Those who are born are destined to die, and those who died are destined to live
Ethics of the Fathers, 4:22
A basic tenet of the Jewish faith is the belief that those who have died will again be brought to life. In fact, Techiat HaMeitim, "Vivification of the Dead" is one of the thirteen cardinal principles, or "foundations," of Judaism.
Common wisdom has it that the idea is more enduring than its incarnation, the concept more perfect than any conceptualization, that spirit is superior to substance. It would, therefore, follow that the soul is eternal and invincible, while its physical vessel, the body, is finite, temporal and destined to dust. This is fairly standard theological thinking. Yet the principle of Techiat HaMeitim runs contrary to such reasoning. For, if the body is but a temporary and deficient container for the soul, why recompose and revive it?
The Lame and the Blind
On the most basic level, the future reunion of body and soul is crucial to the realization of another of the Thirteen Foundations, the principle of "Reward and Punishment." In the words of our sages, "G-d does not deprive any creature of its due." There are no loose strings in G-d's creation: ultimately, all good must be rewarded, all negative must be corrected. So because life is a joint enterprise of the body and the soul, they will be rejoined in order to experience the results of their failings and attainments.
An analogy from the Talmud illustrates this point:
Once there was a king who appointed two handicapped watchmen to guard his orchard. One was blind and the second was lame. The two conspired to rob their master: the lame man rode on the blind man's shoulders and steered him to the fruit. When the king confronted them, the blind man said, "How can I steal what I cannot see?" while the lame guard argued, "How could I have taken, when I cannot reach the fruit?" So the king had the lame man set on the blind man's shoulders and judged them as one.
This is the story of man's mission in life. In this material world, man's physical body is able-bodied but blind. It possesses all the necessary tools to fulfill the purpose of its creation--all except the vision to apply these tools in the appropriate manner. The body's selfish, animalistic drives distort its priorities and cloud its perception of the truth. The vision to discern right from wrong must come from the soul, the spark of divinity within man that never loses sight of its Creator and purpose. Yet the soul is helpless on its own. To realize its mission on earth, it needs a physical mind, heart, hands and feet to deal with the physical reality. Only when body and soul combine and integrate to form the entity called "man," can they safeguard and develop the "orchard" that has been entrusted to them in accordance with its Master's plans.
In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since "G-d does not deprive any creature of its due," all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.
All this, however, only explains why the Resurrection must take place at some future time. Yet why is it a cardinal principle of the Jewish faith? The Torah includes thousands of beliefs, practices and ideas; of these, only thirteen merit the designation of "foundation," implying that it is upon them that the entire body of Judaism rests--that without any one of them, there would be something lacking in everything a Jew believes in and does.
To understand the centrality of the Resurrection to the whole of Judaism we must first examine the views of two great Jewish thinkers, Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) and Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), on what constitutes the ultimate realization of G-d's purpose in creation.
Generally speaking, the entirety of existence is divided into three periods:
a) Our present reality (Olam Hazeh).
b) The Era of Moshiach (Y'mos HaMoshiach).
c) The World To Come (Olam Habah).
Our present world is the scene of a daily struggle between good and evil. As in every struggle, there are ups and downs--times when the animal in man gets the better of him and times when his inherent goodness triumphs. So ours is a world that allows for the existence of greed, hate and suffering. Although G-d created the world to reflect His infinite goodness and perfection, He also shrouded it in a veil of corporeality--a veil that conceals and distorts its true nature, giving man the freedom to choose between good and evil. So man can either labor to bring to light the good inherent in himself and the world about him, or he can act to intensify the illusion of evil.
Ultimately, however, our every moral victory, because they reflects the quintessential nature of reality, is eternal and cumulative, while our negative deeds are but temporary and superficial distortions of the truth. Hence our present-day lives will ultimately result in the second phase of existence, the strife-free Era of Moshiach.
The Era of Moshiach is not a supernatural world; it is the very same world we know today--without the corruptions of human nature. Man will have conquered his selfishness and prejudices; a harmonious world community will devote its energies and resources for the common good and the quest for continued growth in wisdom and perfection. In short, the Era of Moshiach represents man's attainment of the peak of his natural potential.
But the laws of nature themselves are finite and confining. So a naturally perfect world cannot be said to truly reflect its Creator's perfection. Death, for example, is a most natural phenomenon, a phenomenon connected with the finite and transitory nature of the physical--and the antithesis of G-d's infinite and eternal reality. Indeed, the world as G-d initially created it was free of death and dissolution, which were caused by man's first sin. So there is much in nature itself that is a subtle form of "evil"--i.e., part of the veil which obscures the Divine truth.
Thus, the Era of Moshiach is also a period of human labor and achievement, although its challenges differ greatly from our present-day struggles. Today, our lives are completely taken up with combating the negative: feeding the hungry, enlightening the ignorant, bringing peace to warring factions. Then, the more blatant aspects of evil having been overcome, we will strive for the attainment of ever greater heights within the realm of good itself--struggling to overreach the limitations that define our natural existence.
The Era of Moshiach will be followed by the ultimate realization of G-d's vision of His creation--a world that expresses His quintessential perfection. Such a world, by definition, is beyond the confines of nature as we know it. This is the World To Come, the world of eternal life.
Two Definitions of Perfection
Is there a place for physicality in such a world?
This is the substance of the debate between Maimonides and Nachmanides. Maimonides is of the opinion that the ultimate utopia is a world of utter spirituality. "In the World to Come," he writes, "there are no physical forms or bodies--only souls.... So there is no eating or drinking, or any of the things that bodies need in the present world. Nor will there happen any of the events that befall bodies in the present world... [the souls] will enjoy the radiance of the Divine Presence--they will know and comprehend the Divine truth, which cannot be known while in the dark and lowly body.... This is a life without death, for death is only an occurrence of the body.... This is the reward of which there is no higher reward, and the good of which there is no greater good...."
Where and how does Techiat HaMeitim figure in all this? As Maimonides explains in his Letter on the Vivification of the Dead, the reuniting of the bodies and souls of all who have lived throughout the generations of our present world is an important part of the Messianic Era, when all of the natural creation, including its physical elements, will achieve their ultimate perfection. But this will only be their ultimate--not the ultimate. The dead will be revived to a perfect life--as perfect as a finitely physical reality can be. But this life will also be subject to the dissolutive nature of all physical matter. This life, too, will come to an end, to be followed by the spiritual perfection of the World To Come.
Nachmanides disagrees. The ultimate realization of G-d's creation is not a spiritual world of souls, but a world in which spirit and matter together express the perfection of their Creator--a perfection that is both all-transcendent and all-embracing. According to Nachmanides, the resurrection of the dead will lead to eternal physical life, and usher in the World To Come--a world populated by souls enclothed within physical bodies.
The teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism concur with Nachmanides' definition of perfection. Citing the axiom that "the higher something is, the lower it can descend," chassidic teaching explains that the ultimate expression of the Divine truth is that there is no aspect of reality in which it cannot be found. To consider the physical too finite and too lowly a place for the perfection of G-d to be realized, is to say that He can extend this far and no further. But the essence of G-d transcends all labels and definitions. To categorize Him as "spiritual" is no less a definition than to attribute physical properties to Him, G-d forbid. He is neither one nor the other (having created them both), and both serve Him equally.
In our present-day reality, the material nature of our world is perhaps the cause of a greater concealment of G-dliness than the spirituality of the soul; but, in the World To Come, nature itself will prove the most potent statement of G-d's all- pervading truth. The intensity of a lamp is measured by the farthest point its light reaches. The true mark of genius is the ability to explain the most profound idea to the simplest mind. In the same way, a physical world that conveys the Divine truth is the most powerful indicator of the infinite perfection of G-d.
Indeed, this is the purpose of the entirety of G-d's creation: that man, leading a physical existence, should overcome the imperfections of the material and bring to light its true nature and function--to express the goodness and perfection of its Creator.