Sunday, 6 June 2010

This Life vs. Afterlife

Rabbi Yaakov said this world is similar to an antechamber in front of the world to come. Fix yourself in the antechamber so that you can enter the main hall.

As usual forgive me for generalizing:

In my opinion religion oversteps its boundaries when it claims to contain the purpose of life as it does in most fundamentalist denominations. It is very unlikely that we will ever exactly figure out what we are supposed to do here in this world (if anything) but I cannot believe that we are here to score mitzva points to get into heaven. Religion is beneficial in many ways, but when it becomes the entire goal of life then it can "poison everything."

Think of all the Jews who may never truly enjoy life because they belong to religious groups that demand that they spend all their time sitting and learning (unless they love learning). Imagine all of the Christians in history who have denounced worldly pleasures and have lived lives of asceticism. And what about all the young Muslims who have gone and blown themselves up for their share in heaven.

All these extreme forms of religion essentially say that we live in a world of illusion. Our world is merely a preparation for the world to come. All the joys and pleasures of this world are really meaningless because this world is not for our enjoyment but a stop off station before the true happiness in the afterlife.

Yes, Judaism has never developed an ascetic tradition to the extent of Christianity, but nowadays we are seeing more and more Chareidim who tell us that this world is essentially just a distraction or worse a temptation. Just take this "ruling" from Rav Elyashiv and other Rabbis about whether children (children!) can play video games that have no objectionable material:

The gemora (Brochos 28b) teaches us: "Prevent your children from [engaging in] higoyon." Rashi explains this saying of Chazal to mean: "You should not accustom them to study Chumash too much since it appeals to them."

If Chazal instruct us to deter children from studying Hashem's Torah in an easy and appealing way since it prevents them from laboring over Torah study, surely they forbid children's playing various sorts of valueless games that cause them to detach their thoughts from Torah study. Playing such games cause a tremendous decline in the child's level of spirituality...

...Even if the movies do not contain anything that is specifically forbidden to see, it is still forbidden to look at it ...

...What difference is there if he goes to see a movie somewhere or instead he sits at home and looks at it, like those people who waste their time? See the gemora (Avodoh Zorah 18a) that teaches us that the punishment for this is tremendous, that Hashem torments him, and that his livelihood decreases, Rachmono litzlan...

And these are kids! These Rabbis basically say that entertainment is forbidden because it is a "waste of time". Only someone who thinks that this world is "futile and empty" could say something like that.

Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit as to the influence the afterlife has on religion but I can't imagine that a kid who is bored to death by learning would submit to life long internment in a Beit Medrash if his Rabbi said "Oh and by the way just remember this is the only life you got. Just thought you should know." Instead his Rabbi tells him "yes, I know its hard and you want to kill yourself instead of sitting another hour in the Beit Medrash but think of the sechar in shamayim that you;re getting for this!"

The afterlife is a useful doctrine to those who cannot enjoy life. Those who are oppressed look forward to reprieve and repayment for their suffering after death. This is probably why Judaism adopted the doctrine of the afterlife in the first place, to deal with the hardships of the ancient world.

However in our modern Western societies most people have the ability to enjoy this world. When people who are well off coop themselves up in a Beit Medrash all day, not because they enjoy learning Torah but because they are told that this is the only way, they are are being robbed of this life by the afterlife. I can just imagine the torture a young ultra-chareidi must endure when stuck in the Beit Medrash, he occasionally gazes out of the window and sees people playing outside, but quickly suppresses the desire to enjoy the world because he has been taught that salvation can only be attained by eschewing this life. This is simply a tragedy and my heart goes out to every young chassid or ultra-chareidi who is forced to spend his time learning whether or not he actually enjoys it.

I wonder how the current stress in our religion on the world to come (at least by fundies) contrasts with the Biblical conception of divine reward. In the Biblical ideal of "when you follow my laws" man is rewarded with earthly pleasures. "You will eat your bread until you are satisfied" The rewards are all present in this world. I have to assume that the people of the Bible would never consider renouncing the earthly in the name of religion. They probably thought of religion as a kind of deal with God, God gives you the world and all its bounty and in return you do his mitzvot. People with such an ideology surely do not fear enjoying what life has given them.

Don't get me wrong the afterlife is an extremely comforting dogma. After all I'm sure it provides much solace for many people like I said above. But religion must find a healthy balance between focus on this world and belief in the next.

It's also not just the afterlife thats the problem any theocentric ideology (I can't think of any theocentric denominations without an afterlife but let's just say) robs people of their lives. When Rabbis preach that your whole purpose in this life is to serve God then (if you believe and internalize what they say) then you will always feel a little bit guilty about just having fun for the sake of fun because you are not fulfilling your purpose.

Religion should make life better not worse. If we actually knew for sure that we would receive the main reward of life after death then behavior like this would be justified. (And THAT is the problem with fundamentalists is that they have no doubt that there is an afterlife. I doubt the terrorists who died in 9/11 has one ounce of doubt that they were going to Gan Eden) It bothers me so much when fundamentalists (and I guess Chazal to a certain extent also) take Olam Hazeh away from people by preaching that the sole purpose of life is to serve God and gain browny points for the world to come.


jewish philosopher said...

Actually, the ideal is to serve God purely out of love for Him, not because of the anticipation of any reward.

אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת שלא לקבל פרס

MKR said...

If we actually knew for sure that we would receive the main reward of life after death then behavior like this would be justified. (And THAT is the problem with fundamentalists is that they have no doubt that there is an afterlife.)

According to Kant, not only would such behavior be justified, but it would be inevitable:

God and eternity with their awful majesty would stand unceasingly before our eyes.  . . Most of the actions that conformed to the law would be done from fear, a few only from hope, and none at all from duty, and the moral worth of actions, on which alone in the eyes of supreme wisdom the worth of the person and even that of the world depends, would cease to exist. As long as the nature of man remains what it is, his conduct would thus be changed into mere mechanism, in which, as in a puppet-show, everything would gesticulate well, but there would be no life in the figures. (Critique of Practical Reason, translated by T. K. Abbott)

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