This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

When the Dead Rise*

A colleague of mine in the University of Calgary Religious Studies Department approached me a while back in a state of considerable agitation. He (a non-Jew) had been teaching an introductory class on Judaism and, when he began speaking about the Jewish belief in resurrection of the dead, had been stubbornly attacked by a Jewish student who insisted that "Jews don't believe in that sort of thing." The experience repeated itself not long afterwards in conversation with a Jewish friend who mentioned how some of the media reports of Robert Maxwell's burial on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives had noted that Jews traditionally believed that those who were buried in that spot were guarantied to be first in line when the dead were revived in the Messianic era. "Is that really true?" my friend asked me. "I thought Jews didn't go in for that sort of thing."

I am certain that both these incidents reflect a similar phenomenon among contemporary spokespeople for Judaism, many of whom have no qualms about selling their personal opinions as those of Judaism. Unfortunately the state of Jewish literacy in our communities does not allow many of us to distinguish between facts and opinions.

With respect to the subject at hand, let me assure you that the belief in resurrection--i.e., that at some point in the future the dead will be restored to their physical bodies-- has been a tenaciously held belief among Jews since at least the second century B.C.E. The books of Daniel and Maccabees, both composed against the background of the Maccabean revolt, refer to this idea explicitly, in the latter as a means of motivating people to acts of martyrdom. Josephus Flavius singles out this belief as one of the distinguishing ideas of the Pharisees, as against other Jewish movements which came to be regarded as heretical. The Mishnah, in an untypical foray into the realm of dogmatics, lists resurrection among the beliefs whose denial will cause you to forfeit your place in the World to Come. From then on there is scarcely a Jewish thinker who does not adhere to this idea, which is reaffirmed thrice daily in the liturgy. The belief also gets inherited by the Christians and the Muslims.

I suspect that the self-proclaimed authorities on Judaism who have denied the existence of this idea were troubled because they had been brought up on the maxim that Judaism, unlike Christianity, is not obsessed with the afterlife, but prefers to focus on this world. I believe that that statement is generally true, but that there remains quite a bit of room between a belief and an obsession.

In fact, I think that it is profitable to look at the belief in resurrection, as with any eschatological or metaphysical idea, not so much for what it says about the dead (though our sources are full of whimsical speculations on what we will be wearing then, how we will be transported to the Land of Israel, and what will happen to remarried widows when they find themselves with multiple husbands), as for what it teaches us about the Jewish perceptions of life itself.

I have often wondered how Jews arrived at such an unlikely afterlife idea. Would it not be simpler to believe that we survive death in pure spiritual, disembodied forms? That after all was the ideal that was promoted by the ancient Greeks, one that is more befitting a spiritual religion.

Perhaps it is precisely this point that prompted our Pharisaic ancestors to promote belief in physical resurrection. The Greeks, as we are aware, had a decidedly negative attitude towards their bodies and anything physical. The philosophical tradition, much of which has been inherited by Western cultural values, tended to look upon the body as an impediment to true spiritual or intellectual perfection. In their opinion, one's physical and material substance are unfortunate facts of life that we should do our best to minimize or undo through self-denial and withdrawal from the world.

We should note that Jews were not entirely immune from such thinking. A philosophical mind like Maimonides, though including the belief in resurrection among his "thirteen principles of faith," was understood by his contemporaries to be lukewarm in his commitment to the idea. As a rationalist it is clear that he would have been better disposed to an intellectual, rather than a physical, survival. In the end he describes the resurrection as a temporary affair, following which people will die again and (if they make the grade) survive as abstract souls.

These negative evaluations of material existence, as promoted by the Greek philosophical tradition and its Jewish sympathizers, were precisely the kinds of ideas that talmudic Judaism was denying in its assertion that our physical being is not a tragedy but part of God's ideal plan for the world. What greater proof of this can there be than the fact that even in the next world we will have bodies?

There is much more that could be said about the values and ideas that are contained in this "dogma." Whether or not one chooses personally to believe in physical resurrection, we should recognize honestly how central the belief has been as an expression of Jewish attitudes to life.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, Dec. 15 1991

Bibliography:

  • Steven T. Katz, Jewish Ideas and Concepts, New York 1977.