The conception of an after-life is fundamental to the Jewish religion; it is an article of faith in the Jews' creed. The denial of the after-life constitutes a denial of the cornerstone of the faith. This concept is not merely an added detail that may lose its significance in some advanced age. It is an essential and enduring principle. Indeed, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin X, 1) expressly excludes from the reward of the "world beyond" he who holds that the resurrection of the dead is without biblical warrant. Maimonides considers this belief one of the 13 basic truths which every Jew is commanded to hold.
The concept of after-life entered the prayerbook in the philosophic hymns of Yigdal and Ani Ma'amin. Centuries later, hundreds of thousands of Jews, packed in cattle-cars, enroute to the crematoria, sang the Ani Ma'amin, the affirmation of the coming of the Messiah.
Philosophers, such as Hasdai Crescas in the fourteenth century, changed the formulation of the basic truths, but still kept immortality as a fundamental principle without which the Jewish religion is inconceivable. Simon Ben Zemah Duran, in the early fifteenth century, reduced the fundamentals to three, but resurrection was included. Joseph Albo, in the same era, revised the structure of dogmas, and still immortality remained a universally binding belief. No matter how the basic principles were reduced or revised, immortality remained a major tenet of Judaism. Indeed, we may say of immortality what Hermann Cohen says of the Messiah, "If the Jewish religion had done nothing more for mankind than proclaim the messianic idea of the Old Testament prophets, it could have claimed to be the bed-rock of all the world's ethical culture."
Strange as it may appear, despite the historic unanimity of scholarly opinion on the fundamental belief, the practical details of immortality are ambiguous and vague. There is no formal eschatology in Judaism, only a traditional concensus that illuminates the way. The veil has never been pierced, and only shadowy structures can be discerned. But, as a renowned artist remarked, the true genius of a painting can be determined at dusk when the light fades, when one can see only the outline, the broad strokes of the brush, while the details are submerged in darkness. The beauty of the concept of immortality and its enormous religious significance does not lie in details. Maimonides denies that man can have a clear picture of the after-life and compares earth-bound creature with the blind man who cannot learn to appreciate colors merely by being given a verbal description. Flesh-and-blood man cannot have any precise conception of the pure, spiritual bliss of the world beyond. Thus, says Maimonides, the precise sequence in which the afterlife will finally unravel is not a cardinal article of the faith, and the faithful should not concern themselves with the details. So it is often in Judaism that abstract principles must be held in the larger, conceptual sense, while the formal philosophic details are blurred. Contrariwise, pragmatic religious ideals-the observances of the faith-are worked out to their minutest detail, although the basic concept behind them may remain unknown forever.
For all that, there is a consensus of belief based on talmudic derivations from the Torah and philosophic analyses of statements uttered by the sages. The concept is usually discussed under the headings of "Messiah" and "Resurrection of the Dead." (Concepts such as Gehinnom and Gan Eden are too complicated for discussion in this work.) The term, olam ha'ba, the "world beyond," while relatively unclear, seems to have encompassed the two basic concepts of Messiah and Resurrection. Maimonides lists these two as cardinal principles of the Jewish creed.