Should I believe in a Jewish hell?

August 25, 2011

Question: I always thought that Jews don’t believe in hell but then someone told there is a place called Gehinom where wicked souls are sent. I find the whole idea of eternal punishment troubling. What should I believe?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

The Jewish term for hell is Gehinom, which colloquial Yiddish corrupted to Gehenna. The origin of this term is actually Gei Ben Hinom, which means the valley of the son of Hinom. This physical place is a valley just south of the old city walls of Jerusalem which in ancient times was a place of child sacrifice. Pagan priests would beat loud drums to drown out the hysterical screams of the victims.

The Bible itself does not explicitly refer to Gehinom as a place of punishment in the afterlife. The Bible’s term for this is Sheol. The term Gehinom as a place of damnation for souls first occurs in the Talmud and Midrash.

Throughout this rabbinic literature there are various descriptions of the nature and punishments of Gehinom mostly associated with fire. Many of these descriptions find similar parallels in Hellenistic literature and the punishments described reflect judicial procedures at the time of their composition such as the concept of “measure for measure”.

There is a key argument in the Talmud regarding the length of sentence in Gehinom for sinners and the widely accepted view is that with rare exception the longest sentence does not exceed twelve months. In this sense Gehinom is more like purgatory than eternal damnation.

How should a modern Jew relate to this concept and what place should it have in driving our practice of Judaism? There were periods of time, particularly in the Middle Ages, when travelling preachers went from town to town calling on Jews to repent, incentivising them with graphic descriptions of the torments of hell should they ignore their call. In many cases this had the desired effect.

Even today there are those who respond positively to such admonishments, although they are rapidly decreasing in number. Most Jews today want a positive reason to be faithful to the Torah and, like you, the idea of avoiding sin so as not to get punished in the afterlife is just not inspiring or compelling enough. This is not to say that Gehinom does not exist, it is simply to acknowledge that we live in different times and that we require different motivations for observing the Torah.

I would not preoccupy myself with thoughts of the afterlife. There is too much to do right here, right now.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

The trouble with talking about hell is that, living in a Christian country, with its culture around us in literature and everyday speech, it is difficult to dissociate the concept of hell from images of devils, fire and eternal damnation.

You are right: the idea of a person suffering in agony forever does not sit easily with the notion of a loving God. You will be pleased to know, therefore, that the Jewish concept is very different. For a start, whereas Christianity has a clear road-map of the hereafter, with signposts to heaven and hell, and stopping off points in limbo and perdition, Judaism is much more cautious about what happens next.

To be blunt, we do not know, and those who claim to know are, at best, speculating and, at worst, deliberately misleading. Instead, Jewish teaching has always tried to emphasise the importance of this world. We will find out about the world-to-come in due course, but in the meantime should concentrate on the here and now.

Virtually all the Jewish legends about what happens upon death — for example, being asked at the gates of judgement “Were you honest in your business dealings?’ — are merely reflections on what we should be doing while on earth.

Of course, people are curious about the future and so notions developed: one was the idea of physical resurrection in the messianic age, which is still maintained in Orthodoxy, but is not followed by Reform or Liberal Judaism, which hold only to a spiritual afterlife. But in either case, details are deliberately vague because the only certainty is now.

At the same time, our sense of fair play is offended by the sight of immoral people being materially successful, and hence the thought of them at least suffering at God’s hands to compensate for them escaping human justice. But Gehinom was a former pagan site of human sacrifices and the idea of being sent there was simply a metaphor for some possible future retribution, not a definite theology of the afterlife. I would argue that we create our own heaven and hell in this world, through the relationships we create or wreck, the happiness or traumas we cause. Moreover, cheats and wrong-doers are always looking over their shoulder, nervous of what could be discovered, whereas a person of integrity may be poor but can look in the mirror and not feel ashamed.

    Last updated: 11:54am, August 25 2011