Monday, May 26, 2008

The Missing Afterlife

The commentators note that the blessings and curses in Lev. 26, part of last week's Torah reading, only promise reward and punishment in this world. There is no mention of an afterlife. In fact, there is no explicit mention of an afterlife anywhere in the Bible. Some historians have taken this to be proof that belief in an afterlife was a later addition to the Jewish religion, but Yechezkel Kaufmann ably rebutted that argument in his History of the Israelite Religion (vol. 5, cited by Nehama Leibowitz in her New Studies in Vayikra, vol. 2 p. 573). However, the question remains why the reward and punishment in the afterlife is not discussed outright in the Bible.

Click here to read moreProf. Leibowitz provides a survey of medieval answers to this question, although somewhat surprisingly she omits the discussions in the philosophical literature. What follows is a brief list of answers from Nehama Leibowitz's summary and my own additions from the philosophical literature:

  1. Ibn Ezra (Deut. 32:39) writes that the Torah was written on a simple level, so that everyone can understand it. The afterlife is a complex philosophical idea that only sophisticated individuals can comprehend, and therefore had to be omitted. (However, R. Yosef Albo [Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 39:4] points out that the Torah uses anthropomorphisms, relying on the intelligent reader not to take them literally. So we see an assumption of some philosophical sophistication among readers.]
  2. The Ramban (Commentary to Ex. 6:2, Lev. 18:29, 26:12) writes that reward and punishment in the afterlifes is a natural outcome from the spiritual state of our souls at the time of death. Reward and punishment in this world is entirely miraculous. The Torah only mentions the miraculous aspects of reward and punishment, which is in this world, and not the natural aspects.
  3. R. Yitzchak Arama (Akedas Yitzchak, ch. 70) points out that the Torah describes the reward of God dwelling in our midst (cf. Lev 26:11-12). This, he argues, is the spiritual equivalent of the afterlife.

  4. R. Bachya ibn Pakuda (Chovos Ha-Levavos, sha'ar ha-bitachon ch. 4) offers a number of responses to this question:
  5. We do not truly know what the soul is, nor what brings it joy and pain. The Torah only tells us in detail about rewards and punishments that we can understand.
  6. Reward and punishment in the afterlife is well known and accepted. The Torah did not need to mention in it because the Tradition was sufficient.
  7. The people at the time of the giving of the Torah were unsophisticated and could not handle the complicated philosophical subject. God taught them--like children--concepts that they could handle and of which they would understand the more complex version at a later time.
  8. Reward in the afterlife requires more than just good deeds. It also requires helping others to do good deeds and a special kindness from God. And while punishment in the afterlife should come automatically, God is merciful and sometimes intervenes to prevent it. Because they are not automatic rewards and punishments, they cannot be listed in the Torah as such.
  9. Reward and punishment in this world are for outwardly visible deeds but the afterlife is for deeds that people cannot see and are not aware of. The afterlife is essentially a place of Divine recompense -- reward and punishment people cannot see for deeds that they cannot see, which is why it is not mentioned in the Torah.
  10. Reward and punishment in the afterlife is really just the result of having a connection with God. Phrasing it in terms of reward and punishment minimizes it and defeats its purpose.

  11. R. Saadia Gaon (Emunos Ve-Dei'os 9:2) offers two answers:
  12. Reward and punishment in the afterlife is logical and does not need to be mentioned.
  13. It is the nature of prophecy to speak at length about immediate needs and only briefly about distant needs. The afterlife is a distant need and therefore did not need to be explained.
  14. R. Yehuda Ha-Levi (Kuzari 1:109) explains that the aim of Judaism is not next-worldly but to achieve communion with God in this world.

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