What the Hell
Hi everybody; Jim the Honorary Jew here. For the past ten days here in South Texas everyone has been consumed with everything hurricane. Harvey the Hurricane stomped on Rockport, but somehow our home there slipped between his toes. In Victoria, where Harvey decided to hang out next, he roared through most neighborhoods, but left ours relatively intact (he stole our electricity, though, and hasn’t given it back yet). The calamity that has befallen us will take years to overcome. I, personally, have been merely inconvenienced, but my friends and neighbors have truly suffered major losses. The enormity of the devastation is beginning to soak in, but our communities are rallying to meet the challenge. So I thought I would try to lighten up everyone’s spirits by offering another glimpse into the teaching and traditions of the heritage of my Jewish grandchildren. I thought long and hard about what subject would brighten the day and finally came up with the perfect subject: Hell.
Hell; really? Hell yes! As most of you already know, both my daughters married Jewish men, so my four grandchildren are of the Tribe. I owe it to them to be an observer of Jewish teachings and traditions (and by observer, I mean watcher. I am a member of the Bacon Nation by choice, so that Kosher thing is a major stumbling block to seeking out full membership in the Tribe).
OK, back to Hell. Most secular, progressive and educated Jews believe there is no Heaven and no Hell. They deem the concept of Heaven and Hell as unsophisticated, and even somewhat primitive. Hell is such an integral part of Christianity, which is another very good reason for most secular Jews to reject the concept. It’s almost as important to uphold views that are not Christian as to embrace Jewish customs. Take the argument of prayer in schools. Christians are for it; Jews say, Hell no. How about abortion to save the life of the mother. Christians are against it; Jews say Hell yes. How about, children are born with a sinful nature. Christians, yep; Jews, nope.
Here’s another twist that’s hard for a non-Jew to grasp: if you don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, it’s not a deal breaker. You won’t get kicked out of Judaism for holding that belief.
This sentiment not withstanding, there is a case to be made for a Jewish concept of Hell. There’s not much talk about it, though. One reason is that it isn’t a concept discussed very often by modern Jewish scholars. It’s like they have concluded, “we don’t really know, so you better make your life on earth count”. Traditional Judaism teaches that, “after death our bodies go to the grave but our souls go before God to be judged. God is the only one who knows our motives as well as our works—God sees the heart, whereas man looks at the outside. Facing the only true Judge, we are assigned a place in heaven according to a merit system based on God’s accounting of all our actions and motives”.
Traditional Jewish thought is that only the very righteous go directly to heaven; all others must be cleansed of residual sin. The average person descends to a place of purification, generally referred to as Gehinnom.The name is taken from a valley (Gei Hinnom) just south of Jerusalem, once used for child sacrifice by the pagan nations of Canaan (no bad joojoo there). Gehinnom is a place where one reviews the actions of his/her life and repents for past misdeeds.The soul’s sentence in Gehinnom is usually limited to a 12-month period of purgation. This 12-month limit is reflected in the yearlong mourning cycle and the recitation of the Kaddish (the memorial prayer for the dead). So, unless you are utterly wicked; ie, Hitler, you go to Gehinnon for a year to get cleaned up and then off you go. And since you have moved on, your family and loved ones can move on, too. It doesn’t make any more or less sense than the hellfire and damnation of Christianity or the 72 virgins thing of Islam.
So, Jews and Hell. Most don’t believe in the concept. And those who do, believe it is a yearlong chance for almost everyone to clean up their act one last time to take their place in God’s merit system. It sure makes the statement, “You’re going to Hell for that” a lot more palpable. I think I like this one.