Immortality: Belief in a Bodiless Existence

Everlasting life was not always guaranteed to the Jewish soul.

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Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

The doctrine of immortality normally refers to the immortality of the soulin 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.

For Maimonides and the other medieval Jewish philosophers, immortality is not an inherent property of the human soul but a consequence of virtuous behavior. They do not speak of nizhiyut ha‑nefesh (the eternality of the soul) but of hisharut ha‑nefesh (the survival of the soul). For them it was important to affirm that the soul could outlast the body but presumptuous to argue that it was deathless. God could not be denied the power to destroy something he had created.

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Allan Arkush

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