Immortality: Belief in a Bodiless Existence

Everlasting life was not always guaranteed to the Jewish soul.

Print this page Print this page

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)?

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Allan Arkush

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