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Rabbi Bulka's Weekly Question

Rabbi Bulka's Weekly Question

In your faith, is there a heaven and hell, a limbo and purgatory? Are they real places or states of mind?

The answer is "yes" to all your questions. Our religion speaks of heaven and hell, it speaks of a limbo state, of a purging in hell. In speaking of these, it is obvious that these are real places. But precisely because they are real, they can also be states of mind. Unless you mean by "state of mind" something that is in our head, but in reality is pure fiction.

Your question may be rooted in a skepticism about the need for hell. Is it not possible to have life and death without hell? That is a legitimate and important question -- the question of why have hell? And if we cannot answer this question intelligently, then the suggestion that hell may be nothing more than a state of mind may have some currency.

The notion of heaven and hell addresses an age old dilemma -- why do the righteous suffer and why do the wicked prosper? In a nihilistic world absent of God, this is not a question, since in such a world ultimate fairness is not entrenched. Everything came into being by chance, will end in chance, and therefore all else in between is likewise linked to random chance.

In faith, we believe that the world came into being by God's purposeful creation, that there is fairness in the way the world works, and if that fairness is not evident in this world, there are two possible explanations. One explanation is that the righteous whom we see suffer may not be all that righteous in their private lives, and the wicked who prosper may not be wicked at all, and instead have great but hidden virtues.

The other explanation is that what seems unfair is a disparity that will be addressed in the future, in the life after death. The wicked may have their moments in this life, but the debits they accumulate will be exacted in, well, hell. And the suffering righteous will be commensurately rewarded in the ultimate world.

The notion of hell is part of the "fairness" package. A world in which there is no consequence for virtue, or for evil, makes no sense. There is logic to the idea of hell, and the more this is implanted as a state of mind of which to be aware, the more likely it will not be a real place to "visit" for those whose actions are heavenly.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on  July 14, 2007

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780