Out From Under the Umbrella

playing in the rain


Freezing Out Hell, Part the First

This talk of the fear of hell reminded me of this scene from Friends.

I used to be terrified of the thought of Hell.  Whether it was fiery or not, whether it was dark or not, I did not know.  I just knew I was afraid – to the point of panic attacks – of the thought of eternal punishment.  I’ve mentioned this before, but I had to first face and dispense with my fear of that torture before I could even begin to objectively look at any evidence of whether any of my other beliefs were true or not.  Fear is scary.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  It doesn’t make the things we fear real any more than monsters under the bed or in the closet.  We can even know in our rational minds that there aren’t any such things as monsters but that doesn’t make the fear go away.  At least not at first.  Fear causes us to do irrational things and think irrational thoughts.

Having written and talked extensively about having to give up that fear of hell in order to undo the years of indoctrination I’ve been subjected to and that I subjected myself to it occurs to me that I’ve never written about how I accomplished this feat.  It wasn’t easy. It was probably the hardest doctrine to rid myself of.  Even still every now and again I get this little adrenaline push when I think about the fact that there’s the possibility, no matter how remote, that I might be wrong.  But I cannot and will not allow fear to rule me.

My panic subsided quite a bit when I got it through my thick head that hell was manufactured to control people.  Christianity, itself, solidified this doctrine.  If Christianity is built on Jewish thought then just where the hell did this idea come from?  Certainly not the Old Testament. What better way to get people who wouldn’t convert and conform to do so?  Where the law fell short fear took over.  The doctrine of Universal Salvation is not a new concept.  It is but one of a number of doctrines that Christians have battled over since the beginning of Christianity.  No consensus is reached on the matter.

From Judaism 101:

“The place of spiritual reward for the righteous is often referred to in Hebrew as Gan Eden (GAHN ehy-DEHN) (the Garden of Eden). This is not the same place where Adam and Eve were; it is a place of spiritual perfection. Specific descriptions of it vary widely from one source to another. One source says that the peace that one feels when one experiences Shabbat properly is merely one-sixtieth of the pleasure of the afterlife. Other sources compare the bliss of the afterlife to the joy of sex or the warmth of a sunny day. Ultimately, though, the living can no more understand the nature of this place than the blind can understand color.

Only the very righteous go directly to Gan Eden. The average person descends to a place of punishment and/or purification, generally referred to as Gehinnom (guh-hee-NOHM) (in Yiddish, Gehenna), but sometimes as She’ol or by other names. According to one mystical view, every sin we commit creates an angel of destruction (a demon), and after we die we are punished by the very demons that we created. Some views see Gehinnom as one of severe punishment, a bit like the Christian Hell of fire and brimstone. Other sources merely see it as a time when we can see the actions of our lives objectively, see the harm that we have done and the opportunities we missed, and experience remorse for our actions. The period of time in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months, and then ascends to take his place on Olam Ha-Ba.

Only the utterly wicked do not ascend at the end of this period; their souls are punished for the entire 12 months. Sources differ on what happens at the end of those 12 months: some say that the wicked soul is utterly destroyed and ceases to exist while others say that the soul continues to exist in a state of consciousness of remorse.

This 12-month limit is repeated in many places in the Talmud, and it is connected to the mourning cycles and the recitation of Kaddish. See Life, Death and Mourning.”

I found the same thing at Aish.com in an article entitled, Hell No, We Won’t Go.

Jewish thought on the afterlife is compared to the seats in a stadium.  How close one gets to be to God is directly related to how righteous they’ve been – not what god they worship, not who they are, not what doctrine they’ve believed.   In fact Judaism sounds relatively close to Humanism. The Torah is all but silent on the notion of an afterlife.  Why?  Because the Jewish perception is that God is more concerned with what kind of person one is, how well they’ve lived their life, in this life and not particularly what one has believed.  For a religion that should have built on Jewish thought Christianity seems to have taken Judaism and turned it on it’s head, making more requirements of a believer, not less.  Gentiles were never expected to exclusively worship Yahweh.

Again, from Judaism 101:

“Some people look at these teachings and deduce that Jews try to “earn our way into Heaven” by performing the mitzvot. This is a gross mischaracterization of our religion. It is important to remember that unlike some religions, Judaism is not focused on the question of how to get into heaven. Judaism is focused on life and how to live it. Non-Jews frequently ask me, “do you really think you’re going to go to Hell if you don’t do such-and-such?” It always catches me a bit off balance, because the question of where I am going after death simply doesn’t enter into the equation when I think about the mitzvot. We perform the mitzvot because it is our privilege and our sacred obligation to do so. We perform them out of a sense of love and duty, not out of a desire to get something in return. In fact, one of the first bits of ethical advice in Pirkei Avot (a book of the Mishnah) is: “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead, be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward, and let the awe of Heaven [meaning G-d, not the afterlife] be upon you.”

So for me, the beginning of putting the book on hell in the freezer went back to the beginning.  What was the original thought on what fate lie ahead for the wicked.  I had no idea that Jews were so accepting of other faiths.  As Christians this is not what we are taught.  After all we were taught that the Israelites wiped out entire populations precisely because of their idolatry.  But is this so?  These thoughts would indicate otherwise, would they not?  I guess we’ll see…


Conversations with an Atheist Jew (Part II)

*This is part II of an undetermined number in this series.

I’ve asked Harvey to assist me in creating a few posts. He is a Jew by birth and is familiar with Jewish tradition.  Having asked him to guest post he asked that I add a disclaimer:

Please note that although I was and remain a Jew, I have been a total non-believer in the Abrahamic or any other God since my early twenties. I am a Jew only by accident of birth and ethnic tradition. I believe that I understand traditional Jewish attitudes towards their God and ethical issues, but only in the academic sense. I can still read Biblical Hebrew and some Aramaic, but I am by no means a Rabbi. I have read the new testament perhaps 4 or 5 times over the years (since my wife of 30 years is Lutheran) and the Koran twice (in English, of course).

I’ve really become quite interested in the traditional Jewish perspective on God and the differences between Judaism and Christianity.  Even if I come out of this agnostic and/or atheist I think this interest will continue.  Christianity is supposed to be an outflow and moreover a fulfillment of traditional Judaism.  The more I dig and the more I learn the more I’ve come to recognize that Christianity, at least modern Christianity, is so far from that idea that it’s hardly recognizable as even relating to Judaism.  In that vein I asked Harvey more questions.  

Me:  What is the Orthodox Jewish idea of Messiah?  Why doesn’t Jesus fit this idea?


Jesus fails to meet the Biblical requirements generally accepted by traditional Jews as the promised Messiah.
1) The Messiah predicted/promised in the Torah will be an Earthly King or leader, who will gather together all of the forces of good to fight a final battle with the forces of evil at Meggido (“Armegeddon”). Once the forces of good have triumphed, God will establish his kingdom on the Earth. Jesus never did any of these promised things.
2) The promised Messiah will be descended from the “House of David”. This implies direct descent from King David. Joseph, the husband of Mary was so descended, but, if we are to accept the accounts in The New Testament, Joseph WAS NOT Jesus’ father. Moreover, in Biblical times lineal descent for the purposes of inheritance was calculated through the Mother’s lineage, not the Father’s. We have no record to suggest that Mary was of the House of David.
3) No mention of execution, resurrection, or “return” appears in the Torah accounts that Christians choose to accept as evidence for the Messiahship  of Jesus.
In short, orthodox Judaism simply does not see the Jesus of Christianity as meeting the criteria set down.

Me:  Is there a basis for a suffering servant Messiah in traditional Judaism?  What is the traditional Jewish Interpretation of Isaiah 53?


Jewish scholars do not put the same interpretation or importance on Isaiah that Christian apologists seem to do. Since they do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth meets most of the criteria of Messiahship, I am not aware (remember, I am by no means either a Rabbi, nor am I currently studying Tanakh) that Jewish scholars spend much time on this particular statement in Isaiah.

Me: What is the traditional Jewish view of the afterlife?  Heaven and hell?


The definition of Heaven most widely accepted by Orthodox/traditional Jews is “being in the presence of God” after death. In fact, the “reward” for having lived a righteous  life (obeying God’s commandments) is simply having lived such a life. Heaven is not a place or locale. In fact, the concept of Heavenly “reward” is largely a Christian concept, which makes sense if one believes that the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice for forgiveness of sins is the main requirement for entry into Heaven, rather than “good works”,  The Jewish concept of Hell, on the other hand, is simply “separation from the Lord”.  Jewish tradition places much greater emphasis upon one’s relationships with one’s fellow men in this life than upon what may or may not come in the hereafter. I have always felt that it is worthy of note that the majority of the Ten Commandments deal with human relationships, rather than with our relationship with God.

I’m finding Harvey’s answers to my questions particularly interesting. The Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah should give pause to Christians.  Yet because of a few scriptures in the New Testament this rejection has been accepted by Christians as necessary to the gentiles being grafted into God’s family.  I still ponder why this would be so.  The traditional Jewish understanding of the afterlife speaks neither to exclusivism, inclusivism, or universalism.  It makes much more sense to me that the emphasis for any system of theology would be placed on treatment of fellow man and creation than on some ridiculous hand washing, animal sacrificing, human sacrificing appeasement of a deity.   What say ye?



Piers Morgan Interviews Benjamin Netanyahu: Winds of Change

After my first post “Conversations with an Atheist Jew”  Zoe mentioned in her comment that she’d seen an interview that Piers Morgan did with Benjamin Netanyahu.  So I decided I’d look it up and sure enough I found it on youtube.com.  For some reason I couldn’t link the video to this post, so if you want to watch it here’s the link:


Zoe’s comment: On March 17/11 I watched Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Piers Morgan live show. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with your series or that I’m asking any questions. Just a comment about something Netanyahu said about Moses. He said, (not a direct quote but perhaps it could be found on Piers Morgan’s site) – that Moses was a great leader but he wasn’t good at finding a good peace of land. I remember at the time thinking, ‘Why blame Moses? Isn’t it God who directed his path to the “promised land?”‘

It seems to me Harvey that Netanyahu appears to believe some of the “O.T.” is literal. Any thoughts on this?

I did find the interview in written form at CNN.com:

MORGAN: Are you saying that you might actually stop any kind of nuclear
program in Israel?

NETANYAHU: We didn’t have any civilian nuclear energy. We have some
research plants, but not anything on a significant scale. And I don’t
think we’re going to pursue civil nuclear energy in the coming years.
I think, you know, we always blame Moses, that he was our greatest
leader and one of the most gifted people in the world. He brought us
the moral code and so on, belief in one God, but then he was a bad
navigator. He brought us to the only part of the Middle East without
any gas, without any oil.
Turns out he wasn’t such a bad navigator,
because we found some gas offshore. So, I think we’ll go for the gas.
I think we’ll skip the nuclear.

Harvey offered a suggestion that, once again, this is may be an example of the Torah being used to meet political needs. As you’ll recall he stated in yesterday’s post that the book of Genesis was largely politically motivated.  But Zoe’s question stuck in my mind.  She observed that Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, might take some portions of Genesis as literal.  

The allegorical interpretation of Genesis opens up more questions than the theology of Christianity.  If Genesis is allegory and not literal did God lead Moses to the land of Israel?  Did God promise them that this was their dirt?  I’ve always thought that He did and as such have been in support of Israel and our government supporting Israel on that fact alone.  “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Genesis 12:3  Is this allegory, too?  What do you think?


Conversations with an Atheist Jew

I’ve asked Harvey to assist me in creating a few posts. He is a Jew by birth and is familiar with Jewish tradition.  Having asked him to guest post he asked that I add a disclaimer:

Please note that although I was and remain a Jew, I have been a total non-believer in the Abrahamic or any other God since my early twenties. I am a Jew only by accident of birth and ethnic tradition. I believe that I understand traditional Jewish attitudes towards their God and ethical issues, but only in the academic sense. I can still read Biblical Hebrew and some Aramaic, but I am by no means a Rabbi. I have read the new testament perhaps 4 or 5 times over the years (since my wife of 30 years is Lutheran) and the Koran twice (in English, of course).

The reason I’ve asked Harvey to do this is because I’m extremely interested in the traditional Jewish perspective and interpretation of the Bible. Christianity was born out of the Jewish tradition so having that perspective would be quite beneficial, I think, to understanding Christianity and/or the rejection thereof. This will be a series of posts as I have quite a few questions. Harvey suggested a Q&A format for these posts and I readily agreed. Harvey has graciously agreed to field additional questions in the comments section.  If you have questions that are off-topic you can email them to me and we’ll make a separate post to address them.  Just click on my profile where you’ll find an email link.

Me: What would be the traditional Jewish understanding of the book of Genesis?

Harvey:  Apropos my previous comments, traditional Judaism sees Genesis as an understanding that 1) God created everything 2) He is responsible for the existence of Man and intended him to “have dominion over” (have use of and, to some extent control) the rest of creation. 3) That Woman was, to some extent, an afterthought and, as a result, was to be under the domination of Man. and 3) That Man is, by nature, imperfect, and has only himself to blame for his shortcomings (i.e. transgressions against God). As such, he deserves the difficulties and and apparent unfairness that may come his way in this life. It is clearly allegorical and, in my experience, very few Orthodox Jews would contend that it should be taken literally.

Me:  What is your understanding of the intent of the book of Genesis.  Is it literal or allegory?

Harvey:If we presume that whoever actually wrote down the tribal myths/oral traditions that we now know as the Torah/Five Books of Moses were directly inspired by God, the question of intent becomes moot.  It seems much more likely, given our present understanding that there were clearly several distinct authors and probably at different times in history, that those who actually applied ink to parchment wanted to accomplish several things:

1) Every culture in history that we know about has seen fit to create a Deity. This was done because the world, particularly in ancient times, was a frightening, dangerous place, fraught with mysteries and, finally. with death. One can imagine that primitive Man needed some comfort from imagining that the weather, change of seasons, birth and death, etc. were at least “controlled” by some higher power than their puny abilities to do so. It follows that if there exists such  “God(s)”, that it would be wise to find ways to propitiate/worship such a powerful Deity. Hence, religion came into being. Genesis seems to be the agglomeration of many of the pre-existing tribal creation myths, rewritten and modified to the particular cultural needs of what had recently become a “nation”, Biblical Israel.
2) The tribes of Israel had, in Moses’ time, only recently banded together as a primitive nation. Most of them were illiterate. Priests needed to “standardize” the accounts of how and why Israel had become and needed to continue as a “nation”. In this regard, the “intent” of the writers of Genesis was largely political, to convince their congregants to remain together as a unit and to continue to submit to the sometimes painful commands of their rulers, such as needing to go to war, sharing their limited food supplies, becoming indentured “slaves”, etc.
3) If a leader/priest wants to convince people that one has the “right” to command obedience from a large group, one can do no better than to be “ordained” by a powerful Deity to do so. Already widely understood creation myths from cultures that preceded the nation that became Israel in the times following the Exodus from Egypt could be rewritten nicely to support this idea.
It follows that Genesis is largely intended to establish that Yahweh (the God of the Hebrews) was not only our Creator who could command our obedience, but that we had somehow transgressed badly enough to deserve His wrath. This idea could be used by Priests to explain how, even if the Nation of Israel followed all of God’s commandments, He might still allow bad things (like defeat in war, pestilence, slavery, etc) to happen. Obviously, we had transgressed in the Garden of Eden or more recently (probably both), and it followed that we not only deserved these bad outcomes, but should be even more thankful that God had not visited even worse upon us. These observations, it seems to me, support the view that Genesis is mainly allegorical. Taking it to be literal truth that somehow describes actual events (most of which are said to have occurred before any men existed) requires complete suspension of all the logical, analytical intellectual methods we have learned to apply in every other facet of life’s experiences. It further forces those who do claim it to be literally and unalterably the “Word of God” to engage in extraordinary mental gymnastics to try to reconcile that belief with everything we have learned about how the Universe actually works.


This is actually pretty close to what I’ve come to think of the book of Genesis myself.  It was a means to galvanize a tiny nation.  Their leaders used a deity to give them the right to authority over the people.  What do you think?  Do you have questions for Harvey?