What do Jews believe about the afterlife?
Jews believe about the afterlife that “it’s going to be wonderful, but please don’t let’s have it yet.” That is the really important thing about Judaism.
Read through the whole of Tanach, the whole of the Hebrew Bible from beginning to end, and you will find that the references to the afterlife are almost infinitesimally small. The references are there, but you really have to search for them.
Judaism is an extraordinarily this-worldly, this-life focused religion. That’s extraordinary because all the religions of the ancient world were religions obsessed with the afterlife. That’s what the great temples and pyramids of Egypt are all about. This life is a place of struggle and pain and all sorts of agonies. It’s when you die and you go to heaven, then you find serenity.
Now, Judaism does not deny that; but it does say if justice is to be done, it’s to be done down here on Earth. If we are to come close to God, if we are to really grow as human beings, if we’re going to make a difference to the world, then let’s do it here, here and now, not in some other world, in some other life.
So Judaism believes that the afterlife is the place where souls, after the body reaches the end of its biological existence, are reunited with God. It’s kind of homecoming of the soul. “Tzaddikim yoshvim… ve’nehenim miziv HaShechinah” [Haggadah: Barech], “The righteous sit and are illuminated by the rays of the Divine Presence”; but Judaism remains a religion which, despite its belief in the afterlife, is almost obsessively focused on this life. That, to me, makes Judaism the healthiest and most life-affirming religion I know.
In partnership with TorahCafe (www.torahcafe.com), Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks recorded a series of short videos in May 2013, in answer to some of the most frequently asked questions of Judaism (and faith in general).