FLEMING ISLAND – Volumes of books have been written in which authors and scribes ponder the meaning of life. Just as big, the question of what happens after death has been unanswered by science, leaving the question to religion.
As in Christianity, Judaism believes the soul continues to live after the body dies.
"Heaven and hell are a fundamental part of Judaism. Hell is a consequence – a cleansing in order to move on," said Rabbi Shmuly Feldman, organizer of Chabad of Clay County. "There is freedom of choice and heaven and hell are tied to our choices. We don’t have a picture, but we know the general idea of what the soul experiences and we know heaven will be pleasurable."
Feldman is teaching a sixweek study on Sunday mornings on the afterlife. "The Journey of the Soul" continues through Dec. 6 at 10 a.m. at the Fleming Island branch of the Clay County Public Library at 1895 Town Center Blvd.
Feldman said we don’t know what people in heaven are eating for lunch or dinner – if they eat at all – but he stressed that most people will probably experience hell as a temporary cleansing period.
Senior Rabbi Yaakov Fisch at Etz Chaim Synagogue in Jacksonville said the temporary purging is similar to purgatory in the Catholic faith.
"We are souls and that is our main identity. The body is like a suit that we wear and when the body dies, we go back to our roots, having been made from the dust of the earth in Genesis. Once we enter the spiritual world, there are levels, he said.
"The soul will enter a 12-month period of cleansing in the World of Souls – like purgatory – for the soul to be reconciled. There is reward and there is shame for our misdeeds – we will have to give an account for our actions in this world. Then, after that year, the soul will go on to the World to Come, or the World of Eternal Peace."
Fisch said those who don’t tune into the spiritual life on this side of death will have an opportunity for introspection and repentance because God keeps score, but God is forgiving.
"We believe that year is an opportunity for people to come clean. Some people can be so wicked that they forfeit the World to Come and for them, the cleansing will be permanent, but for the vast majority of people, the World of Souls is a temporary period of 12 months," he said.
Feldman concurs, stressing that it isn’t necessary to fear death while attempting to be faithful to God in this life.
"We have to focus on life itself – some focus too much on the afterlife and lose focus," Feldman said. "And Jews aren’t necessarily the only ones going to heaven – we don’t decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell and we don’t know who goes where. God alone judges that and some people who had a lot more work to do in this life and may have had less success may be looked upon more favorably by God than someone who didn’t have to work as hard. Only God knows these things, but hopefully, every Jew wants to do good and end up in heaven."
Feldman said the main focus of the course is to influence how one lives in the here-and-now. The Journey of the Soul is part of the Jewish Learning Institute’s body of courses based on the Talmud, a Jewish rabbinic text. Feldman said Chabad plans to teach the course in about 300 different locations around the world.
Rabbi Shmuly Feldman
Rabbi Yaakov Fisch