Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


Principles Of Judaism.

No. IV.

To the Editor of the Occident

Dear Sir:

The object of this letter is to continue my objections against the dogma of the resurrection of the body, and to vindicate the doctrine of the immortality of the soul; wherefore you will excuse me that I commence at once without any farther preface. The process of life is a continued struggle of the principle of life with organic matter; that principle of life puts in this manner the organic machine in such a rapid and uninterrupted motion, that the latter is so much impaired and enfeebled, that the former would make its escape, if the material machine, were not strengthened by rest and nutritious food. So we see the principle of life always struggling to escape from its organic prison, which calls to our mind the words of an ancient sage בעל כרחך אתה חי “Thou livest against thy will.” Still we experience regret when the hour of departure comes; the principle of life has been so long accustomed to its organic companion, that the hour of separation is an hour of agony and pain; wherefore said the ancient sage, “ Thou diest against thy will” בעל כרחך אתה מת. There is no man who is as pious and righteous, as virtuous and good as he could be; none, however good, does as much good as he might have done; none develops his mental faculties to the highest degree which they are capable of attaining; consequently every man has his faults, his infirmities, his sins, which he is exceedingly anxious —to cover with the veil of obscurity and forgetfulness.

But, notwithstanding all this, we know that above us is the Eye which sees everything; an Ear which hears everything, and all our transactions are recorded in the Book of everlasting memorial; we still must give account before a Judge who knows the thoughts of the heart, although we wish to have our transactions covered and forgotten, hence, בעל כרחך אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון “Thou wilt have to give an account of thy deeds against thy will.”

Life in general is a chain of oppositions, of struggles, of sacrifices, of self-denial, of temptations; such is the life of the virtuous, while that of the vicious is a series of miseries, of calamities and self-contempt; wherefore another ancient sage said טוב שלא נברא משנברא “It would have been better for man not to have been created than to have been.” 

After I have now lived against my will, and sacrificed my joys and pleasures, borne the persecutions, the scoff, the irony, satire, the malignity of men; after I have gone forth triumphantly from all temptations and excitements; after I have died and have given account of my acts; after the truth has become mine, and I am permitted to live in the company of congenial spirits, satisfied with the glory of the Most High, shall I be forced to live again on this earth? No; that is impossible. I think too much of the goodness of God, that He should inflict so horrible a wrong on his creatures.

We must keep in mind that God said to Adam, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis iii. 19.) Abigail said to David, “But the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God,” &c. (1 Samuel xxv. 29.) David, said, “For thou wilt not yield my soul to the grave, thou wilt not suffer thy pious one to see destruction; thou wilt make known unto me the path of life, the fulness of joy (which is) with thy presence, (and) the pleasures (which are) at thy right hand for evermore.” (Psalm xvi. 10, 11.) I do not see bow any one can torture these passages to convey the idea of a resurrection of the body.

If a general resurrection of the body will take place, the question arises, Will the revived die again or not? In case they die again, another general resurrection must take place, and then another, and another, and so forth to an infinity of resurrections; but in case they die not, then it will be a new creation, but not these very same bodies which have died; for they are so composed, that they continually change their state and particles, dimensions, form, and colour, consequently they must die.

Hence, what use is there in the resurrection of the body? If our opponents say the soul cannot perfectly exist, enjoy the purest pleasures, and live in the happiest manner before God in the assembly of angels and congenial spirits: then they must first deny the doctrine of Judaism, which teaches God to be a pure and absolute spirit; and as God exists without the aid of a body, just so can the disembodied human spirit, which is the image of God, exist with all its excellencies and faculties; and if they admit this position, they must confess, that the soul not only derives no advantage from a resurrection of the boy, but is again forced into a piece of clay, which enfeebles its faculties, and deprives it of the highest joy, to be with God, to know the truth.

I received lately a book of which a very few copies exist, viz., The book of Tobias the Physician, טוביה הרופא, the grandson of the author of “Beginning of Wisdom” ראשית חכמה, in which a great deal of Kabbalah and physical matters are mingled in the same manner that his grandfather had mixed up Kabbalah with the most sublime moral philosophy. One passage of this book is remarkable, and has a strong bearing upon our subject, wherefore I shall give you an epitome of it; bear in mind the author was a Kabbalist of the dark ages: “The principle of Rabbi Jacob (Kiddushin, fol. 89), שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא ‘the reward of virtue is not in this world’ (but in a world to come), has met with decided opposition among the Rabbis and among the doctors of our age; they supposed the soul in a pure state is unit to receive either reward or punishment, wherefore they said a resurrection of the body must take place; and since so many Jews died for their faith, or pined away in oppression and distress because of their religion, they say the resurrection must take place shortly after the coming of the Messiah, that these pious martyrs may be rewarded and enabled to rejoice in the final triumph of Judaism; but as to those who adhere to the principle of Rabbi Jacob, the doctrine of a resurrection of the body is altogether superfluous.” I hope my opponents will not excommunicate this old writer.

We have also to consider that the body of man loses its <<190>> strength, its vitality, its fluids, and the most of its particles, before death calls him from the stage of life. The natural functions of his body are gradually suspended, until the organic machine is unable to move any more. Man thus dies because he can live no longer; his body is unfit to imprison the soul any farther; and the body cannot live any more, because it has lost what is necessary in order to enable it to live. Our opponents are therefore bound to suppose that God will at once heal all the diseases which caused death; will regather all the particles of matter for every body, which it formerly possessed; will re­establish all the lost functions;—but you must admit that this is very unnatural and very unlikely. Go into a graveyard, and you will find the work of dissolution going on in a natural course; organic matter changes its state, and a luxuriant vegetation exhibits to you the effects resulting from the decomposition of human frames. The phosphorus rises into the air, and frightens the superstitious, and nothing remains in its original state. The thirteen primary elements, of which the human body is composed, return to their respective homes, and are changed and composed again into other organic beings. Suppose the grass, which grew by the particles of human flesh, be devoured by an ox, which happens to fall into the ocean, and be dissolved there, or consumed by the fishes; then the human matter became grass, ox, fish, and so it may be changed a thousand times. Does it then exist any longer as human matter? No. At the resurrection, therefore, the human body must be composed of all sorts of vegetables, animals, and fishes, into which human matter was changed by the process of nature. If you assume that every body shall be identically the same as it has been, it must also have the same particles, since the whole consists of its parts, and if the parts be changed, the subject is changed. It is true that God can suddenly convert all that into human matter; but it is not likely that He will act thus against the rules and laws which He himself established, when He constituted this universe; nor are we bound to believe that 8 x 8 will at some future time be 8, or that the two sides of a triangle will be smaller than the remaining one. It is blasphemy to <<191>>think that the Creator was either not wise enough or not powerful enough to establish such laws as are good for all times and ages, and it is, therefore, contrary to the first principle of Judaism.

Hence, you will admit that the doctrine of a future reward and punishment is a mighty source, a powerful stimulus to virtue, piety, and morality, and therefore one of the first requisites of a true religious system. The doctrine of a personal immortality of the soul, which will enjoy as much of eternal bliss and divine joy as it is capable of enjoying, as its capacities become developed, its abilities enlarged, its energies strengthened, its conscience pure and innocent, is a stimulus for us to develops our mental and moral capacities to the utmost extent. Both these doctrines make it man’s duty to be wise and good, and are therefore the foremost requisites of a religious system, which does not teach stupidity, ignorance, folly, narrowness of mind to be brilliant virtues, or that a mere faith, a mere confession of certain dogmas, is sufficient to procure salvation; consequently they are principles of Judaism. But can you tell me what duty arises from the dogma of the resurrection of the body?—to what virtue, wisdom, or greatness this dogma stimulates? I know of naught but of the precept to feed well this piece of animal flesh, that we might have a stout, tall, and beautiful body when we shall arise to live again. You see this doctrine tends to naught but to arouse the suspicion of the better educated against the whole system of which it is a part.

It appears to me that the people of bygone ages were unable to have a conception of a purely spiritual being, as the millions are still unable to comprehend it at this day, wherefore the deities of the heathens were all embodied, incarnate in some way or another. In the same manner were the souls of the departed furnished with some kind of body by almost every nation. Judaism first taught the great doctrine of a purely spiritual existence, as well in regard to God, as also to man, who is His image. But this doctrine was inaccessible to the millions; it was too sublime, too much beyond the horizon of common apprehension so that our venerable teachers were bound to speak <<192>> in allegories, in which God is frequently taught to have some sort of body, to do human actions, to have carnal passions; and, in the same manner, they had to speak of immortality, so as to teach the principle at least, since the matter itself could not be reached. Christianity and the Islam resorted to the same means, represented God as incarnate, or exhibited a hell filled with brimstone, and a devil, a sensual paradise, a resurrection, &c. The only difference is that we may declare the allegories of our fathers to be such, without losing thus our identity; but if they would do so, they would cease to exist as such, and be Jews, for we are told that כל הכופר בעבודה זרה נקרא יהודי, “Whosoever denounces idolatry may be called a Jew.” (Megillah, fol. 49.) In regard to God, we have had plenty of  writers who defended the pure spirituality of God, as Onkelos, Saadyah, and chiefly Maimonides have done in regard to man, I am not the first one, nor shall I be the last. I know very well that ראב״ד (Rabad, Rabbi Eleazer ben David) censured Maimonides harshly because he ventured to say, “God has no hands, no feet.” I also know that, though I am no Maimonides, and my opponents no Rabad, I shall be treated no better, if not worse. Still, I cannot help saying what I think on the subject.

It appears to me that the doctrine of the resurrection was altogether misunderstood by the readers of the Talmud, as I shall presently show. The ancient Talmudists were intimately acquainted with the mental and physical sciences of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, and of the Eastern schools, as many passages of the Midrashim and Haggadoth sufficiently show, where all the systems of the different schools, even the views of Epicure and Pantheism, are referred to by different men. It appears, from many passages in the Midrashim, that the authors were acquainted with geology. I will cite one of these passages:—

אמר ר׳ אבוהו בכל מקום שכתוב ואלה מוסיף על הראשונים כיצר אלה תולדות שמים וג׳ ומה פסול שיהיה בורא שמים וארץ והיה מסתכל בהם ולא היו ערבים אליו והיה מחזרין לתוהו ובוהו כיון שראה שמים וארץ אלו ערבו לפניו אמר אלה תולדות וג׳ (שמות רבה ל׳)

Rabbi Abuhu said, Wherever it is written ואלה, and these, it is in addition to the preceding; but wherever it is written אלה, these, it is distinct from the <<193>> preceding. How is it, then, with the passage, “These are the generations of heaven and earth?” (Gen. ii. 4.) What does it disconnect? God had created heaven and earth, and on contemplating them they did not please Him, and He caused them to return to chaos. But when He saw these present heaven and earth, they pleased Him; therefore it says, “These are the generations,” &c., excluding the previous ones.—Shemoth Rabbah, ch. 30.

There exist many such passages, which show plainly that they were acquainted with geology, which, by the by, we have no reason to doubt, if we consider the diligence and love with which the Greeks gave themselves up to the studies of physical sciences. It was very natural that the Rabbis entertained the same notions as our modern geologists do, that this earth will be at some time destroyed again, and also recreated, which they say in plain words: אמר רב קטינא שיתא אלפי שנין הוי עלמא וחד חרוב אביי אמר תרי חרוב “Rabbi Ketina said the world shall stand in this state six thousand years, and then it will be one thousand years in a destroyed state. Abaye said two thousand years.” (Rosh Hash., fol. 31.) They found that each succeeding creation, as the crust of the earth represents it, produced more perfect organizations, more classes of beings, and more beautiful forms; so they naturally concluded that, if this earth be reconstructed, everything upon it must gain considerably in perfection and beauty, wherefore they pictured the future world, called by them עולם הבא, or עתיד לבוא, with such splendid colours. But others made a mistake in assuming this עולם הבא to be the future state of life of the same human beings, which produced the fantastic doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

And even if we take for granted that this world will be destroyed and recreated, still the resurrection is an impossibility. In the crust of the earth we see that the former destructions of organic life were effected by water, as the remains of marine animals in all parts of the globe plainly show. The water stood very long over the whole globe, which the thick strata having settled down from standing water plainly indicate. The organic beings were buried under the mud which the water was mixed with; and, after the separation of land and water, volcanic eruptions threw the organic matter upon the surface of the earth, as <<194>> some volcanoes do even in our times, and of which the surface of the earth bears evidence, after which a new creation of organic beings commenced. No seed, no egg, no being of former kingdoms of life could escape the general destruction, nor remain uncorrupted for so long a period of time in the dissolving water of the sea; consequently each successive change was an independent, entirely new creation. It cannot be called a gradual transition; for each successive creation represents a grater variety of kinds, more complicated and more artful organizations; so that only the organic matter was improved by the previous creations, but the animate beings themselves were always created anew and independent of those formerly existing.

This destructive and recreative process we meet with six times in the crust of the earth—(remember the six days of creation)—consequently we are bound to say “These are the laws of nature, established by the will of God for such revolutions.” If now the world should be destroyed and recreated once more, it must certainly be in the same way as formerly. All bodies must be dissolved, the organic matter improved, which will be thrown up by volcanic eruptions of the earth's surface, and a new and independent creation be commenced. Now it would be possible enough that the same souls, with their developed capacities, acquired abilities, increased energies, and pure consciousness of their former state, be reclothed in an improved organic body, and live again in human life, though of a higher order. Still, this very body in which we are clothed now cannot be reproduced, to be once more our garment, as the old doctrine of resurrection asserts; it must therefore be a new creation, and no such thing as a resurrection.

I hope you will confess that I have seriously reflected on my subject, and that I can in some measure account for that fatal “no” which I uttered in Charleston. I must tell you, if my opponents can give as much ground for their “yes,” I am perfectly satisfied. But still, if you can prove by the Bible that I am bound to believe a literal resurrection of the body, I shall calmly lay aside all these insurmountable difficulties, and—believe. I am now about writing an essay on immortality, which, I trust, since it is a reading matter for <<195>> every man, and not merely for the Jew, will be published next summer; and I hope it will diffuse better views on that important subject than those entertained now.

Assuring you of my best friendship and esteem, I am always

Truly yours,

Note by the Editor.—A press of matter which could not well be postponed has compelled us hitherto to drop the discussion with Dr. Wise, relative to the Resurrection. The subject, however, is one which does not lose its interest by a brief delay; Judaism is not the question of an hour, and whatever relates to it loses nothing of its novelty by a little detention.

We need not repeat that we engage in the contest very unwillingly. We had hoped that all teachers of Jewish congregations would agree in the fundamental principles upon which alone their public and private instruction should be based; and that hence there never would be any necessity for disputing about what is really demanded of us as members of the house of Israel. Modern times have, however, produced strange phenomena; and not alone Watt, Arkwright, Fulton, Stephenson, Erricson, Morse, and Daguerre, have wrought wonderful changes in physical sciences, but men have of late learned to discard pretty nearly all ancient ideas as obsolete and absurd. Now there can be no question that Judaism demands the acknowledgment of the Resurrection, though we are yet to learn that the manner has ever been fixed as a doctrine of our church. Dr. Wise speaks of the impossibility of the dead coming to life again in a physical body. We will cheerfully concede to him that we cannot explain or reconcile the corruption of the organic body, and its gradual absorption into the soil and atmosphere, with the idea of a reproduction of an organized body inhabited by the same soul. Nor can we explain to him, nor he to us, wherefore the volcanoes vomit forth fire and lava, wherefore earthquakes occur in hot and not in cold climates, or why they occur at all, or why there should exist any volcanic elevations, or geysers, or any other unexplained phenomenon of nature. We should like to see the man who would exhibit to us a rational explanation, which would satisfy us or any one else, why precisely in Iceland, which is cold enough in climate and far enough removed from any volcanic range, we find the active Hecla, and none nearer again than Vesuvius in Italy. Again why are volcanoes silent and inactive for centuries, and then break out <<196>> suddenly, scattering terror and desolation for miles around? We do not expect any answer; but we wish merely to show that thus far outward nature is a mystery to us, and likely ever to remain so. We hear a great deal about the laws of nature, but where is the code in which they are written? where are they accessible? We shall be referred to the book of nature, where all is clearly written. But, notwithstanding this clearness, men have been reading it ever since the creation, and have still not exhausted the contents.

We are as great in our admiration of the phenomena which organic and inorganic matter present, as any one can be; but we see, for our part, only results in them all,—no necessity for their being as they are. God is the only necessity, since with Him we can proceed in our investigations, but without Him we are nothing,. and can therefore produce nothing. But no result of creation is a necessary prerequisite; God has made, and can unmake it again.

We will not repeat the scriptural proofs in favour of the Resurrection which were adduced last month by Dr. Eckmann, and which other correspondents will probably elucidate hereafter; but we will merely state, as a fact, that the Jewish church, as expressed in the prayers, assumes the Resurrection תחיה as a doctrine which cannot be gainsaid. We have no rule how to declare any one a heretic; but this much is certain, that we cannot trust any one as a teacher of religion, who denies what this religion teaches. Will Dr. Wise maintain that the Resurrection, or, rather, the revival of the dead, is not the acknowledged doctrine as propounded in our prayer-book? We will grant that the prayer-book, as such, is not a source whence the doctrines should be derived; but this much is certain, that it is an exponent of the views entertained by the most ancient Jews on the subject of their belief. We will venture to affirm that, in the passage known in the Mishna by the name of Tephillah, the prayer par excellence, as, Amidah by the Portuguese, or Shemone Essray (Eighteen Benedictions) by the German Jews, no idea has been embodied which was not universally acquiesced in by all the people, and that no disputed dogma was ever embodied in it. Often as Kabbalistic notions have been introduced in more modern compositions which encumber not rarely our various rituals, nothing of the sort was submitted to by the fathers of our tradition. This, we imagine, no one will dispute. How then should revival of the dead and Messiah have been prayed for universally, if not universally believed in?

Dr. Wise Wants proof that the Bible teaches the former doctrine especially, and he confesses that then he <<197>> will—believe! This is certainly magnanimous; but has he not already acknowledged, and if he has not, has it not been proved, that at least the twelfth chapter of Daniel does teach it? We will not refer to other passages; but if even we had no other proof, is not one clearly-defined verse enough for all practical purposes? But Isaiah and Ezekiel teach the same in direct words (of which probably more hereafter); consequently we call on Dr. W. to say that he believes Scripture and tradition, and that he acquiesces in the form of prayer which says, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, who revivest the dead,” מחיה המתים.

It would be presumptuous in us to quote other passages for Dr. W., whose reading and learning are so extensive. But we must still refer him to the concluding Mishnah of chapter fourth of the Proverbs of the Fathers, which he partly quotes. We will copy the whole:

“He (Rabbi Elazar the Kappar [of Caparnaum]), used to say: Those who are born are destined to die, the dead to live, and they who are risen from the dead, to be judged; that we may learn, teach, and understand that He is God, also the Former and Creator; that He also understands, is the judge, witness, and the suing party, He who will also judge us hereafter, blessed be He; for in his presence there is no unrighteousness, no forgetfulness, no respect of persons, and no acceptance of bribes. Know also that everything is done according to accountability; and let not thy evil passions persuade thee that the grave is a place of refuge for thee; for against thy will wast thou formed, and against thy will wast thou born, and against thy will dost thou live, and against thy will must thou die, and against thy will must thou hereafter render an account, and receive judgment in the presence of the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

We really think that Dr. W., in quoting a portion of the conclusion of this powerful exhibition of our life, and commenting on it justly, should also have quoted והמתים לחיות “and the dead to live,” for on this our present discussion hinges. We do not find fault with his exhibiting the Talmudists as having a correct philosophical idea of the phenomena of nature; we only object to his not showing that, though perhaps the most learned naturalists of their times, they still believed in Revival and Messiah. They considered, and this justly, that whatever God has revealed in nature is the truth as laid open to our senses; but whatever the Bible teaches is the truth as made manifest to our spirit. It needs no argument of ours to prove that things can be true which we do not understand, and that others are false though we think we do understand them. Man’s information is at best but imperfect; he does not live <<198>> long enough to elucidate perhaps a single principle to its fullest extent: hence the really intelligent will not pronounce that as untrue which he does not comprehend, and only because it does not coincide with his views of nature and history.

By the by Dr. W. speaks of a chorus of angels, which the disembodied spirit is to join. Can he give us any approximation of an understanding of this same chorus and these same angels? We fancy that the learned divine speaks in this as a Kabbalist, against which we have no objections, as really we cannot determine that it is not the province of the soul, after its separation from the body, to “sing God's praises everlastingly.” But we only mean to say, that outward nature offer us no explanation of the idea, both beautiful and soothing as it is, and exhorting us as it does to persevere amidst trials and difficulties; for what is sweeter than to reflect that, though our face is blackened by sorrows in this life, as our Rabbis call it, it shall be whitened by God after all our trials are ended? what more heart-inspiring to the afflicted and oppressed than that they shall be angels of mercy in another world, whilst those who wronged and despised them shall weep with vexation of spirit? Nothing; absolutely nothing; but, we repeat, our tradition has helped our learned opponent to arrive at this conclusion,—not the study of chemistry, and no researches in geology.

That the Rabbins entertained sound views about the changes which the crust of the earth has undergone, admits of no doubt; their writings bear hints enough of it, little as we are familiar with them; but this little has long since convinced us that they were more learned than their modern detractors, whether Jews or Gentile. They pursued with avidity all sciences accessible to them; and if they were not in advance of their age in general knowledge, they were surely not in arrears to any men. Hence we contend that we should be very cautious how we cast suspicion upon what we have received from them as our legacy of faith. Everything is not capable of explanation, and hence no one must expect that any one should have the knowledge of explaining all.

Dr. W. alludes to the unfortunate contest which sprung up between Maimonides and the great Rabad, second only to his greater antagonist. Perhaps Rabad was wrong in his censures; but does not Dr. W. go much farther than the Rambam, as Maimonides is called by us? Did he not lay down in the creed known as his, as the thirteenth principle, the belief in the revival of the dead? This is at last the question: Do or do not the fathers of our religion teach this dogma, and is there one even who denies it? It will not answer to select what we like and <<199>> reject the other portions as useless; for, by that process, Dr. Wise’s new dogmas could be expurgated of their superfluities by some newcomer in the next twenty years, and leave nothing like positive belief; as all religious ideas (we speak of spiritual, ones) are altogether metaphysical or beyond nature. The very word Revelation conveys a preternatural phenomenon; and the promulgation of the Law at Sinai, necessary as it is to Judaism, is in itself perfectly incomprehensible upon any known properties of matter with which we are acquainted.

Dr. W.’s mode of reasoning would destroy all faith; and would open the door to infidelity of the worst kind; and we regret that he has laid himself open to the charge of advocating dangerous errors, knowing as we do his great fund of information and true eloquence. But we wage no personal warfare with him; it is merely the views which he advances, and which we trust he will yield hereafter, against which we contend. He has confessed enough in saying that the Rabbins were thoroughly learned; hence he must see that they could not have taught deceptive doctrines, unless he supposes that they were dishonest. But we trust that no Jewish teacher will be hardy enough to make any such assertion; the lives of our Rabbins prove their disinterested honesty and perfect simplicity of heart; and it is cruel in the extreme, that our own people should join, if even in appearance, those of other nations who malign the teachers of Israel. But we hope to continue, if necessary, the contest in candour, and without bitterness; for whilst we claim full sincerity for our own views, we must accord the same to all others. In the mean time, we thank the several gentlemen who have come to our aid in conducting the argument, and we will endeavour to lay their productions before our readers without useless delay. And Dr. Wise, also, shall be welcome to the use of our columns, knowing as we do that free discussion cannot bring any injury to our system. The Dr.’s paper of this month is too long for a complete refutation; but, the above, we trust, will be enough to give the minds of our readers sufficient hints to reply to it for themselves.