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01371--The concepts of the afterlife in Rabbinic Judaism

The concepts of the afterlife  in Rabbinic Judaism
Although concepts of the afterlife are central and pervasive in Rabbinic Judaism, the Hebrew Bible says surprisingly little about the world to come. The immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, heaven and hell are all concepts that await the Judaisms of the Second Temple for elaboration. As the Rabbis then developed these notions into what became defining elements of Rabbinic Judaism, there was characteristic disagreement among the sages about the nature of the afterlife. We will conclude by looking at the attempt of Maimonides to systematize the conflicting statements of the sages concerning the afterlife in his commentary on the Mishnah.

The TaNaKH is almost exclusively concerned with life in this world. Among the rewards for following the laws of the Torah is that the Israelites will be enabled to continue living in the Land of Israel and not be dispossessed. This is the Torah’s version of immortality.  Nowhere in the TaNaKH is there a promise of reward in the afterlife.

There are a few verses that mention the afterlife.  Everyone who dies, good or bad, goes to Sheol. You can’t praise God in Sheol (Ps. 6:6).  Sheol is in the bowels of the earth (see Ezek. 31:14ff).  Resurrection of some dead is a late and marginal idea.  There are very few texts that unambiguously refer to the physical resurrection of the dead, including Isaiah 26:18–19 and Daniel 12:1–2.
             
Only Daniel can be dated with accuracy to the period of the Hasmonean Revolt against the Syrian Greeks.  Here, resurrection comes as a theodicy to explain that God’s justice will ultimately be manifest at the end of days, when the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.  Other biblical texts refer to resurrection, such as the dry bones of Ezekiel 37, but these are understood as a metaphor for the political resurrection of the people of Israel. Resurrection was part of contemporary Persian religion, and it is possible that the Jews absorbed the idea from the Persians.

The immortality of the soul appears nowhere in the TaNaKH.  The words that are translated into English as “soul” or “spirit” mean other things in biblical Hebrew.  The ruach of God is hovering over the surface of the water in Genesis 1:2. That ruach is sometimes translated as “spirit,” as in the King James translation. The New Jewish Publication Society translates it as “wind” from God.

  In Genesis 2:7, we have the separate elements of body and breath, but neither element has an independent status on its own.  Ecclesiastes 12:7 refers to the spirit returning to God, but there’s no indication that the spirit retains individuality. After all, the next verse repeats Kohelet’s refrain: All is futile.  The dichotomy between body and soul is of Greek origin.

Late Second Temple Judaism.  The Pharisees are the earliest Jews known to support the ideas of resurrection and immortality of the soul. The Sadducees reject both notions because they are not grounded in the Torah.

  There is irony in the Pharisees accepting the Hellenistic notion of the immortality of the soul and the Sadducees rejecting it, because the Pharisees are usually perceived to be less Hellenistic than the Sadducees.

[Courtesy : Professor Shai Cherry]

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