Minister’s forum: Live a good life for its own sake
Often people ask me what Judaism has to say about the “after-life,” or heaven and hell. My quick response is that Jews have historically been relatively skeptical, and since we have received no verifiable reports from beyond the grave, the best thing to do is wait and see until we get there.
This may be viewed as insensitive to many of my co-religionists. Please note the key word is “verifiable.” Many will then express their beliefs, like, they believe their holy text is absolute truth and therefore there must be heaven and hell, or some form of the afterlife where their vision of the divine awaits them.
Yet, one’s faith or belief, and how one pursues that belief in a spiritual way, seems like an individual issue to me.
When one’s beliefs affect others by influencing one’s behavior, usually negatively, then that belief or belief system becomes a communal concern. Let me explain.
If I believe that there is no heaven or hell, and I behave in a kind, giving and law-abiding manner to those who share this world with me, then really what I believe or don’t believe should be irrelevant to everyone. After all, I am still doing my best to have a positive impact on the world around me, even if I may believe that my life force will just seep back into the general pool of energy that fuels the universe after I die.
However, if I were to believe in some form of the after-life that is more important than this life, claiming that therefore what I do in this world doesn’t matter, and thus I can be a terrible neighbor, a polluter, a thief, or even worse, then I think my community would have something to say about my conduct, and that would imply a problem with the belief system that was the source of my conduct.
So, a Jewish perspective on this teaches: believe what you like, as long as it doesn’t have a bad impact on the people around you. This is why there is no “declaration of faith,” upon becoming Jewish – it is about good behavior not beliefs.
So, how does one answer the accusation that without the threat of hell and the reward of heaven, people won’t behave well?
I say, look around at our wonderful community here on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. We get along great because we know that the main reason for being a good neighbor, friend and family member is to make THIS world a better place.
Our lives, families, homes, communities, towns, mountains and country reflect the care that we devote to them. Living a life filled with integrity, honesty and devotion to the people around you, as well as caring for your community is better for its own sake.
As the Hebrew Bible says, “Choose life, that you may live,” (Deuteronomy 30:19) – isn’t the gift of this life enough reason to be a good person?
-Jonathan B. Freirich is the rabbi at Temple Bat Yam and the South Lake Tahoe and Valley Regions Jewish Community.
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