During his State of the Union address, the president quoted the words of the Holocaust survivor Joshua Kaufman, who was present in the audience, describing his liberation from Dachau: “To me, the arrival of the American soldiers was proof that God exists, and they came from the sky.” To this President Trump added, “They came down from heaven.” The New York Times reporter Annie Karni immediately took to Twitter to suggest to her 75,000 followers that these words were theologically ignorant, if not downright insensitive, because “Jews don’t believe in Heaven.” Rabbi Meir Soloveichik responds:
The Bible describes a heavenly realm as the throne room of God. “Look down from Thy holy habitation, from Heaven,” Deuteronomy beseeches, “and bless Thy people Israel.” . . . For the rabbis of the Talmud, it was in this celestial realm that souls abide after death, until the ultimate resurrection of the dead predicted in the book of Daniel, when “many who sleep in the dirt shall awake.” So central is the concept of Heaven in the Talmud that the word became synonymous with God himself; the central virtue in the Talmud is known as yir’at shamayim, fear of Heaven, and providence is described as occurring bi-ydey shamayim, by the hands of Heaven.
Karni’s tweet, in other words, was utterly untrue. Eventually, she posted a half-hearted addition, without any apology for error. . . . Meanwhile, [the] original posting remained, garnering several thousand retweets and over 10,000 “likes.” The tweet thus reveals that many in the media know little, and care even less, about accurately understanding the beliefs of millions of religious Americans. Karni is herself Jewish; her father is an Israeli. . . .
It is true, of course, that the Jewish notion of Heaven differs from that of Christianity. Judaism denies the doctrine of original sin; we believe the afterlife can be earned, rather than granted purely by grace. We further believe that even as the soul endures, an equally important immortality is achieved through transmission of Judaism to the next generation. . . . The immortality of those who have died thus lies, at least partially, in the hands of the living.
“All is in the hands of Heaven,” Rabbi Ḥanina opined, “except for fear of Heaven.” The [aphorism] emphasizes the dialectic between providence and free will. Jews believe that Heaven has chosen the Jews as an eternal people and vouchsafed them a faith to be transmitted throughout history. But whether the Jews of every generation continue to believe is up to them; assimilation, and rejection of the past, is always possible. We believe in Heaven; but Jews can so easily lose their fear of Heaven.