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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Arbiters of the Afterlife: Olam Haba, Torah and Rabbinic Authority

  • Author(s): Levy, Candice Liliane
  • Advisor(s): Bakhos, Carol
  • et al.

As the primary stratum of the rabbinic corpus, the Mishna establishes a dynamic between rabbinic authority and olam haba that sets the course for all subsequent rabbinic discussions of the idea. The Mishna Sanhedrin presents the rabbis as arbiters of the afterlife, who regulate its access by excluding a set of individuals whose beliefs or practices undermine the nature of rabbinic authority and their tradition. In doing so, the Mishna evinces the foundational tenets of rabbinic Judaism and delineates the boundaries of `Israel' according to the rabbis. Consequently, as arbiters of the afterlife, the rabbis constitute Israel and establish normative thought and practice in this world by means of the world to come.

There have been surprisingly few studies on the afterlife in rabbinic literature. Many of the scholars who have undertaken to explore the afterlife in Judaism have themselves remarked upon the dearth of attention this subject has received. For the most part, scholars have sought to identify what the rabbis believed with regard to the afterlife and how they envisioned its experience, rather than why they held such beliefs or how the afterlife functioned within the rabbinic tradition. This dissertation will seek to fill the lacuna in the treatment of this topic.

The central argument of this dissertation is that rabbinic discussions of olam haba can be situated within the larger discourse of rabbinic authority and that the rabbis' purported regulation of olam haba is part of a constellation of efforts by the rabbis to assert their authority and define post-Temple Judaism. This dissertation will demonstrate the complex interplay between rabbinic authority, Torah and theodicy and the ancillary function of olam haba for each of these. My analysis of rabbinic sources will demonstrate that, whether as a means of delineating the boundaries of Israel, as a reward for Torah study or as a mechanism of theodicy, olam haba served to establish, reinforce and perpetuate rabbinic authority and the tradition of the rabbis.

This dissertation approaches the afterlife with an altogether different set of questions and contends that the examination of what the rabbis sought to uphold or negate by means of olam haba and their reasons for doing so can provide essential clues about the rabbis themselves, how they constructed their tradition and how they conceived of Israel.

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