The Afterlife in Judaism: Modern Liturgical Reforms

Amending prayers that mention resurrection to accord with modern sensibilities.

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Conserve the Hebrew, Shade the English

The Conservative Movement in contemporary American Judaism was born in 1886. As its name implies, it was a conservative reac­tion to what it viewed as the excesses of American Reform and its Pittsburgh Plat­form. In contrast to Reform, this movement generally avoided ideological self‑definition, largely because it perceived itself to be a broad coalition of the more traditionalist elements in American Judaism.

The various prayer books published by the Conservative movement generally (but not always) avoid tampering with the traditional Hebrew liturgy. The movement's preferred strategy for dealing with troublesome doc­trines embodied in the liturgy is to retain the Hebrew text but to shade the translation to reflect a more acceptable reading of the doc­trine.

As an instance of this practice, the 1945 Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, omnipres­ent in Conservative congregations in the middle decades of this century, translates the concluding words of the Gevurot benediction, "who calls the dead to life everlasting."

In the foreword to this prayer book, Robert Gordis, the Conservative rabbi and scholar who chaired the committee that edited the prayer book, justifies this translation by not­ing that this rendering of the traditional Hebrew "…is linguistically sound and rich in meaning for those who cherish the faith in human immortality, as much as for those who maintain the belief in resurrection" (pp. viii‑ix).

Gordis' personal predilection for spiritual immortality over bodily resurrection is re­corded in his A Faith for Moderns (revised and augmented edition, New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1971): "The facet in man's nature which is deathless, the vital spark, the breath of life, we call the soul" (pp. 251‑252).

A more recent prayer book for use in Con­servative congregations, Siddur Sim Shalom (1985), is more aggressive in its liturgical changes, yet it retains the traditional Hebrew formula for the Gevurot benediction, which it translates "give life to the dead," or more freely, "Master of life and death."

Orthodoxy: Revival in All Languages

Finally, all prayer books for use in contem­porary American Orthodox congregations primarily the various editions compiled by Philip Birnbaum (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co.) and those under the Art Scroll imprint (New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd.), retain the traditional Hebrew text of the liturgy and translate it literally as either "…who revives the dead" or "…who re­suscitates the dead."

By the middle of the twentieth century then, the entire liberal wing of the American Jewish religious community had abandoned the doctrine of resurrection, either explicitly by modifying the Hebrew liturgy, implicitly by shading its translation in favor of spiritual immortality, or by adopting a deliberately ambiguous reading of the Hebrew.

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Dr. Neil Gillman

Dr. Neil Gillman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.