Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked, “Do you believe in heaven or hell? If not, why not? If so, who’s going there and how do you know?”
Rabbi Steinsaltz said:
“As a Jew, I do believe in Heaven and in Hell.
Even though the Hebrew Bible rarely speaks about Heaven and Hell – and when it does, mostly enigmatically – the concept is a basic tenet of Judaism that is clearly expressed in post-Biblical times.
However, while this belief is an essential part of the Jewish faith, it is surely not stressed or discussed to the same extent as it is in many other religions.
This is because the focus in Judaism is on our duties and our work in this world, which are so much dependent on us; we don’t dwell heavily on the next world because it is not something that we can do very much about, except to have a general understanding that life after death is a consequence of life before death.
The other reason for there being so little discussion in Judaism of the next world is because it is so abstract.
The fantastic pictures of heaven and hell that come from other religions are not part of the Jewish belief system.
An abstract after-life existence is not the stuff of which children and simple people should be dreaming.
Heaven and hell are closely connected to the deeds and efforts of people in this world.
Those who experience extreme joy in heaven or extreme suffering in hell are deserving of their respective fates because of what they were in this world.
In Judaism, we have general definitions of good and evil, and they correspond with those who go to heaven and those who go to hell.
Luckily for us, the authorities in this world are not the ones to make the decisions.
To fully evaluate just one deed in this world can be extremely complex – how much more so the complete judgment of a human life.
In general, people are a mixture of good and bad traits – and good and evil deeds – that are not always clearly defined or separated.
Furthermore, we as humans cannot make judgments of the true value of many things in this world. We cannot know how any specific deed is evaluated in the eyes of the Eternal.
Things that seem to be important in our eyes may be unimportant in His eyes, and vice versa.
So, even when we have our guesses as to who is going in which direction, we are surely not the ones to make the decision – we leave that to a higher and more competent cause.”
From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn” http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/