While most Jews are only vaguely aware, it at all, of traditional Judaism’s ideas of post-mortem reward and punishment, these subjects are treated extensively in rabbinic literature. Like their Christian counterparts, the rabbis conceived of a hell where the wicked were punished, and an afterlife where the righteous can enjoy their just desserts. Yet these similarities, writes Shalom Carmy, obscure deeper differences:
Jews like me, and our Christian counterparts, are willing to entertain the possibility of eternal punishment for some, whether as a matter of dogma or as a logical entailment of free will; if our decisions are truly momentous, then we are able not only to accept God but also to reject him. At the same time, we aren’t eager to assign people to hell. . . . I and more of my Jewish confreres than I suspect would take a public position are strongly influenced by Maimonides. He holds that eternal perdition means losing out on the afterlife rather than being subjected to endless torment.
Although the Jews and Christians I describe seem to think alike, it’s hard to avoid feeling that Jews are simply less apt than Christians to place issues of salvation and eternal damnation at the center of their religious consciousness. Jews given to intense self-examination and criticism often ask themselves how they will render their final accounting before God but rarely ask whether their souls are saved or not. For Christians—and not just evangelicals—such a question appears more customary. There is a gap here, I believe, and I am unsure how to express it. One impediment is that theological formulations are often detached from their experiential contexts.
Carmy goes on to illustrate his point with a sophisticated reading of the commentaries of the Talmud, Maimonides, and the great medieval exegete Rashi on Moses’ famous exchange with God on Mount Sinai, in which he asks “to see God’s ways.”