Resurrection of the dead

Resurrection of the dead,  מְחַיֵּה מֵתִים, is a Jewish doctrine that in a future age the dead will live again.  There are only two biblical references to the resurrection of the dead, in passages generally held by biblical scholars to be of late date, so that it has been conjectured that the doctrine owes something to Persian influence.

The first is: “Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise, awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades” (Isaiah 26:19);

and the second, “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2).

Gustave Dore Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones

There is no systematic treatment in the rabbinic literature of the doctrine of the resurrection, any more than there is of any other theological topic.

….there is some incompatibility between the idea of a great judgment day to take place after the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of each individual soul after the death of the body. When, as eventually happened, the two beliefs were fused together, there was bound to be some confusion on this matter – and a large variety of views on how the two beliefs could both be true. This helps to explain the many details, sometimes of a contradictory nature, in the Rabbinic literature with regard to the final judgment.

….Although Maimonides lists belief in the resurrection as a basic principle of faith (the thirteenth) he refers to it in a very off‑hand manner. In Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed there is no reference at all to the doctrine…. Maimonides’ critics accused him, in fact, of denying the doctrine of the resurrection. These critics point out that his virtual silence on the fate of the body in the Hereafter certainly contradicts Rabbinic teachings on the subject…. [See below for a more detailed analysis!]

Towards the end of his life, Maimonides wrote his Essay on the Resurrection…. [he] protests that he had never denied the doctrine of a physical resurrection but advances a novel theory (though hinted at by a few other medieval Jewish thinkers) that the resurrected dead will not live forever but will eventually die again. [See the essay clarifying this, below] Orthodox theologians still maintain the belief in the resurrection …

– The above is excerpted from Rabbi Louis Jacobs, “The Jewish Religion: A Companion”, Oxford University Press.

Where the doctrine is found

The Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, refers to God as He who resurrects the dead. The Amidah is at the center of all prayer services in the Siddur and the Mahzor.

Alternative interpretations

The Talmud teaches that

שַׁבָּת — אֶחָד מִשִּׁשִּׁים לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. שֵׁינָה — אֶחָד מִשִּׁשִּׁים לַמִּיתָה. חֲלוֹם — אֶחָד מִשִּׁשִּׁים לַנְּבוּאָה

“Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World-to-Come; sleep is one-sixtieth of death; and a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy.” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 57b)

The Midrash refers to our souls as leaving the body during sleep “The soul fills the body, and when man sleeps it ascends and draws life for him from above.” Midrash Bereshit (Genesis) Rabbah 14:11

Rabbi David Aburdarham comments that the resurrection of the dead refers to three matters: our awakening from sleep, since the restoration of consciousness is a kind of restoration of life itself; the blessing of rain, since rain may be compared to reviving the dead (for without rain there would be no life); and the actual resurrection of the dead in a future messianic age.

– Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom For Weekdays, Reuven Hammer, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2008

– Note: David Abudarham (דוד אבודרהם) – rabbinical liturgy commentator, Seville, Spain, in the mid 1340s. His work is the Sefer Abudraham.

In this same light, the Siddur has a prayer to be said upon waking up: “I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great” – Prayers upon awakening

Denominations & Interpretations

Classical Judaism has a variety of interpretations on resurrection in specific, and on views of the afterlife in general. There is no official relationship between the interpretation of this doctrine and the denomination that one may belong to. Thus one can find Orthodox Jews who interpret this non-literally, and non-Orthodox Jews who do interpret it literally.  The general trend, however, is that more theologically liberal Jews are less likely to accept the doctrine.

The Conservative Jewish movement discussed this in “Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism“. It states “that death does not mean extinction and oblivion. This conviction is articulated in our tradition in two doctrines: The doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the continuing existence after death, and through eternity, of the individual soul. In the course of Jewish history both of these doctrines have been understood in varying ways. For some of us these are literally true, while for others these are interpreted as metaphors…. In sum, if God is truly God, if His power is the ultimate fact in the world, then His ability to touch us is not cut off by the grave.”

Reform Judaism generally denies that there is any kind of afterlife. The Pittsburgh Platform went so far as to declare that the afterlife has no place in Judaism. However, this platform also stated that the human soul is immortal. How the soul can exist after the death of a body without an afterlife is not dealt with. The Reform statements about the soul were often more symbolic than literal. Reform Rabbi Howard Jaffe writes that “Reform Judaism, while not taking any ‘official’ position on the matter, has for the most part ignored the question, and tended towards the belief that there is no such thing.”

The Reform movement removed the prayer about resurrection from their prayerbooks. However in 2007 when they issued their newest siddur, Mishkan Tefila, the prayer was restored.

Reform siddur revives resurrection prayer, JTA

To rise from the dead? Mishkan T’filah and Reform liturgical conundrum

Maimonides’ interpretation of resurrection

Maimonides believed that God may resurrect a handful of individuals, at some point in history, for a limited amount of time. But he implies that this would be an exceptional event and not the norm, and he disconnects this phenomenon from the more general idea of the afterlife. Maimonides does not accept the common, Orthodox Jewish view of resurrection.

The following explanation comes from one of the old Usenet newsgroups, soc.culture.jewish. It was written by Professor Amitai Halevi in 1997.

Having been induced to reread Rambam’s “Letter on Resurrection of the Dead” in Shmuel Ibn Tibon’s Hebrew translation, I would like to make several comments – as it has turned out, at some length…

In his halakhic works, Rambam is on record to the effect that belief in resurrection is an important article of faith. In the list of the 13 Principles of Faith in his commentary on Chapter 10 of Sanhedrin [“Heleq” – Ch. 11 in the Shas] the first twelve are explained at length but the thirteenth is summed up with the words: “resurrection, this has already been explained”.

The explanation given at the start of this chapter is a summary of various views on the reward for virtue and punishment for sin. Rambam prefaces the summary, comprising five different points of view, with the following words:

“You should know that there is much difference of opinion among Torah scholars about the reward earned by a person who obeys the commandments which God has given us by the hand of Moses and the punishment inflicted on those who disobey them, according to the the differences in [the quality of] their minds. Their views are in such great confusion [“shibush”] that you will hardly find a single person to whom these matters are clear, nor will you find any one of these matters that is known with certainty by anyone, except in great confusion [of mind]”.

In his massive halakhic compendium, Mishneh Torah, resurrection is mentioned just once: In Hilkhot Tshuvah 3:6, he lists those who do not believe in resurrection along with other heretics and apostates who “have no portion in the world to come”.

This, of course, he was obliged to write, as it is stated in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1), but even here the citation is incomplete. The Mishnah reads: “The following have no portion in the world to come: one who does not believe that resurrection of the dead is [predicted] in the Torah…”, whereas Rambam limits the requirement to belief in resurrection per se.  (I will get back to this). In his major philosophical-theological work, The Guide for the Perplexed, there is no mention of resurrection at all.

From all of this it appeared to Rambam’s contemporaries that he was downplaying belief in resurrection as much as he could, and making it something of a “second class principle”. This suspicion was compounded, because – in popular belief – resurrection of the dead was an essential feature of the Days of the Messiah (yemot ha-mashiah), which – to many – were indistinguishable from “The World to Come” (ha-olam haba).

In Rambam’s opinion, these are two quite distinct features. With regard to the former, he (Hilkhot Tshuvah 8:2; Hilkhot Melakhim 12;2) adopted the view of Mar Shmuel (Berakhot 34b; Sanhedrin 99a):

“There will be no difference between this world and the Days of the Messiah except for subservience to [foreign] governments”.

This clearly leaves no room for such an unnatural phenomenon as resurrection of the dead. As for “The World to Come”, Rambam was convinced that it was a purely spiritual region, in which there was no room for any material object, let alone reconstituted flesh and blood (See Hilkhot Tshuvah 8:2).

To most of Rambam’s contemporaries, this is pure heresy. His most prominent critic, R. Avraham ben David (Rab”D}, writes: “In my eyes, the words of this man come close to those who say that there is no resurrection of bodies but only of souls. I swear by my head that this is not the opinion of the sages, who said (Ketubot 111b) `the righteous will arise [from the dead] in their garments’ etc…”.

Similarly, Rambam explains (Hil. Tshuvah 8:4) that the feast to which the righteous will be invited “in the future” (Pesahim 119b) – at which Abraham will hand a glass of wine to various biblical figures in turn until King David volunteers to make the blessing – is an allegory for the purely spiritual World to Come. In response, RAb”D exclaims: “If _that_ is the feast, there can be no glass for a blessing! He [Rambam] would have done well to keep silent.”

Since, in Rambam’s view, there can be no corporeal resurrection either in the preliminary stage of physical redemption (The Days of the Messiah) or in the final spiritual stage (The World to Come), it was legitimate to wonder where he fit it in.

Moreover, he had dealt with it in such a cursory manner in his major works that his contemporaries could not fail to suspect that he did not take it very seriously. The objections were widespread, culminating in 1191 in a polemic by the prestigious head of the Baghdad yeshivah, R. Shmuel Halevi [no relation of mine _A.H.], to which Rambam felt that he had to reply when even Joseph Ibn Aknin, the student to whom he had dedicated the “Guide”, joined the opposition.

The “Letter on Resurrection of the Dead”, Rambam’s defense against the charge that he did not believe in bodily resurrection, is written in an uncharacteristically bitter, sarcastic style. Rambam argues that his views should have been clear from what he had written in his previous works, and that he had to repeat them at length only because “as the treatise [the “Letter”] was intended for the common multitude, who are incapable of understanding what had been clearly explained”. It seems to me that this is hardly fair to his critics, for whom the dissociation of “The world to Come” from ” The Days of the Messiah” – as well as that of resurrection from both – must have been a disturbing innovation.

In the “Letter”, Rambam shows that Scripture is ambiguous on the issue of resurrection. He cites numerous pasages that deny the possibility, and one from Isaiah that can be read either way. The most that he has to say about the verses, cited on Sanhedrin 90b as evidence that corporeal resurrection is predicted in the Torah, is that they are “hints” (remazim).

The only explicit references that he accepts as compelling evidence is in the Book of Daniel, 12:2 – “And many of them that sleep in the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence”. Daniel 12:13 – “But go thou [Daniel] thy way till the end be; and thou shalt rest and shalt stand up to thy lot, at the end of the days”.

As this is an explicit prophetic statement, Rambam regards it as incotrovertible. However, he regards resurrection of the dead to be “against natural law”, and therefore in the character of a miracle. Since Rambam was not prepared to deny God’s ability to perform miracles, he could not deny the possibility of His restoring life to the dead any more than he could deny Moses’ having turned his rod into a serpent (Exodus 4:3). (I am oversimplifying, but going into Rambam’s categorization of miracles in any depth would take us too far afield).

However, in Rambam’s view, miracles are performed selectively. The word “many” in Daniel 12:2 does not mean “all”. Rambam does not say it in as many words, but he seems to agree with the opinion of “the Gaon” (presumably R. Sa’adiah Gaon, though it does not appear in his commentary in Miqra’ot Gedolot), cited approvingly by Ibn Ezra (ad. loc.), that “many” means “some”, as in Esther 8:17: “And many from among the peoples of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews was fallen upon them”.

A point stressed by Rambam is that miracles that contravene the natural order, as opposed to miracles in which natural phenomena are put to specific use, are necessarily reversible: e.g. the serpent is turned back into a rod (Exodus 4:4). Similarly, the dead who are resurrected must eventually die again.

To sum up, Rambam concedes that God’s ability to revive the dead cannot be questioned, because that would be a denial of His ability to perform miracles. However, because it is a miracle , resurrection is selective as regards who is to be brought back to life and indeterminate as to when it will occur.

The popular association of universal, permanent resurrection with the “Days of the Messiah” and/or “The World to Come” is rejected out of hand. Small wonder that most of Rambam’s contemporaries were not satisfied by his rationalization in the “Letter”. It is also not surprising that many of those who still hold the conventional view, but prefer to retain Rambam as a halakhic authority, are satisfied with his assertion that he believes in resurrection, without considering how drastically his interpretation of it differs from theirs.


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