bring back his soul from the pit to... the light of the living' (Job 33:29, 30)."
Reincarnation, called gilgul, became popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews. Among a few kabbalists, it was posited that some human souls could end up being reincarnated into non-human bodies. These ideas were found in a number of Kabbalistic works from the 13th century, and also among many mystics in the late 16th century. Martin Buber's early collection of stories of the Baal Shem Tov's life includes several that refer to people reincarnating in successive lives.
Among well known (generally non-kabbalist or anti-kabbalist) rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are Saadia Gaon, David Kimhi, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud, the Rosh and Leon de Modena. Saadia Gaon, in Emunoth ve-Deoth (Hebrew: "beliefs and opinions") concludes Section VI with a refutation of the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation). While rebutting reincarnation, Saadia Gaon further states that Jews who hold to reincarnation have adopted non-Jewish beliefs. By no means do all Jews today believe in reincarnation, but belief in reincarnation is not uncommon among many Jews, including Orthodox.
Other well-known rabbis who are reincarnationists include Yonassan Gershom, Abraham Isaac Kook, Talmud scholar Adin Steinsaltz, DovBer Pinson, David M. Wexelman, Zalman Schachter, and many others. Reincarnation is cited by authoritative biblical commentators, including Ramban (Nachmanides), Menachem Recanti and Rabbenu Bachya.
Among the many volumes of Yitzchak Luria, most of which come down from the pen of his primary disciple, Chaim Vital, are insights explaining issues related to reincarnation. His Shaar HaGilgulim, "The Gates of Reincarnation", is a book devoted exclusively to the subject of reincarnation in Judaism.
Rabbi Naftali Silberberg of The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute notes that "Many ideas that originate in other religions and belief systems have been popularized in the media and are taken for granted by unassuming Jews.