Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Two-Heaven Doctrine

Rabbi Marc Howard Wilson on The Two-Heaven Doctrine in The State.

In full ...

As usual, a few months ago I was wedged between the preacher and the Imam in front of a high school world religions class. We were doing our best to make our respective faiths intelligible if not interesting to a bunch of somnolent juniors and seniors. The kids perked up only at the question, “Who goes to heaven?” The minister averred that only Christians do. The Imam was sure that only Muslims do. The only thing on which both agreed is that Jews don’t. I mustered the courage to say that Jews believe that all righteous people go to heaven. Surprisingly, a ripple of applause fluttered through the class.

Among mainstream Christians, I have never been taunted or derided for my Jewish unsaved-ness. But from the numerous fundamentalist pulpits, I hear my damnation flow forth like a mighty stream. Some fundamentalists even have the chutzpa to raise the issue with me face-to-face. I know their motives, but I honor their directness and explain where Judaism stands on going to heaven. I tell them that my intent is not to delegitimate Christianity, but simply maintain my own faith on a par with theirs.

I confess, though, that I get completely short-circuited by the fundamentalist who laments that he will “miss me in heaven.” Most recently, I heard this imprecation from a political candidate who also told me over breakfast that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a “womanizin’ comm-o-nist.” Atypically for me, I had the wit to respond: “Chuck, don’t worry. I’ve already seen enough of you here on Earth!”

At that point, I am so tempted to jump into a spitting match, aching to say:

“Maybe it’s you who have the entirely wrong idea of heaven. Maybe heaven isn’t a place where doctrine trumps deed. Maybe we’ve been dupes to empower you to define heaven and become its gatekeepers. Maybe the measure of who gets through the pearly gates has more to do with the content of one’s character than one’s belief in doctrine. “

Then as I calm down, I realize that I am not out to debunk the legitimacy of the Christian notion of heaven. I have simply arrived at a Two-Heaven Doctrine that declares both equally legitimate without all the rancor:

Why not consider that there are two heavens. The fundamentalist heaven is a place to which entry is gained by faith in a set of immutable beliefs, central to which is the redemptive power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The second heaven is the realm of souls who arrived by dint of their righteous deeds. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi asserted even more succinctly that the claim to heaven is when the righteous person’s inclination to do good triumphs over his impulse to do evil. For most of us, the struggle is exhausting and unending. Will we go to heaven? Every day, every hour, is a new test. Does it require faith? Certainly. Faith in God’s word that good is to be found in acting on God’s mandate. Faith that God desires our upward climb, not our perfection.

Hence, the question is not “Are you going to heaven?” but “To which heaven are you going?” Of course, being Jewish, I have my inclinations. I yearn to encounter too many souls who are excluded from the fundamentalist heaven because of their doctrinal impurities. Some of the sages I would never meet would include Rabbi Akiba, Mother Theresa, Dr. King, Baha’u’llah, Mahatma Gandhi, Golda Meir, Dr. Albert Einstein, Maimonides, Aristotle and Pope John Paul II. Depending on the stridency of our detractors’ theology, I might even miss St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas, and that would be a real shame.

Knowing that I might have to spend eternity with Mel Gibson, the guy who called Dr. King a “womanizin’ comm-o-nist,” the gabbling gaggle of avaricious televangelists and the preachers who condemn me to hell, let me be brief: You have your heaven, and we have ours. We are satisfied to be in ours. If you are satisfied to be in yours, God bless you. I am willing to take my chances. Perhaps one day we will all meet again, and wouldn’t that be a wonderful surprise.