Invasion of the Jewish Undead

If adding a few zombies can put Pride and Prejudice on the bestseller lists, why not this blog? 

Sad to say, though, I’m not really writing about zombies today. Nor even about vampires or werewolves. Instead, let’s talk about Jewish conceptions of an afterlife! 

(Clunk. That’s the sound of my readership plummeting to rock bottom as all the zombie fans realize this is not their kind of undead discussion.) 

As part of my ongoing meetings with my rabbi, I recently read two books about Jewish ideas of an afterlife – What Happens After I Die: Jewish Views of Life After Death, by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, and The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, by Neil Gillman. 

What Happens After I Die is a short, easy-to-read summary of how various Jewish thinkers have approached this issue. (Like Sonsino and Syme’s other book on Finding God, it’s kind of a Cliff’s Notes for Jewish theology.) Gillman is a little weightier. 

A lot of this was new to me, since I’ve never paid much attention to what Judaism says about death. Here’s my 30-second summary: 

  • The Torah barely makes mention of the idea of an afterlife. It often talks about death as a return to dust. (“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19)  
  • Sometimes the Torah refers to a shadowy underground place called Sheol to which all dead people go. This isn’t a place of punishment like later descriptions of Hell, just a dark silent  place. For instance, Job says, “As a cloud fades away, so whoever goes down to Sheol does not come up.”
  • By the time the Talmud was compiled around 400 C.E., Judaism had developed a doctrine of physical resurrection – that someday when the Messiah comes, the dead will rise up and God will restore them to their bodies.
  • There are various historical theories about why the resurrection doctrine developed – for instance, during an era of massive oppression and killings of Jews by the Romans, it filled a psychological need for justice. Bodily resurrection as a doctrine had its opponents (the Pharisees were pro-resurrection, while the Sadducees believed that once dead, you stayed dead). But whatever its genesis, resurrection of the dead ultimately became a key point in Orthodox Judaism.
  • Meanwhile, the Greek concept of an immortal soul that is distinct from the body was also incorporated into Judaism. Maimonides included resurrection of the dead among his Thirteen Principles of Jewish Belief, but  gave much more of his attention to immortality of the soul:

“In the World to Come, there is nothing corporeal, and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies…. The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body.”

  • There are lots of inconsistent, sometimes conflicting, ideas about afterlife running through the past 2,000 years of Jewish thought. There’s even a Jewish version of reincarnation in the Kabbalah  – gilgul neshamot, or “revolving of souls”!
  • When Reform Judaism arose in the 1800s as an effort to bring a modern, scientific world view to Judaism, it renounced the doctrine of bodily resurrection. The Reform liturgy removed the traditional wording praising God for giving life to the dead (mechayei hametim), and instead praised God for giving life to everything (mechayei hakol).

Rather than bodily resurrection, Reform Judaism followed Maimonides’ lead and focused on the immortality of the soul. Some Reform thinkers went even further and treated immortality as an abstraction – i.e., we live on after death through our good deeds or through people’s memories of us.

Recently, though, Reform has stepped back from its historical antipathy to the language of bodily resurrection. In a bow to tradition, the latest version of the Reform prayerbook gives congregants the option of saying mechayei hametim instead of mechayei hakol.

Yow! Maybe we’ll get some zombies into this blog post after all.

 Zombies in the synagogue social hall! Zombies in the sisterhood gift shop! Zombies on the JCC basketball court!

(Although I do need to add that the Reform movement doesn’t intend for people to take the revived mechayei hametim language at face value. “Most Reform rabbis don’t accept bodily resurrection literally,” my rabbi said. “Instead, they’re talking about things that are inside all of us — parts of us that may feel dead but we want to resurrect.”)

In any case, this is all historically interesting. But what does it mean for me personally? Not much.

I can’t even begin to take the idea of dead bodies rising up from their graves seriously. I don’t buy into ideas of heaven (Gan Eden) and hell (Gehinnom). Nor do I believe that I have a soul that will live on after I’m gone, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong. And the abstractions about living eternally through good deeds or others’ memories? That always feels like empty rationalization to me – no one short of a Shakespeare or a Lincoln is really remembered beyond their children and grandchildren. And in any event, I don’t want to be remembered: I want to be alive!

Ironically, the Jewish description of death that most speaks to me is the oldest and least sophisticated one – the Biblical one.

We return to dust.

To me, that is eloquent in its stark honesty. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything or succumb to wishful fantasy. It forces us to face the painful fact of our mortality.

And as a corollary, it challenges us to live a meaningful life since it is the only life we have. That’s kind of existentialist. It’s also very Jewish – do good, be just, be kind, not to win rewards in some future heaven but because it is the right way to live life here on Earth.

It also reminds me of the song When I’m Gone, by the brilliant, under-appreciated late folk singer Phil Ochs (download it! download it!):

Phil Ochs' I Ain't Marching Anymore (1964)

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
You won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour out a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here
And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Since posting this blog entry, I learned from my old college friend Eliot that Ochs was half Jewish on his father’s side! (See the comment section for this entry.) He was not actively Jewish, and I suspect he looked at all organized religion with a jaundiced, crap-detecting eye. But that song (I’ve included  just a partial excerpt) is one of the most moving and spiritual statements I’ve heard. It belongs in a siddur.


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11 Responses to “Invasion of the Jewish Undead”

  1. johnmangels Says:

    It was wonderful to read this, just at this time, because one of my colleagues was summarizing their understanding of Jewish belief (singular) on what happens when you die. And I remember reading a large variety of suggestions from Jewish sources. I learned a bit, which I hope I can remember. Her sense of Judaism was much like what you believe (and, for that matter, Phil’s song — one of his better ones in my mind). She wanted to suggest a Jewish (and Islamic) focus on life here and now contrasts with how many Christians approach life (with a focus on what comes after). I think that’s oversimplifying Christianity too. BUT, there may be SOME overall truth in her take on the whole. I’m still thinking about it. It is my sense, however, that (what we know as) the incarnation, for us Christians, is a mark of the importance of life in this world for us. And many Christians (of a variety of stripes) have a very strong focus on justice issues as central religious issues. Anyway, thanks for your posting. It was fun to see Phil Ochs mentioned — doesn’t happen all that often, thogh he is played on some satelite stations.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thanks for another insightful comment, John. I think there is a lot of interesting research that’s been done on how Jewish beliefs and practices of the rabbinic (post-Biblical) period influenced the development of early Christianity. I haven’t read it, but I suspect you and Jim have. Speaking from a historian’s mindset, I would also suspect the development of rabbinic doctrine of bodily resurrection played a role in the development of the Christian idea of Jesus’ resurrection. ????

      • johnmangels Says:

        What I remember being told back in seminary is that for Jews (and the earliest Christians were Jews — or at least considered themselves to be Jews) any resurrection that was not a bodily resurrection meant ending up in sheol — a disembodied existance where you could do nothing but exist in a kind of a half life. As I understand it, there was supposed to be no dualism of body and sould in Jewish thought. They existed together, or not at all. So the insistance on a bodily resurrection was understood (in seminary) as a Jewish approach that talked about a meaningful life after death. Supposedly, this was a Jewish concept (bodily resurrection) that didn’t translate, culturaly, into the Greek (with its dualism between body and soul). Paul was doing ok at the areopogus until he started talking about a bodily resurrection. Then he lost people completely. Paul seems to have borrowed the Greek language of gnosticism (a soul escaping from a body to reach its true home) as a cultural translation of the idea of a bodily resurrection. So, yes, the rabbinic idea of a bodily resurrection would have (I believe) been the initial way Christians talked about Jesus’ resurrection. The Greek translation came to dominate over time. Paul, however (who was rabbinically trained) did not understand the bodily resurrection to refer to the body which had died — which he saw as only a seed for a new, spiritual body. That sounds to me like a shift from what I believe you describe as talmidic thought.

        I say this as someone who is not really a scholar (nor a speller). It’s what I took with me from seminary.

  2. Elliot Eder Says:

    A very good and important reflection, Ilana. I seem always to need reminding about key aspects of Jewish thought/rituals concerning death, dying, questions of the hereafter and consolation for the bereaved. Certain aspects take on larger or lesser significance for me depending on where I am in my life when a loved one dies.

    Jewish thought is not monolithic on these topics – it depends whom you ask. You’re right – biblically simple but culturally complex. I share your view that dust to dust says it all. Perhaps the cultural complexity is inevitable, since a core tenet for Jews is honoring our prior generations – l’dor va dor. Or perhaps it’s what evolves when so many generations of Jews were so persecuted for so many centuries.

    Speaking of prior generations, though, Phil Ochs was from non-practicing Jewish stock- unless you take the Jewish orthodox view of needing a mother to be Jewish. His mom was Scottish. His dad was a Jewish surgeon who witnessed the horror of war while treating soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere. Both he and his lyrical son saw a bit too much of the underbelly of life, and each was diagnosed as severe bi-polar.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Wow! Phil Ochs was a member of the tribe! :-)
      Thanks for letting me know — I feel like I just gained a wonderful distant cousin. My daughter, who discovered Ochs’ music last fall at age 15, will also be thrilled.
      I’ll edit the blog entry to include this. (So readers — if you are seeing Eliot’s comment and the correction part doesn;t make sense, it’s because I corrected the entry already.)

  3. Meredith Warshaw Says:

    “I would also suspect the development of rabbinic doctrine of bodily resurrection played a role in the development of the Christian idea of Jesus’ resurrection. ????”

    My mom, the religion major, says that the Christian idea of Jesus’s resurrection and godhood developed when early Christian proselytizers moved away from concentrating on their fellow Jews and focused more on the gentiles, particularly the Greeks. The tangible person-god fit with the Greek view, which had no room for the strange Jewish idea of an incorporeal God.

  4. judy pace Says:

    So my question is why cremation is considered contrary to Jewish belief. Given what you’ve said, Ilana, it seems to fit. Have you come across anything related to this?

    I went to a Yom Kippur service led by Michael Lerner last fall and we sang the Phil Ochs song . . .

  5. Elliot Eder Says:

    ‘Well’, that’s a deep subject – as they say on the rubber chicken circuit.

    Personally, I and a lot of others achieved far greater cathartic release and consolation by literally lowering my brother down, then shoveling the entire huge mounds of dirt over his remains than any of us would have had by watching someone cast his ashes to the wind. We worked up a sweat and felt ourselves part of this world, part of a community. And that’s in part what Jewish rituals of mourning seek to achieve.

    Compare that with this: a few months ago, in fact, my father-in-law sheepishly asked his kids what to do with the urn of the ashes of his late wife, which the cremation company had dropped off by messenger.

    As I recall, the ban on cremation in part has to do with honoring the body as an expression of divine creation. And in part it has to do with ‘giving back’ to the earth – about the only thing I personally look forward to in all this. There are lots of other ‘in parts’.

    For anyone interested in this, and in the overall topic of what infuses Jewish rites concerning death and dying, Maurice Lamm’s very touching book “Consolation: the Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief” is recommended (but NOT his earlier sterile classic “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning”).

    Meanwhile, the following is from (though I don’t subscribe to this rebbe’s larger point of view, and apologies for the length):

    “What is a body? Is a body simply a husk, merely a carbon-based organic entity with some slick programming to generate responses to sensory input? Certainly not. As Judaism explains it, the human body is the physical element in a complex and ultimately spiritual being. . . The body is an integral part of the human being!

    When a Torah Scroll becomes invalid and unfit for use, it is reverently buried with full honors, because it is a holy item, even if currently it is unusable. We must always accord it respect for the status it once held, and it will always retain holiness. . .

    So too is it with the human body. The Creator gave us physical matter with which to perform the Commandments. It is through the agency of the physical that we attain the spiritual. . . the primary road to holiness is the use of the physical for spiritual purposes. When we pray, what do we use? We use our mouths, and of course our thoughts. When we give charity, what do we use? We use our hands, and of course our emotions. So is it with all good deeds.

    And thus, we owe a great debt to our bodies. Our bodies allow us to attain the holiness that the Creator has prepared for us.

    And it is not simply our souls that attain that holiness. Would it be fair for the body to do work and not receive reward? No, for when we do any good deed, our physical bodies actually attain holiness through that deed.
    How, then, can we commit an act of desecration, of sacrilege, by burning a body, as if it has no meaning or importance to us? . . . We are required to allow the body to decompose. The Torah [arguably] commands that we do not embalm a body, that we use only the plainest of pine coffins, and that we always bury under the ground. Perhaps we are required to return to the soil that which has come from the soil. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” says the Torah (Genesis 3:19).

    Perhaps, I wonder, if it could be that we must allow the body to do one last good deed, all by itself, without even the aid of the soul that gives it life. This is the only good deed that a body can do alone . . . . Thus, we are commanded to allow the body to give to the earth elements that will enrich the soil, that will allow the earth itself to rejuvenate, in a sense to resurrect, and will further the growth of life on earth. The death of a body can, that way, bring about life on earth.

    When a body is cremated, the ashes will also eventually degenerate, but they will never offer the earth what a dead body can offer the earth. Perhaps that is another reason we are forbidden to cremate a body. But that is just my own suggestion, not a statement found in Jewish Law.”

  6. Jim Richardson Says:

    I am catching up a bit late to this post and the responses. Thank you for this thoughtful summation and for the perspectives offered.

    For what it is worth, the apostle Paul did not believe in bodily resurrection, and perhaps he provides a window not just into early Christian thought but also 1st century Jewish thought (he was a rabbi). Paul claimed that somehow we would be “changed” at our death, and our “perishable body” exchanged for something “imperishable.” He called it a “mystery” and that is as far as he got on this topic. He proof-texted his observation by citing Isaiah and Hosea. Paul was not captive to the Greek philosophic categories that so captured Christianity later, and the only “scripture” he knew was Hebrew scripture.

    Here is the pertinent quote from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15: 50-55) on the topic of an afterlife:

    “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
    ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
    ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

    Postscript: The musical among you will recognize those verses from Handle’s Messiah. I can’t read them without singing!

  7. Kaveh Says:

    Interesting thoughts, Ilana.

    I humbly believe there IS a kind of ‘soul’, but not of the typically conceived variety.

    To put it simply, I define ‘soul’ as the sum total of a living thing’s impact on other living things, an impact that starts when its life begins (or even BEFORE!) and continues ‘forever’ past ‘death’. I think it is a concept more subtle and much more pervasive and enduring than memory or fame. It involves anything as simple and essential as respiration, consumption, living in and moving through a society, all actions and interactions, etc… And it involves expanding ‘I’ to something much more complex and ineffable.

    Yes, I think in this way we live on, even while alive in body form!

    This collective soul can end if one planet is destroyed, but hopefully there are others. Could be that all life is extinguished in the end, though. As I said before, maybe the Grand Endeavor is to simply live!

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