To really live is to engage all the dimensions of being into life. Such a holistic concept of life is biblical. Man and woman, their whole beings, were created by God.
This implies that their being, permeated by the breath of God, cannot be fragmented. The story of Creation specifies: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).1
Both the breath of life and the dust are components of the human being. To be deprived of either of these components, man would not be a living being. Man is either whole or he is not. Everything for the Hebrew is vital. The body, the soul, ethical behavior, the relationship with the neighbor, the relationship with God. Nothing is of lesser value. Everything plays its role in the making of the human person. In the Bible, man is an unfragmented whole, nothing can be discarded as less important, everything is related. Thus, the ethical behavior of a person is directly related to his spiritual condition (Proverbs 3:3, 4). Even the exercise of the intellect can be beneficial to the health and beauty of the body. “My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck” (Proverbs 3:21, 22).
On the other hand, evil and sin have the opposite effect on the body: “My strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away” (Psalm 31:10, NKJV). The wisdom of the Bible has been confirmed by the recent discoveries of psychosomatic medicine. It is no longer a novelty to speak of the relationship between the physical and the mental. There are numerous examples of physical illnesses derived from psychological causes.
The perfect being would consequently excel in the integration of all his faculties, be they physical, mental, or social. But the ideal of the Bible is not a Nietzschean hero, nor the formation of a Spartan elite, as supported by Auguste Comte, Alexis Carrel, and the racist philosophies.
Highly intelligent or athletic persons do not attain the biblical ideal until they have reached the equivalent proficiency in ethical and religious matters. In fact, the biblical definition of intelligence has nothing to do with I.Q. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).
To the psychosomatic definition of man, the Bible adds yet another dimension: the law of God, the fear of God, the sacred. “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:27). And the commandments of God bring peace (shalom) and health to the person (Psalm 119:165). The Bible develops a whole new concept, unknown to Antiquity, that of holiness. All the laws of health and cleanliness are based on that concept, and performed only in reference to God (Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 11:43-45; 20:25, 26). Likewise the laws governing the relationships between neighbors. “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). “You are to have the same law for the alien and the nativeborn. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 24:22). Everything has a religious purpose, from the development of physical and mental faculties, to the commandment to love one’s neighbor, to ethical behavior. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Religion permeates the life of the Hebrew. It is the common denominator which unites all the aspects of a person’s life. Holiness applies to the whole person, to both body and soul. For the Hebrew, it is impossible to be morally sound without being also physi cally, mentally, and spiritually sound. Therefore a stupid and unlearned man cannot in the biblical sense be truly moral. As the ancient rabbis used to say: “Justice is impossible for the ignoramus.”2 Today, more than ever, people need to be reminded of the strong unity of their being. Under the influence of Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, the Judeo-Christian religions and the modern philosophers have adopted and reinforced the dissociation of the body and the soul. This resulted in the denial of the body and the health laws at the expense of what was believed to be the soul:
Too many prejudices clutter the mind and fragment the being. The intellectual is a nerd, unable to develop social skills. He is skinny, clumsy, and unadapted.
On the other hand, the athlete displays an open disinterest in matters of the intellect; he leaves that to his skinny manager.
To top it all, the believer should in no case display too much interest in life, be too athletic, or too intelligent, for this will only make it harder to give it all up for God. Thinking too much is dangerous, especially along the lines of modern trends of thoughts, which are all nihilistic anyway. Philosophy is Satan’s tool to uproot faith.
However, the Bible shows us that life encompasses all the dimensions of the human being; real life postulates the harmonious development of all faculties, physical, mental, and spiritual. True life is the awareness of the totality of one’s being.
Real life is to be all one can be.
The reality of life becomes all the more acute when faced with the reality of death. The human being is a whole. That which was true on the level of existence is also true in the face of death. All aspects of life are yielded to the angel of death. The body, the soul, the intellect, all dies.
The destiny of humans is linked to their essence. What they shall become depends on what they are. Because humans are dust, they shall return to dust (Genesis 3:19). Death is the essence of humans.
The biblical story of our origins is clear on this matter. Life depends on God. In turning away from God, humans threaten their own existence. “For when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). In disobeying, man and woman tear themselves from the tree of life, and death becomes their destiny (Genesis 3:23, 24). Whether or not the story is metaphorical is not the issue. The intention of the author is to teach us that life is not inherent in our nature. Human beings depend on an external Source of life. If they cut themselves off from that Source, they die. Man and woman disobeyed and consequently became mortals. Indeed, to disobey God is an act that denies God of His sovereignty as the Creator, and thus affects the totality of our existence. The Bible parallels disobedience with sin. And sin is the origin of death: “As heat and drought snatch away the melted snow, so the grave snatches away those who have sinned” (Job 24:19). “Everyone will die for his own sin” (Jeremiah 31:30). “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4).
For the Bible, sin is the determining agent in the process of death which devours man. Death is not a punishment concocted by God a posteriori to the sin. Death is sin. The sinful act carries within itself the formula of death. Sin, immorality, evil, and disobedience to the commandments of God, as implied by biblical anthropology, have a destructive effect on the body and on the whole being. Because of the wholeness of the human being, corruption of mind leads to corruption of body. Death is total. Its state is described by the Bible as silence and nothingness. The author of Ecclesiastes makes the same distinction between life and death: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). Later, the sage concludes: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Likewise, the Psalms, that most popular book of funeral services, declares: “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence” (Psalm 115:17). “No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?” (Psalm 6:5).
We understand now why the Bible was so serious about condemning the various necromantic practices, the cult of the dead in pagan Antiquity (Psalm 106:28, 37; Deuteronomy 18:9-14; Leviticus 19:31). For the prophet Isaiah, consulting the dead is the climax of absurdity: “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19).
But great is the temptation to ignore this emptiness, to make believe that death does not exist, to turn it into illusion. The majority of mankind does not accept the reality of death. The perspective of oblivion is too terrifying, hence the popularity of the idea of immortality of the soul. From prehistory to our time, from the most mystical religion to the most rational philosophy, this belief is attested to, and appears in the most unexpected forms.
In Judeo-Christian circles, this concept filtered in with Hellenistic trends of thought. The soul was defined as an entity independent from the body; upon physiological death, the spirit would be allowed to go back to the world of spirits and angels. As related in the Jewish Encyclopedia, “the Jewish belief in the immortality of the soul was actually borrowed from Greek thought, especially from Plato, its principal representative.”3
In Oriental philosophies, the soul is considered a part of the totality of the Universe, and survives the human body to reappear in another animal or human body, through the process of transmigration.
On the periphery of religious circles, the occult has also contributed to the dissemination of this concept. At the moment of death, it is believed that the human soul retires, wrapped in its envelope, an individual spark in the cosmic fluid; thus, with the assistance of mediums, it is possible to communicate with the deceased, who come back momentarily as pale shadows of what they used to be. The experience is often disappointing and often leads to depression. The seduction of the occult is especially strong in our times. Since the nineteenth century, the popularity of the occult has grown and has spread around the civilized world.
Outside of religious debate, materialist philosophies have also flirted with the idea of the immortality of the soul. While discarding the concept of an actual immortal soul, the materialists nevertheless retain the idea of immortality and believe that the soul will join the Infinite upon the death of the body.
Whether it be dualistic or materialistic, the conclusion is always the immortality of man. In the dualistic approach, the body and the soul are split up, to ensure that at least one would survive the other. In the materialistic approach, the substances all being related, it becomes a must to immortalize substance. Thus man struggles with the concept of immortality. It’s extremely improper today to speak of an austere death which rots both the bones and the soul.
This obsession with immortality plunges its roots into our anguish. Although our civilization lives in the shadow of total extinction, it is not just a barren earth we fear, but a barren sky. Because “God is dead,” humans elevate themselves, their universe, their culture, their church, their political party, to the level of Eternity. The immortal-soul concept, stemming from primordial times, is the denial of God’s existence. Instead of depending on God, man prefers taking his destiny into his own hands and creates the concept of his own immortality. But in declaring himself immortal, man takes the place of God. This presumption echoes that of the civilization of Babel.
Immortality has been the temptation for mankind from the start. “The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. . . . you will be like God’” (Genesis 3:4, 5, NKJV). And man and woman were seduced. Humans, in their pride, decided to last, to build forever, to become God. For the one implies the other. To declare man immortal is to simultaneously reject God, take His place, and give man the status of sinlessness. Triple blasphemy!: First, because immortality is the prerogative of God (Deuteronomy 32:40; Psalm 90:2). Second, because man was created mortal, biologically dependent on God. And third, by cutting themselves off from God, humans found themselves in the hands of death. And beyond death, there is nothing.
The only solution to our condition, according to the Bible, is resurrection. Not only is the notion of immortality of the soul unknown to the Bible, but it contradicts the biblical message of resurrection. Why believe in resurrection if the soul is immortal?
Christian theologian Oscar Cullmann was right in declaring: “Our answer to the question of immortality of the soul or resurrection of the dead in the New Testament is clear. This doctrine of the great Socrates and of the great Plato, is incompatible with the teaching of the New Testament.”4
Joshua Yehudah, initiator of the movement Unity in Judaism, refuses to understand immortality without resurrection: “When the notion of immortality penetrated Judaism, it only meant the resurrection of dead bodies from the dust, at the Last Judgment. Even this idea of resurrection did not separate the soul from the body. That separation is, on the contrary, a classical belief in the Greco-Roman and Hindu traditions.”5
The notion of resurrection is not a later idea, concocted for the needs of an oppressed people in exile. It has been demonstrated, on the basis of compared Semitic literature and philology, that very ancient biblical texts, particularly in the Psalms, attest to the belief in resurrection. We have strong reasons to believe that the words “life” and “waking” refer to eternal life and resurrection (see Psalm 16:10, 11; 17:15, etc.).
The idea of resurrection is a very old one in the Bible and can be found among some of the most ancient biblical texts. The song of Moses for example, one of the oldest texts of the Bible, testifies already to the belief in a resurrection. “I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal” (Deuteronomy 32:39). The word “life” should be understood as “relive,” an allusion to resurrection. The parallelism between the two phrases renders this very well. First, the words “to bring to life” are situated chronologically after “I put to death,” similarly the healing that follows the wounding. Just as the wound disappears through the healing, likewise death shall disappear through the new life. The biblical idea of resurrection is not just beautiful words of poetry, but an event that occurs in real life. The resurrection of the son of the Shunammite (2 Kings 4:17-37) shows that such a miracle is not impossible. The tenacity of the mother’s faith confirms this; she does not let the prophet go until her son is brought back to life again. The experience of resurrection is neither strange nor inconceivable for the Israelite; on the contrary, occurrences of it are disseminated all over the biblical pages. The world, the universe, and the people, have already experienced this miracle. They were raised up from nothingness. Israel has gone through this experience. It was brought out of death and slavery to life and freedom, from Egypt to Canaan.
So what is to guarantee that I shall be resurrected? Me, myself, and not some diminished version of my being.
The Bible gives an answer to this question by comparing death to sleep, and resurrection to waking up. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Daniel 12:2, NKJV). The imagery not only describes the unconscious state of death, but also reassures us that our identity will be recovered; the resurrected one is not somebody else; it is the same person that first went to sleep.
The Bible does not give us the formula of resurrection and does not go into the details of its mechanism. One thing is certain, we shall be there in ourselves. “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27). It is the totality of our being that shall be resurrected, body and soul, heart and mind.
But resurrection is more than a mere return to life, to how things were before death, a return to our former wretched condition. From the shiver of our skin to the depth of our bones, from the heart to the blood, from the power of the lungs to the strength of our muscles, from intelligence to the senses, we shall again rise up to life, our potential finally released, our body and soul at last free.
For the life we now live is but the shadow of the true life we were created to live, a reality we can only dream of and hope for.
1All biblical quotations are taken from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.
2Emmanuel Levinas, Difficile liberté (1976), p. 13. (Translation by the author.)
3See the article “Immortality of the soul.”
4Cullmann, Immortalité de l’âme ou résurrection des morts? (Paris, 1956), p. 83. (Translation by the author.)
5Joshua Yehudah, Le monothéisme doctrine de l’unité (Geneva, 1952), p. 32. (Translation by the author.)
Image: Adam and Eve are forced to leave the Garden after eating the Forbidden Fruit. Public Domain
Cause our hearts to understand, to discern, to comprehend, to study and to teach, to observe, to act and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah in love… ~ SIDDUR, AHAVAH RABBAH