Immortality doctrine

by Rabbi M. Kripke

When speaking about the Bible, particularly to Christians, one finds oneself regularly pointing out that in Judaism the doctrine of eternal life is not Biblical but rabbinic. Christians especially, but Jews too, are at first taken aback by this. For most Christians the doctrine is axiomatic and is central to their faith. They see it as the very motivation for a decent life: How else do you get to Heaven?

But Jews too take it for granted. Is not the insistence that “God keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust” a regular affirmation in the Siddur? Of course it is. But unless a Jew is knowledgeable, he has not distinguished between Biblical and rabbinic beliefs and doctrine.

This discussion arises from the Midrashic treatment of the account in our Sidrah of the death of Jacob. The Midrash permits itself observation on death, quoting from Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and I Kings.

Their remarks are neither profound nor morbid not triumphant. They remark simply that we cannot hope to avoid death. Nor can we have any control over it, just as we cannot control the wind nor contain it.

Noting that both Jacob and Joseph had asked to be buried in Israel, the rabbis suggest that there is an advantage to a burial in the Holy Land. When the Messiah arrives, they said, the dead in Israel will rise immediately.

Using their method of Midrash, the rabbis found it possible to find references to immortality in a number of Biblical passages. But it is clear that the idea of another-life-after-death is denied, consciously denied Biblically.

“Wait,” people say, “How about the 23rd Psalm, Surely goodness and steadfast love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever?”

It is painful, but the truth must be said: what this verse means is that the worshiper hopes that he may live long, and be permitted continuously to worship in the Temple.

Belief in an afterlife came in early enough to be considered and denied by Koheleth and Job. When it blossoms in Judaism, it is already the Pharisaic or proto-rabbinic period. It is the rabbis who were responsible for this belief in Judaism and Christianity.