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For Rabbi, A Just God Without An Afterlife Is 'Inconceivable'

Stones placed on a Jewish grave to show respect for the deceased. Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says Jewish tradition holds that there is an afterlife but doesn't encourage speculation on what it might be like.
Stones placed on a Jewish grave to show respect for the deceased. Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says Jewish tradition holds that there is an afterlife but doesn't encourage speculation on what it might be like.

Millions of Americans believe in the afterlife, and author and scholar Joseph Telushkin is no exception. The Orthodox rabbi has written extensively about Judaism and says that the concept of God is incompatible with the idea that life ends at death.

He holds that conviction so strongly, he tells NPR's Robert Siegel, because he believes that God is just — and he has to assume that a just God would provide some reward to a person who has lived his or her life well, while imposing a different fate upon those who do evil.

Interview Highlights

On why he believes in an afterlife

[It] is to a large extent also an outgrowth of my belief in God. It seems unlikely and inconceivable to me to believe that there's a God and there's not an afterlife, for the simple reason that in the absence of an afterlife, it would mean that Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank had the same fate, of dying and actually having nothing. And it would be impossible for me to imagine that that could coexist with a God who's just.

So in order to believe in a God who's just, which I do believe in, there has to be some existence beyond this world. Because it's more than obvious that justice does not always prevail in this lifetime. ...

You know, the bottom line, it's always going to be an issue of faith. We don't know. I know studies have repeatedly shown that the large majority of Americans assume they're going to heaven. And I would like to believe that most people do, as long as I know that there are some people who aren't, because there are people who have done profoundly evil things. And the worst is when they do bad things in God's name.

On the relative absence of mentions of the afterlife in the Torah

Interestingly, the first books of the Bible, what are known as the Torah, do not really speak a lot about afterlife, though it later on becomes a principle in Judaism to believe in an afterlife. And there's a lot of discussion as to why then the ... early books don't talk about it. ...

Judaism is always very "this worldly" oriented. And the moment people start getting fixated on an afterlife, it can have the effect of diverting their attention from their work in this world. Jewish tradition said that there's an afterlife — it believes that there's an afterlife — but it doesn't really encourage a lot of speculation on what it's like ... for the simple reason — basically, those who know aren't talking, and those who are talking, I don't think they know.

On his belief that there is some consciousness after death

I know it sounds hard for people who are rationalists to believe it, but I do believe that. I do believe that we will retain an awareness beyond this life of things that transpired in this life. ...

I think if there's some sort of unfinished business, we well might. But I definitely feel that there will remain subcognizance of this world. I don't know if it goes on for a long period of time, but my sense is that the answer is yes.

On the concepts of heaven and hell

Other than stating it in the most general manner that I trust that God's just and I trust that there is some redress and some sense of reward for a life well-lived, I have to assume that something else is the fate of those who lived a life not well-lived. ...

Maybe it could be as simple as ... that they have to then confront the enormity of the evil that they've done. I think there could be worse fates than that, but that's an important fate, too. Those who believe in reincarnation would maybe argue, maybe that's why we then have to go back and try and repair our souls. Or maybe people's punishment could be that they don't get another chance. You know, in other words, their soul can get extinguished.

On whether Jews are encouraged to connect with late loved ones

The Bible does not encourage that behavior. Now, interestingly, the Bible doesn't say it's fraudulent — it forbids it. ... We're not encouraged to try and do it. On the other hand, you do find that in the most traditional Jewish circles, people are encouraged to go to the graves of righteous people and to pray.

This is not characteristic of me, but when one of my children had to have an operation, I did go and pray at the grave of my father and grandfather, both of whom I regard as having been people on a very high ethical and spiritual level. And it somehow felt reassuring to me to do so. ... I somehow was hoping in some way to invoke their help, if it was within their capacity to do so. I suppose at my core, I do believe that.

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