The concept of resurrection is a very difficult one to come to terms with. If it means that after death, our bodies may be returned to life in a recognizable form, our rational mind is bound to raise a long list of very practical problems. What about overpopulation? Will everyone be resurrected or only a very limited number of good people? At what stage in person's life and in what form will bodies come back? Will they come back with false teeth and limbs or without? Will they have gray hair or dark? What about the martyrs who were burned to death? No, I am not being facetious because in the Talmud, Cleopatra raises precisely this sort of very practical problem. "Queen Cleopatra asked Rabbi Meir, she said, 'I can understand that dead come alive as it is written, 'And they will grow out of the city like grass grows out of the earth,' but when they get up, will they get up naked or with their clothes on?' He said, 'We can learn from wheat. If wheat is buried naked but rises in several clothes, so the dead who are buried in garments, how much more so?'" Amusingly, we can see that fashion was then as now, the preoccupation of the wealthy and the powerful.
Before we take up these issues, let's examine the history of the concept. Although the rabbis suggested that resurrection is mentioned in the Torah, the examples they give are far from obvious. Rabbi Meir said, "Where do we have (a basis for) resurrection in the Torah? Because it says, 'Then Moses and the Children of Israel will sing this song.' It does not say 'sang' but 'they will sing'. From here (we have evidence of) resurrection in the Torah." Of course the word "Yashir", "he will sing", can be used identically in the past and in the future tenses. It is one of the features of Hebrew Grammar that certain tenses can be used both ways and that a "vav" put in front of a future verb turns it into a past one. No one has ever suggested that in the original text in Exodus, it does not mean that Moses sang, in the past tense, on being delivered from the Egyptians. So obviously this is not the literal textual meaning but rather a device to back up a rabbinic position as being sanctioned by tradition.
With all deference to the rabbis, there is no explicit, direct reference in the Torah to resurrection. This does not mean that it could not have been implicit. There are lots of things we can assume from the Torah without their being explicitly stated. It does not actually say, for example, that God has no body. But most (though by no means every great rabbi) has taken this for granted. So it is possible that there are hints or implications in the Torah. The nearest we get to a suggestion of an existence beyond the grave is the deduction that might be made from the phrase used of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that when they died they were "gathered to their people". This is interesting also because this phrase is only used of these three important men and no one else. Were they unique in the way they died? Or is this rather a reference to their seminal position as the founders of the monotheistic tradition?
It is not until Samuel that we get an explicit statement that "God puts to death and brings to life, brings down to the grave and takes up." But this does not necessarily imply resurrection. It says, in its poetic context, that God is capable of bringing the dead back to life in the way that some of the Biblical prophets could bring dead children back from the grave. In talking about "soul" we quoted the lines from Ecclesiastes, "For what happens to humans and what happens to animals, the same thing happens, as this one dies so does the other and there is one spirit for all and there is no way in which man is better than animals, everything is meaningless. Everything goes to the same place; everything came from dust and returns to dust. And who knows if the spirit of man rises upwards and the spirit of the animal goes down into the dust." Can this be taken to imply resurrection? Certainly, talk about souls rising means that there is an afterlife; but this too may mean no more than that they return to their source, not that they are reconstituted or subsequently returned to a reconstituted body. In neither of these cases do we have any clear and unequivocal statement about a general resurrection of dead bodies.
The first clear statement, it might appear, about actual resurrection, comes from the vision of Ezekiel, in exile in Babylon, seeking to comfort the Jewish people in their despair at having lost their land and autonomy. "And the hand of God was on me and the spirit of God took me out and placed me in a valley, and the valley was full of bones. And He moved me about the bones, around and around and there were many over the surface of the valley and they were very dry. And He said to me, 'Son of man, can these bones live?' And I said, 'My God Elohim, You know.' And He said 'Prophesy over these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, listen to the word of God. Thus says God, Elohim, to these bones, 'I am going to bring spirit into you and you will live. And I will give you sinews and make flesh come and enclose you in skin and I will put spirit in you and you will live.'' And I prophesied as I had been commanded and as I was prophesying I heard a sound and then a whirlwind and the bones drew closer to each other. And I saw that there were sinews and flesh coming and skin on top but there was no spirit. And God said to me, 'Prophesy to the (wind) spirit; prophesy son of man and say to the wind (spirit), 'Thus says my God Elohim, from the four winds, come spirit and breathe into these corpses and they will live.' And I prophesied as He commanded me and the spirit came and they stood on their feet a huge and very very large army. And He said to me, 'Son of man, these bones are all (my emphasis) of the house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried; we have lost hope; it has been decreed against us.' Therefore prophesy and say to them, 'Thus says God Elohim, 'I am going to open up your graves and I am going to take you out of your graves and I will bring you, My people, to the land of Israel. And you will know that I am YHVH when I open your graves and when I take you up, my people, from your graves. I will put My Spirit into you and you will live and I will lead you to your land and you will know that I am YHVH. I have spoken and I will do says YHVH.'" I underlined the word "all" because at the time not all the house of Israel was dead. The Judeans were very much alive in Babylon. They might have been depressed in exile, and they might have doubted if they would ever see a re-born Jewish state in Israel. Even if "the House of Israel" referred to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, there, too, the so-called "Ten Lost Tribes" were not completely lost.
I have emphasized that word "all" in the phrase "these bones are all of the house of Israel", because I think this unambiguously indicates that Ezekiel is talking in general about the "dead" morale of the Jewish people in general and the burden of his message is that, however bad things appear, God will revive the fortunes of the people and give them back their land and state. It is an immediate message of hope that was, in fact, accomplished in the return to Zion that Cyrus permitted. But it is hardly evident that this is a commitment to a select group to be resurrected in general at some future date.
Nevertheless, some of the rabbis of the Talmud were inclined to think that there was something unique about this specific message and saw it as an actual event rather than as a parable. "Rabbi Eliezer said, 'The dead whom Ezekiel brought back to life stood on their feet and sang a song and then died. What song did they sing? 'God puts to death with justice and revives with mercy.'" Rabbi Yehoshua said, 'God puts to death and revives, takes down to the grave and takes up.' Rabbi Yehuda said, 'In truth it was a parable. 'Rabbi Nechemia said to him, 'If it was true why call it a parable, and if it was a parable why call it truth?' Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi HaGallili said, 'The dead whom Ezekiel revived went up to the land of Israel and married women and gave birth to sons and daughters.' Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bateira got up and said, 'I am one of their grandchildren and these are their Tefillin that my grandfather left me.' Who were the dead that Ezekiel revived? Rav said, 'They are the sons of Ephraim.'"
Rabbi Eliezer takes the view that what Ezekiel prophesied actually happened, but that it was a single remarkable event that showed the capacity of God to achieve the miraculous. Hence their song which was reminiscent of the song sung by the Israelites to celebrate their miracle of surviving the crossing of the Red Sea. Rabbi Yehuda understands that the narrative was a parable. And Rabbi Nechemia, in analyzing Rabbi Yehuda's comment recognizes that Rabbi Yehuda may be saying that is a parable but has difficulty understanding the way Rabbi Yehuda is expressing himself. It is almost as though his ambiguity is intended to keep his options open. But what is Yehuda Ben Bateira saying? Again he could be understood in two ways. He could be saying that the story is a parable referring to the revival of the Jewish people, and he is descended and his Tefillin were those worn by the returnees who rebuilt the Temple and re-established the Jewish presence in Israel. He could, on the other hand, be taken at face value. Either way, it is hard to see any clear, unambiguous principle emerging from Ezekiel's vision.
Perhaps Daniel offers a clearer position. "Many of those who sleep in the earth will awake to eternal life and others to shame and everlasting disintegration." This seems to be a much clearer statement of the expectation that after death the good will awake and return to some sort of life but the bad will not. And the book ends with a promise that "Happy is he who waits and arrives at the one thousand, three hundred and thirty-fifth day. And you, go to the end, and you will rest and then get up (to face) your fate at the end of days." Nevertheless, the phrase "ketz yamim", usually translated "the end of days", with its eschatological connotations, is misleading. It need not mean some distant day way into the future. So, for example, the phrase "ketz yamim" is used in the Cain and Abel narrative to mean "after a few days had passed". The basis for considering this as the foundation of the concept of revelation is also insubstantial and at best a matter of tradition rather than textual authority.
By the time of the Mishna, the belief in resurrection had become formalized. "All Israel has a place in the World to Come...These do not, the person who says that resurrection is not from the Torah". Of course, the very phrase that "all Israel has" is a polemical statement that asserts the importance of an idea. Just as when the rabbis say that "All Israel is responsible, one for the other" what they are expressing is a wish rather than a reality. But anyway, this statement about "all Israel" it is not phrased in a way that we normally associate with legal exhortations. The terminology of legal, Halachic, statements in the Mishna and the Talmud is far stricter and precise. "A person has an obligation to," or "It is forbidden to". These are the forms of common statements of what is or is not to be done. You would think that a similar phrase would be appropriate here, too, such as, "It is an obligation on every Jew to believe that". It seems that the formulation of this Mishna is directed towards those who reject a position rather than to exhort people to believe. Given the battles that the rabbis had with internal schisms, the Sadducees, the followers of Boetus, the Sectarians, and externally, the Samaritans, the Christians and the Greeks and Romans, it is hardly surprising that they were eager to reinforce their position. We have seen how they do this when we looked at their defense of revelation. However, this does not disguise or repudiate the fact that the rabbis do not formulate ideological issues in the same way they do legal ones. Not only that, but there is some ambiguity as to exactly what is meant.
The Mishna talks about resurrection and its source in the Torah. However, the Gemara goes on to question this generalization. "Why so much (such a harsh penalty as being deprived of a place in the World To Come)? The Tana taught, 'He rejected resurrection, therefore he has no part of it, because God always deals measure for measure.'" In effect, the person who rejects the idea of resurrection being referred to in the Torah must have been rejecting the idea of resurrection altogether. Otherwise why would he be deprived on the basis of rejection when all he has done is not to reject the idea but reject the possibility that its authority derives from the Torah text? Why is he deprived of the Next World? Only if, in the minds of the rabbis, the two ideas are synonymous. And if the argument is that only someone who accepts resurrection can experience the Life After Death, and one can only get to the stage of resurrection by achieving the Afterlife first, then why not just use the same words? Why have two seemingly independent terms?
In a similar way, the famous Gemara about "reward and punishment" blurs the lines between Resurrection and Life After Death. "Rabbi Yaakov said, 'There is not one command in the Torah that has its reward (written) by its side that is not connected with resurrection. In 'Honor your father and your mother,' it is written, 'in order that your days will be lengthened and it will be good for you.' In 'Sending away the mother bird', it is written, 'so that it will be good for you and you will have long days.' So it happened that his father said to his son, 'Climb up the tower and bring me the fledglings.' He climbed up the tower and sent away the mother bird and took babies and on his return he fell and died. Where are his good days? Where is his long life? But 'good for you' means in the world that is completely good. 'Long days' means in the world which is forever long.' Maybe the situation was different and Rabbi Yaakov saw something happen but maybe he (the child or the father) had a sinful intention or maybe the ladder was rotten." This debate about reward is an important one by itself. But the relevance to us here is that the term Reviving The Dead, resurrection, is synonymous with the idea of reward coming in the World To Come. So that the distinction between these two terms is also not at all clear.
"Just as the womb receives in silence but delivers in lots of sounds, the grave that receives with lots of sounds should certainly deliver up with lots of sounds. Here is a reply to those who say there is no basis for resurrection in the Torah." Again, this is a challenge not necessarily to those who doubt resurrection but rather to those who suggest that resurrection is not of Torah origin. Here, not even a quotation is being forced; only deductive logic is being used. And once again, the rabbis are eager to rebut the skeptics.
These variations of understanding are testimony to the variety of Rabbinic thinking and to the openness of the editors of the Talmud. Some see resurrection as a procedure that is related to the advent of the Messiah. If that is the case, and the messianic era is a continuum of normal life on earth, though on a higher plane, then, possibly, there may be humans still alive at the time of these transitional events who may not need to go through death and the afterlife before participating in the state of resurrection. "Until the dead come alive and then the Messiah the son of David will come." A similar idea is expressed using Elijah, as the precursor of the Messiah, "Until the dead come alive and Elijah comes". And this is made more explicit in the statement that "The Holy Spirit brings about resurrection and resurrection brings about Elijah, may he be remembered for good."
That the idea of resurrection is used in a symbolic way is evidenced by the statement, "He who wakes from sleep should say, 'Blessed are You YHVH who brings the dead to life.'" Of course, a person does not die overnight and return to life in the morning. Similarly, "If a person sees his friend after thirty days he should say, 'Blessed is He who has kept us alive to reach this time.' After twelve months he should say, 'Blessed is He who revives the dead.''' So "reviving the dead" can mean a sort of "miraculous" reappearance, even though, clearly, no one actually died.
Once again, the variety and, equally so, the obscurity, of Rabbinic ideas leads to a position where it is all but impossible to know what is being meant, and certainly impossible to talk as though there were just one single formulation of Rabbinic opinion or of what everyone is supposed to believe.
There is another aspect to this discussion, and that is the question of disembodied souls continuing to have a sort of human character after they leave the body on their "journey" back to God. There is a debate as to whether the souls of the departed know what is happening on earth. "And do the dead really not know anything? It once happened with a scholar who gave money to the poor just before Rosh Hashana in a year of drought and his wife fought with him and he went to sleep in the graveyard. He overheard two spirits talking to each other and one said to her friend, 'Come let us pass through the world and hear from the other side of the 'division' what bad things are going to happen on earth.' Her friend replied, 'I cannot, because I have been buried under a mat of sticks; but you go and come back and tell me.' She went and passed through and returned. Her friend asked, 'My friend, what have you heard?' She replied, 'I have heard that whatever is sown in the first quarter (of the sowing season) will be destroyed by hail.' He went and sowed in the second quarter. Everyone else's was destroyed but his was not. The following year he went and slept in the graveyard. He overheard the two spirits talking to each other and one said to her friend, 'Come let us pass through the world and hear from the other side of the 'division' what bad things are going to happen on earth.' Her friend replied, 'I have already told you that I cannot because I have been buried under a mat of sticks; but you go and come back and tell me.' She went and passed through and returned. Her friend asked, 'My friend, what have you heard?' She replied, 'I have heard that whatever is sown in the second quarter will be swept away by floods.' He went and sowed in the first quarter. Everyone else's was swept away but his was not. His wife asked him, 'How was it that last year everyone else's was destroyed and yours was not and this year everyone else's was swept away and yours was not?' He told her what had happened. Not long after there was a fight between this woman and her neighbor (the mother of the dead person). She said, 'Look I will show you that your daughter is buried under a mat.' The following year he went to sleep in the graveyard. He overheard two spirits talking to each other and one said to her friend, 'Come let us pass through the world and hear from the other side of the 'division' what bad things are going to happen on earth.' Her friend replied, 'My friend, leave me alone, our words have been overheard by the living.' So we see that the dead do know." This fascinating story confirms the Rabbinic ambivalence about what happens after death. There is general agreement about the principle but no such unanimity about the modalities.
Relevant to this discussion is the tradition of saying Kaddish for the dead. According to one opinion this is to help the soul make the transition from this world to the next (others would emphasize that Kaddish is not a memorial prayer and it is the emphasis on human behavior on earth that matters. Saying Kaddish is more for the living than the dead). But perhaps this too is an aspect of resurrection--that people in one way or another survive the cataclysm of death. Maimonides, the supreme rationalist, rejects this altogether and puts these narratives down to human imagination.
Given this ambivalence and lack of precision, how are we to deal with the idea? What do we have to think? The term "Reviving the Dead" has two possible meanings. On the one hand it could simply mean the capacity of God or His agent, such as the prophet Elijah, to bring someone who has apparently died, back to life. A skeptic might describe this as resuscitation rather than resurrection; but clearly the rabbis believed most strongly in the Divine capacity to achieve the miraculous or the paranormal. It is indeed axiomatic that belief in a powerful, non-material God implies the capacity to function beyond the bounds of material limitations. It is possible to argue that the fact that the prayer asking God for rain, in the second blessing in the Amidah, describes God as reviving the dead, strongly suggests that revival is figurative rather than literal. "We mention the 'greatness of rain' (Mashiv HaRuach, 'He Who makes the wind blow and the rain fall') in (the blessing for) reviving the dead." The rains bringing the world back to life is a common poetic and religious image. It is the greatness of God to have instituted a system of seasons that bring with them the various means of stimulating agricultural growth which is what sustains humanity. In a sense the earth dies in winter. Such are the messages of the myths about Proserpina being taken down to the underworld during winter and being allowed up in the spring. The monotheistic response is that it is the greatness of God that controls our lives not the coupling of gods.
Of course this need not mean that the rabbis actually thought that resurrection was no more than a figure of speech or the miraculous potential of God to do wonders. But given the inconclusiveness of their ideas, we can only surmise. Maimonides is so definite in his Principles of Faith: "I believe with complete conviction that there will be a revival of the dead at a time when it will be the will of The Creator may His Name be blessed and the awareness of Him will be established for eternity and for ever." On the other hand, as a philosopher, he leaves the issue out of his philosophical work, his "Guide To The Perplexed". It is more surprising that he gives the idea of resurrection no prominence at all in his "Yad HaChazaka". Yet, when all said and done, it is clear that the concept of resurrection held a very special place in Rabbinic thought.
The question is whether they meant it to be anything more than an assertion of the idea that God is capable of anything, even something as illogical, or that challenges our experience of the world, as does resurrection. Perhaps the emphasis that Christianity placed on the resurrection of its founder might have influenced the rabbis into redefining the concept in such a way as to make it clearly different from theirs. But it seems likely that the fact that they emphasize the error of denial, rather than the merits of assertion, indicates that they were primarily concerned with affirming Divine power against a rationalist's more restricted view of the universe.
If people actually affirm that resurrection is not possible, then they are making very definite assertions as to their perception of God and, indeed, about limitations. The rabbis' understanding of God was that no human limitation should or could be applied and the "absurdity" of resurrection is a way of emphasizing the primacy of faith. It has been said that absurdity is a condition of faith. Resurrection, on the other hand, is a concept of the miraculous, not the absurd.
Belief in resurrection should not be seen as supporting the idea that we will one day be reunited with our loved ones and be able to replicate the relationships we have had on earth. Attractive as this might be it is in the realms of imagination. On the other hand, being resurrected within the spiritual existence of God is something that anyone who believes or experiences the presence of God within, knows is precisely what happens when we die.