Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife surveys Jewish sources and historical periods as they relate to the question of the afterlife. Author Leila Leah Bronner has tackled a difficult and complicated subject. Throughout Jewish history — from the bible up until today — the “afterlife” has meant completely different things.
Bronner explains the difference between nefesh (soul or will), neshama (breath), and ruach (spirit). While we tend to think of them as synonyms, they are very different terms and concepts and in different periods thinkers referred to them each differently. She describes the term to “take” and explains that in Psalms it may mean much more than simply “to die by God’s hand.”
The author takes on difficult concepts and expounds upon them through clear examples. She cites and explains the traditional Jewish understanding of Psalm 73:24 “You will lead me with your counsel and afterward take me with glory” to mean everlasting life in heaven. This is contrasted with “Sheol” which is some type of hell, as in Psalm 49:16, which reads “But God will redeem my soul from the hand of Sheol, for He will take me.”
Even more poignant is the difference between Olam Haba (the world to come), Gan Eden (paradise), Gahenom (a type of hell), and Tichyat Hamaytim (the resurrection of the dead). A major division erupted in the days of the Talmud between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and one of the major issues that divided them was the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees said there was no such thing while the Pharisees disagreed and said yes, there was.
Bronner shows how these terms and ideas evolved independently of one another. She also points out how they emerged at different points in Jewish thought — but that the real discussion begins with the medievalists Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides, Nachomindes, Albo, and Crescus.
Kabbalah (mysticism) and Hassidut, as evidenced in this work, have added an entirely new dimension to Jewish understanding of the afterlife.