Immortality: Belief in a Bodiless Existence

Everlasting life was not always guaranteed to the Jewish soul.

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Immortality For All

Not until modern times did a Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, choose to speak of nizhiyut ha‑nefesh, in his work Sefer ha‑Nefesh, and to argue that all human souls exist everlastingly. Unlike his medieval predecessors, Mendelssohn held that the human soul is by nature indestructible

He also maintained that every human soul is ultimately destined to taste the felicity Maimonides had reserved for the virtuous alone. Granted, the wicked would receive some well‑deserved punishments on their posthumous path to perfection, but these would be purely correctional and limited in duration. In the end, every individual is destined to attain a certain degree of happiness. Nothing else would be consistent with the infinite wisdom and goodness of God.

Mendelssohn, no less than Maimonides, stressed the superiority of virtuous acts performed because they are seen as desirable in themselves, and not for the sake of receiving a reward. He belittled what he called the "popular moral teaching," based as it was on threats and promises concerning the afterlife. Still, he did not try to uproot these popular ideas. "The common heap," he believed, are often incapable of understanding a better teaching, and it would be inexcusable to deprive them of their only incentive to live virtuously.

Mendelssohn was the last major Jewish thinker to argue that the existence of an afterlife was rationally demonstrable. He was the last [secular-minded philosopher], in fact, for whom the doctrine of a life after death was a consolation and not a source of some embarrassment.

The new attitude toward this question on the part of later Jewish philosophers can be directly traced to the influence of the man Mendelssohn counted as a friend but described as the "all-destroyer"Immanuel Kant. Kant demolished Mendelssohn's as well as everyone else's proofs of the soul's immortality, and although he himself still adhered to the doctrine, identifying it as a postulate of practical reason, his moral teaching taken as a whole discouraged even his most ardent Jewish disciples from following him on this matter.

Communal Immortality

The great neo‑Kantian Hermann Cohen strongly regretted Kant's failure to expunge this remnant of heteronomous morality [i.e. morality that is subject to an external authority, in this case practical reason] from his system, and was careful not to repeat the same error in his own philosophy of Judaism.

Cohen did not altogether repudiate the idea of the immortality of the soul, but radically transformed it. He maintained that certain biblical expressions for death‑‑"And thou shalt go to thy fathers," "He is gathered to his people"‑‑reflect the biblical conception of immortality as "the historical living on of the individual in the historical continuity of the people."

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Allan Arkush

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