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With Ramadan and Jewish High Holidays Looming, We Should Talk About Hell

We tend to hear much about heaven, where innocent victims of the terrible tragedies will, in tradition, come to reside. But discussion about hell is generally taboo.
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Ramadan looms on the immediate horizon. The Jewish High Holidays are scheduled to begin shortly thereafter. It is certainly a pensive time for many of the variously faithful across the globe.

Some bemoan "once-a-year Jews," whose synagogue connections are limited to paying dues and filling pews on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Still, there is something to appreciating the solemnity of holy days, even if one's life the rest of the year is largely secular.

A cornerstone of the Jewish High Holiday service is a mystical prayer that culminates in the declaration, "Who shall live, and who shall die? Who in the appropriate time, and who prematurely?" That many worshippers can't help but shed tears during this prayer is understandable, particularly those who have lost loved ones over the past year or for whom death seems to impend.

With the tragic killings in Norway, that of the 8-year-old Hasidic boy in Brooklyn and a slew of other tragedies that have claimed many lives in 2011, death is very tangible for those who follow the news.

"Existence" after death is something that is more the stuff of introductory philosophy courses or the liturgy of the High Holidays. We tend to hear much about heaven, where innocent victims of the terrible tragedies will, in tradition, come to reside. But discussion about hell (or, in Hebrew, gehinnom), is generally taboo.

A search of one translation of the Quran yields 97 references to the word "hell," while the Jewish scriptures refer several times to she'ol (the depths) -- as when Jacob, upon hearing his sons' lie that Joseph was killed by a wild animal, tells the would-be murderous brothers that if Benjamin were too lost, "you would take my old head in agony to she'ol" (Genesis 42:38).

Despite hundreds, if not thousands, of kabbalistic texts addressing hell, including the short tractates of Gehinnom and Hibut Ha'Kever (the pangs of the grave), many people (including many believers, too) erroneously are of the view that Jews don't believe in hell. In fact, one could construct a convincing argument that Jewish texts laid the groundwork for much of the apocalyptic narratives that then bred all the medieval manuscript and Renaissance painting depictions of hellfire and eternal damnation.

Since it is difficult (actually, impossible) to encounter anyone who has visited hell, and thereby able to report back its topography or inner workings, our online book "Gehinnom: A Conversation in Hell" imagines a dialogue in hell between various biblical characters from Cain to Balaam and Korah to Satan. Even God appears to ponder how the tragic flaws of sinners continue to govern their lives, even in the dank, dark cave of their afterlife.

The great existentialist writer Jean Paul Sartre, some time ago in his iconic "No Exit," proposed that "hell is other people." Just as Sartre's characters endlessly carp at each other as their means to navigate the endless misery of their afterlife, our gehinnom presents a similarly sordid existence for the biblical set who somehow cannot understand why they condemned to their hellish cave for having been consumed by envy over the course of their existence in the "land of the living."

For the major religions, the concept of heaven and hell presents a carrot and stick approach to encouraging "good conduct" during our lifetimes. Presumably, if nothing else, our fear of hell purports to enervate good behavior. The rock group Blood Sweat & Tears, in its famous lyric in "When I Die," said, "I swear there ain't no heaven, but pray there ain't no hell."

Interesting: Particularly for the non-believer, the certainty of an absence of heaven isn't matched by a parallel certainty of no hell. So maybe, given that the existence of hell lurks continuously at least in the back of our minds, we would all be better (and so would be our demeanor) if we would sometimes give thought about hell -- that is, if we can possibly bear it.

We, the authors, don't purport to have discovered the true reality of hell, but in the manner of other "creative non-fiction" biblical writings like Norman Mailer's "The Gospel According to the Son" and Anita Diamant's "Red Tent," we offer the dialogue as something that might have happened, hoping to shed light on what might really happen.

We invite you to read the book below, and look forward to your reactions in the comments section (raising, of course, the possibility of our own gehinnom-on-earth).

Joel Cohen, a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP in New York, is author of 'Moses: A Memoir' (Paulist Press, 2003); 'Moses & Jesus: A Coversation' (Dorrance Publishing Co. 2006); and 'David & Bathsheba: Through Nathan's Eyes' (Paulist Press, 2007).