Reviewing The Death of Death, Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, by Neil Gillman

In the Death of Death, Conservative Jewish theologian Neil Gillman writes a history of the development of Jewish views about the afterlife. He begins by explaining that what Orthodox Jews consider history is in fact simply “myth.” Gillman is quite clear that he does not believe that God revealed His word to His special people, but that Judaism is rather the result of some men grasping to understand God. He affirms belief in God and believes that God has sown knowledge of Himself throughout his creation, but to believe that God has revealed Himself to man is to engage in idolatry. This position is much more assumed than demonstrated. Nor is a justification readily apparent. If we are truly made in the image of God and to serve God's purposes, why is it idolatry to suppose that He would choose to communicate with us?

Most of the rest of the book is a much more straightforward presentation of the history of Jewish views on the afterlife. Like most scholars, Gillman finds little evidence of firm views on any kind of afterlife in the earlier books of the Old Testament. His review of the relevant passages is informative as he traces an increased concern for the afterlife, culminating in the affirmation of bodily resurrection. Although Gillman entertains the possibility that foreign influence was at least partly responsible for the development of resurrection belief, he seems to lean towards it being a natural outgrowth of core Jewish belief.

As we move beyond the Old Testament, Gillman continues tracing Jewish beliefs, noting the introduction of the concept of the immortality of the spirit. His use of sources is somewhat less helpful here. Although Jewish sources are reviewed proficiently, he gives insufficient attention to first century Christian sources. While lamenting a lack of sources about the Pharisees – and dismissing the Torah as a credible source for their beliefs – he gives short shrift to valuable Christian sources from the time period, such as Paul’s letters and Acts. Paul – a self-identified Pharisee – provides a window into first-century Jewish views on the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15 is an extended discussion on the nature of resurrection and the body after its resurrection. Acts also includes more detailed information about the difference between Sadducee and Pharisee views than is discussed by Gillman.

This is unfortuante, for it would have added valuable primary sources to his inquiry into the views of Second Temple Judaism. Christian scholarship has come a long way and is much more open to using and evaluating Jewish sources to shed light on early Christian beliefs. Jewish scholarship could benefit from the same practice. Not only were the early Christians Jews themselves, but Christian development on these beliefs would serve as a good point of comparison and contrast for elucidating Jewish thoughts on the same issues.

In any event, Gillman next charts the “Canonization” of bodily resurrection in Jewish thought through the Talmud and into the Middle Ages. He spends an entire chapter on Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher whom he credits with moving Judaism away from bodily resurrection to an emphasis on spiritual resurrection. Thereafter, he discusses the mystics, who also played a role in spiritualizing Jewish afterlife belief. Add in the Enlightenment and Jewish intellectual, though not religious, assimilation into modern Europe, and the Reform and Conservative Judaism of the 19th century has largely abandoned bodily resurrection, once the cornerstone of its faith, in favor of spiritual immortality, the hallmark of Judaism’s long-time competitor, Greek philosophy. Little space is given to the Orthodox.

But Gillman’s book is not just about history, it is about the present. He sees a return to an emphasis on bodily resurrection in Reform and Conservative Judaism. This re-emphasis is explained well as a return to Judaism’s emphasis on God’s concern for the present life and his power to shape our futures. But as with the author’s own apparent re-embrace of bodily resurrection, it is unclear just what is meant. It is accepted, but only as “myth” and “symbol.” For Gillman, to believe it is literally true is to “trivialize” God. This assertion, like the one that to believe God revealed His word to Moses is to engage in anti-Jewish idolatry, are disappointingly conclusory. It comes across more as mired in quasi-naturalistic assumptions rather than the result of rigorous theological or even philosophical inquiry.

The history in the book, with the exception of neglecting Christian sources and the knowledge they can shed on Second Temple Jewish afterlife beliefs, is well presented. Gillman ably covers 3,000 years of Jewish attitudes on the afterlife. Also well presented is the reasoning behind certain shifts in beliefs and the leading thinkers behind those shifts. The book, however, is steeped in the author’s less-than-adequately-explained use of terms such as “symbol” and “myth” and “literal,” that left this reader at times wondering just what it is that was really believed. Put another way, what do you really believe if you say you believe in bodily resurrection but only as a “symbol” and not as a “literal” redemption? In what way does that give hope and affirm God’s goodness and value for the present human condition? There may be answers to these questions but I did not find them in this book.


Weekend Fisher said…
Well, ok, but that just leaves me curious. Given that he has his own dog in this race, still what rough timeline does he give to the rise and fall of various beliefs?
Layman said…
I don't have the book with me, WF, but roughly speaking:

Most of the Old Testament times reflects disinterest or implicit rejection of any view of the afterlife.

In Daniel and perhaps hinted at in other later Old Testament writings, bodily resurrection is established.

This belief in bodily resurrection evolves somewhat from resurrection for some to resurrection for all throughout the intertestamental period and through the first century.

Also during this time, the idea of the immortality of the soul is introduced into Judaism. With some exceptions, it does not supplant bodily resurrection but in fact complements it.

By the time of the second and third centuries, the process of "canonization" began resulting in bodily resurrection being the standard Jewish belief about the afterlife.

This lasted through the middle ages, though some Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides begin emphasizing spiritual immortality.

By the time of the enlightenment, Jewish leaders were defining away bodily resurrection and playing up spiritiual immortality.

With the founding of Conservative and Reform Judaism early in American life, spiritual immortality seems to have replaced belief in bodily resurrection. (He gives little attention to the Orthodox, who maintained belief in bodily resurrection).

In the 70s to the present, some in the Reform and Conservative circles are reemphasizing bodily resurrection, but to what extent and in just what way remains a bit murky to me.

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