Someone recently asked me about these interesting topics. I’m posting my reply here, because I know that lots of people have this question. My answer is just that, MY answer. Judaism leaves a lot of room for interpretation!
Judaism generally doesn’t speculate on what “came before” and “what comes after.” Davis kids love to ask the question, “If God created everything, who or what created God?” It’s a perfectly fine question, but in some profound way it isn’t a Jewish question because it doesn’t have an answer that will meaningfully impact the way we live our lives. A more Jewish question would be, “What are the implications of the idea that God created all living beings in terms of how I live my life today?”
So, a classic Jewish teaching is that we don’t speculate about what came before and what comes after. No one has come back from the land of the dead to tell us what it’s like over there, and God didn’t make the afterlife manifest to us at the revelation at Mt. Sinai or any other time when God surely could have. So, clearly we’re not meant to know and it doesn’t really matter much for how we live each day. That hasn’t stopped some Jews from speculating and/or dreaming about what it will be like, but all they’re doing is speculating and, in some ways, fetishizing the whole idea (for example, “the world to come is one giant Beit Midrash.”)
Reincarnation is a bit more interesting. There are some ideas that sound a bit like reincarnation in Judaism, but at its core, Judaism doesn’t believe in reincarnation as much as it believes in the immortality of the soul. The fact that we have walked this earth, lived, loved, worked, contributed… all of this counts for something and somehow continues to have some kind of presence in the world long after we’re gone. The most obvious and compelling example of this idea in my mind is children—we literally live on, genetically, through our children. But I am confident that this idea has resonances that go far beyond the literal fact of procreation.
What do you think?