Before it was even released last week, Dan Brown's novel "Inferno" had reached the top of Amazon's best-seller list. A thriller incorporating the work of the 14th century poet Dante Alighieri, 18th century philosopher Thomas Malthus and 21st century gene manipulation, Brown's newest is not a typical beach novel. It is intellectual exciting and insightful. Even though its religious focus revolves around the Catholic Church, it can help also help us understand some unique features of Judaism.
How so? It puts into perspective differences between Catholic and Jewish visions of hell, and the way our respective histories have shaped our contemporary circumstances.
The Jewish View of Hell
First, some background. In "Inferno," Brown recounts the historical fact that Dante's vision of Hell described in the "The Divine Comedy" shaped the way many people, including the artists and architects who built the beautiful Medieval and Renaissance churches, pictured hell. It's not a positive story.
Does this critique present challenges to Judaism as well? Generally not, because Judaism does not have a strong belief in hell. The only descripton in the Old Testament of an afterlife is as a place called Sheol, where the souls of the dead reside. No notion of paradise or torture is found.
In some later Jewish literature we do find poetic descriptions of Hell. Yet, these serve primary to encourage moral behavior on earth, and do not reflect a strict theological approach to the afterlife. A beautiful example of this earthly focus of the Jewish approach to the afterlife is found in an 18th-century Hasidic story. It begins with a man asking God about heaven and hell.
The Difference Between Heaven and Hell
"I will show you hell," God said, and took the man into a room. A large banquet table in the center was filled with extraordinary foods. The sight and smell of the foods were intoxicating. Around the table sat miserable, famished and desperate people.
Each person held spoon with a long handle. But the spoons were strapped to their bodies in a way that made it impossible for them to both bend their elbows and bring the spoons to their mouths. As a result, they were starving.
"Now," God said, "I will show you heaven." The man found himself in an identical room with an identical banquet table laden with a magnificent array of foods. Around this table people also held long wooden spoons strapped to their bodies. Yet, they were happy, smiling and well-nourished.
"Same table, same food, same spoons. Why are things different here?" asked the man.
"There is one important difference," God said in response. "Here, in heaven, the people feed one another."
These visions of heaven and hell are not meant to be taken literally. They are meant to encourage us to give to and share with others on earth. This understanding of heaven and hell differ substantially from the one Brown portrays. They illustrate the Jewish emphasis on this-worldiness, as opposed to the afterlife.
Judaism Never Had An Empire
Much of the intrigue in Brown's work comes from the history of the Catholic Church. This history has been shaped by the immense power the Church has had throughout its existence. Until the Industrial Revolution brought about large central governments, the Church was the sole superpower in the world.
Judaism, in contrast, never became the impetus or opportunitiy for building an empire. For most of our history, Jews lived dispersed around the world. It was only in 1948, after 2,000 years of exile, that a Jewish state and government came into existence. As a result, the traditional trappings of power never shaped Jewish history and tradition. And because until the 19th century conversion to Judaism could be punished by death in some countries, Jews did not grow into a large people. Its political power and influence was limited. The palaces and treasures that provide the context for Brown's intriguing plots have never existed.
What Is Our Takeaway?
All this comparison and contrast can serve to remind us that Brown is writing a novel, not a historical or religious treatise. Each religion has a unique history and set of texts that shapes its beliefs and practices. If we want a good thriller novel, we can read Dan Brown. If we want to learn more about faith and history, we can visit the other side of the library.