Rationales for the Omission of Eschatology in the Bible

HAVING GAINED A SHORT RESPITE FROM PERSECUTION after the expulsion from Spain, Don Isaac Abravanel, after many arduous and turbulent years in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish sovereigns, settled in Monopoli, a small Italian town on the Adriatic Sea. He wished to devote himself, in his declining years, to write on philosophy, theology, and biblical exegesis, subjects dear to his heart, but which he had been compelled to neglect during his all-consuming diplomatic and financial career. As if to compensate for lost time, he worked assiduously and indefatigably, producing within a relative short period voluminous works on these subjects.
Abravanel’s writings of this period, however, reflect a deeper motive than a mere intellectual pursuit. They are saturated with the grief, agony, tribulation, and desolation of his coreligionists on the Iberian peninsula. They reflect his sense of outrage over the injustice and humiliation of the persecutions, forcible conversions, fiendish torments, inquisitorial mortification, and the final banishment. On the other hand, his writing are permeated with the hope of imminent salvation. They are replete with words of encouragement, solemn promises, and good tidings that the Messiah is coming, thus lifting the spirits of the oppressed and despairing exiles. In addition to these works, Abravanel also wrote a comprehensive work on Jewish eschatology, a subject not frequently discussed in detail by Jewish scholars, which, however, in the context of the prevailing circumstances, assumed considerable importance in this period. In their propaganda to convince the Jews of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, the Christian clerics endeavored to contrast the explicit promises for the immortality of the soul in Christianity with the absence of such a clear and unambiguous promise in Judaism. To counteract this corrosive challenge, Abravanel devoted a segment of his work on eschatology, Zedek ‘Olamim, to this issue. The obvious meaning of this title is eternal justice, but the author may have intended by the plural form of the word, ‘olamim, to signify the balance of justice in both worlds, this world and the hereafter. Only by a total comprehensive view of justice, embracing both realms, can true divine justice be comprehended.
To Abravanel’s chagrin, his little haven in Monopoli was invaded by the French armies of Charles VIII, who claimed the throne of Naples. The invaders caused enormous havoc and destruction in the Jewish quarter, vandalizing Abravanel’s house and absconding with or destroying the completed manuscript, Zedek ‘Olamim. Accustomed to persecutions and wanderings, Abravanel managed to survive and escape. Again he suffered material and financial losses, to which he had become reconciled. He, however, could not acquiesce to the loss of the manuscript.(1) In many of his works he continues to refer to it, and expresses his grief over its disappearance. Fortunately, Abravanel not infrequently reiterated some of his views in his writing and thus some of the ideas he had expressed in Zedek ‘Olamim may still be reconstructed.
As previously mentioned, among the various issues that Abravanel dealt with in Zedek ‘Olamim was the criticism leveled by Christian theologians in their disputes with Jews about the Torah’s alleged mission of eschatology. The Torah does not address the questions concerning man’s immortality, his destiny in an afterlife. Rewards and punishment in the Torah are exclusively of a material nature and are limited to man’s existence on earth. The critics assert that Judaism is an inferior religion which cannot favorably compare with Christianity, whose eschatology is more elaborate and concerned with man’s spiritual fate in the world-to-come. This criticism, attributable to Augustine, was echoed by Thomas Aquinas who declared: “The promises of temporal goods are contained in the Old Testament, for which it is called old; but the promise of eternal life belongs to the New Testament.”(2) This deprecatory opinion was not only held by medieval theologians, but was also reiterated by Kant in the era of the Enlightenment: “Since no religion can be conceived of which involves no belief in a future life, Judaism, which when taken in its purity is seen to lack this belief, is not a religious faith at all.”(3)
Jewish scholars have always been uncomfortable with, and apologetic about, the puzzling omission of immortality and the hereafter in the Torah. Thus, in the tenth century, Saadia evinces concern “should someone object, however, saying: ‘But we did not find any explicit mention in the Torah of retribution anywhere rise than in this world alone.'”(4) This question, however, was neither hypothetical nor academic later in the medieval era, when Jewish scholars were compelled to defend their faith in public debates with Christian theologians. At times it became most agonizing and traumatic, endangering the life and the very existence of the Jewish community. Some scholars, like Hasdai Crescas, wrote some works that could have been used as handy manuals in refutation of this challenge.(5) His disciple, Joseph Albo, a participant in the Tortosa disputation, tells of such a challenge by an opponent: “If we test the Torah of Moses in this way, we find it defective . . . for it says nothing about spiritual happiness, which is the purpose of man, but speaks only of material happiness. The teaching of Jesus, on the other hand, promises spiritual happiness and not material prosperity.”(6) Abravanel’s contemporary, Isaac Arama, cites the argument of some sophisticated Christian theologians, which has an Augustinian-Thomistic ring. According to this argument, the Torah was merely a Praeparatio Evangelica, and its precepts qualified the observant only for material benefits. To receive spiritual rewards, it was imperative to transcend the confines of the Torah and embrace the new dispensation. “The Torah was merely a preparation and prelude for its recipients, for the one which will follow after two thousand years of perfection by the Messiah, who will introduce a new Torah so that this (old) one will be like matter and the second (new) one like form.”(7)
Although Abravanel does not allude to any personal involvement in a theological
dispute, he was undoubtedly aware of the issues under discussion. He was familiar with the writings and views of the most prominent Christian theologians, particularly Augustine, to whose main work, The City of God, he refers by its title.(8) Similarly, he was acquainted with the arguments of Thomas Aquinas, whose work on the existence of angels he translated into Hebrew.(9) Ostensibly, Abravanel was aware of their criticism of Judaism as well as that of their successors. It is, therefore, understandable that when Abravanel set out to write a comprehensive work on Jewish eschatology he would include a segment dealing withs its spiritual aspect of reward and punishment as well as eternal life in the world-to-come. Regrettably, his manuscript, Zedek ‘Olamim, was never retrieved, but, luckily, a brief summary of this issue is extant in his commentary on Leviticus, in connection with the biblical admonitions and promises which will accrue for the obedience or disobedience of the divine commandments.
Abravanel presents seven arguments, many of which were neither new nor original. He admits that they were advanced by his predecessors, and that about some of them he had reservations and even skepticism. In this summary, Abravanel does not explain why he presented some arguments which he may have viewed as dubious or feeble. It is possible that in Zedek ‘Olamim he elaborated analytically on each argument. It is also possible to speculate that he wished to provide a variety of arguments to facilitate his readers in their agonizing encounters with their detractors. Regardless of motive, it is significant that he succinctly presented a series of arguments, many of which had served Jewish polemicists to ward off the assaults of their opponents. Viewed in the context of Jewish medieval thought, Abravanel’s following seven arguments seem to constitute a comprehensive outline of an apologia concerning a major Christian challenge to Judaism and a malicious provocation to Jews.
a) Mutual Benefits or Privations Are Not Rewards or Punishments
The material rewards and corporeal punishments stated in the Torah do not constitute the ones meted out to the soul in the hereafter. According to the Talmud, no reward for a mitzvah is possible in this world.(10) The Torah’s omission of spiritual compensations and privations was deliberate, since it wished man to observe the commandments regardless of any ulterior considerations. Such an ideal for man’s conduct was promulgated by Antigonos of Socho in the second century B.C.E., and preached by Jewish sages throughout the ages.
This rationale, however, failed to address an obvious question: In the absence of the actual spiritual rewards and punishments, reserved for the soul in the afterlife, why did the Torah mention the material ones, which are far less significant? Moreover, if the Torah’s object was that man observe the commandments for their own sake, regardless of any considerations of reward, were material benefits or afflictions not a serious threat to influence man’s conduct? Albo cites a rationalization that “The Torah made corporeal promises, so that when the people see that the corporeal promises are fulfilled they will, without doubt, also believe the spiritual ones that are mentioned only by allusion.”(11) Abravanel was undoubtedly familiar with this argument, as well as with Albo’s dismissal: “For how can the fulfillment of the corporeal promises be evidence for something which is not mentioned in the Torah at all?”(12)
A far more plausible rationale, according to Abravanel, is provided by Maimonides: The Torah merely intended to provide material conditions, favorable or unfavorable, which may aid or deter man’s observance of the commandments. His righteous or iniquitous conduct will result in auspicious or calamitous events which will advance or hinder his pursuit of eternal life. Accordingly, God
promised us in the Torah, that if we observe its behests joyously and cheerfully, and continually meditate on its wisdom, He will remove from us the obstacles that hinder our observance, such as sickness, war, famine and other calamities; and He will bestow upon us all the material benefits that will strengthen our ability to fulfill the Law, such as plenty, peace, abundance of silver and gold. Thus we will have leisure to study wisdom and fulfill the commandments, and attain life in the world-to-come.(13)
b) Man’s Cognitive Limitations
The Torah could not explicity depict the spiritual rewards or the spiritual anguish designed for the soul in the world-to-come because, during his physical existence on earth, man is unable to conceive things which transcend his cognitive and empirical limitations inherent in sense perception. For the Torah to depict intelligibly the delights and the anguish affecting the soul in a disembodied state in an incomprehensible metaphysical realm is as futile as describing colors to the congenital blind. This simile echoes that of Maimonides, who had advanced such an argument about existential man’s inability to conceive the realm of the spirit, which is beyond his experience and out of his ken of perception and cognitive ability.(14) Considering the fact that the Torah was not designed for a select few who might discern the truth, though nebulous, that lies beyond man’s earthly existence, but was for everyone, it was imperative to employ material and corporeal promises and admonitions.
It should be pointed out that Maimonides, his intellectualism notwithstanding, suggested that the Torah, when offered to the masses, ought to be presented not on its more profound level, which is only comprehensible to an elite group, but as an educational modality. It ought to elevate man’s consciousness from the elementary, mundane, and sensual until he gradually perceives the more subtle meaning, the real beyond the metaphor and allusion.(15) Thus, Maimonides who endeavored to divest biblical terminology of its one-dimensional semantics, advocated presenting the Torah’s promises of benefits and privations to the uneducated in a literal manner.
This pragmatic rationale is likewise cited by Albo without attributing it to Maimonides. Accordingly, “spiritual reward is a profound conception for the human mind to grasp, and, since the Torah was given to the masses of the people as well as to the wise, it was proper to promise corporeal reward which they can grasp and perceive. For, if the Torah had promised spiritual reward, which cannot be preceived by the senses nor imagined and conceived by their limited minds, they would not have believed it.”(16) Albo, however, is displeased with this rationale, pointing out that the Torah commands the affirmation of metaphysical and paralogical concepts like the incorporeality of God or the negation of anthropomorphism, abstract ideas which are no less comprehensible to the average man than spiritual rewards and punishments in the world-to-come. Nevertheless, “the Torah relies in this matter on the intelligence of the reader, so that the masses understand it literally and the wise interpret it in the true sense. This being so, the Torah should have mentioned spiritual rewards also, and everyone would understand it according to his powers and abilities.”(17)
Abravanel, however, disagrees with Albo, and differentiates between the prohibition of anthropomorphism, which merely requires the negation of human characteristics to the Deity, and the excognitation of an ethereal existence alien to human experience and thought.
c) The Soul Is Inherently Eternal
Neither immortality nor spiritual rewards and punishments had to be stated in the Torah, since eternality is inherent in the essence of the soul, and ipso facto its recompense and retribution are expected to be of a spiritual nature. The notion of the soul being inherently eternal harks back to Plato and had its adherents in medieval Jewish thought. According to Nahmanides and Crescas, not to mention the Cabbalists, the soul, having been imparted by God and being a simple, non-composite substance, is not subject to decomposition and disintegration.(18)
Albo nevertheless questions this alleged certitude concerning the immortality of man’s soul, which sought to explictae the Torah’s omission of immortality. He poses the question: Is immortality more natural and self-evident than free will or creatio ex nihilo? Yet, those concepts, incomprehensible and esoteric as they are, have been stated in the Torah. Moreover, since some scholars maintain that reward and punishment will eventually be meted out to a reunited soul and body, signifying the resurrection of a long-time decomposed body, this unique nature of reward and punishment should have been emphasized. This extraordinary phenomenon, which is neither natural or rational, should have found a conspicuous place in the Torah.(19)
Overlooking or ignoring Albo’s question, Abravanel continues with the presentation of this argument, referring to Nabmanides’ distinction between manifest miracles and concealed miracles, two categories of the divine governance of the world. The former are frequently contrary to the course of nature and even disruptive of its normal process. Due to their cataclysmic manifestations, they appear to be most impressive. The latter, however, seem to be in conformity with nature and, therefore, people are completely oblivious of their supernatural quality and miraculousness, and hence their significance, import, and divine message. Immortality and spiritual rewards and punishments in the afterlife, being non-empirical, belong to the concealed category, which may be presumptive at best. Material and corporeal recompense and retribution, on the other hand, belong to the manifest category and are, therefore, verifiable. That there may exist a causal relationship between religious-ethical conduct and consequences in the world-to-come may be conjectured, whereas that such conduct should impact on the natural process in this world seems unbelievable. Should, however, such a causal relationship be ascertained, it would be the most impressive of all, and attest to divine justice in both worlds. Consequently, the Torah conceals the eschatological aspect of the spiritual rewards and punishments, but accentuates the material and corporeal which will vividly and glaringly manifest themselves in nature and in life. Thus, for instance, the Torah promises a superabundant harvest for the observance of the Sabbatical year, premature death for the consumption of certain forbidden foods, and destitution for failure to give tithe. Since such a relationship between cause and effect seems to defy nature and reason, its consummation will thus be more credible.
It should be pointed out that this argument was already advanced by Saadia, thus transforming a liability into an asset by proving the alleged deficiency of the Torah to attest to its superiority. According to Saadia, the Torah is “outspoken in regard to mundane retribution because reason does not point to its cogency, while it was terse in its explanation of the reward in the hereafter, relying on its being pointed out by reason.”(20)
In the conclusion of this argument, Abravanel again cites Nahmanides’ statement that the Torah does contain allusions to immortality and the soul’s fate in the hereafter. Such an allusion he finds, paradoxically, in the punishment of extirpation, in which the Torah stresses “This soul shall be cut off from before Me,”(21) or “because he hath despised the word of the Lord and hath broken His commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off from before Me,”(22) indicating that only the soul [of this flagrant sinner] is subject to annihilation, whereas other souls are eternal.
d) Material Recompense and Retribution Concretize Divine Providence
This argument is similar, to some extent, to the previous one but not identical. According to this argument, the Torah, in emphasizing the mundane rewards and punishments, sought to demonstrate the ubiquitousness of the divine providence and His concern with every act of man. By fulfilling the promise stated in the Torah which can be witnessed, verified, and experienced on earth, rather than in a nebulous unknown realm in the hereafter, God’s omnipotence and omnipresence will be affirmed. Such an awareness is of utmost importance since, in the course of history, it was either neglected or flagrantly denied. Not only was it not accepted by the ancient heathens, but it was likewise rejected by the sophisticated Aristotelians and their rationalistic successors. According to the latter, the First Cause is completely removed from the world, and unconcerned with man’s deeds or misdeeds. There is no relationship between man’s behavior and God’s governance of the world. The Torah wished to cure this philosophical and psychological “malaise” by concretely exhibiting the prevailing divine providence. By pointing to a linkage between the observance or non-observance of the commandments and the ensuing consequences to nature and man in this world the belief in providence will be established.
This views harks back to Judah Ha-Levi, who, when chided by the Khazar king about the remarkable promises of Christianity in the hereafter, retorted sarcastically: “None of them are realized until after death.”(23) The Torah, however, does not promise, “If you keep this law I will bring you after death into beautiful gardens and great pleasures,”(24) It limits itself to events and experiences in the here and now, thus showing an inextricable bond between man’s ethico-religious conduct and divine providence.
In this connection, we should note the argument employed by Albo, who, like Abravanel after him, compared the Torah to a physician who, in treating a patient, concentrates on curing the source of the malady first, confident that the ancillary maladies will likewise be cured. The Torah, too, aims to cure man of disbelief in divine providence in this world, hoping that belief in the hereafter will eventually follow.
e) Rationale in the Context of Historical Exigencies
The prominence given to the mundane rewards and punishments has to be considered in the context of the historical background of the generation of the Exodus. Brought up in an idolatrous milieu, where belief in the need of propitiating malevolent deities controlling nature was widespread, it was necessary for the Torah to counter such claims and re-educate the people. There was a need to assert categorically that heathen practices will not be tolerated in the Promised Land. On the contrary, such practices will cause misfortune, whereas the observance of the divine commandments will bring prosperity.
The kernel of this idea was already expressed by Saadia, who thought that the Israelites of that era were in need of a new orientation. They had “to become acquainted with the nature of the land of Palestine, toward which they were traveling. The Torah dwelt at length upon the description thereof, as well as the effect of their obedience or disobedience of God’s commandments upon its fertility.”(25)
The importance of the historical background is elaborated upon even more by Maimonides:
The idolatrous priests then preached to the people who met in the temples and taught them that by certain religious acts, rain would come down, the trees in the field would yield their fruit and the land would be fertile and inhabited. . . . When these ideas spread, and were considered as true, God, in His great mercy for us, intended to remove this error from our minds, and to protect our bodies from trouble and, therefore, desired us to discontinue the practice of these useless actions, He gave us His Law through Moses, our teacher, who told us in the name of God that the worship of stars and other corporeal beings would effect that rain would cease, the land be waste . . . calamities would befall the people . . . and life would be shortened. . . . But the abandonment of that worship and the return to the service of God would be the cause of the presence of rain, fertility of the ground, good times, health and length of life.(26)
f) Experiencing the Nearness of the Divine in This Life
In was needless for the Torah to state spiritual rewards and punishments in the hereafter because the faithful and devout experience during their life the nearnes of God, which constitutes the true reward. This view was expressed by Ha-Levi in the Kuzari, and was echoed by Nahmanides and R. Nissim Geronid, to mention but a few. According to Ha-Levi, individuals who lead a life of purity and sanctity actually experience the divine presence, which is “manifest proof to them and a clear and convincing sign of reward hereafter.”(27) The reality of this extraordinary experience is termed by William James as “the reality of the unseen.”(28) That person has a “feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction not merely intellectual, but, as it were, sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power.”(29)
In light of this explanation, the soul’s destiny in the hereafter is greater in Judaism than in any other religion. In addition to the spiritual rewards, the Torah also promises material ones on this earth.
g) National and Individual Rewards and Punishments
The last argument, which Abravanel considers most plausible, maintains that the rewards and punishments in the Torah pertain to the entire nation and, therefore, had to be of a material nature. Thus, rain or drought, war or peace, prosperity or famine, affect the community, and no individual residing in it can escape its fate. If a community is virtuous, though an individual in its midst is not, he will participate in the blessings. Similarly, if a community is sinful, all inhabitants therein will suffer, regardless of the meritorious conduct of some individuals.
Notwithstanding the explicit promises for material rewards and punishments addressed to the entire nation, there are spiritual ones which affect individuals only. The righteous man in a wicked community will receive his due spiritual reward, although the other individuals in that community will be subject to punishment. Likewise, a sinner will be chastised spiritually although his righteous neighbors will enjoy spiritual bliss. “This is,” says Ha-Levi, “how God governs the world. He reserves the reward of every individual for the world-to-come; but in this world He gives him the best compensation, granting salvation in contradiction to his neighbors.”(30)
As previously pointed out, Abravanel did not consider the above-mentioned arguments, except for the last one, as persuasive and satisfactory. Nevertheless, considering the theological assaults on Judaism by its opponents and the enfeeblement of its defenders, he presented all arguments, hoping that one of them would serve as a successful defense. Abravanel concludes with an epigrammatic verse from Deuteronomy: “The Lord will cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thee; they shall come out against thee one way, and shall flee before thee seven ways.”(31)
1. David Harari points out that this lost work was quoted by Isaac Lopez more than 200 years after Abravanel’s death. “Some Lost Writings of Judah Abravanel [Isaac’s son] (1465?-1535?). Found in the Works of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600),” Shofar, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Spring 1992): 62, 85-6, citing Lopez’s Kur Mezaref Ha-Emunot V’Mareh Ha-Emet (Metz, 1847), sec. II, Ch. 12, 19a, and B. Netanyahu’s Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman and Philosopher (Philadelphia, 1953), p. 288.
2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, II Q 91, Art 5 c.
3. Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, tr. Theodore Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York, 1960), p. 117.
4. Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, tr. Samuel Rosenblatt (New Haven, 1951), Book IX, Ch. II.
5. Hisdai Crescas, Sefer Bitul Iqqarei ha-Notzrim (Ramat-Gan, 1990).
6. Joseph Albo, Sefer ha-Iqqarim, tr. Isaac Husik (Philadelphia, 1930), Book III, Ch. XXV.
7. Isaac Arama, Aqedat Yitzhaq, Gate LXX.
8. Isaac Abravanel, Commentary on Genesis II:23.
9. Moshe Almosnino, Sefer Ma’ametz Koah (Venice, 1588), p. 117 a.
10. Kiddushin 39b.
11. Albo, op. cit. Book IV, Ch. XXXIX
12. Ibid.
13. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot T’shuvah, IX: 1. Also in his Commentary on the Mishnah Sanhedrin. Ch. X.
14. Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah, ibid.
15. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot T’shuvah, Ch. X:5.
16. Albo, loc. cit.
17. Albo, op. cit.
18. Nahmanides, Commentary on Leviticus, XVIII :29; also Kitvei Ramban, Chavel, ed. (Jerusalem, 1982), Vol. I, pp. 184-185; Hisdai Crescas, Or Hashem, Klal II, Ch. I.
19. Albo, loc. cit.
20. Saadia, op. cit.
21. Leviticus 22:3
22. Numbers 25:31
23. Judah Ha-Levi, The Kuzari, tr. Hartwig Hirschfield (New York, 1964), part I, para. 105.
24. Ibid., para. 109.
25. Saadia, op. cit. Book IX Ch. II.
26. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, tr. M. Friedlander (Philadelphia, 1942), III, ch.
27. The Kuzari, Part I, para. 103.
28. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1902), pp. 53-76.
29. Ibid, p. 166.
30. The Kuzari, Part III, para. 19.
31. Deuteronomy 28:7.
NOAH H. ROSENBLUM is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Hebrew Literature at Yeshiva University.
(Source: from Noah H. Rosenbloom, “Rationales for the Omission of Eschatology in the Bible,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1994).


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