Life After Death

Ideas

By Miriam Shaviv

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life
By Jon D. Levenson
Yale University Press, 274 pages, $40.

For many non-Orthodox Jews, the concept of the physical resurrection of the dead has always been difficult. Prayers mentioning the doctrine — including such central texts as the second paragraph of the Amidah, in which God is addressed as “the one who revives the dead… and restores life” — have been translated in Reform and Conservative prayer books either very vaguely or completely misleadingly. In Abraham Geiger’s 19th-century German translation, for example, God simply “bestows life here or there”; in the Reform movement’s 1975 Gates of Prayer siddur, resurrection becomes “power over [one’s] own life.”

And yet, not only is the expectation of resurrection of the dead central to rabbinic Judaism, but, according to Harvard University professor Jon D. Levenson, it also has roots going back to biblical times. In Levenson’s new study, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel,” he overturns the conventional wisdom that resurrection was a doctrine that emerged suddenly around the time of the Second Temple and is tangential to Judaism. He argues that it developed “slowly and unevenly” over the preceding centuries. The result is a fascinating portrait of the evolution of one theological concept over more than 3,000 years, one that many modern Jews will find deeply unsettling.

The fate of the dead in the Hebrew Bible has always been unclear. According to Levenson, in the Old Testament, those who died an “unfortunate” death, marked by “violence, punishment, prematurity or a broken heart,” went to Sheol — the dark, miserable netherworld. Those such as Abraham, Moses and Job, who died content and blessed, did not go to an equivalent heavenly world but rather saw themselves as continued in their offspring. Since the boundaries between the self and one’s family were much more fluid in antiquity, leaving descendants really did have the ability to soften the prospect of death. Hence, those who found themselves in abject misery were functionally equivalent to residents of Sheol, and considered themselves effectively dead. The same applied to those who were barren of children (a recurring concern in the Bible). When God improved their condition, or granted them children, it was seen as a very real form of resurrection.

The Hebrew Bible, therefore, never really saw death as inevitable and irreversible. In Jewish devotional literature, Levenson says, the Temple is often described as Eden-like, giving those who shelter in it temporary protection from death. Similarly, the most extensive description of resurrection in the Bible — the story in 2 Kings of the prophet Elisha resuscitating a child — shows that the possibility of God reversing death was not altogether foreign, although there was not, as yet, an expectation of a more general revival of the dead.

The foundations for this were laid later, when the Scriptures start talking about the nation as a whole returning to the Land of Israel after a period in exile in terms of physical resurrection. Israel, a widow, loses her children, who are then miraculously restored; more radically, in Ezekiel’s famous vision, the nation is symbolized by dry bones in a valley, which are given flesh and breath again, and stand up — “a vast multitude,” restored to life. Finally, in Daniel 12:1-3, “the first transparent and indisputable prediction of the resurrection of the dead in the Hebrew Bible appears,” promising that in the future, “many of those that sleep in the dust will awake….”

Gradually, these strands came together in Second Temple times to form the widespread expectation of a general resurrection. The end result, Levenson emphasizes, was not inevitable, and a variety of other factors — such as the influence of Zoroastrianism — played a role, as well.

“Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel” generally suits a more academic audience, and navigating the book is made harder by the inexplicable absence of a general index; however, those who do make it to the end will be rewarded with a creative and inspiring reading of Jewish texts and history. It is a shame that Levenson seems to be addressing his book to a non-Orthodox audience, and that he doesn’t truly discuss the widespread acceptance of resurrection in the contemporary Orthodox world (indeed, how could he write a book on this topic without mentioning Chabad, many of whose adherents believe that the seventh rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, will return). Many in the Orthodox camp would find his book just as revolutionary as would their non-Orthodox peers, for the opposite reason: They may be shocked at how marginal-to-nonexistent the doctrine of resurrection, as they know it, was for so much of Jewish history.

Ultimately, Levenson’s goal of persuading readers that resurrection is not tangential to Judaism may yet bear fruit. In recent years, there has been a trend toward acceptance of Jewish concepts — such as Kabbalah and mysticism — that 30 years ago were deeply embarrassing to many in the mainstream community. As unlikely as it seems at the moment, the Jewish doctrine of resurrection may yet be resurrected in our time.

Miriam Shaviv is the comment editor of the Jewish Chronicle in the United Kingdom.


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