Immortality: Belief in a Bodiless Existence

Everlasting life was not always guaranteed to the Jewish soul.

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The idea that humans are made up of two substances, a body that perishes and a soul that lives on after death, is not found in the Bible. The Hebrew words later associated with the soul--nefesh, neshamah, ruah- in the Bible mean "breath" and sometimes (as in Genesis 2:7, nishmat hayim) refer to the animating spark of life. But there is no sense that this spark is an essential entity that exists independent of the body. The concept of immortality entered Judaism sometime between the first century BCE and the first century CE. Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

The doctrine of immortality normally refers to the immortality of the soul-‑in contrast to the mortality of the body. This doctrine, as has often been pointed out, is not Jewish in origin but Greek. 

Judaism at first conceived of the life after death not as a liberation of the soul from the body, but as the "reunion of soul and body to live again in the completeness of man's nature. (George F. Moore)" In the End of Days, it was believed, the dead would be brought back to life. The righteous would then enjoy the rewards they had earned through their conduct in the course of their lives, and the wicked would receive appropriate punishments.

The Talmud, to be sure, includes some statements reflecting belief in the immortality of the disembodied soul, but these, as Julius Guttman has observed, are curiously undeveloped‑-probably as a result of the competing concept of resurrection.

The Ultimate Reward

Only in the Middle Ages does the idea of immortality begin to assume preeminence. In the teaching of Moses Maimonides, the resurrection of the dead is only a temporary, intermediate stage in the soul's journey. It is followed by a second death, after which those who have lived properly enjoy forever, as bodiless souls, "blissful delight in their attainment of knowledge of the truly essential nature of God the Creator."

The wicked, on the other hand, are "cut off"; their souls perish.

jewish cemetaryThese divergent posthumous prospects should not, according to Maimonides, be the foremost things in a man's mind. One ought to study Torah and perform its commandments for their own sake, and not ask "What will I get out of it?"

But, Maimonides wrote, our sages knew that this is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. "Therefore, in order that the multitude stay faithful and do the commandments, it was permitted to tell them that they might hope for a reward and to warn them against transgressions out of fear of punishment." In time, perhaps, they might awaken to truth and serve God out of love.

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Allan Arkush

Dr. Allan Arkush is Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and History at SUNY Binghamton.