Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: What are the Jewish concepts of life after death?
Rabbi: Judaism, as well as other philosophies, agree that death is a physical occurrence, one which does not effect our metaphysical element, our soul. A soul is not physical, and is not effected by physical death.
If one leads a life in search of truth, meaning the ideals of the Torah and facts about the universe, the soul will achieve a state of continued involvement in the world of ideas, which is eternal: the afterlife. Conversely, one who leads a purely physical hedonistic existence will not—according to Maimonides—have any existence once deceased. Maimon ides wrote:
The World to Come there is neither body nor physicality, only the souls of the righteous divested of body as are the ministering angels. Inasmuch as it harbors no concrete forms there is no need there for eating, drinking, or other of the bodily necessities of the sons of man in this world; neither will any of the many things which happen to bodies in this world come to pass there, as, for instance, sitting down, standing up, sleep, death, sadness, mirth or the like. Thus did the ancient sages say, “In the World to Come there is no eating, no drinking, and no family life, except that the righteous are sitting, graced with crowns upon their heads, and indulge in feasting upon the luminousness of the Shekinah (God’s presence).” (Laws of Repentance 8:2)
This is a metaphor: the righteous will be merited by their learning (crowns) which brought them to the point of having such appreciation for knowledge, that they will continue in this enjoyment (enjoying God’s wisdom) in the afterlife. This is the ultimate reward, the continued state of the perception of ideas.
Knowledge is the most enjoyable pursuit. If one delves into study, he will eventually see this is so, and he will enjoy the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake, and not with the ulterior motive of securing the afterlife.
Seeking the afterlife as a separate goal from seeking wisdom is an error. For the afterlife is only attained by one who values knowledge and thirsts for it for its own sake; he does not anticipate some ultimate imagined reward (the afterlife). Once one sees that ideas are enjoyable for their own sake with no other motive, he will not seek the afterlife as something different from wisdom, but as a higher level of engagement in wisdom. Thus, only one who values wisdom has the proper concept of the afterlife, as far as man can conceive.
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is man’s purpose. But if pursuing knowledge doesn’t lead to valuing it for itself, it is worthless. Knowledge benefits man beyond all else, as it benefit man’s central component: his soul. As one partakes of what is true, he learns God’s wisdom and delights in refreshing discoveries daily. The afterlife is a continuation of this enjoyable pursuit. But if one imagines the afterlife as some mysterious reward for learning and Torah observance, he elevates a blank imagination as greater than learning. His learning isn’t for the learning itself. Had the person realized the good which pursuing knowledge offers, he would be content to study for its beauty alone, without an ulterior motive. This involvement in learning for its own sake would offer this person an eternity of happiness. And as he became more interested in the world of ideas through learning, he would cleave more and more to it, abandoning all other pursuits. Since the afterlife is metaphysical (purely wisdom), this person will naturally be in a state of bliss after death. If on the other hand, one only learns as he assumes an imagined reward to follow, he will be sorely disappointed at the end of days. As he imagined the afterlife to be that which it is not.
For one to enjoy the next world, he must enjoy this world in the pursuit of God’s wisdom. But learning as a means will not yield an appreciation of wisdom. Only a life lived out of a pure desire for truth will improve one’s soul to the level where he can enjoy the afterlife. If one does not enjoy the pursuit of wisdom, but only does so in order to achieve the afterlife, he will not achieve it. The afterlife, by definition, is an involvement in wisdom to a much higher degree, as our bodies won't exist as a vale between us and God, and His wisdom. One who seeks the afterlife and believes it to be something other than an existence of perceiving wisdom, has an incorrect view of the afterlife. He is seeking that which does not exist. He belittles the life of Torah, as he views Torah as only a means for some other imagined reward. If his learning was not for learning itself—Torah Lishma—he cannot achieve that high degree of the afterlife, which is an experience of wisdom in proportion to our level.