World to Come

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There is considerable ambiguity regarding the meaning of the Rabbinic doctrine of the World to Come (Heb. Olam Ha-Ba) and its relation to the resurrection of the dead (see ESCHATOLOGY and HEAVEN AND HELL). In the Middle Ages Maimonides is alone in identifying the World to Come with the immortality of the soul, while Nahmanides is emphatic that it refers to this world, which will be renewed, after the resurrection.

The other-worldly thrust is evident in the whole of Jewish thought until the modern period. Of the numerous Rabbinic teachings about the World to Come, the following are typical of this thrust. The Mishnah (Bava Metzia 2: 11) rules that if a man's father and his teacher have lost something, he should first try to restore the article lost by his teacher, since a father brings his child into this world whereas a teacher of the Torah brings his students to the World to Come. In Ethics of the Fathers (4. 16) it is said that this world is like a vestibule before the World to Come. ‘Prepare yourself in the vestibule, that you may enter into the hall of the palace.’

In Hasidism and the Musar movement, the World to Come is conceived of partly in terms of spiritual bliss of the soul after the death of the body. It is not that the doctrine of resurrection is denied in these movements, but it is treated as a mystery so far beyond human apprehension that speculation on it is futile.

Modern Jews entertain a variety of views on the World to Come. The religious naturalists, if they do not reject the whole concept, tend to see the World to Come as a metaphor for the emergence of a better world in the future here on earth. But this is to remove from the concept all its spiritual power and all sense of transcendence. Naturalistic interpretations of this kind are sadly lacking in numinous quality. Reform Judaism, following to some extent Philo and Maimonides, does preserve the concept but identifies the World to Come with the immortality of the soul. Conservative Judaism, too, generally follows the Reform line, though both Reform and Conservative Judaism tend to veer towards the naturalistic understanding of the doctrine. This cannot be stated too categorically, however, and many Reform and Conservative Jews still accept the doctrine of the World to Come in its traditional formulation, at least in terms of the immortality of the soul. Some few of the Orthodox as well place the emphasis on the immortality of the soul but, if it is possible to speak of the official Orthodox position in these matters, it obviouly includes the resurrection of the dead after the age of the Messiah in its doctrine of the World to Come.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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