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Don't Let Theology Interfere with Ethics!

12/12/2019 11:51:26 AM


Why be good? In the Torah, although there were various mechanisms, good deeds paid off in terms of national security. Indeed, there were periods of biblical history when the Israelites did enjoy national security.

B’yamim hahem bazman hazeh, but at about this time of year, nearly 2,200 years ago, this world (olam hazeh) was looking bleak for the Jews. We were being murdered for just doing our own thing: circumcision, Torah, and Shabbat. The biblical link between our actions and our rewards was severed. Since olam hazeh seemed inexplicably miserable, given our piety, rewards were projected onto a different dimension: olam haba, the coming world.

A group of Jews who became known as the Pharisees offered a new way of reading Torah that included a new venue to reward a righteous life. The Book of Second Maccabees, a product of Hellenistic Judaism, features the first Jewish martyrs
imagined to have been resurrected to eternal life. Immortality of the soul, another post-biblical idea, takes root during this period, too.

As an historian of ideas, I nod in assent when people ask if Judaism believes in bodily resurrection and immortality of the soul — “rewards” that are in tension with one another. (One is pro-body, the other is pro-soul.) But as a rabbi, I qualify my nod and say that not all Jews believe such notions. The Mishna punishes anyone who says there is no olam haba by denying them admission!

My teacher, Elliot Dorff, emphasizes that whatever we believe about resurrection, we are still obligated to donate our organs upon death. His point is that we can’t allow theology to get in the way of ethics. As the Torah teaches, the best path to
whatever lies ahead is righteous attentiveness to the here and now.

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784