Very recently, I took John Hobbins to task for implying that hellfire and damnation preaching owes its origin to the literature of the Hebrew Bible – a corpus that I attempted to demonstrate was lacking such a concept. While I capitulated slightly in the comments (in that I realise that I may be reading as much into the literature as I had initially accused him of doing), I would like to respond quickly to the second part of his claim. It was in his likewise-recent post that John had made this assertion, and then buttressed it with the suggestion that the rabbis of the Talmud believed in a place called Gehennom. This is perhaps a moot point that I am making, for I am sure that John (along with the majority of my readers) is aware that the Talmud is a highly ideologically variegated corpus and that source texts can be used to justify just about anything. Even so, because John didn’t make it clear (it is made clear in the passage that he linked from Jewish Encyclopedia), I just want to make sure that people understand that Gehennom, unlike Christian depictions of hell, is not a place of eternal damnation. John produced a passage from bBer 28b, and I copy it below (with John’s translation):
כשחלה ריב”ז נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו. כיון שראה אותם התחיל לבכות. א”ל תלמידיו: נר ישראל, עמוד הימיני, פטיש החזק, מפני מה אתה בוכה
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was sick, his disciples came to see how he was doing (lit., “look him over”). As soon as he saw them, he began to weep. His disciples said to him:
Light of Israel, Pillar on the Right [Yachin, in the Temple], Mighty Hammer, on what account are you weeping?
אמר להם: אלו לפני מלך בשר ודם היו מוליכין אותי שהיום כאן ומחר בקבר, שאם כועס אין כעסו כעס עולם ואם אוסרני אין איסורו איסור עולם, ואם ממיתני אין מיתתו מיתת עולם, ואני יכול לפייסו בדברים ולשחדו בממון –
He said to them,
If I were being taken before a king of flesh and blood, who is here today and in the grave tomorrow, who if he gets aggravated his aggravation is not eternal aggravation, and if he incarcerates me his incarceration is not eternal incarceration, and if he puts me to death his putting to death is not an eternal putting to death, and I could assuage him with words and bribe him with money (“Mammon”) –
ואף על פי כן הייתי בוכה. עכשיו שמוליכין אותי לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא, שהוא חי וקיים לעולם ולעולמי עולמים שאם כועס עלי – כעסו כעס עולם, ואם אוסרני – איסורו איסור עולם, ואם ממיתני – מיתתו מיתת עולם, ואיני יכול לפייסו בדברים ולא לשחדו בממון, ולא עוד אלא שיש לפני שני דרכים: אחת של גן עדן ואחת של גיהנם. ואיני יודע באיזו מוליכים אותי, ולא אבכה
all the more reason I have to weep, now that I am being taken before the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who lives and abides for ever, who if he gets aggravated with me, his aggravation is eternal aggravation, and if he incarcerates me his incarceration is eternal incarceration, and if he puts me to death his putting to death is an eternal putting to death, and I cannot assuage him with words nor bribe him with money (“Mammon”) – and not only so, but there are two ways before me, one to the garden of Eden (=Paradise), and the other to Gehenna (=Hell). And I do not know to which I am being taken, and shall I not weep?”
I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t at least raise one complaint against somebody else’s translation, though it be only small. I would have broken the text up differently, with the initial clause in the third paragraph closing off the second paragraph with the assertion that “still [ie: despite all of these limitations on the mortal king] I would definitely weep”. Doing so highlights nicely the contrast between one’s agonising over a confrontation with an earthly ruler and one’s imminent confrontation with the divine. But does this passage evince a belief in eternal damnation? Decidedly not.
While the Talmudic text does evidence a belief in some nature of after-life, there is no reference given to the duration of time that is spent in either location. While the author refers to an eternal imprisonment and an eternal putting-to-death, the mention of paradise and Gehennom is prefaced by the Hebrew phrase “ולא עוד אלא”: “Not only [all] this, but“, which marks a clear distinction between the two ideas. There being no expressed equivalence between the former concepts and the latter, the notion of an eternal dying/imprisonment could just as easily be references to an infinitely delayed resurrection, rather than to an abode of eternal suffering. To highlight this point, I would like to draw your attention to another Talmudic passage – one that I reread recently in advanced preparation for Lag BaOmer (bShab 33b). This narrative, which involves the spiritual transformation of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai, features an incidental detail highlighted below. I intend to revisit the entirety of this narrative shortly with a more comprehensive analysis:
[Update: For a fuller analysis, see my subsequent post]
איתבו תריסר שני במערתא אתא אליהו וקם אפיתחא דמערתא אמר מאן לודיעה לבר יוחי דמית קיסר ובטיל גזירתיה נפקו חזו אינשי דקא כרבי וזרעי אמר מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה כל מקום שנותנים עיניהן מיד נשרף יצתה בת קול ואמרה להם להחריב עולמי יצאתם חיזרו למערתכם הדור אזול איתיבו תריסר ירחי שתא אמרי משפט רשעים בגיהנם י”ב חדש יצתה בת קול ואמרה צאו ממערתכם
They dwelt in the cave for twelve years.
Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said, “Who will inform Bar Yochai that the Caesar has died and his decree is annulled?”
They went out and they saw people plowing and planting. He said, “They cast off eternal life and engage in the life of the moment!?” Everywhere they looked was immediately consumed with fire.
A heavenly voice spoke up and said to them, “Is it to destroy my world that you have come out? Turn around, and go back to your cave!”
They stayed [another] twelve months, reasoning that the judgement on sinners in Gehennom is twelve months.
A heavenly voice spoke up and said, “Go out of your cave.”
Without providing any background, or any solid description of the events to have transpired during the cave, it is nonetheless worth quoting this passage for the incidental detail that it features. The text does not inform us that the maximum term in Gehennom is twelve months: it assumes that we already know. This is a key point, for without this one might be tempted to assume (erroneously) that Gehennom is a place of eternal damnation. Nonetheless, even though John does not state so specifically, this issue is one which brings me back to his analysis. He concluded his post with the suggestion that “even if you think there isn’t a heaven or a hell, you might at least believe… that there should be a hell.” I shall take it as read that John’s assumption was that there should be a hell, the nature of which is eternal.
I certainly don’t want to make it look like I’m picking on John here, but why might somebody feel that a place of eternal damnation is strictly necessary? To me, this smacks of sadism. Have I a wish to see those who hate me suffer? On a certain, baser level, yes. Part of growing up is learning to deal with that desire, to accommodate the differences in the world around me, and to tolerate that which I find ugly, threatening or obscene. To formalise this fantasy and tell ourselves that the just desserts of “the wicked” will come (whoever those people are is a mystery; very few identify that way) is merely to capitulate to our own latent infancy. Depictions of eternal torture, from iconography to rhetoric, have frequently been pornographic in their intensity, and it is no wonder that many people are simply terrified of something that does not actually exist.
One could “bring back” hellfire preaching (and I will concede the point, on my ignorance alone, that it has left the mainstream), but I’m left wondering why somebody would wish for such a thing in the first place. That the rabbis of the Talmud concocted a place of a post-mortem suffering is lamentable enough, but we can at least give them credit for making it so temporary. Whoever the first individual was to fill a child’s head with stories of an eternal abode for the wicked and the cruel was certainly lucky that there isn’t one.