Immortality: Belief in a Bodiless Existence

Everlasting life was not always guaranteed to the Jewish soul.

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The idea that humans are made up of two substances, a body that perishes and a soul that lives on after death, is not found in the Bible. The Hebrew words later associated with the soul--nefesh, neshamah, ruah- in the Bible mean "breath" and sometimes (as in Genesis 2:7, nishmat hayim) refer to the animating spark of life. But there is no sense that this spark is an essential entity that exists independent of the body. The concept of immortality entered Judaism sometime between the first century BCE and the first century CE. Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

The doctrine of immortality normally refers to the immortality of the soul-‑in contrast to the mortality of the body. This doctrine, as has often been pointed out, is not Jewish in origin but Greek. 

Judaism at first conceived of the life after death not as a liberation of the soul from the body, but as the "reunion of soul and body to live again in the completeness of man's nature. (George F. Moore)" In the End of Days, it was believed, the dead would be brought back to life. The righteous would then enjoy the rewards they had earned through their conduct in the course of their lives, and the wicked would receive appropriate punishments.

The Talmud, to be sure, includes some statements reflecting belief in the immortality of the disembodied soul, but these, as Julius Guttman has observed, are curiously undeveloped‑-probably as a result of the competing concept of resurrection.

The Ultimate Reward

Only in the Middle Ages does the idea of immortality begin to assume preeminence. In the teaching of Moses Maimonides, the resurrection of the dead is only a temporary, intermediate stage in the soul's journey. It is followed by a second death, after which those who have lived properly enjoy forever, as bodiless souls, "blissful delight in their attainment of knowledge of the truly essential nature of God the Creator."

The wicked, on the other hand, are "cut off"; their souls perish.

jewish cemetaryThese divergent posthumous prospects should not, according to Maimonides, be the foremost things in a man's mind. One ought to study Torah and perform its commandments for their own sake, and not ask "What will I get out of it?"

But, Maimonides wrote, our sages knew that this is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. "Therefore, in order that the multitude stay faithful and do the commandments, it was permitted to tell them that they might hope for a reward and to warn them against transgressions out of fear of punishment." In time, perhaps, they might awaken to truth and serve God out of love.

For Maimonides and the other medieval Jewish philosophers, immortality is not an inherent property of the human soul but a consequence of virtuous behavior. They do not speak of nizhiyut ha‑nefesh (the eternality of the soul) but of hisharut ha‑nefesh (the survival of the soul). For them it was important to affirm that the soul could outlast the body but presumptuous to argue that it was deathless. God could not be denied the power to destroy something he had created.

Immortality For All

Not until modern times did a Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, choose to speak of nizhiyut ha‑nefesh, in his work Sefer ha‑Nefesh, and to argue that all human souls exist everlastingly. Unlike his medieval predecessors, Mendelssohn held that the human soul is by nature indestructible

He also maintained that every human soul is ultimately destined to taste the felicity Maimonides had reserved for the virtuous alone. Granted, the wicked would receive some well‑deserved punishments on their posthumous path to perfection, but these would be purely correctional and limited in duration. In the end, every individual is destined to attain a certain degree of happiness. Nothing else would be consistent with the infinite wisdom and goodness of God.

Mendelssohn, no less than Maimonides, stressed the superiority of virtuous acts performed because they are seen as desirable in themselves, and not for the sake of receiving a reward. He belittled what he called the "popular moral teaching," based as it was on threats and promises concerning the afterlife. Still, he did not try to uproot these popular ideas. "The common heap," he believed, are often incapable of understanding a better teaching, and it would be inexcusable to deprive them of their only incentive to live virtuously.

Mendelssohn was the last major Jewish thinker to argue that the existence of an afterlife was rationally demonstrable. He was the last [secular-minded philosopher], in fact, for whom the doctrine of a life after death was a consolation and not a source of some embarrassment.

The new attitude toward this question on the part of later Jewish philosophers can be directly traced to the influence of the man Mendelssohn counted as a friend but described as the "all-destroyer"‑-Immanuel Kant. Kant demolished Mendelssohn's as well as everyone else's proofs of the soul's immortality, and although he himself still adhered to the doctrine, identifying it as a postulate of practical reason, his moral teaching taken as a whole discouraged even his most ardent Jewish disciples from following him on this matter.

Communal Immortality

The great neo‑Kantian Hermann Cohen strongly regretted Kant's failure to expunge this remnant of heteronomous morality [i.e. morality that is subject to an external authority, in this case practical reason] from his system, and was careful not to repeat the same error in his own philosophy of Judaism.

Cohen did not altogether repudiate the idea of the immortality of the soul, but radically transformed it. He maintained that certain biblical expressions for death‑‑"And thou shalt go to thy fathers," "He is gathered to his people"‑‑reflect the biblical conception of immortality as "the historical living on of the individual in the historical continuity of the people."

In the later, more profoundly moral and universalistic perspective of messianism, the individual's frame of reference is necessarily broadened, and it becomes clear that "only in the infinite development of the human race toward the ideal spirit of holiness can the individual soul actualize its immortality." Ideally, the individual's hopes are not to be focused on his own fate after death, or even on the ongoing life of the nation to which he belongs, but on the progress of mankind as a whole.

Cohen's interpretation of particular biblical expressions may be forced and tendentious, but there can be little doubt that he was closer to the viewpoint of the Bible than was post-biblical Judaism.

But in eliminating the prospect of the individual soul's survival after death as itself, in full possession of its former identity, Cohen and other modern Jewish philosophers have once again placed Judaism face to face with the dilemma that the concept of a compensatory afterlife was originally meant to resolve.

How can one account for what the rabbis called the "zaddik ve‑ra lo" (the righteous man for whom things go badly)?

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Allan Arkush

Dr. Allan Arkush is Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and History at SUNY Binghamton.