Sometimes it is more interesting to notice what the bible doesn’t say – it is strangely silent on what Maimonides decreed was a critical principle of faith – what, if anything, happens after we die.
The idea of the physical resurrection of the dead can be found briefly only in two books – in the apocalyptic writings of Isaiah and Daniel. Both are very late works, both are referring to an end of days scenario, neither paint a pleasurable picture.
In early biblical texts, those who die are “gathered to their people”. It is an ambiguous idiom upon which later commentators can build the idea of an afterlife, and some sort of spiritual reunion of souls.
But the Sadducees, the earliest inheritors of Judaism who focussed on the Temple rituals above all, rejected the idea of life after death, specifically because it was not a biblical idea.
It was the Pharisees, the forerunners of the Rabbinic tradition, who embraced the idea and built on it. It was they who developed the concept of the immortality of the soul, leading to post mortem Judgement followed by reward and punishment, of Gan-Eden and Gehinnom, the closest we get to the heaven and hell.
Later biblical texts speak of Sheol, a place where the souls of the dead dwell in silence without sensory awareness.
Only Samuel is ever described as leaving Sheol, conjured up to answer Saul’s question, and angry at the disturbance.
Where does the soul go? Bible tantalises us with only rare oblique allusions. Rabbinic tradition speaks of olam haba – the world to come, of which this world is the ante-room.
Yet this is another ambiguous phrase, it can be understood as existing both in the present and in the future. Bible understands that what matters is not death but life, seeing no need to explore a post-mortem existence. Silence is the only response.
Sylvia Rothschild is former rabbi of Wimbledon & District Synagogue