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.

Resurrection is the doctrine that in a future age the dead will rise from their graves to live again. This doctrine appears frequently in Jewish eschatology, where it is associated with the doctrine of the Messiah and the immortality of the soul.

Waking the Dead: Biblical and Rabbinic Sources

There are only two biblical references to the resurrection of the dead, in passages generally held by biblical scholars to be of late date, so that it has been conjectured that the doctrine owes something to Persian influence. The first is: “Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise, awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades” (Isaiah 26:19); and the second: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2).

There is no systematic treatment in the Rabbinic literature of the doctrine of the resurrection, any more than there is of any other theological topic. The ancient Rabbis were organic rather than systematic thinkers. Nevertheless, the picture which emerges from the numerous eschatological thoughts in this literature is of a three‑staged series of events.

The first of these is the state of the soul in heaven after the death of the body. The second stage is the Messianic age here on earth “at the end of days.” The third stage is that of the resurrection of the dead. Unlike the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, the belief in the resurrection was nationalistic rather than individualistic. It was the hope of national revival that came to the fore and this embraced the resurrection.

After the restoration of the Jewish people to its homeland in the days of the Messiah, it was believed, the resurrection of the dead would take place.

Rabbinic Fusion: Immortality, Resurrection, and Judgment

While there is no necessary contradiction between belief in the immortality of the soul and belief in the resurrection, there is some incompatibility between the idea of a great judgment day to take place after the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of each individual soul after the death of the body. When, as eventually happened, the two beliefs were fused together, there was bound to be some confusion on this matter and a large variety of views on how the two beliefs could both be true.

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.

[Hasdai] Crescas in The Light of the Lord (iii. 4) agrees with Nahmanides and discusses how the decomposed body will be reconstituted. It is not necessarily the case, says Crescas, that the same body the soul inhabited during its lifetime on earth will be given to it at the resurrection, but one that will have the same purpose. The identity of the individual will not be affected by this, since even during a person’s life in this world the body suffers changes all the time.

[Joseph] Albo (Ikkarim, iv. 35) also agrees with Nahmanides and offers his speculations on how the new bodies will take form and shape. But Albo discourages too much speculation on what is by all accounts a miracle and a mystery. He quotes with approval the Talmudic saying: “We will consider the matter when they come to life again” (Niddah 70b).

As one might have expected, no perfectly coherent doctrine of the resurrection emerges from the medieval thinkers any more than it does from the Rabbinic literature.

Modern Views: Who Believes What

The tendency among some of the medieval thinkers to play down the doctrine of the resurrection is evident in the modern period in even greater measure. Moses Mendelssohn believed in the immortality of the soul and wrote his treatise, Phaedon, on the topic but did not seem to believe in a physical resurrection.

Among many contemporary Jewish theologians there is a marked tendency to leave the whole question of eschatology without discussion, either because they do not believe in the Hereafter at all or because they believe that the finite mind of man is incapable of piercing the veil and it is best to leave the subject severely alone.

Orthodox theologians still maintain the belief in the resurrection and refer to it, as did their forebears, in their daily prayers and at funerals. In the special Kaddish recited by a son at the funeral of a parent there are explicit references to the resurrection of the dead. At the same time, memorial prayers recited by the Orthodox contain references to the soul of the departed being at rest beneath the wings of the Shekhinah [God’s immanent presence].

Some Orthodox thinkers‑-very few, it must be said‑‑develop further the idea that the resurrection means of the soul not of the body. One of the Orthodox objections to cremation is on the grounds that it involves a denial of the doctrine of the resurrection.

Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century went the whole way in rejecting the doctrine of the resurrection in favor of that of the immortality of the soul. In Reform prayer books, passages in the traditional prayer book to the resurrection have either been deleted or interpreted as referring to immortality of the soul.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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