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Immortality of the Soul

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by Kaufmann Kohler

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Hellenistic View.
Immortality of Martyrs.
In Jewish Philosophy.

The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture. As long as the soul was conceived to be merely a breath ("nefesh"; "neshamah"; comp. "anima"), and inseparably connected, if not identified, with the life-blood (Gen. 9:4, comp. 4:11; Lev. 17:11; see Soul), no real substance could be ascribed to it. As soon as the spirit or breath of God ("nishmat" or "ruah hayyim"), which was believed to keep body and soul together, both in man and in beast (Gen. 2:7, 6:17, 7:22; Job 27:3), is taken away (Ps. cxlvi. 4) or returns to God (Eccl. 12:7; Job 34:14), the soul goes down to Sheol or Hades, there to lead a shadowy existence without life and consciousness (Job 14:21; Ps. 6:6 [A. 5:5], Ps. 115:17; Isa. 38:18; Eccl. 9:5, 10). The belief in a continuous life of the soul, which underlies primitive Ancestor Worship and the rites of necromancy, practised also in ancient Israel (1 Sam. 28:13 et seq.; Isa. 8:19; see Necromancy), was discouraged and suppressed by prophet and lawgiver as antagonistic to the belief in Yhwh, the God of life, the Ruler of heaven and earth, whose reign was not extended over Sheol until post-exilic times (Ps. 16:10, 50:16, 139:8).

As a matter of fact, eternal life was ascribed exclusively to God and to celestial beings who "eat of the tree of life and live forever" (Gen. 3:22, Hebr.), whereas man by being driven out of the Garden of Eden was deprived of the opportunity of eating the food of immortality (see Roscher, "Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie," s.5. "Ambrosia"). It is the Psalmist's implicit faith in God's omnipotence and omnipresence that leads him to the hope of immortality (Ps. 16:11, 17:15, 50:16, 73:24 et seq., Ps. 116:6-9); whereas Job (Job 14:13 et seq., Job 19:26) betrays only a desire for, not a real faith in, a life after death. Ben Sira (14:12, 17:27 et seq., 21:10, 28:21) still clings to the belief in Sheol as the destination of man. It was only in connection with the Messianic hope that, under the influence of Persian ideas, the belief in resurrection lent to the disembodied soul a continuous existence (Isa. 25:6-8; Dan. 12:2; see Eschatology; Resurrection).

Hellenistic View.

(see image) Page from the First Edition of Immanuel ben Solomon's "Meḥabberot," Brescia, 1491.(In the Columbia University Library, New York.)The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principal exponent, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended, as the Semitic name "Minos" (comp. "Minotaurus"), and the Egyptian "Rhadamanthys" ("Ra of Ament," "Ruler of Hades"; Naville, "La Litanie du Soleil," 1875, p. 13) with others, sufficiently prove. Consult especially E. Rhode, "Psyche: Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen," 1894, pp. 555 et seq. A blessed immortality awaiting the spirit while the bones rest in the earth is mentioned in Jubilees 23:31 and Enoch 3:4. Immortality, the "dwelling near God's throne" "free from the load of the body," is "the fruit of righteousness," says the Book of Wisdom (i. 15; 3:4; 4:1; 8:13, 17; 15:3). In IV Maccabees, also (9. 8, 22; 10:15; 14:5; 15:2; 16:13; 17:5, 18), immortality of the soul is represented as life with God in heaven, and declared to be the reward for righteousness and martyrdom. The souls of the righteous are transplanted into heaven and transformed into holy souls (ib. 13:17, 18:23). According to Philo, the soul exists before it enters the body, a prison-house from which death liberates it; to return to God and live in constant contemplation of Him is man's highest destiny (Philo, "De Opificio Mundi," §§ 46, 47; idem, "De Allegoriis Legum," i., §§ 33, 65; 3., §§ 14, 37; idem, "Quis Rerum Divinarum Hæres Sit," §§ 38, 57).

It is not quite clear whether the Sadducees, in denying resurrection (Josephus, "Ant." 18:1, § 4; idem, "B. J." 2:12; Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8; comp. Sanh. 90b), denied also the immortality of the soul (see Ab. R. N., recension B. 10:[ed. Schechter, 26]). Certain it is that the Pharisaic belief in resurrection had not even a name for the immortality of the soul. For them, man was made for two worlds, the world that now is, and the world to come, where life does not end in death (Gen. R. 8.; Yer. Meg. 2:73b; M. Ḳ. 3:83b, where the words , Ps. 48:15, are translated by Aquilas as if they read: , "no death," ἀθανασία).

Immortality of Martyrs.

The point of view from which the Ḥasidim regarded earthly existence was that man was born for another and a better world than this. Hence Abraham is told by God: "Depart from this vain world; leave the body and go to thy Lord among the good" (Testament of Abraham, i.). The immortality of martyrs was especially dwelt on by the Essenes (Josephus, "B. J." 7:8, § 7; 1:33, § 2; comp. 2:8, §§ 10, 14; idem, "Ant." 18:1, § 5). The souls of the righteous live like birds (See Jew. Encyc. 3:219, s.5. Birds) in cages ("columbaria") guarded by angels (IV Esd. 7:32, 95; Apoc. Baruch, 21:23, 30:2; comp. Shab. 152b). According to IV Esdras 4:41 (comp. Yeb. 62a), they are kept in such cages ( ) before entering upon earthly existence. The soul of martyrs also have a special place in heaven, according to Enoch (22:12, 102:4, 108:11 et seq.); whereas the Slavonic Enoch (xxiii. 5) teaches that "every soul was created for eternity before the foundation of the world." This Platonic doctrine of the preexistence of the soul (comp. Wisdom 8:20; Philo, "De Gigantibus," §§ 3 et seq.; idem, "De Somniis," i., § 22) is taught also by the Rabbis, who spoke of a storehouse of the souls in the seventh heaven ("'Arabot"; Sifre, Deut. 3:44; Hag. 12 b). In Gen. R. 8: the souls of the righteous are mentioned as counselors of God at the world's creation (comp. the Fravashi in "Farwardin Yast," in "S. B. E." 23:179).

Upon the belief that the soul has a life of its own after death is based the following story: "Said Emperor Antoninus to Judah ha-Nasi, 'Both body and soul could plead guiltless on the day of judgment, as neither sinned without the other.' 'But then,' answered Judah, 'God reunites both for the judgment, holding them both responsible for the sin committed, just as in the fable the blind and the lame are punished in common for aiding each other in stealing the fruit of the orchard'" (Sanh. 91a; Lev. R. 4.). "There is neither eating nor drinking nor any sensual pleasure nor strife in the world to come, but the righteous with their crowns sit around the table of God, feeding upon the splendor of His majesty," said Rab (Ber. 17a), thus insisting that the nature of the soul when freed from the body is purely spiritual, while the common belief loved to dwell upon the banquet prepared for the pious in the world to come (see Eschatology; Leviathan). Hence the saying, "Prepare thyself in the vestibule that thou mayest be admitted into the triclinium"; that is, "Let this world be a preparation for the next" (Ab. 4:16). The following sayings also indicate a pure conception of the soul's immortality: "The Prophets have spoken only concerning the Messianic future; but concerning the future state of the soul it is said: 'Men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God beside Thee, what He hath prepared for him that waiteth for Him'" (Ber. 34b; comp. I Cor. 2:9, Greek; Resh, "Agrapha," 1889, p. 154). "When man dies," says R. Meïr, "three sets of angels go forth to welcome him" (Num. R. 12.); this can only refer to the disembodied soul.

Nevertheless, the prevailing rabbinical conception of the future world is that of the world of resurrection, not that of pure immortality. Resurrection became the dogma of Judaism, fixed in the Mishnah (Sanh. 10:1) and in the liturgy ("Elohai Neshamah" and "Shemoneh 'Esreh"), just as the Church knows only of a future based upon the resurrection; whereas immortality remained merely a philosophical assumption. When therefore Maimonides ("Yad," Teshubah, 8:2) declared, with reference to Ber. 17a, quoted above, that the world to come is entirely spiritual, one in which the body and bodily enjoyments have no share, he met with strong opposition on the part of Abraham of Posquières, who pointed in his critical annotations ("Hassagot RABaD") to a number of Talmudical passages (Shab. 114a; Ket. 111a; Sanh. 91b) which leave no doubt as to the identification of the world to come ("'olam ha-ba") with that of the resurrection of the body.

In Jewish Philosophy.

The medieval Jewish philosophers without exception recognized the dogmatic character of the belief in resurrection, while on the other hand they insisted on the axiomatic character of the belief in immortality of the soul (see Albo, "'Ikkarim," 4:35-41). Saadia made the dogma of the resurrectionpart of his speculation ("Emunot we-De'ot," 7:and 9.); Judah ha-Levi ("Cuzari," 1:109) accentuated more the spiritual nature of the future existence, the bliss of which consisted in the contemplation of God; whereas Maimonides, though he accepted the resurrection dogma in his Mishnah commentary (Sanh. 11.; comp. his monograph on the subject, "Ma'amar Tehiyyat ha-Metim"), ignored it altogether in his code ("Yad," Teshubah, 8.); and in his "Moreh" (3. 27, 51-52, 54; comp. "Yad," Yesode ha-Torah, 4:9) he went so far as to assign immortality only to the thinkers, whose acquired intelligence ("sekel ha-nikneh"), according to the Aristotelians, becomes part of the "active divine intelligence," and thus attains perfection and permanence. This Maimonidean view, which practically denies to the soul of man personality and substance and excludes the simple-minded doer of good from future existence, is strongly combated by Hasdai Crescas ("Or Adonai," 2:5, 5; 6, 1) as contrary to Scripture and to common sense; he claims, instead, immortality for every soul filled with love for God, whose very essence is moral rather than intellectual, and consists in perfection and goodness rather than in knowledge (comp. also Gersonides, "Milhamot ha-Shem," 1:13; Albo, "'Ikkarim," 4:29). Owing to Crescas, and in opposition to Leibnitz's view that without future retribution there could be no morality and no justice in the world, Spinoza ("Ethics," 5:41) declared, "Virtue is eternal bliss; even if we should not be aware of the soul's immortality we must love virtue above everything."

While medieval philosophy dwelt on the intellectual, moral, or spiritual nature of the soul to prove its immortality, the cabalists endeavored to explain the soul as a light from heaven, after Prov. 20:27, and immortality as a return to the celestial world of pure light (Bahya b. Asher to Gen. 1:3; Zohar, Terumah, 127a). But the belief in the preexistence of the soul led the mystics to the adoption, with all its weird notions and superstitions, of the Pythagorean system of the transmigration of the soul (see Transmigration of Souls). Of this mystic view Manasseh ben Israel also was an exponent, as his "Nishmat Hayyim" shows.

It was the merit of Moses Mendelssohn, the most prominent philosopher of the deistic school in an era of enlightenment and skepticism, to have revived by his "Phædon" the Platonic doctrine of immortality, and to have asserted the divine nature of man by presenting new arguments in behalf of the spiritual substance of the soul (see Kayserling, "Moses Mendelssohn," 1862, pp. 148-169). Thenceforth Judaism, and especially progressive or Reform Judaism, emphasized the doctrine of immortality, in both its religious instruction and its liturgy (see Catechisms; Conferences, Rabbinical), while the dogma of resurrection was gradually discarded and, in the Reform rituals, eliminated from the prayer-books. Immortality of the soul, instead of resurrection, was found to be "an integral part of the Jewish creed" and "the logical sequel to the God-idea," inasmuch as God's faithfulness "seemed to point, not to the fulfilment of the promise of resurrection" given to those that "sleep in the dust," as the second of the Eighteen Benedictions has it, but to "the realization of those higher expectations which are sown, as part of its very nature, in every human soul" (Morris Joseph, "Judaism as Creed and Life," 1903, pp. 91 et seq.). The Biblical statement "God created man in his own image" (Gen. 1:27) and the passage "May the soul . . . be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God" (1 Sam. 25:29, Hebr.), which, as a divine promise and a human supplication, filled the generations with comfort and hope (Zunz, "Z. G." p. 350), received a new meaning from this view of man's future; and the rabbinical saying, "The righteous rest not, either in this or in the future world, but go from strength to strength until they see God on Zion" (Ber. 64a. after Ps. 84:8 [A. V.]), appeared to offer an endless vista to the hope of immortality.


Alger, Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life, with bibliography by Ezra Abbot, New York, 1867;

Charles, in Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl. s.5. Eschatology;

Formstecher, Beiträge zur Entwicklungsgesch. des Begriffs der Unsterblichkeit der Seele, in Geiger's Wiss. Zeit. Jüd. Theol. 3:231-249;

Hamburger, R. B. T. s.5. Unsterblichkeit;

Hastings, Dict. Bible, s.5. Eschatology;

Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. s.5. Unsterblichkeit;

Manasseh ben Israel, Nishmat Ḥayyim, Amsterdam. 1652;

L. Philippson, Israelitische Religionslehre, 1862, 2:231-270;

Paul Volz, Jüdische Eschatologie von Daniel bis Akiba, 1903;

F. Weber, System der Altsynagogalen Palästinischen Theologie, Leipsic, 1880, Index.

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