Judaism has from the Torah itself always spoken of a life following this one. The Torah speaks about what seems to be a physical place, called Sheol, to which one “goes down” following this life. A variety of different passages indicate that Sheol was probably though of as located in the center of the earth, although it is no ever formally described. What is clear is that this was a well-known concept amongst the ancient Israelites.
It was not until the Pharisees (c. 100 B.C.E.) that the notion of a spiritual life after death developed in any meaningful way in Jewish thought. The Pharisees, who were the forerunners of the rabbis, taught that when the Torah spoke of reward for following God’s ways, the reward would be forthcoming in an afterlife, Olam Ha-Ba (world to come), as they called it.
Reform Judaism, while not taking any “official” position on the matter, has for the most part ignored the question, and tended towards the belief that there is no such thing. The attitude of Judaism might best be summed up as “We really do not know, but if there is a life after this one, and a reward for what we do, then surely it will be dependent upon the kind of life we have lived - therefore, let us strive to follow God’s path for us as closely and as enthusiastically as possible, for then we will surely know all manner of rewards, especially the one of seeing a world that is a better place for our efforts”.
Written by Rabbi Howard Jaffe, Temple Har Shalom, Warren, NJ