I want to ask about the concept of resurrection.
Although it is not clearly stated or described in the Torah, the afterlife and resurrection of the dead has held an important position in (some of, at some times) Jewish belief and thought.
We know that some people die very young, and some very old, many in a very bad physical condition, unable to walk etc.
According to Jewish thought, in what condition will resurrection take place (if it does)?
Will someone be resurrected as an age 95 year old person who is unable to walk and disabled, or will it be as one in the full power of their youth, etc.?
Thank you in advance for your answer.
I understand why the concept of resurrection as a reward might be troublesome in light of the fact that people do die young, or in bad physical condition, or maybe don't exactly meet the definition of a saint. Perhaps it bothers you the fact that you may not see that next reality. First, let's understand what it is to the best that we can and perhaps things issues will become less troublesome.
First off is that yes, we do believe in a physical resurrection. It is in fact such an important Jewish belief that one is considered to be a heretic if one doesn't believe it. However, the nature of that resurrection is much less understood. Some sources explain it as it would read literally that we would come back to our bodies as is, like the Ramban seems to say. Others suggest something else is going on, as R' Arye Kaplan explains the position of the Rambam and I have heard reported in the name of the Ari z"l.
The second issue is that the entire concepts of eternal reward and the hereafter are concealed in the Torah for a reason. The Maharal explains in his introduction to his book on the Exodus Gevurat Hashem (The Might of G-d) that the reason these issues are obscured is because they don't make a whole lot of sense in this world and they're concepts we can't easily relate to. After all, as you point out, what kind of reward would it be for a 95 year old man to return to the same worn out body? The Maharal's explanation that this reward his past our comprehension given our relatively limited ability to experience reality makes sense.
The third issue really complicates issues, and that is that we believe in the concept of gilgulim (reincarnation). If people have experienced multiple lifetimes in order to get right what they didn't previously, the question then becomes who comes back. To that I have heard that every incarnation of a person that merits does come back, because they are not actually the same person. That's about the easiest part of the equation.
The most confusing part of it all is when and how this all transpires. There is an interplay of three events in Jewish belief the order of which is quite confusing. We believe in this concept of a resurrection of the dead for those who merit, an Olam Haba (world to come) where people go after they die to receive their reward and punishment (the vast majority of people experience both), and yomot haMashiah (the days of the Messiah). About these issues there is considerable debate and literature. I saw a very good treatment of it in the book Minhat Yehuda, but it's way too much to get into here, as much as I'd like to.
The trouble with a 4,000 year old tradition is that we collect an awful lot of things: rules, traditions, theologies, etc.; but rarely if ever jettison any of the old. That is normally a very good thing- it leads to deep thought and wisdom and a myriad of possibilities on many issues. With the afterlife, though, it can be a bit of mess. That does allow Jews, though, to choose from a range of possibilities.
Judaism, first and foremost, is a religion for this life, and not the next one. Our religion and its practices focus the individual on observing laws and living ones life in a moral and intentional way in order that this life be happy and meaningful. Shabbat, prayer, mitzvot, Torah study, and ethical eating practices are all about the here and now, and are not focused on earning a reward that will be paid upon one’s demise.
However, we all die, and Jewish eschatology (end-of-days theology) does exist. As I mentioned in my introduction, though, it is a hodgepodge of years of accumulated traditions, which often do not agree with one another.
The first biblical view is mentioned in conjunction with Abraham, who tells his children he will ‘go down to Sheol’ (Genesis 37:35), some kind of subterranean netherworld, according to some biblical scholars. This is likely some kind of eternal purgatory, neither good nor bad, and does not include a return trip at any point.
The second biblical view, which you refer to in your question, is Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, being reanimated at the end of days (Ezekiel 37:1-14). The righteous will return after death, and their bodies will be functional again. Jews today may or may not believe this, by and large. However, it is for this reason that Jewish burial organizations like ZAKA care very much that every part of a Jew is buried together in a funeral plot. Jewish mortuaries are well accustomed to preserving the limbs of amputees so that their parts may be interred together with the rest of their body: the belief is that when the righteous return to life at the end of days, the severed limb will be joined to its body. Whether the person is young and vital or old and less active, though, is not an answer or comment I have seen in Jewish sources- you are free to imagine as you wish. Although Jews put the effort into observing these rituals, it is also due to the Jewish view of ‘kavod haMet’; respect for the dead, and is also the reason why Jewish tradition requires burial, and not cremation. Therefore, the Jewish efforts in gathering all the parts of a deceased person for burial does not necessary imply that Jews are sure there will be a resurrection.
Two post-biblical views of afterlife exist as well. First, the Talmud, and subsequently the Hasidic tradition, discusses the notion of ‘Olam HaBa’ - the world to come. It is stated in the Talmud that there is some kind of heaven-like place for the righteous; for the wicked, there is nothing. Hassidic teachings about Olam HaBa make it a place of Torah learning, all the time. It is not a place where a corporeal body is needed. Second, the Kabbalistic tradition records the idea of ‘gilgul haNefesh’- reincarnation. Your soul is reborn after death into the body of another person.
Lastly, it is entirely possible that none of these is what happens when we die. The energy that is within us is recycled into the universe in some way we cannot understand. We are a part of everything, and God, forever after. This view fits nicely with a Reconstructionist view of God, if that’s your thing.
My advice, though, is to pour a nice glass of wine, enjoy your friends and family, and live a good life in the present. Those are things you can know, understand, and enjoy for certain.
The Reform Movement, dating back to before it was written into the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform has long rejected the concept of physical resurrection. All our Prayer Books until the most recent Mishkan Tefilah eliminated reference to it and even in Mishkan Tefilah the use of the wording “Michayei HaMetim” – “who revives the dead” is only printed as a secondary option.
The reasons for the rejection of such a doctrine, in favor of a theology that endorsed the idea of eternal life for the soul, is multi-faceted. Mostly it is rooted in the rationalist philosophy of the Reform Movement that is still at the core of the movement today. The questions you ask are part of that rejection as well (since they are not definitively answered in our sources) as well as the idea that has crept into the resurrection theology of the bodies tunneling through the earth to the Land of Israel for resurrection.
Ultimately, it is not considered an important question to Reform Jews, or really many modern Jews. As Jews we don’t concern ourselves with the afterlife. What little we know about it is in our texts and that is very sparse in any detail. Rather we focus on this life and we know that if we live this life doing our best to do and understand God’s commandments in a way that brings honor to ourselves, to others and to God, that the afterlife will take care of itself.
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