Intimations of Immortality

Garden of Eden, Mount Olympus, a Hindu ashram or a five-star hotel - humans have always longed for a life of tranquility and abundance.

Golden beaches. Tall palms. Tropical fruits. An exotic turquoise sea. Lazy waves washing up on the sand. The sun caressing the rocks. Divine silence. Is this paradise? A young couple under the marriage canopy. A beautiful bride in a gown of pure lace; a handsome groom, maybe affluent. A sumptuous feast on the tables. A box bursting with checks. A first-class honeymoon. Could this be paradise?

According to the Book of Genesis, God planted a garden in Eden, or paradise, and placed in it the man he created. And what did the garden contain? "Every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." In addition to the right to eat of the fruit of the garden - though not from the tree of knowledge - the man, Adam, was entrusted with the task of keeping and preserving the garden. But the good life ended after the creation of the woman, Eve, and humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden. Paradise was lost. In addition to the expulsion, the two were punished by being made to endure the travails of human existence. To the woman God said, "I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." And to the man, "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread."

"The Garden of Eden" by Jacob de Backer (1580)

Humanity's hardships seem to have begotten fantasy longings for a lost life of tranquillity and abundance - and the travel agents of the official and alternative religions are milking the situation politically and economically. If you observe the religious precepts, they promise pie in the sky, eternal life and the holy privilege of being in the company of the righteous and whispering in angels' ears - although first, you have to die.

What is it about paradise that continues to enthrall so many people? Is it a concrete place or a mental state and an abstract conception? Is it the towering and sublime Mount Olympus, abode of the Greek gods, or does "peace begin within me"? Theories abound, descriptions are rife, but no one has been there and returned to tell the tale. The result is that every person creates the paradise that suits his personal needs. And all the rest is hell.

Freud and his successors used the idea of paradise to characterize the initial childhood period, terming it the stage of an absence of self-consciousness. The ego is not yet active and children allow themselves, for example, to frolic without shame, naked as on the day they were born. According to this theory, the kibbutz, at least when there were communal showers, was also a paradise.

The analytical psychologist Erich Neumann addresses this issue in his book "The Origins and History of Consciousness," writing, "We may think of this paradisal situation in terms of religion, and say that everything was controlled by God; or we may formulate it ethically, and say that everything was still good and that evil had not yet come into the world" (translation: R.F.C. Hull ). Interpreting Neumann, the Swiss Jungian psychologist Mario Jacoby notes in his book "Longing for Paradise" that the Paradise myth expresses graphically an authentic primal human experience, the experience of the child.

"But surely no child lives in a fantasy world containing such sophisticated images of the Paradise myth," Jacoby writes. "These are, rather, symbolic formulations of pre-conscious, pre-lingual experiences." To get at the meaning of paradise, Jacoby suggests that we first understand its opposite, namely the anguish and suffering that are the lot of humankind, for inherent in the idea of paradise is grief and pain at its loss.

Aristotle was not certain about the existence of a place called paradise, but did believe that it existed conceptually. Dr. Tamar Aylat-Yaguri, from the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University and head of the holistic health unit at the Israeli branch of Lesley University, invokes the Aristotelian terms of movement and change to explain paradise: "When you think about the relationship between movement and change, it's assumed that they are one and the same. But that is not the case. Movement happens all the time, even if we do not feel it - the stars and time are never motionless. Aristotle called this 'changeless actuality.'"

Can you provide a concrete example?

"When a plane is flying in a cloudless sky, there is no element in relation to which we can compare the movement. For Aristotle, that is movement without change within it. A situation of balance in arm wrestling seems to possess no movement, but we know that an all-out effort is being applied. By means of this understanding, it is possible to explain the concept of paradise according to Aristotle. Not as life that has stopped - meaning death - but as movement that is perceived as changeless."

Then maybe we are not really dead after life?

"Trying to describe a process that occurs after death in the terms of the reality we are familiar with is nonsensical, an infantile delusion, because we do not know what we are talking about. Every attempt to talk about paradise in logical terms obligates a conceptual change. In other words, we must look at it as a reality in which there is movement but not the experience of change."

Is there such a place?

"It is not a place, it is a state. One need not strive to be good and righteous in order to reach it, and it has nothing to do with morality. It can be a particular reality experienced through the dimension of the absence of change. A person who reaches paradise need not be as intellectual, he can be from a stall in the market and an observer of tomatoes, and he and the tomatoes become one entity."

And that promises him paradise?

"There is no paradise in the classic religious sense. There is nothing after death."

In the view of Dr. Nehama Verbin, from the Departments of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Tel Aviv University, paradise does not solve any problems but, on the contrary, lowers a curtain of fog and sells a type of opium for the masses. "Paradise does not in any way solve the problem of good people to whom bad things happen," she says. "Instead, it moves them to some kind of unknown future and ignores them; or, contrary to its intention, emphasizes more cogently the helplessness that exists in the face of the problems of the present. If there are religiously observant people who believe in paradise as a reward for the torments of this world, that is not a successful solution."

The Jewish paradise faithfully reflects the Jewish earthly condition of many streams and numberless traditions. According to popular belief, paradise is in fact material in nature. It can be accessed, for example, through the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A compilation of midrashic teachings about paradise contains a precise description of a garden whose soil is as light as snow, while "the name of the Holy One is engraved in the middle of the firmament." Running through this garden are rivers of honey, wine and milk, and it is inhabited by women of virtue and beauty, alongside virtuous men.

No one talks about food or drink there, says Prof. Moshe Idel, from the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, because the righteous do not feel hunger.

What do they do all day?

"There are yeshivas, and people study. The Lord has a yeshiva, the messiah has a yeshiva and there are yeshivas for all kinds of righteous people. They study and there are arguments, as in earthly yeshivas, but without violence."

In addition to the folk version of paradise, Jewish tradition is replete with a wide variety of Edenic places. There are two in the kabbala. One is earthly and material, where there is learning, the other spiritual and heavenly, the abode of the souls. "In Judaism, wherever things could be made more complicated, they were," Idel says. "The elitist traditions believe that paradise is a rational and spiritual experience. According to the Talmudic sages, it is a material place, and God and all manner of people are in it, some closer to him, others less so."

Prof. Rachel Elior from the Hebrew University is an expert on Jewish mystical thought across the ages. She recently edited a thick volume titled "A Garden Eastward in Eden: Traditions of Paradise" (Magnes Press, Hebrew ), which examines the representation of paradise in religious, literary, artistic and cultural works from ancient times to the present.

What does the Jewish paradise look like?

Elior: "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Apocrypha contain marvelous descriptions of paradise with incense and perfume trees, as in the Song of Songs. It is pictured as a magnificently beautiful place where angels poeticize and do the sacred work. It was created on the third day, time does not control it, and everything that lives in it has eternal life. After the destruction of the Temple, it's already a different story. Rabbi Akiva says then, 'All Israel have a portion in the world to come, other than the wicked.'"

The Koranic paradise

The situation in the paradise of the Koran is complex, and its interpretation is even more complex. According to Prof. Sarah Stroumsa, the rector of Hebrew University and an expert on Islam and Jewish thought, the Koran describes paradise as being filled with physical delights. It is the abode of the 72 virgins, all of the same age, with doe eyes, the reward for the martyrs of Islam. "They will recline (with ease ) / On Thrones (of dignity ) / Arranged in ranks; / And We shall join them / To Companions, with beautiful / Big and lustrous eyes" (Sura 52:20; Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation ).

"There are certain streams today that cultivate this intensively for the manipulation of power and rule, such as Al-Qaida," Stroumsa says. "There are also orthodox elements that keep their distance from it, because of the bad name it has given the Koran."

What else is in this garden, besides the virgins?

"The garden has a beautiful form. It has rivers of honey and milk, and there are beautiful people who look at the face of God. This can be taken in the most physical sense, and many thinkers in Islam treat it in that way, though others view it as metaphors at differing levels of abstraction. There is actually a garden, but it is not so material and the pleasure it offers is largely spiritual; God does not have a face and the looking refers to understanding. This was the view of the medieval philosophers: that the looking is the intellectual and spiritual delight."

But the ordinary folk are more impressed by the physical aspects, are they not?

"Indeed. Ibn Rushd, a Muslim philosopher who lived in Cordoba and was a contemporary of Maimonides, says that from his point of view the understanding of the reward of paradise is totally intellectual. However, this is not a suitable message for everyone; the simple folk need to be told that God makes his home in paradise and has a white beard. The same approach exists in Maimonides. Medieval Jews living in the Muslim world adopted the identical conceptions of the contemporary Muslims, with the same problems concerning the materiality of paradise and the same questions of morality. If it is the case that in order to enter paradise one must understand things, what is the fate of those who are incapable of understanding? Of children who die before they can become righteous people? Is God behaving justly?"

Accessible paradise

Paradise is an ancient Iranian conception, says Prof. Emeritus Guy Stroumsa, from the Hebrew University (Sarah Stroumsa's husband), who is currently professor of Abrahamic Studies at Oxford and recently edited a book about the concept of paradise in Judaism and Christianity in ancient times. "The word pardes [orchard] is a Hebraized version of faradis, an ancient Iranian word," he says. "In Greek it is paradiso, which means a closed place. The Greeks added the notion of 'closed garden,' and the Greek translation of the Bible used the term 'Gan Eden,' Garden of Eden."

The paradise of Hinduism is simultaneously earthly and spiritual and is inseparably interwoven into the fabric of life. Prof. David Shulman, an expert in India studies at the Hebrew University, notes that ideal worlds such as paradise exist in reality. "Such worlds are found mainly in the classical temples in southern India. They are arranged like an entire universe. A number of gods reside in each of them, and they contain all kinds of trees, rivers and tributaries. One can enter, visit the gods, receive their blessing, bring them an offering and be reborn. That is an accessible paradise close to home, which covers a few square kilometers."

A Hindu believer can also avail himself of an ashram, a place of solitude in the forest or the wilderness, outside the urban or rural culture. "It is a microcosm that contains whole worlds," Shulman says. "According to the descriptions that we find in the classical literature, these are paradises. The beasts of prey live there peacefully and lovingly with the sheep and the deer. The dwellers in these places practice yoga and meditation and study the sacred texts. There are people who can enter an ashram for a moment, a month or a week and fuse into a life of harmony with nature. It is a world that exists and is accessible, and one need only want to enter it."

What happens in the next world?

"Each of the great gods has his own paradise. A person can imagine that upon his death he will ascend to the world of Shiva. In Christianity this is a promise; in Hinduism it is an option, one of many options. It is possible to return immediately to our world in a new incarnation or to ascend to Shiva's world for a few years, until the good karma of your good deeds runs out, whereupon you return to our world. There are some who believe that they will spend a certain period in interim stations between the worlds and then will be reincarnated as a different being. Others believe that they are embarking on a journey in the universe between the moon and the sun. Some people think that there is nothing after death, while others think they will merge with the divinity. There is no uniform idea. The world of the gods - Svarga - is a lovely place that's good to live in, but there are places more highly recommended, such as living a better life in the present. Paradise is within us, and if not, it is in the ashram."

In Buddhism, too, there are contradictory tendencies in regard to paradise, says Dr. Eviatar Shulman, an expert in Buddhist philosophy (and Prof. David Shulman's son ). He refers to two periods: early and later Buddhism. "The Buddhist ideal after death is not to be reincarnated and not to be reborn. But if one is reborn, it is best to come back as a Buddhist monk, because only a human being has conditions to discern the truth in the doctrine of the Buddha and make the journey to enlightenment. So it is best for everyone to don the attire of monks immediately, because in the next life, who knows, you may be a bug."

According to early and classical Buddhism, the chance of being reborn as a human being is negligible. Buddhists say it is comparable to the chance that a tortoise that emerges from the ocean depths every hundred years to breathe air will at that instant take that breath in the one ring of dry grass which is floating across the ocean. Paradise as a heavenly place is not of interest to Buddhists. Those who seek stable and credible happiness must forsake the yearning for objects and delve deep into their consciousness.

Is there nothing but consciousness?

"There is a place in the heavens, but it is not the highest level. It is a place where one can be born as a god, where there are various heavenly beings and stunning girls, where everything is very beautiful and enchanting, but in the Buddhist perspective it is not interesting."

Later Buddhism, beginning from about the first century CE, speaks of "Buddha-fields," which are a type of paradise. The outstanding practitioner who makes a great effort can be born into a Buddha-field, which is a perfect world. "The lotuses there are made of diamonds and the birds chirp wonderful music, the trees are of gold, the branches of silver and the leaves are made of previous jewels," Shulman says. "What impels that world is a vast compassion for all creatures. Time and space have no limits. People get up in the morning, walk through numberless Buddha-fields, study the Buddha's doctrine and get back in time for lunch and the rest that follows. Everything is supremely beautiful. In the end you die and are reborn, one last time, and afterward, at the end of the process, one can become the Buddha himself."

The yummiest chocolate

Perhaps the most appealing paradise is that of Dr. Chaim Noy, a sociologist of language, a world expert in tourism and a lecturer at Sapir College in Sderot. Noy's paradise contains exotic islands, snowcapped mountains and five-star yachts - everything the modern tourist can fantasize about and, in part, achieve. Noy studies what he says is the world's biggest industry - tourism - which is entirely paradise-oriented: in its advertising, its use of language, its emphasis on the gap between routine space and the space where fantasies are played out. That begins the moment the wheels of the plane leave the ground.

"And this is where the real questions begin," he says. "Will there be a Jacuzzi? Will the weather be sunny or rainy? One thing is certain: no one will expel us from that place. For those with the means, the way to paradise, through the mediation of travel agencies and airlines, is smooth."

Why does humanity need paradise?

"Humanity needs a reward for the suffering in this world," says Noy. "Paradise bears a symbolic value. When religion began its decline and the Godhead no longer played such a central role, tourism entered instead and offered spaces that were formerly religious. It's a new type of sacredness."

Eight-year-old Rotem, from Tel Aviv, doesn't believe there is such a place as paradise. But despite the confidence he displays in his lack of belief, a small doubt has crept in. Maybe, after all, he suggests, God's angels live there together with magical creatures such as unicorns, and maybe there are enchanting trees that give fruits made of gold. "Fruits that if you eat them have the taste of the best chocolate in the world."

And what do you think goes on in heaven?

"People who die have a new life, but only good people who don't lie."