The World Repaired, Remade
An interview with Jon D. Levenson
By Sharon Goldman
In his most recent book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (Yale University Press), Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at HDS, explores conceptions of resurrection in rabinnic thought, tracing their development back to the Hebrew Bible and even further, into Canaanite religion. Levenson argues that, rather than having been imported from other ancient cultures or emerged in response to an immediate crisis posed by the death of the Maccabean martyrs, the resurrection of the dead was not altogether an innovation, but rather an ongoing and vital theme developed from an older biblical religion. This book calls our attention to facets of scripture that have been instrumental in the construction and maintenance of the vision of resurrection and to the ways in which those texts have contributed to issues pertaining to eschatology within Judaism.
Sharon Goldman (MTS ’05) spoke with Levenson about the book, which has just won the 2006 National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship.
Why The Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel now?
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of the resurrection of the dead and with the fact that many Jews think that there is no such idea in Judaism. When I was in graduate school, I was studying the idea of the Divine Warrior and the rejuvenation of nature that attends the Divine Warrior’s victory, and it occurred to me that this really is the source of the belief in the resurrection of the dead. The thought occurred to me while I was in a seminar on Second Isaiah given by Frank Moore Cross (now Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Emeritus), my doctoral adviser, in 1971. Thirty-five years later, I finally published a book on the idea that popped into my head that day.
Could you say more about the Divine Warrior?
The Divine Warrior is a name applied to a mythico-ritual complex in which evil poses a very formidable and terrifying challenge to God. Nonetheless, God finally marches out to do combat and wins a stupendous victory, with the result that nature then luxuriates, rejuvenates, and undergoes a restoration of fertility. The notion of the victorious Divine Warrior really permeates the Hebrew Bible and has strong ancient Near Eastern connections. The underlying ethical idea is one with which some people won’t be happy, namely, that good is not self-enforcing. Good often requires the application of force in order to triumph—so powerful is the challenge evil poses. Here, the force is that of the God of Israel, but, in my judgment, it would not be wrong to hear in this the implication that people, too, at times need to use force in order to prevent the triumph of evil.
At the beginning of the book, you make the distinction between resurrection as a vision versus resurrection as a doctrine of ancient Israelite thought, with your endorsement clearly directed toward the former. Could you elaborate a bit on this distinction?
I don’t mean to disparage doctrine. Today, no religion with any self-consciousness can long endure and maintain its identity without attention to questions of belief. But the resurrection of the dead begins not with creeds, but with visions by apocalyptic seers. I don’t think you can divorce the doctrine from those underlying literary forms. Simply to say “I believe there will be a resurrection of the dead at the end of time” creates only a propositional, cognitive statement, and that can make us lose a sense of its rooting in the verbal particularity of the literature. To put it differently, I don’t think you can speak about a religious idea in a scriptural culture as if it floats free of its specific literary forms and contexts, including performative contexts. One problem with talking about the resurrection of the dead as a doctrine is that it can give the misimpression that there is no continuity with earlier forms of religion in Israel. One point of the book is to say that there is a great deal of continuity with earlier forms. That’s not to say that the idea is in no sense an innovation, but it’s not just an innovation. It’s not the radical break that people often think it is.
You highlight a trend among Jews themselves that avers that Judaism is about “this world” rather than about any “World-to-Come” and often translates into a focus on ethical action. You say that the problem with the latter belief or view is that it severs practice from theology. Can you say a little bit more about why you see this as problematic? Why do you see it as a “severance” as opposed to an alternate theology, one that generates constructive action for that matter?
I don’t judge the success of a theology strictly by its practical consequences. I think there have to be both a larger intellectual framework and fidelity to the traditional sources. Because the traditional sources have for so long incorporated the resurrection of the dead as a central belief, any Jewish theology that does not seriously and attentively reckon with resurrection will fail to open itself up to the richness of the sources and allow something else to fill that vacuum. Many modern Jews are so eager to be progressive that elements of the tradition that speak of a supernatural God and supernatural events are highly embarrassing to them. (I don’t like this language of “natural” and “supernatural,” but it’s the best we have, I guess.) I’m not clear as to why a supernatural event at the beginning of time or during the course of history is less embarrassing than a supernatural event that is eschatological, that is, having to do with the end of history. Why should creation or exodus not offend the naturalistic mind when resurrection does? In my view, the very idea of revelation implies some element of special disclosure by God, something other than what one has figured out on one’s own. And there is only so much of what one finds in the Torah that I think Jews can figure out on their own. If one affirms the Torah religiously, rather than only describing it historically, one has to reckon with the idea of revelation. But if you want Judaism to look progressive, scientific, and naturalistic, then the resurrection of the dead will have to be jettisoned. So when people say that Judaism focuses on ethics rather than on the World-to-Come, they make a false dichotomy, although one that can be very useful for modern apologetics. The attempt to set the two worlds, “this world” and “the World-to-Come” in rabbinic terminology, against each other, to choose one as opposed to the other really strikes me as inauthentic and foreign to the way the Jewish tradition thinks about these things.
It’s quite difficult for many of us now to think of resurrection in anything other than in allegorical terms, as an allegory of hope or spiritual renewal. Don’t you agree?
But hope for what? I think the author of 2 Kings 4, which talks about Elisha’s resurrection of the Shunammite boy, expressed hope in the form of a conviction that the powers of the miracle-working prophet, the “man of God,” are so great that even death yields to them. I don’t think the narrative is intended as a figure for some other conviction, more palatable to modern naturalism. In Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, yes, it’s a figure; it’s a vision of the restoration of the people of Israel to their land. What people usually say about Ezekiel 37 is that it’s a vision, it’s metaphorical, it means national restoration, and it doesn’t mean the restoration of the dead. It certainly is visionary and metaphorical and speaks of national restoration, but one of my main points in the book is that the distinction between national restoration and the resurrection of the dead is again overdrawn and false to the Jewish sources. I think the older Israelite view, and certainly the view that dominates in the Torah, is what I call familial resurrection. One can’t discuss Jewish eschatology without reference to the people of Israel collectively. Familial resurrection is the term I use to refer to the situation when the people of Israel seem to have no future because of maladies such as infertility or the loss of children, yet nonetheless experience miraculous fertility and the birth of new children or the amazing return of the old ones. So, yes, resurrection has to do with hope, but the hope centers on national restoration, the restoration of a flesh-andblood people, and this serves in context as the functional equivalent of the resurrection of the dead. I’m saying that pattern of infertility, childlessness, and the loss of children overcome is the functional equivalent of the resurrection of the dead. I’m not saying it is resurrection.
You argue that the Israelites saw death more as a continuum than as an abrupt severance with life, and that death was in effect seen as a privation of health rather than the opposite of life or its abrupt ending. If ancient conceptions of resurrection are predicated on this paradigm of continuum, how can we, living in a scientific age with a sharper, narrower definition of death, find any meaningful relevance here?
By a continuum, what I mean is that the ancient Israelites usually thought of death as the most severe of diseases. Therefore, to say that death is irreversible is to say that there are diseases that God cannot cure. The hymnic affirmation that God cures, that he is the healer, deeply affects the way they see death. In the thinking that underlies these hymns, death is not beyond God’s control. Of course, a miracle is by definition an exception; it’s never the norm. The Shunammite woman’s child whom Elisha resurrects or the resurrections that Elijah performs in the parallel text, 1 Kings 17, or that Ezekiel envisions in the valley of the dry bones, are all presented as miraculous in the sense that they are literally contrary to anything nature would know; of that the narrators are keenly aware. That’s what makes these putative events noteworthy, in their mind. They are acts of God. None of these passages presents these events as the normal course of things. Likewise, the resurrection of the dead at the end of history (which was the normative expectation of the Talmudic rabbis) is presented as anything but the ordinary course of things. For the rabbis, it was the greatest testimony to God’s power and an integral part of their vision of redemption, of the world repaired and remade. When we say that death is final, those authors would perhaps reply that this reveals the limitation of a worldview predicated on our deterministic and mechanistic understanding of the normal course of things; they did not see that normal course of things as absolute and inviolable. All this is by way of saying that in a strictly naturalistic conception of a universe, it’s awfully hard to see what you can do with the resurrection of the dead. If you’re committed to a totally naturalistic universe without a personal creator God, an active God who actually does things, then the best you can do with the resurrection of the dead is to say that it’s a symbol of hope, but a hope that ends at the grave.
You’ve explained that the resurrection of the dead, as adumbrated in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and later picked up by the early rabbis, resists two temptations, one being a literal notion of a restoration to one’s temporal body, and the other being the notion of immortality of the soul. Could you qualify these distinctions?
Immortality means your body dies but the real you doesn’t die, the real you keeps on existing. The resurrection of the dead, on the other hand, is an event. It is a divine intervention in the course of things at one moment in time. It’s general, public, and universal in the sense that God is doing this all at once. It also consummates history. The rhetoric of the immortality of the soul uses language that doesn’t imply a consummation of history or providential intervention into it. Rather, the language implies that the real you is not your body anyhow; you are trapped in a clay casing that will fall off, and the real you, which is incorporeal, will emerge to exist for all eternity. The resurrection of the dead implies that death is very real, and the real you certainly is harmed by, even destroyed by, death. The classic doctrine of resurrection is very much involved with the notion of embodiment and with the notion that death is genuinely a defeat, something to mourn for, while the language of the immortality of the soul does not find death quite so disruptive. In the vision of the resurrection of the dead, the self that comes back is an embodied self, but it is not just a body, and it is not just a soul. It’s something else that’s not really well understood if you are dichotomizing the body and the soul, as philosophers from antiquity on (including Jewish philosophers) have so often done. But I have to add that the two ideas, immortality and resurrection, aren’t mutually exclusive. They coexist peacefully in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to rabbinic thought, God tends one’s soul until it is restored, until the whole person is restored in totality, re-embodied, at the resurrection of the dead.
What about the idea of reincarnation (gilgul) mentioned in the Zohar? What about the conception of the transmigration of the soul in the thought of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria, a sixteenth-century qabbalist)?
I don’t deny that these ideas exist and even attained prominence in medieval mysticism, but what the classical rabbinic tradition insists on in the Mishnah and in the traditional siddur (prayer book) is that the resurrection of the dead is an event. It’s not that people possess innately an imperishable soul that lasts forever. Rather, the resurrection is the reversal of death, and the person resurrected comes back as himself or herself, not as somebody else, as if their body had nothing to do with who they were.
The Mishnah makes the resurrection of the dead a defining doctrine of Rabbinic Judaism. I don’t know of anything comparable with regard to the notions of reincarnation or transmigration. The Mishnah even claims that Jews who don’t believe in it will not have a part in it—a nice example of the principle of “measure for measure.” Some versions even say that one has to accept that the idea of resurrection is found in the Torah itself! I’ve always been bothered by the fact that we historical-critical scholars don’t think that there’s any mention of resurrection of the dead in the Torah, but the rabbis, who were not exactly careless in their scrutiny of the text, generally believed that resurrection is indeed there. That suggests two different hermeneutical paradigms, and to me what’s interesting is the question of how we can establish communication between these ostensibly incommensurable systems. To facilitate that communication and make it productive and intellectually defensible has been a concern of my teaching and research for a long time. So, I suppose Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel is the latest installment in what for me is a familiar story.
I also worry that in the current cultural environment, grouping resurrection with reincarnation, transmigration, and the like will give the misimpression that resurrection is primarily about personal survival and answers the self-interested question “Will I have life after death?” In the Jewish context, resurrection is primarily about the power of God and his fidelity to his promises to the Jewish people, a very different thing and something that pop spirituality isn’t so eager to affirm. It has nothing to do with esotericism or the paranormal. Something analogous could be said about the Christian expectation of a general resurrection of the dead.
One of the points that you stress in your book is that, while a full-blown account of resurrection does not explicitly arise in the Hebrew Scriptures until relatively late, i.e., the book of Daniel, this idea neither emerged out of the blue nor was imported from foreign sources. Rather, you argue that earlier books of the Tanakh set the stage for this more direct description by motifs, which suggest resurrection, by speaking of healing infertility, for example, or slaking drought and famine. How is it that you have come to attribute those equations to the ancient Israelite imagination?
The ancient Israelite attitude toward death was more complex than people usually think. Most scholars think that their view was very matter-of-fact: death was inevitable, natural, decreed by God, and thus unproblematic. I think it is more productive to analyze the biblical texts in terms of a tension between a ubiquitous promise of life and the equally ubiquitous fact of death. People die, but God promises life. Dealing with forces of death seemed to call God’s promise of life, particularly to the Jewish nation, into doubt. The forces of evil, chaos, and death were thought of as very powerful. Therefore, the death or disappearance of children served as a rough functional equivalent of death, while miraculous fertility, the birth of new children, or the restoration of lost children were the functional equivalents of resurrection. I’m not saying that these events were the same thing as the resurrection of the dead as the rabbis (and their Pharisaic antecedents) later conceived it. They were not general or eschatological, but they do become integral to eschatology in texts like Second and Third Isaiah, where it is promised that the lost children will return, that new ones will be born, that barren women will give birth, and that the widow who personifies the people Israel will be remarried—even to the same husband!
My earlier book Creation and the Persistence of Evil deals with this tension between the continued reality of chaos, evil, and even death, and the Divine Warrior who is liturgically acclaimed as superior to all those things. There is strong continuity between that volume and this new one. Three of my books—Creation and the Persistence of Evil, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, and now Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel—are actually the same book written about different material, or at least so it seems to me, if not to anybody else. I’ve tried to explicate the same spiritual vision in all of them. Chaos and evil (really, the same thing) were thought to be in league with and leading to death. This is a worldview that sees these forces arrayed against God and God’s wishes, as extremely powerful and able to triumph for a long time. This, then, rightly raises the question of whether God will ever triumph over them. The texts I discuss envision just such a triumph. Many modern people find eschatology problematic because they can’t imagine a definitive end to evil and a transformation and recreation of the realities as they stand now. Nothing in science suggests that this is what we’re headed for. Science does not provide a happy view of ultimate destiny. These biblical affirmations are based, instead, on promises that don’t have any unassailable empirical evidence. Faith is not a meaningful category without the idea of promise and the possibility of doubt that inevitably comes along with it: the promise-maker may not prove to be a promise-keeper after all.
You’ve mentioned that the Sadduccees, a prevalent sect during the late Second Temple Period, were among those who rejected the view of resurrection portrayed in the book of Daniel. If these equations, or functional equivalents as you call them, had been so embedded within the Jewish psyche, what was found to be objectionable theologically and/or politically?
I don’t argue that there was any logical necessity behind the appearance of an eschatological belief in the resurrection of the dead. All I argue is that the belief has certain continuities with the older mode of thinking and that it does shed light on the older material, and vice versa. But there are certainly elements of discontinuity. I’m not arguing that all careful, sensitive readers of the Hebrew Bible would inevitably come to expect an eschatological resurrection of the dead. Many Jews believed in it, and many didn’t. If there hadn’t been Jews who didn’t believe in it, the Mishnah wouldn’t have had to declare their position unacceptable.
Do you think anything else was at stake, politically, socially, or theologically, in their rejection of the tenet of resurrection?
Theologically, I think the older model that saw God’s justice vindicated or realized with descendents, a postmortem vindication that does not involve the resurrection, remained alive. For example, I think that what Job wants is vindication. He wants a restoration, to be sure, but he primarily wants a vindication of himself. He wants his name cleared. It was very widely believed that you can have your good name cleared even after you’re dead. Also very much alive was the contention that not all deaths were equal. In the Hebrew Bible, we have to reckon with the notion of an unfortunate death, the death of those who go to Sheol, the miserable underworld, and a fortunate death that didn’t have that destination, in my view (many disagree). Sheol wasn’t understood solely in moral terms; it wasn’t viewed as a punishment only; it wasn’t hell. One might go to Sheol if one passed away brokenhearted, young, because of an act of violence, or without proper burial.
You stress at various points in your book that the Israelite understanding of resurrection is predicated on a very different understanding of selfhood from that to which we are accustomed in the modern world, one which was understood in more familial terms. Given this obvious disconnect, do you see any way that we moderns can forge any pragmatic relationship with the teachings of these texts?
I think it’s still very much the case in Judaism even up to this day that you can’t separate the Jew from the Jewish people. You can’t separate Judaism from the Jews. In other words, peoplehood is critical to understanding what the Jews are all about, just as many Christians would argue that you can’t have an individualistic or socially atomistic conception of Christian identity because the church is the mystical body of Christ, the people of God. I doubt that the abstract conception of the individual as deracinated and separated from any group is so successful or that it will last until the end of time. You can see in many forms of culture some awareness of the continuing reality of nation. For several decades in this country, one has regularly heard people, especially minority groups, saying that they have to be understood in terms of the history of their people. All of that is quite at odds with the classical liberal view that all that counts is the individual, and don’t you dare judge or assess me according to some sort of group. The claim that individuals are totally unique and atomized is shallow and belies human experience, even the experience of the people who make those claims.
You begin your book by exploring some of the ways that modern movements in Judaism have put their own spin on the translations of the classical liturgy when appropriating passages in their prayer books.
Yes, they either translate the Hebrew so as to play down or to eliminate the resurrection of the dead, or they substitute new Hebrew words.
If some of these translations have distorted some of the core thinking of our theological tradition, what do you then see as a plausible inroad for modern Jews, particularly those of us who do not accept the notion of God as an active, transcendent agent who cares about and interferes with human affairs?
That’s a big question. It presupposes a prior question: Does liturgy challenge the worshiper, or does it just express what the worshiper already thinks? My view is that one of the core functions of Jewish liturgy is to educate Jews about, and to call them back to, the central affirmations and practices of the tradition. In a certain way, liturgy is at least as much revelation to the worshiper as it is self-expression by the worshiper. It’s certainly the case that the classical liturgy challenges modern Jews to affirm something that the dominant trends of Western thought for the last three or four hundred years have not encouraged. There is a well-known statement in the Talmud to the effect that by doing a mitzvah (a commandment) not for its own sake, which is the lower level of observance, one may come to do it for its own sake, which is the higher level. I think liturgy is one of the mothers of faith: by saying it, especially in community, one comes to believe it. It has a formative dimension; it is not simply expressive. This is different from the more rationalistic view that cognition and assent must precede worship. What I am saying runs counter to the idea that when we say something we don’t believe, even in this specialized liturgical context, we are simply being dishonest.
You write that in rabbinic thought, the final destination of the righteous is the World-to- Come. So, what would that World-to-Come look like?
First of all, it’s a misconception to conflate notions of the World-to-Come with the resurrection of the dead, and it’s difficult to define either of them with any precision. The rabbinic notion of the World-to- Come envisions a mode of existence that has elements of continuity and elements of discontinuity with this world, with this life. Therefore, any effort to envision the World-to-Come necessarily entails mythopoetic language, while attempts to account for this mode of being rationalistically and empirically come across as silly, in my view. We have to remember that these ideas are inseparable from a vision of the redemption and utter transformation of the world. When mythopoetic or liturgical language is flattened into propositional or empirical affirmations, something crucial is lost in the translation. There has to be a critical interplay, a kind of dialectical interaction, between these two modes of discourse.
Could you say more about the rabbinic conception?
One famous Talmudic text describes the World-to-Come as the righteous sitting with crowns on their heads enjoying the radiance of God’s immanent presence in a mode of existence that is free of the need for any food, beverage, sex, etc. Haven’t been there, haven’t done that.
Is it incorporeal, or is it just not visible?
I can’t answer that. I only know about these texts! The rabbis firmly believed that God is involved with the soul, that God protects the soul between the time of death and the resurrection, that he takes it from people when they die and will restore it to them in the World-to-Come and even beforehand when they go to sleep, and, if they’re lucky, wake up again. So, there’s a sense that a disembodied existence is deficient. The rhetoric of the immortality of the soul can’t do justice to that perception of deficiency. But then again, to say that people come back in a body that doesn’t age or become diseased or die, surely this really doesn’t describe a body as we understand it, either. It describes something like a body, but more than a body. It’s a body that doesn’t eat, drink, or have sexual relations, but enjoys the radiance of the divine presence. So, on the one hand, there is freedom from bodily needs and, on the other hand, an embodied self is what comes back. Clearly, the issue is not meant to be understood in terms of a neat, convenient dichotomy of body and self or of body and soul, and rationalistic, pragmatic questions are not very productive here.
What impact do you hope this book will have within your own field as well as within related fields of study, e.g., Near Eastern studies, theology, the study of religion?
I hope that it will dispel widespread views that I am convinced are inaccurate, for example, that the resurrection of the dead is a radical invention of the second century BCE, or that it was simply borrowed from elsewhere and fits awkwardly with the biblical tradition. Certainly, there are affinities with Ugaritic and other Canaanite cultures (which is not where most scholars think it comes from), but it doesn’t do justice to the cultural dynamics simply to term it a borrowing. There is also a common belief among Jews that it’s a Christian thing. One reason that it’s useful for many modern Jews to say that Judaism doesn’t have, and never had, a belief in the resurrection of the dead is that it enables them to differentiate Judaism from Christianity. Because Christianity is so focused on the resurrection of Jesus as the conclusive evidence of a more general resurrection to come, one can make Judaism out to be more scientific than Christianity by claiming, inaccurately, that Judaism has no notion of resurrection. There’s a stereotype that Judaism is more “this-worldly,” naturalistic, and ethical, whereas Christianity is “otherworldly” and superstitious. If you say that, then you make Judaism out to be more modern and progressive than Christianity, more allied with science, and therefore truer and more valuable in a secular cultural climate. I hope that this book can have some role in shaking these old apologetics and uninformed polemics. The literature is more sophisticated than these simple-minded schemata can handle, but I must say, I am continually astonished at how tenacious and long-lived they are.
The sources you draw from, the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah, are directed to a Jewish audience. What about non-Jews?
Where do non-Jews lie in the scheme of things? It’s fair to say that the rabbinic tradition generally affirms there is a place in the World-to-Come for the righteous gentile. There’s no assumption in these affirmations that one has to be Jewish to have a portion of the World-to-Come. But, again, systematizing nonsystematic materials is perilous.
Any ideas as to where your next project might take you?
I am currently finishing up an adaptation of my book, co-authored with Kevin Madigan (Professor of the History of Christianity at HDS), which focuses on the Jewish-Christian connections of the expectation of resurrection. After that, I hope to work on a comparison and contrast of the appropriation of Abraham into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I want to do an unsentimental analysis of the frequently expressed claim that Abraham is the common father of these three traditions and thus ought to serve as a model of reconciliation among them.