Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Woody Allen is wrong about the afterlife

Director Woody Allen gestures as he attends a news conference for the film "Irrational Man" out of competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Frank Sinatra was so angry at Woody Allen’s alleged treatment of Mia Farrow that he considered taking a hit out on the comedian. (Read about it in David Evanier’s new book on Woody Allen).

Thank God, it didn’t happen.

But if Old Blue Eyes had gotten his wish, here’s the question: Where would Woody be right now?

According to the comedian-director, nowhere. In his new film, Café Society, a character converts to Christianity because he says that Judaism doesn’t believe in the afterlife.

Wrong, Wood-man.

OK, he doesn’t believe in the afterlife. This is, after all, the man who famously said: “I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.”

And, perhaps many Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, but Judaism certainly does, and always has. Woody should read Hillel Halkin’s new book on the topic — After One Hundred and Twenty: Reflecting On death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition.

Here goes. Judaism and the Afterlife 101.

  • In the biblical period, ancient Jews believed that people went to Sheol, a shadowy pit beneath the earth. Nothing much happens there (sort of like certain cities that you have visited, no doubt).

This is pretty much the standard view until the book of Daniel, perhaps the last book of the Bible to be written.

“Many of those that sleep in the dust will awaken,” we read, “and the knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of the sky, and those who have led the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 11:2-3). That verse is the beginning of the Jewish idea of personal immortality.

  • In the rabbinic period, the sages taught that people would go on to olam ha-ba (the world to come), also known as gan Eden (the Garden  of Eden.) At the end of history, the dead would become resurrected.

(“Really?” people ask me. “This sounds so….Christian.” Yup. Where do you think Christianity got this idea? From Judaism, with a little help from Greek philosophy as well.)

That is why we say Kaddish for our parents – because that prayer would carry them into the World to Come. At the end of history, the Messiah would come, the dead would be resurrected and they would travel back to the land of Israel – which is why Jews were often buried with sacks of soil from Eretz Yisrael beneath their heads.

That is why autopsy and cremation are traditionally forbidden – because the body must remain whole.

Week after week, at funerals, I recite this prayer: “El malei rachamim, O God of Compassion, let the soul of our beloved rest tachat kanfei ha-shechina, beneath the wings of God’s Presence, along with all the other pure and righteous ones in the Garden of Eden.”

If God is the most powerful presence in the universe, then God must be more powerful even than death, or we would worship death.

In the last verse of the Pesach song Had Gadya (“An Only Kid”), after the ritual slaughterer slaughters the ox and the Angel of Death comes and kills the ritual slaughterer, God slays the Angel of Death.

Someday, God will defeat even death itself.

  • Some Jewish mystics have believed in the idea of gilgul — the reincarnation of souls.

Many of you are now saying: “Wait a minute. This is not the Judaism I grew up with. The Judaism that I grew up with is a Judaism that is only about life, about doing good, about ethics, and about repairing the world.”

That is why there are so many Jewish lawyers and ACLU members and card-carrying liberals.

It is why so many Jews become doctors. Judaism says: See something wrong with this world — and fix it.

But the idea of “this world” and an afterlife can certainly co-exist. In fact, they do.

That is why many Jews, and others, prefer the idea of the immortality of influence — that what we do survives us. Every time an African-American person votes, that vote is a living “kaddish” for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A legend says that when we perform a good deed in this world, that good deed becomes a thread — and when we die, God takes all the threads and weaves them into sails for the ship that will carry our soul into eternity.

The mystics say something else: Those threads, they say, become the garments that we will wear in the world to come.

The Hasidic teacher Dov Baer of Mezeritch taught that every mitzvah we do becomes a seed for a tree in the celestial Garden of Eden.

Frankly, I am not surprised that Woody Allen got this basic Jewish idea so wrong.

Many Jews do.

But, at the very least, all people of faith need to plumb the vast spiritual resources that their cultures offer them.

Try it.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • Okay all you atheists out there, what’cha gonna say now? You know your atheism is as bankrupt as Woody Allen’s. I dare you to speak up, and be quick about it !!

  • Woody Allen hasn’t produced anything I found worth watching since the late 80’s. He keeps making films because:
    1. He keeps things under budget and on tine
    2. His reputation allows him to bring in a level of star power which would not normally appear in low/medium budget dramedies that have only a limited audience appeal
    3. He has a market niche which still works for his producers. Mainly snooty and pretentious types, film critics and bloggers.

  • Representative of your (lack of) intellect.You read 1 article and you are astride your white horse promulgating the Truth to all (very few) who will listen to you.

    Who are you – what credentials do you have to lecture anyone on their beliefs or lack thereof ? And to dare some/everyone to speak-up quickly ?

    You need to be spoken to very, very slowly. Your rate of comprehension rivals that of the rate of growth of a rock.

    You are an ignorant, and illiterate a-s.

  • Woody is wrong about many things, though I used to find him mildly amusing for a nebbish. I’m grateful for the clarification from the author about Jewish teaching with respect to the afterlife with one small caveat.
    In the New Testament, prior to the establishment of Christianity, it is declared that a least one sect among the Jewish people denied the afterlife. They were the Sadducees, Luke 20:27.

  • (“Really?” people ask me. “This sounds so….Christian.” Yup. Where do you think Christianity got this idea? From Judaism, with a little help from Greek philosophy as well.)

    Don’t forget the Zoroastrian contribution.

  • Actually Patrick, this one time it wasn’t about me trying to “promulgate the Truth” to anybody, nor to offer any of my usual inflammatory “lectures.”

    It’s just that Rabbi Salkin wrote a very interesting article all by itself, especially since there’s many atheists out there who share Woody Allen’s position.

    So I reckoned, “Why not rile you folks up a little, so that you’ll respond to Salkin’s article with gusto?” Seemed okay to me!!

  • The hand of god and or deities coming down from the heavens and doing the impossible in such a way there is no other plausible cause comes to mind.

  • I attended Hbrew School and went to a Conservative Synagogue and I don’t remember a single instance of anyone mentioning Heaven or Hell. The first time a Christian asked if I knew if I was going to Heaven or Hell, I had to pause, because I didn’t know if Jews believed in Heaven or Hell.

  • Except he really didn’t.. Just another guy with a few good ideas… There were thousands of them roaming the countryside in Jesus’ time.. He was no better or worse than any other man, woman or child.

  • The Pharisees, who opposed the Sadducees and believed in the resurrection of souls, were the ones that developed rabbinic Judaism. So it is that rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism that exists today almost exclusively, holds the belief in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Even Jews who don’t believe in this literally may be familiar with the liturgical refrain “mechayei ha’meitim,” who gives life to the dead. Of course one can understand this metaphorically too.

  • Except for it being witnessed and recorded contemporaneously by objectively credible forms, unlike the Gospels. If it is plausible that a story is made up, it’s not proof of a miracle .

  • I think I know what you’re getting at Floyd. Why aren’t the atheists attacking Rabbi Salkin’s assertion of an afterlife the way they might to a Christian minister? Part of the reason is that members of minority faith groupings tend to have sympathy for one another. Another perhaps bigger part is that Jews don’t threaten non-Jews with eternal damnation for not converting to Judaism. No one says, “Believe in the Torah or suffer the fate of spending up to a year in purgatory until you have completed your redemption and be allowed entrance into the Garden of Eden.”

  • This was an interesting article, but I think Stephen Hawking expressed the atheist’s view most succinctly: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

  • I imagine roughly same standards of evidence you would require to find my claim credible if I insisted Thor was a real god, actually exists, etc., etc.

  • Actually floydlee, it appears you misread the article, and you’re repeating your error here. The question is not whether or not there is an afterlife, but whether or not Jewish teaching includes one. Those are two different things. Apparently some varieties of Jewish teaching include an afterlife, and some don’t. Woody Allen may be technically incorrect to suggest that no Jews believe in an afterlife, if that’s what he was suggesting, instead of just making a general purposes joke, and not attempting to seriously commenting upon theological matters. But clearly there are different schools of thought on the matter, and discussion of an “afterlife” is not as widespread in Jewish teaching as it is in, for example, Christian traditions. So, as per usual with theological matters, the answer is as clear as mud.

  • But if you had read Salkin’s article, you would have seen that Salkin clearly says that **Judaism** believes in an afterlife. Jewish teaching “clearly includes one”, to borrow your phrase.

    He’s not conceding ANY rational, historical or philosophical ground to atheists on that point. Not even when discussing different Jewish positions. The afterlife is “a basic Jewish idea”, Salkin wrote.

    “If God is the most powerful presence in the universe, then God must be more powerful even than death, or we would worship death.”

    Makes good sense, no?

  • That Mr. Salkin considers a belief in an afterlife as a confirmed part of Jewish teaching is clear. Whether or not every tradition of Jewish scholarship and all Jewish theologians agree with him on the matter is decidedly not clear. Which was pretty obvious from Woody Allen’s joke.

  • Dear floydlee, just for fun here’s a little joke.

    Yankele was watching his father, a Rabbi, write
    one of his shabbes speeches.
    “How do you know what to say, Daddy?” Yankele
    “Why, son, God tells me”, said the Rabbi.
    “Oh, then why do you keep crossing things out?”

    I think we should all try to maintain a good sense of humor about these matters. 😉

  • Within the context of contemporary Judaism your reply clarifies things a bit more. There is a joke among Christians which I’d be willing to share in the hopes of not insulting anyone. “The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, so they were ‘Sad You See’.” No reply is necessary, unless you wish to excoriate me, which I will submit to humbly.

  • That is an unmitigated and unsupported slander on the authors of the Gospels, totally subjective and devoid of credible evidence.

  • Books written a century or two after the fact with different accounts of the same incidents at time which is uncorroborated by objective sources are not reliable evidence. Be it the Gospels or Themistocles account of the battle of Thermopylae.

    The Gospels are hearsay which are accepted on faith. Not history or reliable accounts of anything.

  • It’s a beautiful thing about religion, that a believer can adapt the dogma to fit their own personality. (though Not so much when it’s used to justify hatred and violence.)

  • Woody Allen’s joke reminds me of a story my mother told from when she was an elementary school teacher. One day the Catholic kids had to leave early to go to their after-school Religion classes. One of the kids protested and asked why the Jewish kids didn’t have to go. One of them replied, “Jews don’t sin.” Again technically incorrect, but the schools of thought on the matter are so different to make it funny (I hope).

  • Just a theological thought experiment: If we worship ‘powerful’, yes. But if we worship a loving Being-Person, then even if that Being-Person were ‘less powerful’ than death, many would worship out of loyalty and love. Would we worship an powerful Devil that could assure us a devilish life everlasting, or would we, so to speak, join the Resistance and go down to death, if need be, with those that love and do good?

  • Not so. There are fragmentary papyrus which contain scripture dating from the late 1st century, not so very long after the events recorded. The Gospels differ primarily in point of view as they were composed by four different authors who intended to reach four different audiences. To the degree they are unalike is more a matter of emphasis not contradiction. To reject a source because it does not conform to your philosophical viewpoint is hardly objective. What objective corroboration would you suggest, the statement of someone from that period who utterly rejected the declarations of the Gospels? Thankfully there are a host of scholars better qualified than you or I who support the historicity of the Gospel accounts.

  • What you call scripture today is a compilation of works edited for effect, many sections written long after the alleged events depicted.

    Moreover given its origins, it is far far more plausible and likely stories of miracles happening are made up then the likelihood of them occurring. People accept the Bible on faith, not because of its value as objective evidence.

    Not one scholar of the Gospel can claim that accounts of miracles are inherently credible in of themselves. Plenty of fake scholars try the confirmation bias route and hypothesize how it might happen. But that is far from proving it actually did.

  • Your are almost completely wrong on your first point.
    Your case is far from proven in the second case.
    You have half an argument in the third case.

  • When my christian friends ask me about the Jewish view of the afterlife, I tell them that most Jewish thinkers believe in some sort of afterlife. There is no agreement on what it is, and most importantly it’s not a central part of our religion as it is in Christianity. Judaism is a here-and-now religion.

  • The council of Nicea proved my point. It’s role was to edit the Bible to an official form for Christians. No reputable scholar of the Bible claims it was written in its current form as a contemporaneous account.

    Name one scholar who isn’t a button who claims objective credibility for the accounts of miracles. Nobody makes such claims. Nobody can.

    Simple logic tells you that it is far more plausible to believe an account of a miracle was fiction than the claim it actually happened.

    You believe in biblical miracles because you have faith. I am not compelled to accept any of it. There is no objective evidence out there which demands it.

  • I was with you until you claimed Christian afterlife was informed by Greek philosophy. Completely false.

  • Right. That’s why his teachings became the basis for a world religion that would ultimately be declared the official religion of the Roman Empire that executed him…because he was just another guy with some good ideas. Brilliant.

  • The gospel of John was written about 50+ years after events depicted according to the most generous estimates by scholars. There is nothing about the story of the resurrection which compels belief beyond your given religious faith. It is not objective history. You believe in the story because of faith, not because it is a story with clear evidence to support it.

  • So what means it is not a contemporaneous account. One which lacks objective credibility.

    All of this is just wildly missing the point. At no point does anyone outside of a Christian believer taking it on faith have to consider biblical accounts of the miracles Jesus performed at face value. Josephus never recorded about miracles either.

    My point was there are no accounts of the hand of god coming down to perform miracles which anyone has to believe. Which constitute objective credible evidence of such things.

  • 3 to 4 decades after the event is not exactly contemporaneous, but when submitted by the individuals who experienced the events (and speculation denying that fact, is just that, speculation) is more relevant than contemporaneous timing. They were busy doing other things like building the church. And no, you are correct, you are not compelled to accept any of it, though again, I would disagree with you on the evidence. Your are unobjectively predisposed to disbelieve.

  • where do you think Christians got the idea
    the bulk of christian theology on afterlife, resurrection, etc. are Jewish concepts; they were then applied to focus the powers and precepts to Jesus.

  • It is a myth that people believe anything from their religion based on evidence and compelling arguments. It’s something you claim when proselytizing but is never more than an aggrandizement of personal faith. A way to pretend ones faith is more convincing than reality can permit. There Is nothing objective about your defense of the gospels as clear evidence of miracles. You are simply showing annoyance that others do not share your faith.

  • Given Woody Allen’s treatment of women and girls, I am not surprised he chooses not to believe in an afterlife. His stance is quite self-serving. He’ll need more than a change of underwear when he gets to the other side . . .

  • Much of the Christian NT is a reboot of OT writers, including the resurrection story. Jesus words on the cross are taken literally from Psalm 22, including gambling for Jesus posessions.

  • Your 1st sentence is nothing more than a tendentious argument from pure arrogance. It is not for you to dismiss thee testimony of those who actually experienced the events described, even at a remove of two thousand years.

  • Arrogance is the lie that your religious belief is supported by anything other than faith. You deny faith and pretend rational belief instead. Evidence is not subjective. It does not require a pre existing belief to be considered credible. It is for me to dismiss claims from 2000 years ago, because you are trying to pretend it must be taken at face value, in the absence of faith. Therefore it gets subject to the same kind of scrutiny as any other story told under the same circumstances.

    You can’t have it both ways. You cannot have a story revered as a matter of faith and then claim it is credible based on evidence. It’s either/or.

  • No that is a prime example of the type of logical fallacy that you constantly bemoan, and since you can’t see it, I can’t help you. The reverential faith you decry is based on substantive evidence, and faith by itself, which arises from the evidence, does not in fact negate that evidence. To argue such is to apply a classic non-sequiter.

  • People claim religious belief is somehow rational as a sign of their insecurity over the nature of faith and it’s limits in convincing other people.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with belief based on faith. But one should not pretend it is something else. Doing so cheapens fait and rational processes.

    “The reverential faith you decry is based on substantive evidence”

    A dishonest contradiction of terms. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence. You want to have it both ways. You want the credibility of rational thought but don’t want to subject beliefs to its necessary methods, as with faith.

    All you have to do is simply be honest and stop being so insecure about your faith. You believe as you do, but nobody has a compelling rational reason to do the same.

  • It is a false premise to argue that faith is mutually exclusive of objective evidence. Objective evidence oftentimes leads to faith and reinforces it. Evidence as something one might call “solid” can legitimately be applied to the “construction” of faith. Faith does not necessarily arise in some sort of metaphysical vacuum.

  • “It is a false premise to argue that faith is mutually exclusive of objective evidence”

    No it isn’t. It is the very definition of the word “faith”. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence. Therefore they are mutually exclusive.

    “Evidence as something one might call “solid” can legitimately be applied to the “construction” of faith. ”

    No it can’t. Such claims are a denial of faith. The conflation of personal acceptance with objectively credible evidence. There is absolutely nothing about your Christian faith which has evidence which compels its belief in an objective manner. Only a subjective feeling of acceptance.

    “Faith does not necessarily arise in some sort of metaphysical vacuum.”

    Metaphysics is not objective evidence or studies. It is personal evidence and personal credibility. One’s mileage varies in how one accepts it

  • As long as I don;t have to sit around forever listening to harp music and contemplating the glory of God (maybe that is hell?)

  • Your definition of faith is pure and simply incorrect, you unilaterally limit its parameters on your own authority as function of subjective bias, not a sufficient framework to prove your case.

  • My definition of faith is the actual one. The definition which is acknowledged by people who honestly acknowledge the basis of religious belief.

    “Faith is confidence or trust in a person or thing; or the observance of an obligation from loyalty; or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement; or a belief not based on proof;”

    “St. Augustine on Faith”
    “Faith seems to differ from knowledge in this respect. While some religious people do point to miracles, prophesies, and sacred texts as evidence of articles of faith, it remains that much of what faith holds is essentially mysterious. To treat religious faith as a kind of knowledge akin to scientific knowledge or historical knowledge changes the nature of what many people seem to express in their having faith. A deep faith in the love of God is not a matter of having employed a systematic testing procedure. On some accounts, for that matter, faith is precisely what one holds to in the absence of evidence and proof”

  • I am sure that Mr Allen spent a lot of money in this big budget movie on experts to tell him exactly the right cars and dress which would have been around in this period. Like many assimilated Jews who write about Judaism, they somehow don’t think that they require an expert on Jewish practice. I remember an episode of a large budget BBC production of “Foyle’s War” where they protrayed a traditional Friday night Shabbat meal with the men wearing Tallitot at home and a single loaf of bread and many other mistakes. The same series went to the nth degree to make sure that that Lee Enfield rifle the British soldier was carrying was the exact mark (model version) for that year.

    Susan, there must have been unfortunately, a lot of things your Conservative education did not teach you about basic Judaism. In a way, Conservative Judaism is worse than Reform. At least Reform are honest and say that we are NOT practicing traditional Judaism, as they are called REFORMED Judaism. The Conservative movement however are charlatans who dupe, deceive and misinform their congregants by telling them they are traditional Jews, practicing authentic Judaism yet in truth failing to teach much of traditional Judaism. Even its leaders, do not observe many practices which have been considered fundermental to Judaism for thousands of years.

    For more information about the Afterlife in Judaism see here under Judaism 101:

  • No, that would be called Idol worship which is setting yourself up as the centre of the universe with G-d servicing YOU! Judaism is not a centrist religion but “a putting G-d and His Torah FIRST” religion.

  • I don’t view what I described as idol worship or that different sects creating their own belief systems are putting themselves in the centre of the universe. I don’t think atheists do that either. G-d and the Torah may well be the focus of Judaism, but I’m allowing for the possibility that ancient tribes conceived of that concept, to be followed by their descendants. Thanks for the dialogue.