When Kids Ask, “Do Jews Believe In Hell?”

Galit and family. (Photo: Nicole Spangler Photography)

Galit and family. (Photo: Nicole Spangler Photography)

“Do we believe in Hell?” Is a question that some mothers hear before bedtime, when everything is quiet and still and you’re laying side-by-side, the day’s work is done, and parenting feels soft.

My kids’ version is more like, “What’s Hell, who’s going there, and why?” asked with wide eyes and an open face across the counter as I’m trying to put dinner on the table, one eye on what I’m dicing, cooking, or serving and one eye on the clock as I’m trying to get people out the door or into their homework or up to bed. Across the baseball field, in the middle of a restaurant, at the movies, and at the pool are other places I’ve been asked questions as beautifully complex and simple as this.

I wouldn’t have it any other way – I love that they ask even if my responses are hedged with unknowns.

Sometimes, I’m not sure what to say because I just don’t have the answers. These moments go smoothly because, “Let’s look it up together,” rolls off of my parenting-in-2014 tongue. I think wondering is golden, and modeling learning is platinum.

I stammer when I want to get it “right.” My kids are at ages where they’re equal parts questioning and acceptance. It’s a stunning place to be where they question (loudly) what they don’t know and are beginning to form (equally loudly) what they do (think they) know. The scary part for me is that they take a lot of what I say as fact, as truth, as their Truth. So I want to get these kinds of answers “right.” And in Judaism, sometimes “right” is up for debate. Hell is one of those times.

I asked rabbi and mother Erin Polansky what Jews believe about Hell and she confirmed what I’ve been told from Hebrew school to Religious Studies. She said, “The afterlife gets very little airtime. There’s very little detail about what Hell is like. We’re really not concerned about it.” This is what I’ve always believed — that Jews, and therefore I, aren’t Hell-focused. But the problem as a mom is that our kids do hear the word. It’s mentioned in books and movies, by people we pass in stores and on streets, and even by friends and family. So the questioning happens and deserves answers.

Many of us have been taught what Polansky explained: that a clear definition of Hell isn’t necessary. So when it comes to mothering the questioning, we have to decide how deeply to go about this conversation when it arises. Family doctor, author, parenting speaker, and mother of four, Deborah Gilboa, M.D., has been there. She says, “My eldest and I have been debating this because he’s learned at his Jewish Day school about stocking up mitzvot for your own afterlife or others’ and earning your place in Heaven, or the opposite. All of this seems a little contrived to me, but contrived to encourage us to do the right things now even when we can’t see why.”

I’m with Gilboa. I don’t want my kids to be kind for any other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. And we’ve discussed this. But even if we don’t believe — or teach — our kids that they behave with the purpose of avoiding an afterlife of Hell, how do we teach them what it is? And how do we answer hard questions like, “Will someone go to Hell for their bad deeds?”

Here’s what I’ve learned. In an article on Chabad, Aron Moss wrote, “The Jewish mystics described a spiritual place called “Gehinnom.” This is usually translated as “Hell,” but a better translation would be ‘the Supernatural Washing Machine.’ Because… the way our soul is cleansed in Gehinnom is similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine.”

Moss’s Washing Machine analogy explains Hell as the uncomfortable place we go if we need to fix things. It’s not where we stay, but rather a stop along our path. So why is this synonymous with Hell? Because it’s uncomfortable. Moss wrote, “We put [our “socks”] through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again.”

Polansky confirms this thinking, but explains that the hard work and “punishment” of Hell can be in the here and now. She says, “The only Hell that makes any sense to me is the one that we create ourselves. When we behave in such a way that alienates, hurts, or offends others, we create our own Hell because of the consequences that will naturally follow from those negative behaviors. To be alone and lonely, ostracized from community or family, deprived of support systems and resources — this is the sort of Hell that results from choosing to behave in selfish, hurtful, negative ways.”

So in this light, in Judaism there is a Hell to contend with, but it’s not a place you’ll be sent if you’re “bad.” It’s the here and now that matters. How we treat others, our mindset, our goals, how we get to those goals. What — or who — we put first, how we use our minds and our hearts and our power. And if we make mistakes (if we’re “bad,” so to speak), fixing is mandatory even if it’s hard — or feels like Hell — to do so. Moss’s Washing Machine and Polansky’s explanation of Hell on Earth go hand-in-hand and feel explainable.

Galit and family, 2011

Galit and family, 2011

Estelle Erasmus is a journalist, author, Huffington Post contributor, and blogger at Musings on Motherhood and Midlife about her transformative journey through motherhood, marriage, and midlife. Her Judaism-based views on the afterlife are succinct. She says, “I believe that there isn’t really a Heaven or a Hell. I feel that it’s all a state of mind.” This fits right in with both Moss’s and Polansky’s teachings.

And when it comes to mothering this issue, Erasmus says it well, “I want my daughter to know that I think the soul goes on… and that the best way to approach life is to be a good person and a lifelong learner.”

From Washing Machines to Hell on Earth to the bottom-line mantra of Be a Good Person, these are the things I’ll teach my children about what Jews believe about Hell. And whether this conversation happens by the light of the moon or the baseball diamond, I think it’ll be a parenting moment made softer by this dialogue that began with my own questions.

The last time I wrote for TC Jewfolk, my kids were adorably seven, five, and two-years-old. Today they’re all fabulously school-aged and our conversations have changed from pleasepleaseplease go to sleep to our belief systems and the reasons behind them. I’m ridiculously happy to be back here maneuvering the dialogue with you. Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I’m a firm believer that we’re all better for the conversations we have.