The traditional idea of Techyat Hametim – Resurrection of the Dead – is that it is a reward to the righteous and a phase in a complex sequence of after death “judgments”. There are many variations describing the exact sequences of this system of judgments which I do not want to expand on here as most of us grew up with them. Although I am no expert in other religions, I have read enough to know that similar conjecture about after death experiences with variations exist in Christianity and Islam too.
Most go something like this. After death, the soul hovers around the body, eventually faces judgment and is sent to a holding place –if guilty to hell and purgatory for cleansing, if righteous to heaven or Gan Eden to await resurrection. During this time, things evolve on earth and Mashiach arrives and the Jews are ingathered to Eretz
Rambam disagrees with this whole system. He cannot accept that physical life is a reward. After all perfection to him is when man perfects his mind and apprehends the transcendental and non-physical. Why would return to the physical, be seen as a reward, once the higher levels of apprehension have been attained? To the contrary, as we saw in the last post, Rambam sees OH as the ultimate attainment and therefore a non-physical existence. As usual, Rambam is clear in his categories and sees Mashiach, Olam Haba and Techyat Hametim as three distinct and unrelated concepts. Mashiach describes the evolution of humanity from barbarism to a utopian state of intellectual life. When man understands his role and what is expected of him, when emulating God becomes humanity’s main activity, Mashiach will have arrived. Nothing will change from the normal physical existence other than a perfected society of men. Olam Haba on the other hand, is a personal and intellectual achievement which we can all attain if we dedicate ourselves to understanding God and His ways. Techyat Hametim is a totally unrelated idea and has nothing to do with these two concepts. It is a belief that Rambam defines as a cornerstone of the religion and has to do with basic Jewish theology but not in the category of Reward and Punishment to which the other two belong. It belongs in the category of miracles. Explaining why he is not more expansive in Pirush Hamishna and in Mishne Torah on the subject of TH Rambam states:
אמנם תחיית המתים הוא אחד מהמופתים, ומבואר מאוד, שענינו מובן ואין שם אלא
להאמין בו לבד, כמו שבאתנו ההגדה האמיתית. והוא עניין יוצא חוץ לטבע
המציאות, ואין ראיה עליו מצד העיון. ואמנם ינהג מנהג הנפלאות כולם ויקובל
אין שם זולת זה. ומה היה לנו אפשר לומר בו או להאריך
TH is one of the miracles and is quite clear. The subject is well understood, as there is nothing else to do but believe it based on the true prophetic saying. [Rambam earlier wrote that the first mention of TH in Tanach is by Daniel, one of the last prophets. As we will see this is very important for understanding miracles.] It [TH] is something outside natural existence and cannot be logically proven. One can only treat as one treats all the wondrous things – accept it and nothing more. What was there for us to talk more at length about it?
Rambam thus believes that Daniel, the prophet who introduced first the idea of TH, was predicting a miraculous event that will happen at some time in the future where some dead will be resurrected. Daniel does not give a reason nor offers any context for this occurrence, just predicts a wondrous event.
וְרַבִּים, מִיְּשֵׁנֵי אַדְמַת-עָפָר יָקִיצוּ; אֵלֶּה לְחַיֵּי עוֹלָם, וְאֵלֶּה לַחֲרָפוֹת לְדִרְאוֹן עוֹלָם
2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.
According to Rambam, the everlasting life or everlasting abhorrence in the verse will occur after these resurrected live a normal life and die.
Considering he has not added anything to what he already told us in his other writings, Rambam offers some additional points that may help understand this a little further. As we will see there is quite a bit of innovation in what he says and helps us understand his position on miracles.
First, he addresses the treatment of TH in Tanach. Besides the one verse in Daniel, there is no further unequivocal statement in Tanach that clearly states that the dead will be resurrected. All the verses state that once a person dies it is all over as far as the physical is concerned. Rambam answers this simply that all the prophets are talking about the natural way of the world. A person dies, his body returns to its elements. Daniel is predicting a future miraculous event. It has no impact in the normal day-to-day life of a person other than the need to accept the predictions of a prophet. Daniel predicted TH in context of his prophecy. However, denial of the possibility of miraculous events stems from not accepting the idea of creation from nothing. It assumes that God has no will and therefore the anomalies we observe in nature are not a result of His omniscience. That is why TH is considered a cornerstone of Jewish theology. I will come back to this later.
Secondly, he addresses the question, if TH is a cornerstone of Judaism, why does the Torah not mention it at all. Here Rambam makes a startling and counterintuitive point, at least to a contemporary reader.
והיו בני אדם כולם בזמן ההוא מכת הצאב"א, אומרים בקדמות העולם שהם היו
מאמינים שהשם רוח הגלגל, כמו שבארנו ב"מורה הנבוכים" ומכזיבים הגיע הנבואה
מאת השם לבני אדם. וכן יתחייב להם לפי אמונתם הכזבת המופתים, וייחסו אותו
People at that time all belonged to the Sabeans who believed that the world is eternal. They believed that God is the “spirit” of the sphere as we explained in the Moreh. [They believed that the First Cause and the world are concomitantly eternal. In other words, they denied that God created the world from nothing.] Their belief necessitates the denial of miracles ascribing them to magic or trickery.
The last sentence is fascinating. Those who believe in the eternal existence of the world are the ones who believe in magic. Those who accept creation from nothingness accept miracles and deny the existence of magic! What is the connection?
My next post will address this point and then I will return to the answer Rambam proposes to this second question.
On a personal note: I have read this treatise many times in the past. As with all Rambam’s writings I find that, every revisit inevitably brings a new insight. I never noticed the fascinating sentence I highlighted that says so much until yesterday morning as I was rereading it. The depth of thought of this great thinker is incredible. It is no wonder that it is an accepted rule that Rambam has to be read with just as much care as the Gemara. (Yad Malachi Kelalei Harambam 3 in the name of the Migdal Oz.) Rambam himself confirms that in this treatise:
ולו היה אפשר לי לשית התלמוד כלו בפרק אחד, לא הייתי משים אותו בשניים
Had I been able to put all of the Talmud in one chapter I would not have done it in two.
שכל חיבורינו אמנם הם קב ונקי, ואין כוונתנו להגדיל גוף הספרים ולא לכלות
הזמן במה שלא יביא אל תועלת. ולזה כשנפרש, לא נפרש אלא מה שצריך לפירוש,
ובשיעור שיובן לבד.
For all our writings are clear and clean. We do not plan to increase the physical size of the books nor waste time on things that will not bring any benefit. Therefore when we explain something, we will only explain what is necessary as explanation and only enough for it to be understood.