The Afterlife in Judaism: Modern Liturgical Reforms

Amending prayers that mention resurrection to accord with modern sensibilities.


One way of tracing the progressive disenchantment from the doctrine of bodily resurrection is to study the changes that were progressively introduced into the closing words of the Gevurot benediction of the Amidah

Reform Judaism: Stress the Soul’s Afterlife

The earliest Reformers were loath to tamper with the traditional liturgy, but at a conference of Reform rabbis in Brunswick [Germany] in 1844, Abraham Geiger, the acknowledged ideological father of Classical Reform, suggested that his movement must deal with some liturgical doctrines that were foreign to the new age. One of these was the hope for an afterlife, which, he proposed, should now stress not the resurrection of the body but rather the immortality of the soul.

In the 1854 prayer book Geiger edited for his congregation in Breslau, he kept the original Hebrew of the benediction, but translated its concluding passage, “der Leben spendet hier und dort” (freely translated: “who bestows life in this world and the other”).

The champion of the radical wing of Classical Reform was David Einhorn (1809-1879). Einhorn was singularly responsible for transplanting Reform ideology from Ger­many to America. In his 1856 prayer book, Olat Tamid: Book of Prayers for Jewish Congregations, published for his congrega­tion in Baltimore, Einhorn replaced the tra­ditional Hebrew closing formula with a new version that praises God, “Who has planted immortal life within us.”

That formula was later used in the 1895 Union Prayer Book, which became standard in all American Re­form congregations until 1975, when it was replaced by The New Union Prayer Book, more commonly known as Gates of Prayer.

This latter prayer book, in turn, typically substitutes for the closing words of the bene­diction, the formula mehaye hakol (variously translated: “Source of life,” or “Creator of life.”)

These liturgical changes were echoed in the various platforms issued by American Reform rabbis as a way of giving their movement a measure of ideological coherence. An 1869 conference of Reform rabbis, held in Philadelphia, affirmed that “(t)he belief in the bodily resurrection has no religious foundation, and the doctrine of immortality refers to the after‑existence of souls alone.” This Philadelphia statement served as the basis for an even more influential statement of the principles of Reform, the Pittsburgh Platform, adopted in 1885.

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

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