I’m a secular Jew, and I’m afraid of going to hell. What does the Torah say about hell, and will I go there simply because I don’t observe the Shabbat, Jewish holidays or the laws of kosher? All in all, I think I’m a very decent human being—but of course nobody is perfect.
I hope you don’t mind if I take issue with your first few words. You write that you are a “secular Jew.” I don’t believe there is such a thing. You see, the word secular means “mundane” or “un-sacred.” A Jew, by definition, is holy. And you are just as Jewish as me, your great-grandfather and Moses. Perhaps not as observant—but just as Jewish. I truly mean that . . .
I’m sure you’re a great person. You probably live an ethical life and do many acts of kindness. You have done much to express your innate holiness. And that’s exactly why you can grow so much through taking on a few new mitzvot. You can take your being a decent human being infinitely higher. Your goodness will be instilled with a G‑dly touch.
You write that you are not perfect. But then again—as you yourself say—no one is. And that’s exactly why Judaism is not an all-or-nothing religion. It treasures the power of a single act. So I challenge you to take on one new mitzvah. It’s a mitzvah that happens only once a week, and takes only a minute. But it is powerful. And you will find that its effect is profound.
Jewish women have the special commandment to light the Shabbat candles each Friday afternoon. It brings light, holiness, peace and tranquility into the home. Give it a try. Check out our Shabbat Candle-Lighting Wizard for more information about this special mitzvah.
Now, to address your question about hell:
You’re probably expecting me to depict a haunting scene of ghosts and goblins. But the Jewish concept of “heaven” and “hell” cannot be more different than the description found in medieval Christian texts or cartoons.
Yes, Judaism believes in punishment and reward in the afterlife. But in Judaism:
Hell is temporary—not permanent.
Hell is a therapy—not an imprisonment.
Hell is a consequence—not a punishment.
Hell is a washing machine—not a furnace.
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Let me know if this helps. I await your reply.
Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar