Torah | Is hell a place or a state we create


Numbers 16:1–18:32

I Samuel 11:14–12:22

Jews don’t believe in hell. That is one of the things many people will tell you they love about Judaism. We don’t have that depressing concept of a terrible underworld where sinners are doomed to go.

Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but … Jews do believe in hell. Or, at least, the concept exists in Jewish literature. We’ve even got our own word for it: “Gehinnom.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses, and is punished when the earth opens up and swallows his whole crew — even the children! And while the text says “they go down alive into Sheol,” many of the rabbinic commentaries assume that means they’re all going straight to hell.

Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal), of 16th-century Prague, is particularly troubled by this question: How could God have punished innocent babies? What he answers not only does away with the question entirely, but also re-conceptualizes the whole notion of hell. He writes:

“When we say [we believe] that children are not punished, we mean that God would never bring punishment on a child. But conflict does. Because the essence of hell is attachment to conflict. … And therefore even the child is punished, because the punishment comes from the thing itself. For the Blessed God does not bring punishment upon a child. But the conflict itself is the punishment. So no one has to bring punishment upon the child for the child to be punished.”

According to the Maharal, when we say that these children are in hell, we are saying that when adults bring violence into the world, they create a living hell for themselves — and their children are swallowed up into it with them. So the story which appears, on its face, to be about God’s punishment of the mutineers is really just a representation of what is already actually happening in human society when it starts to unravel. This kind of hell is not a punishment, but everyone must suffer in it.

Hell, then, is not a place we go to. Hell is a state of being. And it is one we bring about ourselves. Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” Reflecting on the Civil War, the Union Army’s Gen. William T. Sherman said, “War is hell.” I think the Maharal would combine those two thoughts and say that hell is people at war — or any kind of bitter conflict — with one another.

But could Jewish thought actually reject conflict? Doesn’t the whole of our intellectual tradition celebrate heated discussion and disagreement? What ever happened to “two Jews, three opinions”?

Well, as a matter of fact, the Hebrew word I have been translating as “conflict” — machloket — is also frequently translated as: “debate.” Indeed, here is how it appears in a piece from the collection of rabbinic sayings, “Ethics of the Fathers”:

“Every debate that is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What debate was for the sake of heaven? The debate of Hillel and Shammai. What debate was not for the sake of heaven? The debate of Korach and all of his community.” (Pirke Avot, 5:16)

Conflict doesn’t have to be hell. Debate doesn’t have to tear the community apart. The debate between the two great schools that started rabbinic Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, is still celebrated for producing the richness of our tradition of Torah study, a tradition that endures up to this very day. This was a debate for the sake of heaven.

But the debate of Korach was conflict for its own sake. Debate for the purpose of division, an attack meant to break everything apart. Korach “separated himself” in order to bring about loss to the whole. He created a hell on earth. And everyone around him fell into it.

If hell is division and separation, then heaven is unification and togetherness. Can we debate fiercely with one another, but in search of common ground? Can we allow ourselves to fight, sometimes bitterly, but always with the recognition that we are all one people? Can we create heaven on earth?

Alas, thousands of years after Korach’s rebellion, we are still trying to figure this out. And the ground is getting shaky beneath our feet.

Rabbi David Kasher is the senior rabbinic educator at Berkeley-based Kevah. Follow his blog on the weekly Torah portion at