The Valley of the Shadow of Death – Seeking a Jewish Afterlife

A month ago, my mother-in-law’s brother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Tom (may his memory be for a blessing), was far too young, too healthy, and too committed to his family for anyone to accept his sudden death as anything but a shock.

When leaving the funeral, my mother-in-law, Linda — who is a catholic — asked me what Judaism has to say about what happens after death. A valid question – and a timely one, as we had just heard a beautiful and well-developed description of Heaven and Tom’s likely experience of it from the priest officiating the funeral mass. Surely I should be able to provide the same sort of concrete answers that were clearly comforting to so many of the catholic faithful in attendance? Shouldn’t I have similar resources at my disposal, as a rabbi who will be often tasked with delivering the eulogies of those who pass too young, too healthy, too alive?

My answer, as you may guess, wasn’t anything like the beatific vision that the catholic tradition teaches. My answer to Linda’s question was vague, and likely unsatisfactory. It went something like this, “Well, so… there’s actually no real mention of life after death in the Hebrew Bible, and the earliest rabbis only refer vaguely to a ‘World-that-is-Coming’. As a result, Jews have adopted nearly every possible perspective on the issue – believing in different times and places in reincarnation, resurrection, and sometimes in the destruction of the soul after death.”

While I appreciate that my tradition is nearly always open to many different answers to any one question – for certain questions it’s just plain unsatisfactory – because there are certain questions that are not asked in order to survey the possibilities that may exist, but instead are asked for the express purpose of seeking something that is deeply in need – an answer. True to form, the Aramaic verb ב.א.י is used by the Talmud to mean: 1) to ask , 2) to want, and 3) to need. Even in the multiplicity of definitions we can see the understanding that some questions simply need a single answer – asking – and an answer well-thought out and reasoned fills far more of that need than a selection of possible answers.

 

 

As a result of all this, I’ve thought a great deal about how to answer Linda’s question in the future – as surely it will be asked of me many times. Is it possible that there is an authentic Jewish tradition that can provide a single narrative of what we expect after death while also honoring the diversity of Jewish belief on the subject? I think there is – and that the narrative we seek is embedded within Psalm 23. Often associated with funerals and mourning, Psalm 23 clearly has some content dealing with death and comfort – but it goes far beyond that. Because of consistent errors in its translation and interpretation, Psalm 23 has gone largely ignored as the most direct and useful depiction of what an authentic Jewish after-life looks like.

Much of the confusion stems from the fact that the majority of the verbs in the psalm are in the imperfect aspect – this means they could mean any action not yet completed – that is, either in the present or the future. Yet if you look at the top twenty English translations of the first verse you’ll see that every single one is either in the present, or the jussive (shall). Not a single one is true to the ostensible meaning of the text – the future tense. Before we go further, I want to provide a complete translation of Psalm 23 as I believe it should be understood – and then we see with little effort the view of the after-life contained within:

 

1) A Psalm of David

The Lord is my shepherd; I will not lack for anything

2) God will help me to lie down in green meadows;

By serene water God will guide me

3) God will return my soul;

God will guide me along paths of righteousness, for the sake of God’s name

4) Even though I will walk through the valley of deepest darkness, I will not fear evil – for You will be with me;

Your rod and your staff will comfort me

5) You will set a table for me opposite my enemies;

You have anointed my head with oil – my cup has overflown

6) Thus, goodness and love will follow me all the day of my lives;

And I will dwell in the House of God for the length of my days.

I think there are a few things worth pointing out here. First of all, the first few verses clearly seem to describe a journey of sorts. The narrator is walking, rested, being guided by a shepherd, taking certain paths, and finally entering a valley. From the start through to the mid-point of verse four (which is the climax of the action), we see that the narrator is being guided by God, who, like a shepherd, offers time to rest and water to drink. If we assume that Psalm 23 is describing the post-death experience (which we should), then we can see in this the first biblical conception of an after-life. Several concrete points stand out: God will guide us, we will not be in need of anything, God will make sure we are on the right path, and most importantly – God will return our souls to us.

Here, and in the last verse, there is the vague sense that what underlies the psalm is a notion of reincarnation or transmigration of souls. However, this isn’t the complex, punishment-oriented, bizarrely specific reincarnation imagined by R. Isaac Luria as gilgul and made into a mainstay of Chasidism. This is a simpler, less specific, and frankly, more believable conception that – in some way or another – our souls will be returned to us and we will live many lives.

Before we do however, we must pass through the valley of what in Hebrew is צלמות – a bizarre word that seems to imply deep black darkness, but literally means ‘shadow-death.’ We learn that we must walk through this place. In order to pass from one life to another, we must traverse the valley – but we mustn’t do it alone. Just as God had guided the narrator to the valley along the paths of righteousness, so too God is with the person who finds themselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The second part of the psalm is an affirmation of all the good that God has done for the narrator, and the connection to the implication that surely, God will continue to comfort, to act with mercy and love, even after death. “All the days of my lives,” goodness and love will follow us. The threat of the valley is counterbalanced by the promise of comfort to come after it.

 

 

Ultimately, we still can’t say a great deal about what Judaism has to say regarding the after-life. But, we have just as much as we need, and just enough to be a believable concept that makes for a flexible and comforting narrative. We can look at Psalm 23 and take comfort in what it tells us: that after death we will embark on a journey, one guided by God, who will lead us a shepherd leads sheep through the Other World. We may encounter frightening and terrible things, but we will be accompanied by God, who will return our souls to us and return us to the world, in one form or another.

It may not have the drama of Christianity’s ‘Pearly Gates’ nor the sex-appeal of the Qur’an’s beautiful-eyed houri – but I feel like Psalm 23, properly understood in it’s future-tense context, has the potential to be a meaningful and inspiring Jewish narrative of the after-life – one that leaves room for a wide diversity of belief while still providing concrete details about what we can expect after life.

To Linda: what I should have said is this – that Tom is being guided by God along a journey through the World-to-Come, a journey that will culminate in the return of his soul to our world. To Tom: we look forward to seeing you someday on the other side of the Valley through which we all must pass.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

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10 thoughts on “The Valley of the Shadow of Death – Seeking a Jewish Afterlife

  1. As a Christian who has generally read Psalm 23 in the present tense, I find this future oriented rendering with a focus on life after death to be refreshing. Thank you.

  2. This was a wonderful new look at the 23rd Psalm for me and it speaks to the power of this newsletter. Best of luck in the rest of your rabbinical studies. It is clear to me that you have a very bright future and your ministry will bless many people.

  3. I will leave it to grammarians to comment on the interpretation Adam offers, but I must say it is both unique and refreshing. i recall many (*many, many) years ago a Presbyterian friend asking me how it is that Jews did not believe in an after-life. I asked him how it was that Christians could, given the fact that all such teaches are speculative. I understand that people seek answers to this issue, but I remain unconvinced that we will ever know for sure. What we do know is that people live on through the memory of others, and often through the character traits and deeds of their descendants. Perhaps that is all the certainty we can legitimately hope for.

  4. Thank you Adam for your interesting article. It is of particular relevance as I am compiling a book about death from different faith perspectives. This new ‘translation’ of Psalm 23, (a favourite psalm), makes more sense to me now
    than many others. A fascinating view. Good luck in your studies.

  5. Adam, I salute you for your effort of bringing a new interpretation to such an important issue.

    However, I would like to interject at your last comment, when you presented your Jewish tradition in a comparative perspective with Christianity and Islam. I am afraid that your comment about the Qur’an used language that not only is offensive but lacks serious knowledge about the Muslim faith.

    You wrote: “It may not have the drama of Christianity’s ‘Pearly Gates’ nor the sex-appeal of the Qur’an’s beautiful-eyed houri…”

    If “houris” are mentioned a few times in the Qur’an, they certainly don’t represent what the Qur’an promises believers in the afterlife. Consider the vast number of verses that describe life after death, in Heavens, as a life of peace, prosperity, joy, and luxury. Consider the description of the beautiful nature that exists after life for believers to enjoy. Consider the limitless blessings and bounties God promises those who enter Heaven. Consider the divine promise that those creme de la creme believers will see God in Heavens. “Houris” are not the only motivation for Muslims to look forward to afterlife. It is however a motivation for extremists who misinterpret scripture. But in interfaith, we don’t want to be siding with extremists and misrepresent a main Muslim doctrine, that of the belief in the afterlife, as to be limited to sensual pleasures.

    1. Hi Dina,

      Thanks so much for your comment! You’re right to point out the narrowness of that approach to the afterlife in Islam. It’s certainly only one of many descriptors and I appreciate you pointing that out. My goal was to contrast the multiplicity of description used for the afterlife in the NT and Qur’an in comparison to its near complete absence in the Hebrew Bible. I’m sure that neither ‘pearly gates’ nor ‘houris’ are appropriate or comprehensive descriptions of Christianity’s and Islam’s view of the afterlife.

      I wonder, since I actually haven’t had the chance to study much of it, whether you can point me to a particular sura or a sourcebook on different Islamic views of the afterlife?

      Thanks again,
      Adam

      1. Hi Adam,

        The Qur’an does not have a chronological narrative in general. Unlike the Old Testament, you cannot learn about one specific theme in the Qur’an by reading one or two surahs (chapters.) Hence, verses that describe life after death are scattered all over the text. However, some of the shorter surahs at the end of the Qur’an do describe in more details the horrors of Judgement Day and the destiny of evil doers as well as the reward of people who followed God’s path.

        A good resource book that I suggest is Muhammad Abdel Haleem’s “Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Styles.”

        Basically, the Islamic concept of life after death is tied to the belief of the justice of God, that people will be rewarded or punished according to what they did and intended to do on earth. This belief in man’s accountability in front of God gives meaning to life on earth and differentiates people from animals. It also ensures a stable society that aspires to stay away from crime and corruption. How ironic is that, right, considering all the crimes being committed today on earth, many by Muslims themselves?!

        Some verses that speak about God’s blessings and bounties in heaven for those who earn it:

        “in Jannat (gardens) and bliss, rejoicing in their Lord’s gifts: … ‘Eat and drink with healthy enjoyment…comfortably seated on couches…'” (Qur’an, 52:17-28)

        In Heaven, “they will hear no idle talk, [there is] a flowing spring…” (Qur’an, 88:11-12)

        In Heaven, “We shall have removed all ill feeling from their hearts; streams will flow at their feet. They will say, ‘Praise be to God, who guided us to this…'” (Qur’an, 7:43) “We shall remove any bitterness from their hearts: [they will be like] brothers, sitting on couches, face to face..” (Qur’an, 15:47)

        These spiritual and moral rewards that Muslims look forward to in Heaven include being thanked by God (2:158, 76:22), having no fear, no grief, or shame (10:62, 66:8), and on their way to Paradise their light will be seen “shining forth before them and on their right hands” (57:12). On their arrival the angels will greet them (39:73); whey they are settled the angels will visit them (13:22), “Peace be with you, because you have remained steadfast.” (13:23-4)

        These are but a small example of what life after death represents in Muslim theology. I hope it helped you, Adam, to get a broader idea about this important theme in the Qur’an.

        Thank you for giving me this chance to share in peace!

  6. For a thoroughly researched brilliant book on Resurrection in Judaism, you must read Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel by Harvard professor, Jon Levenson. A must read for all Jews.

  7. Can you reconcile the idea of Abraham’s Bosom and Sheol? My understanding of Sheol doesn’t sound like a place of rest or a paradise, but a damp dungeon.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Great question! The biblical view of She’ol is certainly one more in line with other ancient ideas of an ‘Underworld,’ but Judaism is not a religion based on the Bible. The Sages, even in the first few generations, shifted the idea of the afterlife to one much more spiritual in nature – emphasizing the ‘World-that-is-Coming,’ the days of the Messiah, and the final resurrection of the Dead. This idea of gilgulei neshamot (reincarnation) is only one more thread in that Rabbinic creativity re: the afterlife.

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