Judaism is significantly different regarding our belief in hell. The idea of hell is clearly not central to Judaism and is almost not mentioned in the Bible nor in the Talmud. The reason is because Judaism is a “thinking” religion where the most important mitzvah (commandment) is to study, ask and ponder the depths of the Torah and her ideals. Accordingly the goal is to follow (not “obey”) the mitzvot because one identifies with their beauty, depth and Godliness, not in order to go to heaven or to avoid going to hell.
The most important thing is to be a good “Godly” person, and not just to act properly in order to get reward or avoid punishment, whether in this world or the world-to-come. Nevertheless, if you’re curious, we have many traditions passed down regarding the world-to-come, Gan Eden (heaven) and “gehinom” (hell). According to all, it’s not a physical place (as other religions may think), but a spiritual one, without bodies, just souls, who come to be perfected or educated in a way they didn’t succeed to do so in this world, the world of free-will. The rabbis picture the world-to-come, like what we would call today a movie theater where video-clips of one’s life are played for each of us, and we get pleasure from our positive acts and are “burning” with embarrassment from our regrettable choices (played simultaneously with what we could have and should have chosen at the time). In that unadulterated world, we can get a deeper and objective understanding of right and wrong, good and bad.
According to a Chassidic tradition, heaven and hell are really the same place, just that for one person it’s paradise, and for the other, it’s “boring as hell”. Our soul doesn’t change when we die, but continues exactly as the person we were when we “left off” at the time of death. For someone whose definition of fun is their car, money, computer and iPhone, when he gets to the world-to-come it’s clearly going to be super-boring, because there is none of the above! On the other hand, somebody who gets pleasure from goodness, Torah study, ideological thought and discussion, love and spirituality- for him that place is Heaven, for he can get constant spiritual pleasure, without worldly distractions like needing to work or sleep, with no disturbances like sickness or pain. A good way to test yourself to see which category you belong to, is to ask yourself honestly: Do I enjoy Shabbat (which is considered a taste of the world-to-come, where many of the aforementioned pleasures are in fact prohibited) or not? Do I have independent pleasure being with myself (my Godly soul), or do I need outside stimulants and distractions to entertain me? It’s important to stress, that it’s not too late to improve yourself in these fields, to become the type of person you would like to be.
We don’t know exactly how it will be until we get to the world to come, nevertheless, like everything in life, we should utilize these ideas to motivate us towards self-improvement and being better people. The Talmud does writes that even for those in need of that educational experience called “hell”, it’s usually limited to 12 months (except for those few extremely evil people like Bila’am, Titus, and obviously Hitler et al, who are punished forever), and afterwards, most are ready to enjoy the beauty and ideals of heaven. There, one continues his/her spiritual development until the world is ready for the revival of those deserving.
With Love of Israel, and blessings for a happy Passover!
Rav Ari Shvat