Question: Our prayerbooks talk of mechayeh hametim, the revival of the dead, but I struggle to believe this literally. Is there a way modern Jews can understand the phrase and still say it meaningfully?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
The Bible, on the whole, is silent on this issue. While there are verses that may allude to life after death, there are only two verses which explicitly indicate bodily resurrection of the dead. The first is from Isaiah, “Oh let your dead revive, let your corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust” (26:10). The second is from Daniel, “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake some to eternal life” (12:2).
The Mishnah presents revival of the dead as a central doctrine of Judaism and subsequent medieval rabbinic authorities took this as axiomatic (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1).
Maimonides, however, was accused of fudging this issue and so strong was the opposition that he was compelled to write his Essay on Resurrection to clarify the matter. In this essay, he reaffirms bodily resurrection but with an important caveat and that is bodily resurrection is impermanent and after an initial (undisclosed) period of revival, the resurrected body will once again expire to be survived only by the soul, which will endure for all eternity.
While Nachmanides insists that bodily resurrection will endure forever, he is cautious not to confuse the resurrected body with the physical body that we are familiar with. For him, the resurrected body will by its very nature be more rarefied and its functions more mystical.
The finer details aside, the principle of resurrection is fundamental to Judaism, which is reflected in our daily prayers. So what is one to do if they are simply unable to believe this doctrine?
I don’t think that lack of belief should necessarily render redundant the prayer for the revival of the dead. Nachmanides’s rarefied revival might allow some scope to imagine some mystical reunion of body and soul that is not really of this world. In fact, Nachmanides imagines the post-resurrection messianic world to be of an entirely different reality to what we currently experience.
If your bent is more practical than mystical, you might think of the resurrection, less in individualistic terms and more in collective terms, representing the Jewish people. Perhaps the prayer could be read as a form of thanksgiving for the resurrection of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland after near annihilation in the Holocaust.
I think it’s too easy to drop a prayer. Far better is to find a way to keep it and give it honest, if novel, meaning.
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
Others struggle too! Concepts of the dead reviving are a late development in the Bible, largely among prophets of the exile and may have been influenced by Babylonian culture.
In the Torah itself, there are references to sleeping with one’s ancestors but no hint of returning. However, Jewish thinking adopted the notion of some form of afterlife, probably because of the deep human desire to resist the idea of mortality and to hope that we can carry on in some way.
To their credit, the rabbis refused to go into detailed explanations of what form that would take and simply referred to the possibility of some kind of spiritual existence after death. In his Thirteen Principles, Maimonides does assert the resurrection of the dead one day back on earth, but kicks it into the far off never-never land of the messianic age.
In doing so, this manages to avoid the pattern of some faiths, which put more emphasis on the world-to-come. Instead, the rabbis concentrate on this world as the place on which we should focus.
Stories abound as to what will happen in heaven, but they are really lessons about earth. Thus we are told that when we get there, the first question asked will be “How did you behave in your business dealings?”, which says little about the afterlife and much about this one.
But while Judaism is content to live with a question mark, individual Jews can find that frustrating and do want a route-map for the hereafter. Various possibilities are on offer.
It may be that nothing happens and our life comes to an end like a matchstick that has gone out. That may be sad, but it does reinforce the need to make the most of the opportunities afforded by this life.
Perhaps our body dies and our spirit lives on, although not necessarily in our individual form, but returning to wherever we came from before birth. Like a raindrop that falls into a puddle, it is there but no longer distinguishable.
Another approach is to consider that we live on through other people: in the influence we had on their lives, or the mark we left on society.
Where does that leave mechayeh hametim? The Reform siddur translates it vaguely as “who renews life beyond death”, while the Liberals go for the more collective “Source of eternal life”. All options are open.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue
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