Saperstein discusses different Jewish views on afterlife


SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Marc Saperstein, principal emeritus and professor of Jewish history at Leo Baeck College, speaks at the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday.

Everyone knows the idiom “different strokes for different folks.” Few, however, know the idiom “different views from different Jews” — on the afterlife.

Such was the subject of Wednesday’s Interfaith Lecture by Marc Saperstein in the Hall of Philosophy, titled “Jews and Judaism: Continuity and Diversity.” Saperstein, a returning lecturer and principal emeritus and professor of Jewish history at Leo Baeck College, discussed the diverse conceptions among different Jews on three separate aspects of the afterlife, or “eschatology,” as he refers to it.

Defining eschatology, Saperstein referred to it as pertaining to a future period that involves a fundamental change for the better of the human experience

As he’s a historian, Saperstein chose not to attempt to predict the future, but to instead elucidate the beliefs of different Jewish groups of the past.

“I’m a historian, not a prophet,” Saperstein said. “I don’t do the future.”

Given the audacity of taking on thousands of years of Jewish thought, Saperstein focused much of the lecture on the differences between different Jewish thinkers than on the actual substance of their thoughts. He argued that, given the litany of Jewish texts available, any Jew must pick and choose to find a path of belief; there is not one pan-Jewish mode of ideology.

“Because of these elements of change and diversity, I’m weary of any statements beginning with the phrase ‘Judaism teaches,’ which we hear so frequently,” Saperstein said. “Such assertions are almost guaranteed to be problematic. Why? Because the practical authoritative texts of the Hebrew Scriptures are not coherent theological treatises. They are libraries of divergent — and sometimes mutually incompatible — assertions.”

Saperstein broke down the different components of the afterlife into three parts: The existence of a Messiah and the Messianic Age in Judaism, the resurrection of the dead, and the eternal reward for the individual soul following the death of the body. He then delved into dissenting Jewish views within each subset.

Threading through the different views on the afterlife, Saperstein trudged through the primitive, the conflicting, the contradictory, the enlightening, and even the bizarre. His general thesis, however, centralized not so much on the views themselves but on the stark differences between different schools of thought, all within the same religion.

A few examples of different viewpoints: Orthodox Jews believe that, when the Messiah arrives, their bodies will be resurrected and they will walk the earth again; other Jews believe that it’s the soul that will live on upon the Messiah’s arrival, while the body stays where it is.

“Even before the modern age, Jewish eschatology was multi-faceted and diverse,” Saperstein said. “All those who took it seriously had to make choices, privileging certain texts and beliefs, deemphasizing or openly repudiating others.”

The talk served as a complement to Rabbi Samuel Stahl’s 2014 lecture. While Saperstein spoke of the afterlife, Stahl discussed the Jewish perspective on life itself. He used the dash on one’s tombstone between the year of their birth and their death as a metaphor.

“That [dash] marks what impact you’ve made while on earth,” Stahl said. “The relationships you’ve had, the people that you’ve impacted, the areas of accomplishment personally and professionally — those things that will make some dent in the world, leave something so that the world is better because you are here.”

In closing, Saperstein used an astute metaphor to further his point. He compared the existence of human life to the life of a worm, or a fish. Just as worms and fish live their life below the surface (of soil and water respectively), only catching glimpses of the vast openness of the earth at large, so it is possible that humans life their lives in a Platonic cave, only able to catch glimpses here and there of the endless possibilities of what the afterlife holds for them.