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Nisan 13, 5774

Orthodox Jewish view on hell


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Question:
Do Orthodox Jews hold that disobedient Jews who do not practice obeying 613 laws of the Torah and disobedient Gentiles who dont practice obeying the Seven Laws of Noah are subject to an everlasting punishment in hell like how mainstream Christians like Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants believe. In other words the suffering of the disobedient soul in hell will go on without end unlike the belief that those is hell will suffer for a long period and then their souls cease to exist.

Answer:
Shalom Aaron,
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 youre curious, we have many traditions passed down regarding the world-to-come, Gan Eden (heaven) and gehinom (hell). According to all, its 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 didnt 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 ones 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 its paradise, and for the other, its boring as hell. Our soul doesnt 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 its 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? Its important to stress, that its not too late to improve yourself in these fields, to become the type of person you would like to be.
We dont 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, its usually limited to 12 months (except for those few extremely evil people like Bilaam, 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


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