June 21, 2013
Those interested in this topic might also find Sara Davies’ article, Derek Eretz MVP, helpful for background information and context.
"Nine entered the Garden of Eden while they were still alive, and they are: Enoch the son of Jared, Elijah Messiah, Eliezer the bondsman of Abraham, Hirom the kind of Zor, Ebed-melech the Cushi, and Jabetz the son of R' Yehudah the Prince, Bothiah the daughter of Pharaoh, and Serech the daughter of Asher, and, according to others, also R' Yehoshua b. Levi"
— from Talmud Bavli Tractate Derek Eretz Zuta, Chapter One
The list of those allowed to enter Paradise while still alive includes Hebrews, Jews, those who were not Hebrews or Jews, men, women, Asians, Africans, converts and people of both low and high social status. "The righteous of all nations [i.e. religions] have a share in the World to Come" (Sanhedrin 105a). Judaism is pluralistic. Although we believe God gave Moses the path for the Hebrews, He also gave prophets and paths to other faiths.
Enoch, whose name means “initiated,” is a central figure of Jewish mysticism during the first millennium BCE, notably in the three Books of Enoch. In this literature, he becomes guardian of the celestial treasures, chief of the archangels and attendant to God's throne. He is also identified as the Metatron, the angel who communicates God's word. He ascends to Heaven while still alive because he acquires many disciples, helps others achieve spirituality and brings peace to his community.
Elijah appears in the TaNaKh (Hebrew Bible), Talmud, throughout Rabbinic literature and even in texts of other traditions. In Jewish folklore, Elijah travels the world in the guise of a beggar and a scholar. He cheats death and enters Paradise alive because he calls for the repentance of Israel, and is a proponent of justice.
Eliezer saves Abraham's life by warning him of Nimrod's ill intentions. He defends the vulnerable in Sodom. Although his reputation is tarnished in later Rabbinic literature, Eliezer nevertheless develops all of the virtues and spirituality of Abraham.
Hirom is the Phoenician king of Zor (Tyre) who befriends the Hebrews. He sends materials, laborers, and artisans to King Solomon to help with the construction of the First Temple. By doing so, he honors God.
Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian slave, convinces Zedekiah to free Jeremiah, thus saving Jeremiah's life. This allows Jeremiah another opportunity to warn the last Hebrew king of Judah to report to Nebuchadnezzar.
Jabetz, a Kenite, converts to Hebraism. He demonstrates faith, honesty, integrity, and becomes a teacher and Torah scribe.
Bothiah opposes her father's call for the death of all Hebrew infants. She saves Moses from the Nile, raises him in the palace and loves him as her own child. Thus, she facilitates the redemption of Israel from Egypt. She also converts to Hebraism.
Little mention is made of Serech in the Bible, but she is immortalized in the Midrash, and embodies the history of the people of Israel. When she informs Jacob that Joseph is still alive, he agrees to go down to Egypt. She later identifies Moses as the true redeemer of Israel, and helps him find Joseph's bones, thus keeping the Exodus on schedule. She appears again in the time of King David as the wise woman of Abel-beth-maacah. She even resolves a disagreement in the rabbinic academy during the time of R' Yochanan. Serech teaches of God's redemption and saves many lives.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was an amora (rabbi of the Talmud) who lived in Israel during the first half of the third century. He headed the school of Lydda, and was an elder contemporary of Yochanan bar Nappaha and Resh Lakish. He also presided over the school in Tiberias. He became known for his modesty, tolerance, love of peace and love of study. He is the hero of almost all Paradise legends. In one such tale, he obtains permission from the Angel of Death to visit Paradise so that he can inspect his assigned place. Accounts of his report appear in the Zohar.
The influence of these individuals was far-reaching and could not have been foreseen. Their choices mattered. What they had in common was righteousness. They helped others achieve spirituality, demonstrated loving kindness, made peace, fought for the welfare of the common person, demonstrated humility and loyalty, got along well with others, made teshuvah when they were wrong and went beyond the letter of the law to embody the spirit of the law.
Berachot 19b - 20a teaches that all negative mitzvot (commandments) are set aside to preserve the honor or well-being of another. In the Torah, Genesis 18:2, Abraham interrupts his prayer, meditation, and conversation with God to attend to the needs of three travelers who are hot, tired and hungry. Throughout the Talmud and Midrashim, we learn that righteousness comes from treating one another properly, regardless of background or status. No one is denied the opportunity to do mitzvot. If a Canaanite slave can do mitzvot, certainly Jewish women, GLBTQ Jews, the physically or mentally challenged, the spouses of Jews, anusim (those forced to convert), etc. can be active, equal members of a truly Talmudic congregation and society.