The body returns to the earth, dust to dust, but the soul returns to God who gave it. This doctrine of the immortality of the soul is affirmed not only by Judaism and other religions, but by many secular philosophers as well. Judaism, however, also believes in the eventual resurrection of the body, which will be reunited with the soul at a later time on a "great and awesome day of the Lord." The human form of the righteous men of all ages, buried and long since decomposed, will be resurrected at God's will.
The most dramatic portrayal of this bodily resurrection is to be found in the "Valley of Dry Bones" prophecy in Ezekiel 37, read as the Haftorah on the Intermediate Sabbath of Passover. It recalls past deliverances and envisions the future redemption of Israel and the eventual quickening of the dead:
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and the Lord carried me out in a spirit, and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones;
and He caused me to pass by them round about, and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
And He said unto me: "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered: "0 Lord, God, Thou knowest."
Then He said unto me: "Prophesy over these bones, and say unto them: '0 ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord."'
So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a commotion, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
And I beheld, and, lo, there were sinews upon them and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them.
Then said He unto me: "Prophesy unto the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: 'Thus saith the Lord God: Come from the four winds, 0 breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."'
So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceeding great host.
Then He said unto me: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we can clean cut off.'
Therefore, prophesy, and say unto them: 'Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, 0 my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, 0 My people. And I will put My spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I will place you in your own land; and ye shall know that I the Lord have spoken, and performed it, saith the Lord."'
The power of this conviction can be gauged not only by the quality of the lives of the Jews, their tenacity and gallantry in the face of death, but in the very real fear instilled in their enemies. After destroying Jerusalem and callously decimating its Jewish population, Titus, the Roman general, returned home with only a portion of his Tenth Legion. When asked whether he had lost all of his other men on the battlefield, Titus gave assurance that his men were alive, but that they were still on combat duty. He had left them to stand guard over Jewish corpses in the fields of Jerusalem because he was sincerely afraid that their bodies would be resurrected and they would reconquer the Holy Land as they had promised.
The belief in a bodily resurrection appears, at first sight, to be incredible to the contemporary mind. But when approached from the God's-eye view, why is rebirth more miraculous than birth? The adhesion of sperm and egg, the subsequent fertilization and development in the womb culminating in the birth of the astoundingly complex network of tubes and glands, bones and organs, their incredibly precise functioning and the unbelievably intricate human brain that guides them, is surely a miracle of the first magnitude. Curiously, the miraculous object, man himself, takes this for granted. In his preoccupation with daily trivia, he ignores the miracle of his own existence. The idea of rebirth may appear strange because we have never experienced a similar occurrence, for which reason we cannot put together the stuff of imagination. Perhaps it is because we can be active in creating life, but cannot participate with God in the recreation of life. Perhaps it is becuase, scientifically, recreation flies against any biological theory, while we are slowly coming to know how life is developed, and our researchers are about to create life in the laboratory test tube. But, who has created the researching biologist? And, can we not postulate an omnipotent Divine Biologist who created all men? Surely resurrection is not beyond the capacity of an omnipotent God.
The sages simplified the concept of bodily resurrection by posing an analogy which brings it within the experience of man. A tree, once alive with blossoms and fruit, full of the sap of life, stands cold and still in the winter. Its leaves have browned and fallen, its fruit rots on the ground. But the warm rains come and the sun shines. Buds sprout. Green leaves appear. Colorful fruits burst from their seed. With the coming of spring, God resurrects nature. For this reason the blessing of God for reviving the dead, which is recited in every daily Amidah, incorporates also the seasonal requests for rain. When praying for the redemption of man, the prayerbook uses the phrase matzmi'ach yeshuah, "planting salvation." Indeed, the talmud compares the day of resurrection with the rainy season, and notes that the latter is even more significant-for resurrection serves only the righteous while the rain falls indiscriminately on all men.
This is one, supplementary reason why the body and all its limbs require to be interred in the earth and not cremated, for it expresses our faith in the future resurrection. Naturally, the all-powerful God can recreate the body whether it was buried or drowned or burned. Yet, willful cremation signifies an arrogant denial of the possibility of resurrection, and those who deny this cardinal principle should not share in the reward for its observance. The body and its limbs-whether amputated before death, or during a permissible post-mortem examination-have to be allowed to decompose as one complete organism by the processes of nature, not by man's mechanical act.
Resurrection: A Symbolic Idea
Some contemporary thinkers have noted that the physical revival of the dead is symbolic of a cluster of basic Jewish ideas:
First, man does not achieve the ultimate redemption by virtue of his own inherent nature. It is not because he, uniquely, possesses an immortal soul that he, inevitably, will be resurrected. The concept of resurrection underscores man's reliance on God who, in the words of the prayerbook, "Wakes the dead in great mercy." It is His grace and His mercy that rewards the deserving, and revives those who sleep in the dust.
Second, resurrection is not only a private matter, a bonus for the righteous individual. It is a corporate reward. All of the righteous of all ages, those who stood at Sinai, and those of our generation, will be revived. The community of the righteous has a corporate and historic character. It will live again as a whole people. The individual, even in death, is not separated from the society in which he lived.
Third, physical resurrection affirms unequivocally that man's soul and his body are the creations of a holy God. There is a tendency to assume that the affirmation of a spiritual dimension in man must bring with it the corollary that his physical being is depreciated. Indeed, such has been the development of the body-soul duality in both the Christian tradition and in Oriental religions, and accounts for their glorification of asceticism. Further, even the Greek philosophers who were enamored of the beauty of the body, came to denigrate the physical side of man. They crowned reason as man's noblest virtue. For them the spiritualintellectual endeavor to perceive the unchanging truth was the highest function of man. Man's material existence, on the other hand, was always in flux, subject to change and, therefore, inferior. Thus, they accepted immortality of the soul-which to the Greeks was what we call mind-which survives the extinction of his physical being. But they could not understand physical resurrection because they did not, by any means, consider the body worthy of being reborn.
To the contrary, Judaism has always stressed that the body, as the soul, is a gift of God--indeed, that it belongs to God. Ha'neshamah lach ve'haguf pa'alach, the Jew declared, "The soul is yours, and the body is your handiwork." To care for the body is a religious command of the Bible. The practice of asceticism for religious purposes was tolerated, but the ascetic had to bring a sacrifice of atonement for his action. Resurrection affirms that the body is of value because it came from God, and it will be revived by God. Resurrection affirms that man's empirical existence is valuable in God's eyes. His activities in this world are significant in the scheme of eternity. His strivings are not to be deprecated as vain and useless, but are to be brought to fulfillment at the end of days.
The concept of resurrection thus serves to keep God ever in man's consciousness, to unify contemporary and historic Jewry, to affirm the value of God's world, and to heighten, rather than to depress, the value of man's worthy strivings in this world.
Which specific virtues might guarantee a person's resurrection is a subject of much debate. The method of resurrection is, of course, an open question that invites conjecture, but which can offer no definite answer.
While the details of the after-life are thus very much a matter of speculation, the traditional consensus must serve to illuminate the dark path. In the words of Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania (Niddah l0b) : "When they come to life again, we will consult about the matter."