Jewish Resurrection of the Dead

When and how will the dead will be resurrected? The debate is old, but it has not been entirely resolved.

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This helps to explain the many details, sometimes of a contradictory nature, in the Rabbinic literature with regard to the final judgment.

The Pharisees [the predecessors of mainstream, rabbinic Judaism] seem to have held that both doctrines were basic to Judaism; the resurrection afforded hope for national survival, together with the idea of the Messiah, while the belief in the immortality of the soul appealed to the individual's need to be assured that he survives death. The Sadducees [an opposing Jewish sect] appear to have rejected both beliefs, although some scholars claim that the frequent references to Sadducean denial apply only to the doctrine of the resurrection, not to that of the immortality of the soul.

The Christian dogma of the Resurrection and the general eschatological picture presented in the New Testament has to be seen against the background of Pharisaic beliefs in the early first century CE.

Medieval Views: Bodily Resurrection, More or Less

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. There are one or two stray references to the resurrection in Maimonides' Code but, on the whole, he seems to identify the Rabbinic World to Come not with the resurrection but with the immortality of the soul, or, rather, he seems to believe that the resurrection itself is of the soul, not the body.

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. There are found in the Rabbinic literatures such statements as that the dead will be resurrected wearing their clothes (Ketubot 111b) and that the righteous whom God will resurrect will not return to their dust (Sanhedrin 72a), obviously pointing to a belief in bodily resurrection.

Towards the end of his life, Maimonides wrote his Essay on the Resurrection (the view that this is not Maimonides' but a clever forgery is not now accepted by Maimonidean scholars) to defend himself. In this essay Maimonides 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. Maimonides could not conceive of the idea of a body inhabiting eternity. Only the soul is immortal.

Picturing the (Resurrected) Body

On this subject the great debate took place between Maimonides and Nahmanides. Writing after Maimonides' death, Nahmanides, in The Gate of Recompense devoted to the subject, takes strong issue with Maimonides' view that the bodies of the resurrected dead will also die eventually, although he does believe that these bodies will be exceedingly refined and ethereal.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.