This essay is reprinted from the book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values” published by Urim, or the upcoming books, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to Man” or “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to G-d” to be published in the future. This essay is not intended as a source of practical halachic (legal) rulings. For matters of halachah, please consult a qualified posek (rabbi).
In 1999, a very popular science fiction film, “The Matrix,” postulated that the world we live in is actually a simulated reality, created by computers and other machines. The “Real World” is outside this existence, and only once a person is “unplugged” from the Matrix we live in can he or she experience the real world. At the time, many believed this movie to be related to the Christian idea of the Messiah, since the writers, brothers Alan and Andy Wachowski, are Christians and some of the references in the film are Christological, such as name of the main female protagonist, Trinity, as well as other references. And yet, it seems that many of the ideas presented in the film are Jewish in nature. Does Judaism believe in more than one world? If so, which is the “real word” and what is the relationship between the different worlds? We will see that normative Jewish sources spoke about these and other related issues long before films were even invented.
IS THERE MORE THAN ONE WORLD IN JEWISH THOUGHT?
It is clear from many mainstream sources that Judaism believes in at least two distinct worlds. The Mishna states that this world is only considered a hallway in comparison to the Next World, which is compared to the main house. The use of “This World” and “Next World” numerous times in the Talmud shows us that Judaism clearly believes in two distinct worlds, with the Next World much more spiritual than this world. (See the chapter “Life After Death” for more details about the existence in that Next World). Another Mishna discusses the spiritual advantages of the kinds of pleasures in the Next World over This World, while This World has the advantage of actions and good deeds that do not exist in the Next World. The Torah alludes to both worlds when it says in one verse that we should “choose life, so that we may live.” The verse makes absolutely no sense, even in its simple translation (how would be rewarded with life if we choose life?), unless G-d is speaking about choosing one kind of life in the This World, so that we may live a fulfilling life in the Next World. Clearly, then, Judaism believes in “This World” and also the “Next World.”
Unlike in the film “the Matrix,” people in This World should be aware of a spiritual world above our world (not necessary physically above). In the film, no one living on this planet was aware of another existence. But Jews are supposed to be aware of what is above them, i.e. the “Next World.” And Jews are told about the superior spiritual rewards of the “Next World” as seen from the sources presented, even though these spiritual awards are beyond our comprehension. Even Jewish law values the Next World over This World. When a child finds two lost objects, one belonging to his father and one belonging to his teacher, to whom shall the child first return the lost object? The Talmud states that the child is obligated to return the lost object to his teacher first, since the father “only” brought him into to This World, while the teacher brings the child into the Next World (unless the father is also a teacher, and then, of course, he receives the object back first). Clearly, then, even children from a very early age are taught to be aware of both worlds and that the Next World is superior to This World.
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Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and four grandchildren.