As a cultural and religious group with a historical connection to contemporary Jewish culture, Judaism, dates to the end of the first century of the C.E. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. was the event that both enabled and forced rabbinic Judaism to take its position as the preeminent contender as the representative of Judaism. The founding text of rabbinic Judaism is actually the third-century Mishnah, not the Torah. The Mishnah is the first compilation or code of Jewish law, which was edited in the early third century. However, it includes material that dates back to the first century and underwent editing and revision several times throughout the second century as the rabbinic academies in Palestine grew.
Some scholars see a smooth and direct link between the religion articulated by Ezra or the Pharisees and the religion that was articulated by the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Most scholars, however, understand rabbinic Judaism as having developed at the same time as early Christianity. A small minority of scholars thinks that rabbinic Judaism developed after early Christianity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 caused such a break in the practice and consciousness of the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora that it is all but impossible to directly connect pre-70 and post-70 Judaism. To be sure, the materials necessary for rabbinic Judaism to develop were present before the destruction of the Temple, but in a merely germinal form. Rabbinic Judaism is essentially a different religion than other pre-Temple Judaisms.
The Bible, which embodies a diversity of religious views, says very little about the afterlife. Impurity stemming from contact with the dead is a prominent feature of the Torah, as is capital punishment. The archaeological evidence seems to demonstrate that the Israelites in Biblical times were concerned with the afterlife. It is not until Daniel, written in third and second centuries B.C.E., that there is seemingly unambiguous reference to the afterlife and the end of days. By the time of Qumran literature—that is, texts discovered around the Dead Sea that date back to the first and second centuries B.C.E. and used by Jewish sectarians—there is a full-blown notion of an afterlife, which is both a reward for the righteous and a means for explaining the ultimate justice of God. Josephus, a Jewish commander in the war against Rome in the first century and who later defected to the Roman side during the war, points to an afterlife and the resurrection of the dead as sources of conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. This description is supported by Matthew.
One of the ways of defining rabbinic Judaism and its descendants is by its textual tradition. Rabbinic Judaism claims the Torah as the cornerstone of the textual tradition. On the other hand, the canonization of Mishnah, the third-century compilation of rabbinic legal thought and ruling, meant the exclusion of much of post-Biblical literature. While Sirach is quoted in the sixth-century Babylonian Talmud, for example, it is not part of the Jewish canon, it is an extra-canonical book from the first century B.C.E. The Mishnah lays out its own apostolic genealogy in the beginning of the tractate, which is known as Chapters of the Fathers: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly" (Fathers 1:1).
The Men of the Great Assembly is the period that begins with the first exile in the sixth century C.E. and ends with the Pharisaic precursors of the rabbinic movement around the turn of the millennium. Rabbinic tradition numbers even legendary figures such as Mordecai (from the book of Esther) as one of the Men of the Great Assembly.
Mishnah purports to gather traditions from two centuries of rabbinic activity, laying out the boundaries of rabbinic Judaism. Within its sixty-three tractates, divided into six orders, there is legislation pertaining to all areas of life, from Sabbath law to torts to sacrificial law to proper beliefs. This material unfolded and developed at the same time that early Christianity was growing from a Palestinian movement of Jewish followers of Jesus to the official Christianity of the Roman Empire.
If people judge by the quantity of material, Mishnah's central concern with death relates to issues of impurity. One complete order of Mishnah deals with purity issues and determining the minimum dimensions of a part of a corpse that will generate impurity when touched. A majority of the twelve tractates in that order deal with the impurity emanating from the dead. A dead person was considered an ultimate source of impurity, an attitude that arises directly from Torah teachings. It was obviously a central issue in Temple times because no impure person, including priests who had become impure, were allowed into the Temple. The centrality of the concept of impurity in the community is evident in the fact that almost a century and a half after the destruction of the Temple, when impurity no longer had any major significance in daily life, there were still extensive laws on this topic.
One of the so-called lesser tractates, euphemistically titled "Times of Joy," deals with burial and mourning. Another (mourning) deals with dying and suicide. Burying the dead is one of the commandments that supersedes others, and if there is a dead body with no one to bury it, even the high priest (who under normal circumstances is forbidden contact with the dead) must bury the body.
The third area, death as a punishment for sins and crimes, is divided into two types of death: death at the hands of the court and death at the hands of God. Death is also the last step in atonement for certain types of sins. This does not, however, imply anything about the status of a person postmortem.
There is also a passing but interesting reference to the afterlife and resurrection of the dead. "All of Israel have a place in the World to Come. ... These do not have a place in the World to Come: the one who says there is no resurrection of the dead." The afterlife is presented as a reward for the righteous but is not explored in much detail. Resurrection is presented in both the Gospels and Josephus as an ideological boundary dividing the Pharisees from other sects of Second Temple Judaism.
One type of death that occupied a significant amount of thought and energy among early Christians was martyrdom. There are two types of martyrdom. One is active martyrdom, in which the martyr willingly goes to his or her death to proclaim a belief in the one God (or in Jesus, for Christian martyrs). The second type of martyrdom is passive martyrdom, in which a believer is given the choice of abrogation of religious obligation or death. This latter, passive martyrdom was a part of rabbinic Judaism from its beginnings. When confronted with the choice of either having to abrogate one of the three core prohibitions (idolatry, murder, or illicit sexual unions) or be killed, the Rabbinic Jew must choose death. Scholars differ about the issue of active martyrdom. Some say that it became a desideratum for rabbinic Judaism hard on the heels of its widespread acceptance in Christianity. Others say that the debate was open until much later and might not have been settled even at the conclusion of the Babylonian Talmud in the seventh century.
These general categories were the boundaries for the discussion of death and dying throughout the rabbinic period and into the Middle Ages. The next layer of the rabbinic textual tradition consists of the Palestinian Talmud (edited in the fifth century) and the Babylonian Talmud (edited in the seventh century). The Talmuds engaged in more explicit discussions of what the world to come might look like and in more extended discussions of the punitive or expiatory efficacy of death. There is also more elaboration of the concept of martyrdom and the introduction of the "time of oppression," when martyrdom might be a more common obligation. On the whole, however, the bulk of the Talmudic discussions of death are concerned with issues of purity and impurity and capital punishment.
Death is seen as a normal part of the cycle of life, even as a necessary part of life. Death is not seen as punishment for original sin or punishment for sin in general; extraordinary death, however, is sometimes seen as punishment for sin. At times, this kind of death is the result of an inexplicable divine decree: "There are those who die without judgment." The dead are judged and rewarded or punished, although there are conflicting reports of what that reward or punishment is. It is also not clear whether the afterlife is corporeal or noncorporeal.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the crusades brought in their wake a renewed interest in martyrdom and even in the notion of suicide as an escape from transgression or forced conversion to Christianity. The biblical story of the binding of Isaac, wherein Abraham attempts to sacrifice his son, as told in Genesis 22, is often cited in justifications of the murder of one's spouse and/or children in the face of a Christian onslaught. Even the greatest of the medieval Talmudists attempted retroactively to find a way to justify these suicides and murders.
The notion that the soul's journey starts before life and continues after death is already found in the Talmud. Its most extensive treatment, however, ensued from the mystical speculations that started in the late rabbinic period and came to fruition with the production of the Zohar, the central text of the Jewish mystical tradition, in thirteenthcentury in Spain, and with the advent of the Kabbalistic teaching in the sixteenth century in northern Israel. Whereas the Judaism of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash collections was vague and reticent about the nature of posthumous existence, the mystics were very explicit, discussing the source of souls in the upper realms, the resurrection of the dead to a corporeal existence at the end of time, and the transmigration or reincarnation of souls. The afterlife of the soul is part of a mystical theodicy in which God's justice is worked out over many lifetimes.
At the same time that the mystics were contemplating the journey of the soul and martyrs were lauded in France and Germany, Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher and jurist, was codifying a much different approach to both martyrdom and the afterlife. In Maimonides' formulation, the only acceptable martyrdom was passive martyrdom. While one is obligated to accept death rather than transgression in certain cases, one who falters and transgresses under duress is not culpable. Further, Maimonides' conception of the afterlife is unclear and was contested even during his lifetime. There is support for an Aristotelian reading in which the soul or intellect cleaves to God (the active intellect) and in this way continues its existence after the death of the material body. When challenged on his belief in the afterlife and resurrection, however, Maimonides affirmed a belief in a corporeal resurrection.
The centrality of the communal obligation to the dead, which includes preparation of the body for burial ( taharah ) and the burial itself, was already evident in the rabbinic period. According to this law, after passing a certain period of residency, all citizens of a town must contribute toward the burial expenses of the town's destitute. In the early modern period this tradition gained greater visibility and authority. The so-called holy society ( chevra kadisha ), the communal body that is mandated to perform the death and burial rites, became a source of communal responsibility even for matters outside of its immediate purview (i.e., charitable pursuits). The society was supported by a communal tax and had a charter and a complicated acceptance procedure that included periods of probation and study. An actual membership organization called the chevra kadisha seems to be an innovation of the early modern period. There are still holy societies that perform the death and burial rites. These include guarding the dead body until it can be brought to the mortuary or cemetery, ritually cleansing the body, clothing the body in special death garments, and bringing the body to burial.
In the modern and contemporary periods the existence of an afterlife and the resurrection and reincarnation of the dead have become points of contention between the different movements within Judaism. On the whole, Reform Judaism does not believe in an afterlife, resurrection, or reincarnation. Orthodox Judaism believes in all three, though there are some factions of Orthodoxy that do not believe in reincarnation. There are varying opinions in Conservative and Reform Judaism that span the gamut.
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