The Afterlife in Judaism: Modern Liturgical Reforms

Amending prayers that mention resurrection to accord with modern sensibilities.

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gravestoneFinally, the 1937 Columbus Platform states, "Judaism affirms that man is created in the image of God. His spirit is immortal."

Still a third expression of the shift in thinking among Reform rabbis can be seen in theological treatises such as Kaufman Kohler's Jewish Theology: Systematically and Historically Considered (republished, New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1968). Einhorn's son‑in‑law, Kohler (1843‑1969) succeeded him as the champion of the radical wing of American Reform. He was responsible for convening the Pittsburgh Conference and for drafting its platform.

Kohler's book devotes three full chapters to a historical overview of Jewish thinking on the afterlife and concludes that "…he who recognizes the unchangeable will of an all‑wise, all‑ruling God in the immutable laws of nature must find it impossible to praise God…as the 'reviver of the dead,' but will avail himself instead of the expression…, 'He who has implanted within us immortal life'" (pp. 296‑297). For Kohler, God's power reveals itself not in the miraculous but rather in the "immutable laws of nature," which decree that all material things must die, that death is final, and that only the spiritual can live eternally.

Reconstructing Beliefs About Resurrection

Apart from American Reform, the other modern Jewish religious movement that dismissed bodily resurrection outright was Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionism.

Kaplan (1881‑1983) was arguably American Judaism's most innovative thinker. A thoroughgoing religious and theological naturalist [i.e. he rejected the "supernatural"], he propounded the view that Judaism was the "civilization" of the Jewish people. The Jewish people can then reformulate its beliefs and practices to make it possible for new generations of Jews to identify with their civilization.

In 1945, Kaplan published his Sabbath Prayer Book, which carried his ideological commitments into the liturgy. His introduction to the prayer book lists the "Modification of Traditional Doctrines" reflected in his work, and one of these is the doctrine of resurrection (pp. xvii‑xviii). Kaplan rejects resurrection, accepts spiritual immortality, but refuses to impose it on the traditional liturgical text of the Amidah. In place of the traditional formula, he uses a phrase from the High Holiday liturgy that praises God "…Who in love rememberest Thy creatures unto life."

This was but one of the many changes in the traditional liturgy that led to Kaplan's excommunication by a group of Orthodox rabbis. A more recent Reconstructionist prayer book, Kol Haneshamah (1994), replaces Kaplan's phrase with a version of the Reform formula, "Who gives and restores life." A literal translation of the Hebrew mehaye kol hai, by contrast, would read simply "who gives life to all living things."

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Dr. Neil Gillman

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