On 2004, on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” correspondent Nina Totenberg declared, “Jews do not believe in an afterlife”—to which talk-show host Michael Medved shot back that the claim is “a slander to all believing Jews everywhere.”
So, which view is correct? Both, as it happens. Survey data from opinion polls consistently reports that most American Jews do not believe in an afterlife. Yet, a survey of the sacred and significant texts of Judaism reveals that every important Jewish religious thinker, from Talmudic times to our own, has depicted belief in an afterlife as a fundamental feature of Jewish faith. Judaism affirms belief in an afterlife; most American Jews do not.
An analysis of survey data shows that about 80 percent of American Christians believe in an afterlife, and that about 65 percent of Americans who affirm no specific religious faith (including atheists and agnostics) also believe in an afterlife. Of all groups surveyed, belief in an afterlife has been consistently the lowest among American Jews: 46 percent in polls done in the late 1990s. Still, of all groups surveyed, belief in an afterlife has increased the most among American Jews: from 19 percent in the 1970s to 46 percent in the 1990s, an increase of 142 percent. As Jewish-American baby boomers continue to age, a further increase is likely.
Jews and the World to Come by Byron L. Sherwin
First Things (June/July 2006).