Your talmudic advice column

Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to for details.

Your talmudic advice column

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My neighbor is Jewish, but from many of the things he says about Jews and Israel, I think he is an anti-Semite, who expresses antagonism toward anyone who is not an Orthodox Jew. Lately he has invoked the policies of the State of Israel toward the non-Orthodox to support his attitudes.

First, how is that possible? Can a Jew can be such an open anti-Semite? And more important, what can I say or do to bring this person back in line?

Buffering the Bigot in Bergenfield

Dear Buffering,

Yes, it is a terrible fact that a Jew can be an anti-Semite.

There are gradations of one Jew’s anti-Semitism toward other Jews. There is the personal hatred or animosity of one Jew for another. There can be a scenario of a group of Jews’ collective self-hatred toward other Jews. And beyond that, there are circumstances in which a Jewish institution or political entity legislates or authorizes policies of anti-Semitism.

This should not be a surprise, though. Our sacred Jewish body of literature, the Tanach, Talmud, and midrash, are full of negative stories about Jews behaving badly toward other Jews, and of Jews scathingly criticizing other Jews. The editors of those works, who gathered and published those narratives and accounts about those Jews of the past, are highly venerated and respected in our tradition. I cannot remember hearing anyone use the term “self-hating Bible story” or “anti-Semitic midrash.”

The dynamics of Jews criticizing Jews is prominent in both the classical prophetic tradition in the Tanach, and in the entire body of talmudic argumentation and criticism.

Condemnation of some types of Jews by one or more other types of Jew surely is not rare. And there can be official policies made by Jews in synagogues, other organizations, or in the State of Israel that are bigoted, hateful, or discriminatory to some other Jews.

Recently, we saw in print the surprising unfolding analysis of one prominent Jewish professor of history, arguing that the State of Israel was anti-Semitic in its official policies toward a large number of Jews.

Professor Yehuda Bauer posed this question in an article in Haaretz in August (“Is Israel’s Government anti-Semitic?”). “In the Western world, even in its less laudable parts, violating the rights of religious Jews to pray according to their own custom is considered a clear sign of anti-Semitism,” he wrote. “As is known, the Israeli government has withdrawn from the agreement to allow non-Orthodox Jews to pray in the area at the southern end of the Western Wall — which is not part of the space controlled by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. Can we say, therefore, that the Israeli government has adopted an anti-Semitic policy?”

Bauer goes on to investigate a second angle on this question of discrimination against the 90 percent of the world’s Jews who are not Orthodox., “In addition, non-Orthodox Jews in Israel cannot marry or divorce, except in an Orthodox context,” he wrote. “The insult to most of world Jewry and the denial of the right of [non-Orthodox] Jews to enjoy their basic freedom and to marry according to their worldview is a unique phenomenon. Israel is the only Western country in which the government adopts such anti-Semitic positions.”

I’ve always insisted that we must differentiate between rhetorical anti-Semitism, which is loathsome but not imminently dangerous, and policy anti-Semitism, where hatred, discrimination, or the denial of civil rights to Jews is enacted into law and practiced in a community.

Bauer tempers his conclusion at the end, but his alarm is evident in this essay. “It would be an exaggeration to say there’s an anti-Semitic government in Israel. But it probably wouldn’t be a mistake to say this is a government that’s adopting a policy that shows clear signs of anti-Semitism toward the vast majority of the Jewish people.”

What should we do about things like this? All of us need to be especially alert for the policy forms of official anti-Semitism. When you think you see it, you need to raise the alarms, and then go on to engage in activism against it the best way that you can.

We are, after all, a tiny nation, with many external enemies, and we simply cannot afford to tolerate internal hatreds and divisions.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I am worried and confused about my fate in the world to come, where my soul will go when I die. My rabbi gave a talk on this subject, but it did not answer my questions. Can you please advise me on this?

Muddled Mortal in Montclair

Dear Mortal,

Sure, we all face the essential question, where does that source of life energy go when a person dies? It’s not comforting to imagine that the forces of our life cease to exist. They must go somewhere else.

And indeed, the stories of the next world abound in the cultures of the earth. My dear late colleague, Professor Alan Segal, wrote a masterful 880-page book on the subject, “Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.” Surely, to cover what all the world’s religions say on this subject would be a more immense task.

And you want to know which version of that narrative about the afterlife is the real one?

As you can imagine, there are multiple possibilities based on the strands of Jewish religious traditions. The great medieval rabbi Maimonides presented us with a visualization of Gan Eden, a heavenly depiction based on the Talmud that always has seemed generally comforting as a starting point for me, in a philosophical way.

“In the world to come, there is nothing corporeal, no material substance,” the Rambam wrote. “There are only souls of the righteous without bodies — like the ministering angels… The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body” (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 8).

In some talmudic views, the Garden of Eden is the eternal destination for the righteous. In that realm of joy and peace, the Talmud in some instances describes golden banquet tables (Talmud, Taanit 25a), stools of gold (Talmud, Ketubot 77b), lavish feasts (Talmud, Baba Batra 75a), celebrations of the Sabbath, basking in sunshine, and engaging in sex (Talmud, Berakhot 57b).

In other views (which Maimonides seems to prefer) Talmudic rabbis declare that in Gan Eden there will be no eating, drinking, procreation, or commerce, no envy, hatred, or rivalry. The righteous will sit in Gan Eden with crowns on their heads, and bask in the light of the Shekhinah (Talmud, Berakhot 17a).

Indeed, our tradition teaches us that if you lead a good life, and follow the proper procedures, your Jewish soul will be immortal.

And that immortality — as I see it — will be duplex. That means that the soul of a departed Jew will live on in a vertical immortality in Heaven and in a horizontal immortality as part of the collective of the eternal Jewish people.

You ask about your vertical afterlife. But please consider pondering how every Jewish soul achieves a horizontal immortality, going forward eternally through time into the future, by its membership in the people of Israel.

To make sure that membership of the soul of the departed Jew after his or her death in the community of Israel is a certainty, to secure a place for a departed soul in the community of Israel, many Jews believe that you must recite the daily Kaddish in the synagogue for eleven months after the person dies. By doing that, you firmly embed the soul of the departed into our community. And while that community, that people, endures, that soul will have a horizontal immortality as part of the collective body of Israel. That soul will be recalled explicitly and collectively in Yizkor on the holidays and personally on yahrzeits each year with the recitation of the Kaddish in public in the synagogue.

In these ways, we feel confident in the continuous duplex immortal life of the souls for ourselves and for our people, in the eternity of heaven and in the everlasting historical perpetuation of the Jewish people on earth.

Yes, surely Rambam’s images of a sort of heavenly yeshiva project his values onto the world to come in a serious and philosophical mode.

And less seriously, I could tell you a few good Jewish jokes on the theme of whether there are beautiful women waiting in heaven as rewards for righteous Jewish men, or on whether there is golf up in heaven.

And in a grim vein, we’ve all heard about the promises made to Islamic terrorists that 70 virgins await them as rewards for their evil, in their version of heaven.

And who can forget the famous charming and alarming story of the simple Jew, “Bontsha the Silent One,” by the famed Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz? In that tale, we are regaled with Bontsha’s judgment in heaven. Before being admitted to heaven, he is both defended and accused for being silent on earth in the face of terrible disappointments and tribulations, never raising a single complaint. And when he wins his trial, and is offered all the bounties of heaven, he asks for just one reward — a warm roll with fresh butter for breakfast every morning.

The best answer I can sum up for you is that honestly, nobody knows if there is a heaven, or what that heaven is like. A rabbi who tells you with certainty the details of the world to come is not a credible witness, even if he cites for you centuries of midrashic and kabbalistic sources. Those texts were meant to be tentative and allegorical, not absolute and factual. You were right intuitively to mistrust the literal certainty of the rabbi.

And so you will have to wait to find out the answer to your heavenly questions for yourself, hopefully after 120 years of a fulfilling and righteous life. Regardless of the destination for you in the afterlife, rest assured that a life of good deeds has its own inherent value in this world, and it is the right path to whatever lies beyond it. Be well and continue to do mitzvot, and be sincere in all your dealings in this wonderful universe in which we live right now.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic reasoning and wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to

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