Monday, December 20, 2010

Torah and Talmud and Zombies

Age of the Living DeadAbq Jew has been reading Rabbi Neil Gillman's award-winning The Death of Death (available from the publisher, Jewish Lights, or from Abq Jew's Amazon Store), in which the author endeavors to trace the development of Jewish beliefs in a) the resurrection of the dead; and b) the immortality of the soul.

When it comes to the afterlife, Judaism (among many religions) found itself in a theological and theodical box:  If we believe that God is just, how do we account for evil in the world?  And how do we account for the misfortune of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked (tzaddik vi'ra lo, rasha vi'tov lo)?

It is clear to Abq Jew and most disinterested observers that there ain't much justice in this world, so it must be that God's justice is delivered somewhere else - in Olam Ha'ba, the World to Come.

But how does the World to Come actually work?  Well, you've got two ideas that compete with each other (in the sense that you only need one of them to answer the question):
  • Resurrection of the Body.  This is the high octane form of the afterlife.  Yes, God has the power to lift us up from the dead, and to enable us to . . . well, exactly what is hard to say.
  • Immortality of the Soul.  This is the unleaded afterlife.  Since we have no need for our physical components, they are jettisoned . . . well, exactly when is hard to say.
Where did these ideas come from?  Rabbi Gillman suggests that the idea of the soul and its immortality came from Plato & the Greeks.  (It did not, he says, come from within Judaism - our words nefesh, neshama, and ruach originally meant something completely different.)

As for the idea of the dead rising from their graves - well, we're not really sure.  Probably not from within Judaism; probably not from the Egyptians (whose idea of the afterlife is very, very different from the Jews').  But maybe from the Persians, whose Zoroastrianism solved our theodical problem by positing duotheism - a Good God and an Evil God - which is, theologically, easier to deal with than monotheism.

And what did Jewish religion do with these competing ideas?  Rabbi Gilman points out that Traditional Judaism refused to choose, and adopted both of them.  (Not only adopted - required their belief, and claimed them to be Biblical.)  Liberal Judaism, on the other hand, found the immortal soul easier to stomach than the idea of the Age of the Living Dead.

Here is where Abq Jew raises the specter of Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith's great work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (available from Abq Jew's Amazon Store), a delightful book that "transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read."

Is this what we have in mind when we speak of resurrection - the horribly disfigured and disgustingly dirty dead rising from their graves and sucking the brains of the unfortunate living who fall into their hands?

Thank God, no.  What Traditional Judaism has in mind is the righteous sitting at tisch with The Holy One, Blessed Be He, scarfing down Leviathan chunks.  But there is also the vision of Ezekiel:
Thus saith the L-rd GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. 

So there is also the issue of national (as opposed to individual) resurrection that must be resolved.  But Abq Jew must point out: those who know what awaits us in the World to Come don't tell us, and those who tell us don't know.  Who can say how this will all work out?  As Ecclesiastes concludes:
The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man. 

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