The Afterlife – A Sober Look – 4

[Continuing the final chapter of Neil Gillman’s book The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought; this is an ebook downloadable on the kindle app from, it is worth adding to your personal library; reformatted for posting; highlights ours–Admin1.]









The death of death is the ultimate eschatological promise.  Judaism came to affirm that expectation because, certainly beginning with the middle of the 2nd century BCE and possibly somewhat earlier, some Jews believed that in the foreseeable future, at least some of the dead would live again.  Eventually, that promise was expanded to include all Jews who had ever lived.  That doctrine soon achieved quasi-dogmatic status in the Jewish system of beliefs.  Begin with that premise and the inevitable conclusion is that in such an age, death itself would be no more.



But what are we to make of that premise?



What does it mean to say that God has the power to bring the dead to life?



We saw that this doctrine began as two separate doctrines that later merged.



  • The first teaches that, at the end time, bodies will be resurrected from their graves.
  • The second, that there is a non-material “something” in every human called the “soul” which never dies, which departs the body at death and returns to God.



The later conflation of the two doctrines led to the belief that, at the time of resurrection, the soul would be restored to the resurrected body, and that each individual human, with body and soul united as they were on earth, would come before God for judgment.



This scenario is profoundly true.  Even more, it is indispensable for us if we are to make sense of our lives here on earth–as long as we accept it, not as crude biology, but as classic Jewish religious myth.



To characterize this phase of my argument as “anthropological” is to suggest that it stems from the Jewish view of the human person as a psycho-physical unity.  The “psycho” part of that entity is what I call my “soul”; the “physical,” my body.



To speak of “my body” is to capture a relationship that is totally unique, a relationship between something that is “me” and something else that is a “body.”  But what is that relationship?  In what way is it unique?



One possible way of construing that relationship is to suggest that my body is something that I “have” much as I “have” a watch.  But surely the relationship with my body is far more intimate than my relationship with my watch.  What I “have” I can dispose of.  I can give you my watch and I remain myself, just as I was when I wore it on my wrist.  But I cannot give you my body (except in some crude, sexual sense) without disposing of myself, of “me.” When my body is born, I am born; when my body gets sick, I am sick; when my body dies, I die.  I can dispose of my body by committing suicide, but I can only do that once.  When I do that, I have also disposed of my “self,” of me in my totality.  To say that I simply “have” my body, then, is to miss that dimension of my relationship with my body which makes it a unique relationship.



A much more accurate way of capturing that relationship between me and my body is to claim that “I am my body.”  That formulation captures the felt relationship between whatever it is that “I” am and my body.  It affirms the indissolubility of that bond, the fact that without my body, I am no longer me.  I feel quite differently toward “my” body than I do toward “a” body.  Were I a surgeon, the patient’s body that lies before me on the operating table is simply “a” body; it could be “any” body, and after completing the surgery on this body, I will move on to another body.

In fact, medical ethics insists that the body on which a surgeon operates must be simply “a” body, certainly not his own body nor even the body of someone the surgeon feels particularly close to.  Similarly, the mortician embalms “a” body.  Even in the most intense of interpersonal, sexual relationships, what I feel toward the body that lies next to me is qualitatively different than what I feel toward my own body.  The latter relationship is even infinitely more intimate than the former.  I can divorce my wife and move on to a new, intimate relationship with someone else and with that person’s body.  But I cannot divorce my body.



That comparison is suggestive.  We can posit a range of relationships between me and someone or something else which reveal a progressively diminishing sense of intimacy: Between me and my body, me and my wife, lover and children, me and my cat, me and the superintendent of my building, me and the people who share my bus trip, me and my watch, etc., etc., etc. . . . To use Buberian terminology, this range of relationships takes me progressively from the realm of the I-Thou to that of the I-It, from intimacy to detachment.  My relationship with my body is the paradigmatic I-Thou relationship.  I can enter into other I-Thou relationships because of the paradigmatic I-Thou relationship I have with my body.



Even more, it is because of my body that I am inserted into time and space, into history and society.  If I were not embodied, I would not be sitting at my word-processor on this very day.  Nor would I be teaching my class or playing with my children.  My body is the landmark which connects me with everything else that exists physically, specifically with all of history and society.



The thrust of these reflections is to suggest,



  • first, that my body is indispensable to my sense of self.
    • Without my body, there is no “me.”
    • Whatever my ultimate destiny, then, whatever God has in store for me at the end, must include my body.
    • That is why any doctrine of the afterlife must deal with my body as well.
    • Belief in bodily resurrection is, then, indispensable to any doctrine of the afterlife.
  • It is indispensable for another reason.
    • If my body inserts me into history and society, then the affirmation of bodily resurrection is also an affirmation of history and society.
    • If my bodily existence is insignificant, then so are history and society.
    • To affirm that God has the power to reconstitute me in my bodily existence is to affirm that God also cares deeply about history and society.


But we know that God does care deeply about history and society.  Will Herberg is one of many thinkers who claim that it is Judaism that contributed “the sense of history” to Western culture.  Every people and nation had their historians, but only in the Bible is history viewed, not as a series of random events, nor as an endless cycle without an ultimate goal, but rather as “a great and meaningful process.”  Herberg quotes the biblical scholar, J.P. Hyatt, as contending that the prophets conceived of God as a God of history, manifesting himself on the stage of time and controlling the destiny of men and nations.



History, in Judaism, has a beginning, an end, and a purpose.  History is linear, and it understands the past as manifesting promises which would be fulfilled in the future.



Biblical historiography also takes time seriously.  Herberg writes:



God’s ends are effected with time, in and through history; the salvation that is promised as the ultimate validation of life lies indeed beyond history but it lies beyond it as its fulfillment and consummation . . . . From this point of view, earthly history takes on a meaning and seriousness that are completely absent where the Hebraic influence has not been felt.



To take time seriously is to take the mundane events of everyday life seriously.  Among the Greeks, Herberg notes, humanity had no destiny.  “The strivings and doings of men, their enterprises, conflicts and achievements, led nowhere.  All, all would be swallowed up in the cycle of eternal recurrence that was the law of the cosmos.”



To shape “the strivings and doings of men” in minutest detail is the central purpose of biblical legislation, and in biblical prophecy, Israel’s loyalty to God’s moral law becomes the decisive factor in its national history.  The purpose of the whole is to create a distinctive social structure, a unique community, an “am kadosh,” a “people” that is “holy” or “set apart.”



Torah is suffused with this concern for Israel’s social polity.  It is implicit in every piece of legislation in the Torah affecting interpersonal relationships, but it is explicit in Leviticus 25, an entire chapter devoted to regulating the social life of the community.  The legislative details pertain to the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and to the redemption of land, of indentured servants and of slaves.  In each case, the text begins with the phrase, “If your kinsman is in straits . . . .”  The whole chapter is permeated with such admonitions as “fear your God,” or “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” or “for they [the indentured servants] are My servants . . . ; they may not give themsleves over into servitude.”



The repeated emphasis on God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian servitude provides the equally explicit grounding for this legislation.  Indeed, why were our ancestors enslaved in Egypt for 400 years if not to provide them with an object lesson about the evils of social oppression, if not to teach them how to create a social structure in which no one will be oppressed?



In the writings of the prophets, this emphasis on the primacy of morality reaches its apogee.  Witness Amos’ cry to  . . .let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream. (5:24) or Isaiah’s Learn to do good, Devote yourself to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow. (1:17)



Yehezkel Kaufmann, the noted Israeli biblical scholar emphasizes that it is precisely—


the commonplace ‘venial’ sins that offend the prophets: bribe-taking, biased justice, false scales, extortion from the poor and defenseless, raising prices, and the like.  For such sins they prophesy destruction and exile . . . . God made Himself known to Israel, made with it a moral-religious Covenant, intended it to be a holy nation dedicated to do His will.  But a people perverting justice, practicing violence, drunken and debauched, is no people of God! For the prophets, justice and righteousness are not a private affair.  The entire nation is responsible for the moral state that prevails in it. Hence it will be judged as a whole both for idol worship and for moral sin on the day of reckoning.



God’s engagement both with human history and with Israel’s social polity come together in prophetic eschatology.  The prophets do more than rebuke and call for repentance.  They also envision a future age when paganism will end and monotheism will become the heritage of all peoples, when war will be no more, and when all humankind will recognize God’s moral law as absolute.



To affirm that vision is effectively to affirm the value to God of human history and society as we participate in them during our lifetime.  But that participation demands our embodied existence here on earth.  That is why any Jewish doctrine of the afterlife must also affirm the significance of that dimension of my being.






But as clear as it is that “I am my body,” it is also clear that “I am not only my body.”  The impulse behind all theories of the human soul is the sense that there are dimensions of my self that resist being reduced to mere bodily functions.



  • First there is my self-consciousness.
    • I am aware of my “self,” of some overarching dimension of my being that unifies the various pieces of my life, that organizes my thoughts, feelings and experiences and identifies them as mine.
    • Much of the work of this part of me operates within the range of my consciousness; I feel or am aware of this part of me doing its work.
    • I am even aware of the fact that I am related to my body, and I ponder the nature of that relationship.
  • I am also aware of myself as a thinking being, and I can think about my thinking and wonder about my thoughts and about the nature of thought itself.  I also have feelings, values, hopes, visions of what I can accomplish in my lifetime.
    •  I have, in short a personal myth, an overarching image of who I am and where I belong in the world.
    • If asked, I can articulate what this larger image looks like and, thereby, tell you who I, distinctively, am.


It is this sense of an “inner” life that has led philosophers from antiquity onward to speak of human beings as possessing a “soul.”  Plato understood the human soul as a distinct ontological entity which pre-exists its insertion into the body and will continue to exist after the death of the body.  We saw that this view of the soul leads to a sharply dualistic understanding of the human person as a composite of two distinct elements, body and soul.  Ultimately it also leads to the doctrine of the immortality of the human soul which, as we have also seen, persists in philosophical and theological thinking to this day.  Souls are immortal because they are non-material and, thus, indestructible.  That’s just the way souls are.



The problem with this sharp body/soul dualism is that it is counter-intuitive, that having created this sharp distinction between the body and the soul, we are at a loss to connect them again.  Yet we feel that connection.  We feel ourselves to be a single, indivisible psycho/physical individual.  We feel an intimate relationship between our inner lives and our bodily functions.  We are aware that each affects the other, that our feelings and thoughts influence our bodily functions; we feel tension and we perspire.  We know that aspects of our bodily faculties, such as our ability to see and hear, generate feelings and thoughts.  We also feel, intuitively, that these two dimensions of our being from one concrete individuality.  But once they are separated from each other, how can they be reunited?



The further implications of Platonic thinking are equally problematic.  Plato identifies the soul as the “real” me, as that which makes me distinctly human and unique.  The development of my soul is redemptive.  It is my uniquely human mandate, my ultimate accomplishment.  Plato understands my bodily existence to be an obstacle to that fulfillment, the “prison” in which my soul is incarcerated and from which I must try to liberate myself by philosophical reflection.



These implications of Platonic dualism pose insurmountable obstacles to any thinker who speaks out of the Jewish tradition.



  • First, Judaism has never demeaned the body and its functions.
    • Jewish liturgy speaks of the body as a miraculous piece of God’s creation.
    • Judaism has never affirmed the religious value of sexual abstinence.  Indeed, the very first commandment to Adam and Eve is to procreate, and the value of sexual fulfillment has never been questioned by Jews.  We celebrate all significant ritual moments with food and drink.  Before burial, we wash and purify the body as we recite prayers that affirm the glory and the beauty of the human body.


One of the most striking affirmations of the value of the human body is a liturgical passage recited daily, together with the passage that praises God for having created and preserved my soul, in the early morning worship service.  This passage, also of Talmudic origin (Bab. Talmud, B’rakhot 60b), reads:



Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has fashioned the human being with wisdom and created within him many openings and cavities.  It is obvious to You  . . that should one of them be ruptured or one of them be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You.  Blessed are You, God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.



The human body is of ultimate value and significance because it too is a manifestation of God’s wondrous power.  Would you discover God’s presence?  Look at the human body!



As we saw earlier, the Bible knows nothing of a Platonic entity called the soul.  It understood the Hebrew terms nefesh or neshamah as a way of speaking of the living human person, or as the spark of life that vivifies the clod of earth out of which God formed the first human.  Eventually, Greek thought did shape later Jewish thinking on the nature of the soul, but even then, Jewish tradition rejected its more extreme dualistic implications.  For example, it saw the soul as created by God, and its immortality as a gift from God Who rules even over the world of human souls.  At least until modernity, Judaism continued to insist that at the end of days, human bodies too would live again.



John Hick sharply rejects any sense of the soul as a distinct metaphysical entity and dualistic implications of that view. He understands the soul as “an indicator of value.”  In his view, the soul—–



will express that sense of the sacredness of human personality and of the inalienable rights of the human individual which we have . . . seen to be the moral and political content of the western idea of the soul . . . . To speak of man as a soul is to speak mythologically, but in a way which is bound up with important practical attitudes and practices.  The myth of the soul expresses a faith in the intrinsic value of the human individual as an end in itself.



Hick, here, echoes one interpretation of the biblical claim that human beings were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). The literal meaning of that claim is not at all clear, but to some later Jewish thinkers, preeminently Maimonides, it establishes the unique value of the human being among all of creation.  It leads Maimonides to insist that true human perfection is intellectual.



This is in reality the ultimate end; this is what gives the individual true perfection, a perfection belonging to him alone; and it gives him permanent perdurance; through it man is man.



It also leads him to insist that ultimate human immortality is for the soul alone.  But of all Jewish thinkers, Maimonides espouses the sharpest body/soul dualism.



Note that, for Hick, to speak of a human soul is to speak mythically.  It refers to one more “beyond.”  This time, it is the various manifestations of what we call our “inner” life and which elude direct, overt apprehension.  Another way of saying this is to view the soul as a construct, an imaginative unification of the dimensions of that inner life which pulls together all the dimensions of our awareness that do not explicitly reflect our bodily functioning.  This, we identify as “soul.”



In this view, the term “soul” is similar to the term “mind” with which it is often confused.  But to speak of my mind is not to speak of a distinct entity buried deeply in my brain.  I can hold a brain in my hand, but I cannot hold a mind.  Though “mind” is a noun, it really functions as an adverb, a term which qualifies or describes modes of behavior.  When I behave intelligently, when I deliberate what to do or not to do, when I think, I say that I am “using” my mind.  But again, a mind is not something I “have” or “use.”  I cannot dispose of or surrender my mind, except in a metaphorical sense.  “Mind,” too, is a construct which unifies and identifies one dimension of my behavior.



The precise relationship between the mind and the body (or the brain) is one of the perennial problems of philosophy.  It raises many of the same issues suggested by the relationship between body and soul.  Is the distinction between the two a valid one?  Are there existing entities to which we can apply each of these terms?  If yes, what is the relationship between the two?



Philosophers’ answers to these questions fall into two groups.  One set of theories tend to reduce one reality to the other: Either there is only body, and references to mind are covert references to bodily functions.  This view is called materialism.  Its alternative, idealism, reduces all bodily references to mental events.  In contrast, dualistic theories maintain not only that the distinction is a valid one, but that there are two distinct realities.  All dualist theories are then forced to explain how body and mind are related to each other.



There has been no satisfactory resolution of that issue throughout the history of philosophy.  But it remains clear that what precipitates the issue in the first place is the intuition that we function in these two distinctive ways, and that somehow or other, each affects the other.



When I affirm that “I am not only my body” I affirm that apart from my sense of my bodily existence, I am also aware of a dimension of my self which eludes identification with my bodily functions, but which remains as intrinsic to my identity as is my body.



In what sense is this soul immortal?  For me, not in any Platonic sense, not as a distinct entity which survives my death and the burial of my body.  If I am a psycho/physical entity, then when I die, all of me dies, my body together with my inner life.



The notion that the soul enjoys an intrinsic immortality denied to my body is also troubling because it takes God out of the eschatological picture.  If the soul is intrinsically immortal, then God has nothing to do with my soul at the end of days, other than reuniting it with my body.  But the whole point of Jewish thinking on the afterlife is that it affirms God’s ultimate power, the final manifestation of God’s unfettered sovereignty.  The doctrine of bodily resurrection preserves that affirmation.  the doctrine of the intrinsic immortality of the soul does not.  When the Gevurot benediction affirms that God is mehaye hametim, that God “revives the dead,” I believe it means the entire scenario:  God gives new life to the dead, to the totality of me, to my body together with my soul.



This is the ultimate meaning of the Talmudic doctrine that at the end of days, God will bring my body and my soul together again and that I will be reconstituted as I was during my life on earth.  The mythic thrust of this doctrine is that it is this totality in tis concrete individuality, as manifest during my lifetime, that God treasures and that God will therefore preserve for all time.



I insist that my resurrection must affect all of me in my concrete individuality because i understand the central thrust of the doctrine of the afterlife as establishing the everlasting preciousness to God of the life I led here on earth.  I lived that life as a concrete individual.  A doctrine of the afterlife that has my soul merging into some cosmic soul after my death would defeat the entire purpose of the myth.  The mishnah that records the court’s admonition to witnesses in a case of capital punishment reminds me that God created but one single person from whom all of mankind descended.



Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if anyone has caused a single soul to perish from Israel, Scripture imputes to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish; and if any person saves a single soul from Israel, Scripture imputes to him as though he had saved a whole world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)



Again, why did God create one single person?



To proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He; for a person stamps many coins with the one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, has stamped every person with the seal of the first person, yet not one of them is like the other.  Therefore every one must say, “For my sake was the world created.”



There is no more powerful testimony to Judaism’s insistence that it is precisely the single human being in all his or her individuality that is most precious to God.  It is that individuality that God will preserve forever.



I insist, as well, that God’s economy of salvation knows no religious distinctions.  We are all descendants of “one single person,” and it is precisely our individual “person-hood” that makes each of us worthy of God’s ultimate concern.  Judaism has always had its partisan nationalists and its generous universalists, but it is invariably the latter group, with its opinions on the place of the non-Jew in God’s salvational plans, that has triumphed.  I am proud to appropriate that tradition.



The one distinction that Judaism does make in this regard pertains to that between the righteous and the evil-doer.  The Jewish doctrine of the afterlife did originate, as we have seen, in the need for some notion of ultimate divine retribution beyond whatever transpires during human life on earth.  Though in time, the emphasis passed from life after death as a manifestation of God’s justice to one of God’s power, the notion that we are all ultimately accountable for the lives we live on earth never totally disappeared from Jewish teachings on the afterlife.  That dimension of Jewish eschatology remains important for me.  It teaches me that the moral quality of life I lead here on earth is of importance to God, and that God will hold me responsible for that life.  But moral issues are complex, and human motivations are obscure.  I then forego my right to pass judgment on my fellow human beings.  That judgment I am prepared to leave in God’s hands, convinced as I am that, in the words of the liturgical formula I recite upon hearing of a death, God’s judgment is always true.



That is my hope.  That is my expectation.

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