How to Get to Heaven? Not My Question!

An iPub Perspective Editorial

By Lewis John Eron

If we only ask people about those things we care about in the language with which we are most comfortable, we cannot have a true conversation. To engage deeply with others, we need to know what motivates them. Assuming that we only have different answers to the same question is a mistake. We may also…

Several years ago, in Southern New Jersey I participated in a dialogue between Jewish and Protestant religious leaders. After one of the sessions, a couple of Lutheran pastors from Cumberland County, I believe, where there are few Jewish people, came up to me and asked me a question.  “Rabbi,” they said, “how do Jews enter heaven?

So I answered them, “It is simple. First, we die.”

They looked at me with blank faces. It was not the answer they expected.

In retrospect, it was also probably not the kindest answer but I was disappointed with the question. After all the time we spent in “dialogue”, it seemed to me as if they had not listened at all. We had discussed differences between the Jewish and Christian worldviews although perhaps we did not speak about beliefs concerning the afterlife.

Of course, I knew, that their question of how one gets to heaven is an important Christian question. Perhaps, it could have been expressed in a more sophisticated manner but the question of  “how to get to heaven” is not an important Jewish question.  I guess that I was somewhat frustrated in that they did not see that over the course of our conversations.

Ideas about heaven and spiritual continuation after death do play important roles in the Jewish cultural and religious heritage. The range of beliefs and images found in Christianity and Islam grow to a large extent from Jewish spiritual explorations in late antiquity. Until modern times most Jews had rather clear beliefs about life after death, heaven, reward and punishment, resurrection, etc. The Jewish spiritual imagination produced a range of theories concerning what happens after death including the transmigration of souls and the spiritual growth of souls in heaven. But how one gets to heaven has not been a central concern. The question of personal salvation did not and does not play an important role in Jewish spiritual and religious life. 

A top-down view of three pairs of hands holding a roll of bread.
Image by Gajus for Canva.

Maybe this has something to do with Jewish ideas about the Jewish people being in a covenant relationship with God. Perhaps it is because Jewish identity is in a large part a communal identity. Possibly it is because one should follow God’s ways out of love of God and not in pursuit of a reward. It just might be a Jewish understanding that certain things are under the divine purview – like heaven – and other things – such as life in this world – are human concerns. In any case, the question of “how to get to heaven” is generally not a Jew’s question.

To be honest, our conversation did not stop with my curt quip. I spent some time discussing the above with the two pastors and I believe that we had a good talk. However, looking back,  I feel that I did not respond adequately to their question. Instead of being clever, I should have been more respectful and said, “That’s an interesting question. Why are you asking it?” That would have offered them the opportunity to share their beliefs with me and would have allowed me to understand better what motivated them to ask their question to me at that time. It would have opened us up to a more serious dialogue than just a sharing of opinions and information.

Now, of course, the blame is not all mine. They could have opened up by saying something like “Having access to heaven, personal salvation plays a central role for us as Lutheran pastors. As a rabbi what questions are central to your spiritual life?” Unfortunately, they just assumed that there is a universal quality to their primary spiritual issue.

In all human interactions, that is a common error. We often feel that that which is most important to us is of the highest importance to everyone. We do not step back enough to consider that that which concerns us the most may be idiosyncratic. The questions we ask and the way we ask them reflect our specific issues more than they express universal human concerns. They are a product of our personal experiences within our specific social, economic, and political situations within our own cultural and religious communities.

Close up, head on shot of a horse wearing blinders.
Image by rick734’s Images for Canva.

It is very easy to see the world through our own lens, but that only gives us a very narrow perspective. It is harder to try to see the world as others see it, but even if we can start to understand how those around us perceive the world, we will be enriched and our ability to interact positively with others strengthened.

Dialogue is not an exchange of declarative statements, position papers, doctrinal opinions, or even personal feelings and emotional states.  Dialogue emerges when we begin to explore and share what lies behind all of that, what motivates us to share such information, what is the source of our beliefs, opinions, and feelings, and what makes them so precious to us. In dialogue, we learn how to allow other people to express what is dear to them and how to share what is dear to us in ways that others can hear it.

The skills we learn in dialogue are not restricted to formal, organized dialogue. If fact, formal, organized dialogue can be seen as a training session for successful everyday living. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we engage with other people. How we interact with them affects not only the quality of the engagement but also its success. Tools such as power and manipulation can only go so far before responses growing out of anger, fear, and disappointment bring things to a halt. Only by understanding each other can we be truly successful in commerce, in education, in medicine, in parenting, and in life. To work together, we need to know what motivates each other.

The first step is to understand what the core issues that motivate other are. I cannot sell you what I want to buy if it is not important to you. I cannot teach you what I want to know if it does not engage your curiosity. I cannot have a conversation with you about my favorite topic if the topic does not interest you.

Image by Khwanchai Phanthong’s Images for Canva.

Although, ultimately we share the same human concerns, how we rank them and how we deal with them differ. We can find common ground, but we cannot find it if we think that we are standing on it already.

So “how do Jews go to heaven”? “First we die.” That is a perfectly good Jewish answer. I suspect, however, that it is an inadequate Christian answer. The question, however, may point to deeper, common spiritual concerns grounded in our mortality, such as: “How does one establish and maintain a relationship with God?” or “What is the goal of human life?” or, perhaps the most important, “Where does one meet God?”

The pastors’ question reflected I believe, the central Christian concern for Salvation, going to meet God. My answer, however, did not represent the Jewish focus on Sanctification, inviting God to come to us. Both concepts – Salvation and Sanctification – have deep roots in our shared scriptural heritage and grow and develop in different ways in both traditions. Had I been more sensitive, less clever, and not so tired, I would have answered differently – “That is a good question. I seldom think about it. Why is it important to you? Please tell me more.”

And if they wanted to engage, that would have been a wonderful conversation.

One comment

  1. I think about dialogue every so often as a librarian… we try to have a conversation with library customers when they ask for info… but as you said, we’re human. We get tired. Sometimes we just want to finish with the person we’re helping because someone else is waiting. Whatever the reason, it inadvertently turns into a transaction rather than the dialogue we strive for.


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