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April 24, 2014 | 24th Nisan 5774

To Rise from the Dead?—
Mishkan T'filah and a Reform Liturgical Conundrum

by Rabbi Richard Sarason, PhD

[In Mishkan T’filah, the G’vurot can be found on p. 78–79.]

An example of the desire to include in Mishkan T’filah more passages from the traditional liturgy and to reconsider earlier Reform deletions is the treatment of m’chayeih hameitim, the affirmation of God’s resurrection of the dead, in the second prayer of the Amidah. This belief was controversial in its origins, went on to become a hallmark of classical rabbinic theology that was given liturgical prominence in the daily Amidah, and then became controversial again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries among modern western Jews. This month’s Ten Minutes of Torah sets both the rabbinic belief in resurrection and its liturgical expression in historical context. The early Israelites believed in a shadowy afterlife in the underworld (Sheol, somewhat like the Greek Hades), without any reward or punishment after death. The individual joined his/her ancestors; immortality was attained through one’s descendants. The problem of ultimate reward and punishment for individuals became acute later, in the Hellenistic era, which had a fuller concept of individual, as opposed to corporate, identity. The late biblical book of Daniel, from the period of the Maccabean wars (167-163 B.C.E.), frets about the problematic situation of those righteous martyrs who fought for Judean victory against the Syrians but did not live to experience its fruits. The solution? “At the time of the end . . .many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). This is likely the earliest articulation of the concept of resurrection in Jewish literature.

At the end of the Second Commonwealth period, a belief in bodily resurrection in order to receive reward or punishment after death was a hallmark of Pharisaic conviction, opposed by the Sadducees (both Josephus, the Roman-Jewish historian, and the Gospels attest to this). The Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.), the earliest rabbinic text, maintains that Pharisaic belief and excoriates anyone who holds that the belief in resurrection cannot be found in the Torah; such a person has no share in the world-to-come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).

The belief in resurrection figures prominently in the G’vurot, the second prayer in the rabbinic Amidah. The theme of this prayer is God’s power over life and death: God causes the rain and dew to fall, reviving plant life. By analogy, God will keep faith with “those who sleep in the dust” (coming from the Daniel passage quoted above), and bring them back to bodily life in the messianic age, for both reward and punishment. The expression m’chayeih (ha)meitim, “Reviver of the dead,” occurs four times in the traditional wording, for emphasis.

By the nineteenth century, this religious concept had become problematic. Enlightened Protestants in Western Europe affirmed the immortality of the soul, but not the bodily resurrection of the dead. Bodily resurrection was neither scientific nor spiritual. By the time of the Reform rabbinical conferences in the middle of the nineteenth century, most of the Reformers had spiritualized this belief as well. (Medieval Jewish rationalists like Maimonides believed similarly though they often kept it to themselves.) Abraham Geiger expressed this stance as follows:

Many religious concepts have taken on a more spiritual character and, therefore, their expression in prayer must be more spiritual. From now on the hope for an afterlife should not be expressed in terms that suggest a future revival, a resurrection of the body; rather, they must stress the immortality of the human soul.

Nevertheless, none of the German Reform prayer books—including Geiger’s—ever changed the wording of the benediction in Hebrew! Presumably, it was felt that the Hebrew expression m’chayeih hameitim could be understood figuratively. In some of these same prayer books, however, the German rendering of the phrase is paraphrased. Geiger, 1854, for example:

Your supernal power, O God, gives life, preserves, and renews it. You revive vegetation when it freezes, and, when it dies, you let new growth spring up. You raise up the fallen, send healing to the sick, and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. Indeed, Your supernal power inspires the dead with the promise that their salvation will sprout in a new, eternal life! Be praised, O God, who gives life here and there [i.e., in this existence and the next].

It should also be noted that the most radical German Reform prayer book, that of Berlin (1848 and many revisions), simply eliminated the Hebrew text of the Amidah (except for the K’dushah responses) and provided an abbreviated German paraphrase that, in this benediction, invokes God’s grace to the souls of the dead.

North American Reform prayer books, on the other hand, almost always changed the Hebrew text of this benediction, as well as supplying a vernacular paraphrase. Leo Merzbacher’s prayer book for Temple Emanuel, New York (1855), substitutes the phrase m’chayeih hakol (“who gives life to all things”); this is later taken up by Chaim Stern in Gates of Prayer (1975), and remains in Mishkan T’filah. The first edition of Isaac Mayer Wise’s Minhag America (1857) retains the traditional text, since it strives to be the prayer book for all American Jews; by the 1872 revision Wise eliminates m’chayeih hameitim, and substitutes (in only the last two iterations), v’ne’eman atah lachayim v’lameitim: Baruch atah Adonai, m’chayeih nishmot hameitim (“Faithful are You to the living and the dead: Praised be You, O Lord, who revives the souls of the dead”). David Einhorn’s radical Olat Tamid (1858), which became the model for the Union Prayer Book (1894/95), introduces the phrase, (ha)notei’a b’tocheinu chayeih olam (“who implants within us eternal life”); this is taken up into all three editions of the Union Prayer Book. (Einhorn also renders, m’chalkeil chayim b’chesed / podeh nefesh avadav mimavet b’rachamim rabim---“who graciously sustains the living / who, in great mercy, redeems the souls of His servants from death”).

In recent years, many have questioned Reform liturgical literalism as too quick to emend the traditional text. Is it not possible to understand the expression m’chayeih hameitim as a metaphor? Can it not, as a metaphor, be a source of comfort to those in mourning and a source of hope to others? Still others ask, “Is there nothing beyond God’s ability? In that case, God can reverse death.” For all these reasons, Mishkan T’filah supplies both options, m’chayeih hakol and m’chayeih hameitim, letting worshippers exercise informed choice in addressing their religious needs.

For further reading:

  • Neil Gillman, The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought (Woodstock, VT, 1997)
  • Jakob J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe: The Liturgy of European Liberal and Reform Judaism (New York, 1968)
  • W. Gunther Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism: A Sourcebook of its European Origins (New York, 1963)
  • Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., Minhag Ami / My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries (Woodstock, VT, 1997- )

—————
Rabbi Sarason is professor of Rabbinical Literature and Thought at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. This piece appeared originally in Ten Minutes of Torah (www.urj.org/torah/ten) in February 2006.

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