Shiur #13: Olam Ha-ba (2)

  • Rav Assaf Bednarsh
Adapted by Leora Bednarsh
 
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In memory of Albert W. and Evelyn G. Bloom,
who creatively fulfilled the mitzva of "והגדת לבנך"
Shanen Bloom Werber, Dov Bloom, Elana Bloom, Michael Bloom
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In our previous shiur, we discussed the dispute about the nature of Olam Ha-ba. The Rambam and his followers believe that Olam Ha-ba is purely spiritual; disembodied souls receive the eternal reward of contemplation of and closeness with God. The Ramban and his followers believe that Olam Ha-ba is synonymous with resurrection of the dead, in which the bodies will once again join with the soul and jointly receive the reward for all that they accomplished together during their lifetime in this world.
 
This chapter will discuss two questions: First, where does one's soul go after one dies? Second, what is the parallel ultimate punishment which the wicked should expect?
 
Where does one’s soul go after death?
 
The Rambam’s Position
 
According to the Rambam, the first question is not a difficult one at all. Olam Ha-ba arrives for everyone as soon as they finish living in this world.[1] As soon as a righteous person dies, his soul is immediately found in Olam Ha-ba. Since the Rambam defines Olam Ha-ba as being purely spiritual, then it follows that if the soul has spent its time in this world filling itself with knowledge of and closeness to the Divine, once the soul is no longer encumbered by a physical body, it will naturally partake in the eternal contemplation of God.  For the Rambam, then, the ultimate reward for the righteous has only one stage, Olam Ha-ba. For the Ramban and others, however, there are two stages.
 
The Ramban’s Position: Gan Eden
 
For the Ramban and his followers, Olam Ha-ba is the time of resurrection of the dead, which can be thousands of years after the death of an individual. Where are the souls of the righteous during the waiting period before the End of Days and the resurrection of the dead? The Ramban[2]  explains that this place is what Chazal refer to as Gan Eden. Gan Eden is not a synonym for Olam Ha-ba, but rather a metaphor for the place where the souls of the righteous go to wait for the time of resurrection, the time of Olam Ha-ba. Another name for this place, according to the Ramban, is the heavenly yeshiva, Yeshiva shel Ma'ala.
 
Unlike the Ramban, Rav Saadia Gaon[3] holds that Gan Eden does not refer to this intermediary stage but is rather a synonym for Olam Ha-ba. He explains that the souls of the righteous are stored away under God's heavenly throne.
 
What both descriptions have in common, though, is the assumption that there are two different places where the righteous soul goes. First it goes to some heavenly waiting room, where the souls wait for their ultimate reward. There, the Ramban adds, they have the pleasure of closeness with the Divine, but that is not the ultimate reward, since they are incomplete until they reunite with their bodies. After some unknown number of years pass, they will be resurrected and merit Olam Ha-ba. The Ramban’s opinion is the basis of the prayer El Malei Rachamim, which states that the righteous souls rest in Gan Eden, where they are stored and watched over and receive some level of reward. When the time of resurrection of the dead will come, they will join their bodies and go to Olam Ha-ba.
 
However, Gan Eden does not factor in to the Rambam’s conception of the afterlife at all.[4] In fact, Rambam writes explicitly that Gan Eden is not a philosophical concept. It is merely a wonderful physical garden which we will someday find somewhere on the globe, which contains wondrous plants and herbs and plentiful water and fruit trees, and even medicinal herbs. It has no metaphysical significance, though.
 
The Ramban: Gilgul Neshamot
 
The Ramban hints at a third possible understanding of where the souls go after death, which is gilgul neshamot.[5]  Perhaps until the time of Olam Ha-ba, the souls are reincarnated, and at least some souls come back to earth in a new body. This affords them the opportunity to fix what must be fixed, to do a better job than they did originally. 
 
To summarize, there are three theories as to where the souls of the righteous go when they die: Olam Ha-ba (Rambam), Gan Eden (Ramban), or gilgul neshamot
 
Ultimate Punishment: Gehinnom
 
What happens to the souls of the wicked after they die? What is the ultimate punishment that the rasha can expect? Regarding this, we see three opinions as well. The Sefer Ha-ikkarim[6] says that those philosophers who believe that the ultimate reward of Olam Ha-ba takes place in a physical world, believe also that Gehinnom,[7] the place of ultimate, eternal punishment, is likeiwse a physical world. Explaining the opinion of the Ramban and the Rama, the Sefer Ha-ikkarim writes that in Gehinnom a physical body is burned by physical hellfire.
 
This raises a philosophical or scientific problem, which is that nothing can be burned eternally. Everything that burns eventually gets consumed. How, then, can the wicked burn eternally? The Sefer Ha-ikkarim is not troubled by this question. In the physical world as we know it, nothing can burn eternally; but God will perform a miracle and miraculously strengthen the bodies of the wicked, enabling them to be burned eternally and experience the pain and torture of Gehinnom without being consumed.
 
The Rama[8] indeed writes that the punishment of the wicked in Gehinnom will include both body and soul, and the wicked will be resurrected in order to receive this punishment. The Ramban, however, has a different approach to understanding Gehinnom.[9] According to the Ramban, there will be no physical bodies receiving eternal punishment. Only the souls of the wicked will be punished, because resurrection of the dead is a special privilege reserved only for the righteous.
 
He based himself on an aggadic statement contrasting rain and resurrection.[10] Chazal tell us that there are two similar feats that only God performs. (Although at first glance they don't seem similar, if we really appreciate everything that God does for us in the world, we should realize that they are both miraculous.) One is resurrection of the dead, and the other is bringing rain. In the second blessing of the Amida prayer, we juxtapose these two miracles. Like resurrection, rainfall gives life where otherwise there would only be death, and both are controlled exclusively by God. The difference between them, says Rabbi Abbahu, is that while rain falls on both the righteous and the wicked, resurrection of the dead is only for the righteous.
 
Therefore, says the Ramban, the wicked in hell will not have physical bodies to burn in a physical fire, and thus Gehinnom cannot be physical. Rather, he explains, there will be some form of spiritual fire into which the souls of the wicked will be cast. Their souls will adhere to the metaphysical element of fire and suffer a torture that we refer to as burning.
 
The ultimate punishment they receive, however, is not being burned in a spiritual fire. Rather, it is more internal to their souls. During their lifetimes in this world, the wicked polluted their souls. They took a divine spark of pure spirituality and sullied it with the coarseness of sin and iniquity. Therefore, when their souls go to the next world, the soul, which descended originally from the heavenly realm, desires to return to its source and ascend to the heavenly realms to reunite with God. However, the coarseness and pollution of the soul constitute a barrier which drags the soul down and prevents it from rising upwards to heaven. Much greater than any pain of this metaphysical element of fire, the greatest pain is that now, when the soul realizes the truth, it wants to ascend to the heavenly realms, and it can't, because of what it did to itself in this world. It weighed itself down with sin, and that prevents it from achieving what it now realizes is the only thing which it ever wanted, which is to ascend heavenwards. This psychological torture, says the Ramban, is the greatest torture that anyone can ever undergo. 
 
The ultimate punishment that the wicked experience is thus not burning in hellfire, but the psychological punishment of knowing the truth, knowing the proper hierarchy of values, of knowing what is really important and what is really eternal and what is really the goal of human life, and not being able to achieve it because of all of the mistakes it made during its sojourn on this planet.
 
Using a metaphor from modern technology, we would imagine that the wicked will be shown a video of their life. They will be sitting with the knowledge of what is truly valuable in life and will have to watch again and again the foolish things that they have done. The psychological pain of knowing the truth and being stuck with the fact that one denied that truth and that one's soul fashioned and molded itself in an image of falsehood is the greatest psychological pain that one can undergo: knowing the truth at a point at which it is no longer possible to achieve.
 
The Rambam’s View of Ultimate Punishment: Karet
 
The Rambam does not view Gehinnom as being the ultimate punishment. Gehinnom, the Rambam explains, is a one-time historical event that occurs in the physical world, in which the wicked will perish via fire. Perhaps the sun will come closer and burn them, or perhaps they will develop an exceedingly high fever.[11] However, Gehinnom is not where the wicked are punished after their death; rather, the ultimate punishment is karet, being cut off. (The Rambam is not referring here to someone who once committed a transgression for which one deserves karet, for example, eating a piece of forbidden fat, but rather to an ultimate punishment given to one who has no connection to spirituality.)  What is karet? Just as an animal soul disappears when the animal dies, so too for the wicked. He is cut off like an animal, and his soul dies with his body and misses out on the chance of experiencing the ultimate pleasure and reward of Olam Ha-ba.[12]
 
The Ramban and others are horrified at the thought that the Rambam doesn’t believe in eternal hellfire. There must be a price to pay for a lifetime of transgression! The Ramban therefore suggests that the Rambam indeed believes that the wicked suffer torture in hell before their souls are destroyed and their existence curtailed eternally. Still, there is no explicit source in the Rambam’s writings for this theory. It seems more likely that the Rambam does believe that the wicked would pay the ultimate price for a lifetime of ephemeral pleasures. He believes that that price is missing out on the true pleasures of the world to come. Eternal nonexistence is the ultimate punishment.
 
This dovetails with the Rambam's position in Moreh Nevhukhim.[13] In discussing Divine Providence, the Rambam tells us that the souls of the wicked are equivalent to the souls of animals. The difference between the souls of human beings and those of animals is not whether we can do math, nor whether we can use tools or read books. A human soul has the ability to contemplate and understand God, and to fill itself with knowledge of the Divine; an animal soul does not. Therefore, says the Rambam, the soul of a wicked person who does not fill himself with knowledge of God during his lifetime, does not reach its full human potential. It has only thought about eating and drinking and other physical pleasures, much like a cow or a horse, a cat or a dog. Therefore, it makes sense that this soul should be cut off and cease to exist, just like the soul of a dead animal.[14]
 
How does a soul live eternally? The Rambam[15] says that souls live eternally in Olam Ha-ba because they are connected to God and God is eternal. They exist without a physical presence because they contemplate God and thereby share in His eternal spiritual existence. The souls of the wicked, which are not filled with any degree of knowledge of God, have no mechanism for existing eternally. There is nothing eternal in them, because they have been emptied of eternal content and filled with ephemeral thoughts of food and drink, physical pleasures, and material strivings. It is no wonder that Chazal say that the wicked even when they are alive are considered dead.[16] If so, concludes the Rambam, when they die, they are certainly eternally dead.[17]
 
Summary
 
We have seen three opinions of what ultimate punishment the wicked can expect. The Rama believes that the ultimate punishment is eternal burning in physical hellfire. Second, we saw the Ramban, according to whom the ultimate punishment is eternal psychological torture of the soul: being cut off, not from existence, but from the heavenly realms. The soul is weighed down by the pollution of its sins and is unable to enter those heavenly realms which it so much wants to enter.[18] The third opinion, that of the Rambam, is that the wicked just cease to exist when they die, and that is the ultimate punishment.
 

[1] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 8:8
[2] Torat Ha-adam, Sha’ar Ha-gemul.
[3]  Emunot Ve-de’ot, Books 6 and 9.
[4] Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin, Ch. 10.
[5] Torat Ha-adam, Sha’ar Ha-gemul; Commentary on the Torah, Bereishit 38:8.
[6] Book 4, Chapter 33.
[7] Gehinnom is mentioned as the punishment of the wicked after death in Mishna Avot (1:5, 5:19, 5:20) and throughout the Gemara and Midrash.
[8] Yad Rama, Sanhedrin 90a.
[9] Torat Ha-adam, Sha’ar Ha-gemul
[10] BT Ta’anit 7a.
[11] Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin ch. 10.
[12] Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin ch. 10; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 8:1 and 8:5.
[13] Book 3, Chapter 18.
[14] See Moreh Nevukhim, Book 1, Chapter 42.
[15] Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin, Ch. 10.
[16] Bereishit Rabba 39, Midrash Tanchuma Vezot Haberacha 7. Rambam quotes this saying both in his Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin, Ch. 10; and in Moreh Nevukhim, Book 1, Chapter 42.
[17] Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin, Ch. 10.
[18] Sefer Ha-ikkarim, Book 4, Chapter 33, states that this is true according to the Rambam, but there is no source for this in the words of the Rambam.