Bechukotai (Leviticus 26, 3 – 27, 34) – the silence of the Hebrew Bible regarding life after death

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The Torah reading of Bechukotai contains two distinct parts and there is seemingly no relation between the parts. The first part, chapter 26, is blessings and curses promising material reward (peace, security and prosperity) for obedience to the laws and commandments of God, and terrible punishment for disobedience to the laws and commandments of God.

 

Chapter 27, the concluding chapter of the Book of Leviticus, deals with monetary and other dedications to the Tabernacle. Most of the laws of the Book of Leviticus are connected to the Tabernacle, the center of ritual and sacrificial worship of the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness before entering the land of Israel (and that continues to be a center of ritual and sacrificial worship after the Israelites enter the land of Israel until replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem of Solomon). The Book of Leviticus is concerned with priestly matters – such as sacrificial offerings, and spiritual notions of holiness as well as purity (cleanliness) and impurity (uncleanliness).

 

In chapter 27, the concept of redemption, which is a central religious concept of the Hebrew Bible, is used – however, the concept of redemption here in chapter 27 of the Book of Leviticus is used in a technical, legal sense of redeeming or recovering dedications to the Tabernacle such as animals, houses, and fields.

 

I want to suggest the in common to these seemingly separate and distinct parts of the Torah reading of Bechukotai is that the blessings and curses (reward and punishment) of chapter 26 and the redemption spoken of in chapter 27 are both of this world and not of another world after death.

 

The Talmudic concept of a world to come (עולם הבא), of spiritual fulfillment after death, which is a central concept in traditional Judaism, does not appear even one time in the entire Hebrew Bible. The notion of paradise, the garden of Eden, does not in the plain meaning of Scripture refer to spiritual fulfillment after death, and the story of Adam and Eve is simply an allegory of the acquiring of moral conscience (the ability to distinguish between good and evil) by the primordial human being through the act of eating of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2, 9). There is a vague notion in the Hebrew Bible of a place called She’ol apparently where souls go after death. However, the concept does not appear often, is not emphasized or developed to any great extent and is clearly not a central concept of the Hebrew Bible.

 

The emphasis in the Hebrew Bible is upon life in this world rather than upon life after death. In the Book of Leviticus (chapter 26) reward and punishment concerning obedience and disobedience to laws and commandments of God is of a material nature and of this world. In the Book of Leviticus (chapters 25 and 27) the concept of redemption is used each time in connection with something of this world – redemption of slaves, animals, houses and land. Traditional commentators were, of course, aware of the issue, and generally attempted to rationalize that the notion of the world to come, of spiritual reward after death, is alluded to in the Bible, even though not referred to explicitly. Such attempts are unsatisfying because, even if it is possible to show that the concept is alluded to in the Torah, it is in any case not referred to explicitly, and this demands explanation.

 

From a historical point of view, it is clear that the almost complete silence of the Hebrew Bible regarding life after death is a reaction to the religion and culture of ancient Egypt, from where the Israelites escaped from slavery marking the birth of the Jewish people. The ancient Egyptian religion and civilization were preoccupied with death and dying. Rabbi Hertz, in his commentary to the Torah (Hertz commentary, p. 397), points out that “a characteristic element in the religious life of Egypt was worship of the dead”, and that the pyramids were monuments to the dead that “testify that the Egyptians devoted greater zeal than any nation on earth to the abodes of their dead”. Thus, the preoccupation of Egyptian culture with death, to such an extent that the Egyptians were willing to enslave and oppress people (and not just Hebrews) here in this world in order to build monuments to the dead, leads to a preoccupation in the Hebrew Bible with life in this world. The great unpronounceable Biblical name of God – YHVH – comes from a root meaning to be or to exist (להיות). Rabbi Hertz points out that in contrast to ancient, Egyptian culture, “Israel’s faith is a religion of life, not of death; a religion that declares man’s humanity to man as the most acceptable form of adoration of the one God” (p. 397). Notice that according to Rabbi Hertz the true service or worship (“adoration”) of God in the Biblical conception is morality (“man’s humanity to man”).

 

The emphasis in the Hebrew Bible and traditional Judaism upon life here in this world is in striking contrast the other worldly emphasis of classical Christianity. Classical Christianity is characterized by a Gnostic dualism (having no basis in the Hebrew Bible) in which the universe is dichotomized – heaven and earth, spiritual and physical, soul and body.  The Gnostic aspect of this dualism (an influence of Gnostic mystery cults upon early Christianity) is that the heavenly and spiritual are viewed as good and sacred while the earthly, physical and material are seen as evil and sinful. True salvation is of the spiritual and heavenly while the material world is seen as sinful and evil; and, the ideal of classical Christianity is the ascetic life of a monk – “celibacy, chastity and poverty”.

 

Traditional Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible, is characterized by unity rather than dualism (God is one, and the universe is one with no dichotomy between spiritual and physical). In the Biblical conception, God is conceived as good, and thus the entire universe is considered good having been created by a good God, as reflected in the opening account of creation – “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31). The phrase very good is revealing in that it is a relative concept. God does not proclaim that the universe is good in an absolute sense. Rather, the world is very good, implying that the world is less than perfect, and in need of repair and further improvement. The idea of “Tikkun Olam” (תיקון עולם), which literally means the repair of the world, is a fundamental idea of traditional Judaism having Biblical roots in the very opening account of the creation of the universe. The emphasis in the concept of repair of the world is upon improvement and transformation of this world – and, asceticism and living in poverty are not viewed in traditional Judaism as an ideal as in classical Christianity.

 

In the Biblical conception, the material world is a creation of a good God, and therefore the material world is not evil or sinful but “very good”. If everything is a creation of a good God, then nothing in existence (including the physical or material) can be inherently sinful. We may use things for good or bad purposes, but nothing is sinful in and of itself, having been created by a good God.

 

The rabbinic concept of the world to come, of spiritual reward after death, is without doubt a central concept in traditional Judaism, even though it does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. In all likelihood the concept developed as a philosophic response to the question of the suffering of the righteous. Yet, in the rabbinic religious outlook the emphasis remains, faithful to the Biblical spirit, upon moral action in this world – as in the words of the traditional Jewish prayer, Aleinu, “to repair the world in the kingdom of God”. The kingdom of God is not of another world, but is characterized by the repair and transformation of this world to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth.

 

I want to cite one Talmudic source (Pirkei Avot 4, 16-17), which expresses the rabbinic outlook regarding the world to come – a source that is faithful to the Biblical emphasis upon life in this world:

 

Rabbi Yaakov said, this world is like a hallway before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the hallway, so that you may enter the banquet hall. He (Rabbi Yaakov) used to say, more beautiful is one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world, than all the life of the world to come – and, more beautiful is one hour of the tranquility of the world to come, than all the life of this world.

 

The statement here of Rabbi Yaakov is paradoxical and he seemingly contradicts himself. He says on the one hand that “more beautiful is one hour of the tranquility of the world to come, than all the life of this world” – and, yet, on the other hand, he says that “more beautiful is one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world, than all the life of the world to come”. I want to suggest that there is no contradiction here – and, in my view, Rabbi Yaakov is using the term beautiful in two different senses. In speaking of the life of the world to come as more beautiful than life in this world, Rabbi Yaakov is speaking of the tranquility of the world to come – he is speaking of beauty in the sense of the spiritual experience of the world to come of tranquility and bliss as a spiritual reward after death. In speaking of life in this world as more beautiful than the life of the world to come, Rabbi Yaakov is speaking of a life in this world of repentance and good deeds – he is speaking of beauty in the sense of the importance of a life of morality and good deeds to a religious life in this world, and in his emphasizing the importance of a life of morality and good deeds in this world Rabbi Yaakov is faithful to the Biblical conception of religion.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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