The Problems With The World To Come

There’s a new article on DovBear entitled “Two Big Problems with the Orthodox Jewish View of the Afterlife” that I think warrants something of a response here. We begin…

There are at least two big problems with the Orthodox Jewish* view of the afterlife.

*By “Orthodox Jewish view” I mean the popular, mainstream opinion that involves some kind of reward and some kind of continued cognizance after death.

Ok, thank you for defining your terms. Always appreciated. People need to do this more often. Take note. Seriously.

I should point out as well that this is the view of normative Judaism. Even a cursory reading of the greatest of our scholars will produce this very basic picture. Onwards…

In no particular order:

(1) While I find the idea of it every bit as comforting as you do, I must admit there don’t appear to be any grounds for the expectation that some great reward is waiting for us after death. For starts, the Bible doesn’t mention it. In fact the good books bids us to keep the commandments not for the sake of the afterlife, as if we were Christians, but for the sake of this life. Again and again we’re promised that following the law provides benefits in this world. In Tanakh, nothing at all is said about the next world. Moreover, no one has come back from the dead to reveal what awaits us. The whole thing sounds like a Santa-Claus story: Behave and you’ll get a nice present. I hate to be a Grinch - and like, I said, I take great comfort in the thought the some part of us continues after death, and that all the wrongs will be made right - but I can’t help but wonder why we’re so certain the story is true. Where’s the evidence?

That last bit about “where’s the evidence” I shall leave to address another time. But, needless to say, the more interesting problem here is that the World to Come is, of course, not mentioned explicitly in the Bible. This is true. But, then, there are so many things that are not mentioned explicitly in the Bible. Why are our tefillen black and square? How do we know the laws of mikvaos or many korbanos? That stuff is all from the Oral Law. And, I mean, heck!, the Oral Law itself isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text of the Bible either! And so I must ask: Are we doubting that too, now?

Indeed, maybe we should. We shall, again, save that discussion for another time. But that’s my point. It’s another discussion that is not at all unique, or specifically related to the doctrine of a World to Come. Yes, granted, the World to Come is not mentioned explicitly in the text of the Bible anywhere. (Perhaps it’s alluded to in a number of places, but we’ll leave that aside.) Many things aren’t. The acceptance of a historical rabbinic tradition is not unique to the World to Come. What I fail to understand is why we are suddenly taking up issue with this idea specifically? Quite honestly, tefillen don’t make much sense to me either. (And, hey, it’s a pain to have to put them on sometimes, so I’d rather first try to come up with problems with that than with the World to Come, if you don’t mind.)

So, while I agree that Problem #1 of DovBear may, indeed, be a problem, it is not at all unique to the doctrine of the World to Come. It’s just a question of whether you accept rabbinic tradition or not. And, thus, I fail to see what, specifically, this has to do with the World to Come.

(2) And if some part of us does continue after death, the next question is this: how? My brain is the source of my mental life; my consciousness, emotions, and will are all products of neural processes caused by those coils of grey matter contained within my skull. When I make a decision, or walk across a room those are all physical events both caused and experienced by other physical events, namely the firing of my neurons inside my brain. In short, when the brain stops working, my thoughts and memories will cease to exist. So what part or me will continue into the afterlife?

(2a) And I’ll go one step further… even if you can somehow show me exactly how my thoughts and memories might survive after my brain stops functioning, you have one last puzzle to solve. Our minds work differently at different ages. Teen-aged DovBear was impetuous and ignorant. By the time I’m in my 80s or 90s all of “me” might be lost to a fog of dementia. In between, there were eras when I thought and acted in ways that were very different from how I thought and acted during other periods. Which “me” will survive my death? Demented 90 year old DovBear? Pre-blogging Dovbear who knew nothing about anything? Or one of the dozens of other DovBears?

Now, Problem #2 is more perplexing. The argument, if I may, boils down to: I don’t understand how God could possibly make it work, therefore, I have difficulty accepting it as a reality. Ok. Cool. Yeah, I’m not too comfortable with the idea either.

Ad kan.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that the issue of human consciousness — and what it is, precisely, that sets us apart from animals, if anything, etc. — is far from solved by the current state of science. Yes, our thoughts and memories are a function purely of our brain. But is our humanity? Not at all so simple. Would that DovBear has resolved this scientific conundrum that has spanned centuries!

Ok. My turn now…

My problem with the World to Come in modern Orthodoxy (note the specific capitalization there) is not our belief in it, but rather our focus on it. To quote Avos:

[…] He used to say: Do not be as servants who serve the Master to receive reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the Master not to receive reward. (Mishnah Avos 1:3)

The point is that it all really should not matter to us, because, ultimately, it doesn’t matter to us. You need a promise that you’ll get some slice of celestial pie when you die? That’s not exactly a profound religious observance to say the least.

As if it’s going to be so great anyway! Says who? And how, exactly?! That’s right! We have no idea what it is! So what is this “feel good” thing that we believe in? We don’t even know! Yes, it is true, Chazal say that the World to Come can bring us some level of pleasure — but that is a physical word, and a physical concept. So in this context, their statement is effectively meaningless to us.

Look, I don’t know about you, but basking in the Eternal Glory of the Divine Presence doesn’t exactly sound like paradise to me. Maybe you’re holier than I am, but the paradise that most people expect is just not normative Jewish thought (when I say this I mean amongst our real thinkers, philosophers, and masters of the entire corpus of our tradition — not the general, largely ignorant, population). And so I hate to say this, but the concept of a World to Come doesn’t really make me feel all that good. It doesn’t make me feel much of anything, really. It’s just part of our tradition. It’s there. I accept the doctrine like I do the rest of our tradition, and that’s it. It really doesn’t have too much of an affect on me, what I do, how I act, or how good I feel when I think of death. That’s just the honest truth.

If I woke up tomorrow and it had been proved, somehow, without a doubt that our tradition was wrong, and that the proper Jewish perspective is, in fact, that there is no eternal life for the soul upon death, not a thing about my religious observance would change. That’s just not why I do anything.

I don’t know what it’s going to be like, and I don’t really care all that much. And neither should you, or anyone, for that matter.

In conclusion here, I’d just like to say that I absolutely love the DovBear blog. It’s a breath of fresh air, it’s clever, it’s smart, and the opinions therein I respect greatly.

It just gets a little too rabble rouser-y for me sometimes.

The Problems With The World To Come: Round 2

(A Bit) On Judaism & Women — A Response To Jennifer Geretz