Associate 2020-21

Dov Weiss


Weiss imageRabbinic Inferno: Hell and Salvation in Classical Judaism

In their 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the leading Rabbis of American Reform Judaism declared that “we reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the belief ... [in] Gehenna (hell).” The authors of the Oxford textbook Invitation to World Religions Today (2016), studied by thousands of undergraduates, seem to concur. They analyze the doctrines of hell within Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism, but leave out Judaism. Moreover, as a Google search of the words “Judaism” and “hell” reveal, there is a widespread assumption today—even among many Jews—that traditional Judaism rejects the existence of fiery torments in the afterlife. Arguing that these attitudes misrepresent the history of Judaism, Professor Weiss’s forthcoming book Rabbinic Inferno produces the first scholarly book on afterlife retribution in the rabbinic era (70-700 CE). Rather than absent in classical Jewish discourse, or occupying its periphery, hell (Gehinnom in Hebrew) played a central role in ancient Jewish literature and culture.

The modern academic study of ancient Judaism echoes the Pittsburgh Platform’s dismissal of hell, as scholars of rabbinic literature have given relatively little attention to Gehinnom. To begin to fill this scholarly lacuna within the Jewish tradition, Rabbinic Inferno uses ancient Jewish discourse about Gehinnom—as it emerges in rabbinic biblical interpretation—to unearth the distinctive anxieties, values, aesthetics, fantasies, and hopes within classical Jewish culture. Without such analysis, our understanding of Judaism remains incomplete. This book will trace how Jewry’s once near-unanimous belief in Gehinnom lost popularity in the medieval period when Moses Maimonides (1138-1204, Egypt) rejected its actual existence. Its decline intensified in the modern period when eighteenth-century German Jewish enlighteners, notably Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786, Berlin), rejected it. These historical developments, together with the 1885 Reform rabbinic declaration in Pittsburgh, culminated in the modern Jewish rejection of Gehinnom.