Nachmanides’ Radical New World

Zvi Wallerstein

Nachmanides devotes all of the final section of his Gate of Reward to proving that the World-to-Come is not the Garden of Eden, the place where souls are to be found after their departure from this world. Rather, the World-to-Come, whenever used in a rabbinical context, refers to the epoch of the Messiah.

Nachmanides rejects Maimonides’ claim that after the resurrection of the dead, the world would continue for several hundred generations, only in order for everyone to die and their souls to return to the Garden of Eden. Nachmanides rather sees the messianic era as the ultimate “reward” promised by Judaism and the highest possible human attainment.

While he repeatedly commends Maimonides for his insightful views of the nature of the soul, the Garden of Eden, and the messianic era, Nachmanides sharply contests Maimonides’ interpretation of the World-to-Come.

The Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] of blessed memory has written extensively in Chapter Helek and in his Scroll on the Resurrection of the Dead to bring proof that those who attain the World-to-Come are only the bodiless souls. The matter of Gan Eden, in his opinion, is a selected place on earth in which God planted trees and various kinds of plants which are greatly beneficial to man. He will reveal it and disclose it and people will delight in it … in the era of the Messiah and at the time of the resurrection of the body, just as [they do] in this world with its pleasures of eating, drinking, anointing, and washing. Yet this is not the ultimate reward, as the Rabbi of blessed memory explained …The world-to-come-that is, the existence of the soul-is independent thereof, however, and is a natural and customary way of the world. This however is most surprising. [Gate of Reward]

But before he subjects Maimonides’ approach to rigorous scrutinization and refutation, he first offers his opinion as to the radical approach of Maimonides.

The lengthy discussion of the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] of blessed memory, which was to convince that those inheriting the world-to-come will be bodiless, serves two purposes:

He knows that the people of our tradition believe that after the resurrection, there will be no death. This is in accordance with the rabbis’ interpretation of the verse, “He will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8). They state: “The dead that the Holy One, blessed be He, will resurrect will not return to their dust” (Sanhedrin 92a). According to this opinion, those who merit the World-to-Come will continue to live in their bodies in that world. The Rabbi however, abrogated this opinion with all his strength. Many sages of this generation differed with him on this matter concerning the meaning of the term Olam Haba (the world-to-come), as you will find in their words.

As a second objective, the Rabbi further intended to strengthen [belief in] the soul itself. He wished to impress upon us that it is not a body or a power in a body, but a separate intelligence like the group of angels. Thus, he states in the Scroll of the Resurrection of the Dead: “The cause for all this [in the body’s existence in the World-to-Come] lies in the thinking of the uneducated masses. They do not believe in a true existence for anything but the physical body. That which is neither a body nor a force in a body has no existence according to the opinion of these common ignorant people. Most of them, therefore, believe that the Creator is a body, for in their opinion, were He not a body, he would not exist. [Gate of Reward]

But notwithstanding Maimonides’ good intentions, Nachmanides demonstrates how ultimately “the Rabbi” had been mistaken and how the World-to-Come can mean nothing save the world in the epoch of the Messiah.

He proceeds to bring scores of rabbinical statements from the Talmud and other sources that prove that the World-to-Come cannot mean the domain of the souls after life on this earth and can only refer to the messianic era. “In any case, concerning the meaning of the World-to-Come, we have learned that the World-to-Come is a world in which the body, the Sanctuary, and its vessels will be present. It is not the World of Souls in which every man receives his due immediately after death and goes either to Gehinnom or the Garden of Eden” (The Gate of Reward).

One of the simple yet substantial proofs used by Nachmanides is the constant reference throughout talmudic literature that in the future the righteous will be allotted life in the World-to-Come. Now surely the righteous are now in the Garden of Eden and thus, this future event, cannot be referring to their return to the World of Souls. In fact, Nachmanides goes as far as asking why, according to Maimonides, there need even be a resurrection of the dead and a return of the souls of the righteous to the physical world and into a body, only in order to die once again and return to the spiritual domain without a body. Rather, we must conclude that the World-to-Come has not yet been inhabited by anyone, and will only be a future event.

It is quite evident that you will find many places in the Talmud in which the rabbis mention the wicked being in Gehenna. . . . The rabbis also mention that the righteous are presently in Gan Eden. However, you will never find anywhere in the Talmud that the rabbis say that no one is presently in the World-to-Come. Instead, they say, ”He is destined for life in the World-to-Come Thus, after the demise of the righteous. the rabbis say of them that they are allotted life In the World-to-Come,” which is their expression indicating the future. You may learn from this statement that when the righteous depart from this world, they go to the Garden of Eden, which is the World of the Souls. They do not go to the world called Olam Haba-the World-to-Come, but they are allotted it and destined for it. [Gate of Reward]

Having demonstrated that the world-to-come is a life here on earth, with the soul in the body, Nachmanides must now contend with the various rabbinical statements that imply that the World-to-Come will not involve bodily activity. How can he reconcile his contention that the World-to-Come is the messianic era that will be enjoyed by living humans, with the many talmudic discourses that imply that in the messianic era there will not be life as we know it?

In a radical departure from the naturalistic view of the messianic era adopted by Maimonides, Nachmanides adopts the view of a radical physical transformation of life and the physical world. In doing so, he explains the various prophetic and rabbinic statements about the messianic era according to their literal meaning (Maimonides had taken them allegorically).

Nachmanides explains how human existence in the World- to-Come will be sustained by spiritual sustenance, as opposed to the physical nutrients upon which we are dependent today.

With reference to this world-to-come, the rabbis stated in Tractate Berakbot (17a): “Ray often said, In the World-to-Come there will be neither eating nor drinking, neither envy nor hatred nor competition. All [will be] is that the righteous will sit with their crowns upon their heads, and they will delight in the Glory of the Divine Presence This purports to state that the existence of the people who will merit the World- to-Come will be made possible by the light of the [Divine] Glory. This is analogous to the soul’s existence in the body in this world being attained by eating and drinking. This concept is akin to the verse, “In the light of the King’s countenance is life (Proverbs 16:15),” which was interpreted by the rabbis in Ve’eileh Shemot Rabbah as follows: “And they beheld God, and did eat and drink.” It was eating and beholding. [Gate of Reward]

Nachmanides adds that there is nothing terribly new or unbelievable about this phenomenon. Indeed, he lists a number of persons who have already experienced this phenomenon of sustenance from spiritual rather than physical sources. “Should we seek to attribute this to a miraculous [ supernatural] act, let the case of Elijah prove [ In his living ascent to heaven, he did not cast off the [ body and was not separated from the soul. Yet, he still exists since that time and forever” (The Gate of Reward).

The most famous example of a human being existing without the aid of food, water, and other bodily necessities is the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai, to which the Torah attests that he did not eat, drink, or sleep. Nachmanides uses this as yet another reference to what life will be like in the messianic era: “In the messianic era there will be an ascendancy of the soul over the body, which annuls the physical powers, as we have previously mentioned, and causes the body to exist without food and drink, just as the soul exists and as Moses was sustained on Mount [Sinai] for forty days. Nevertheless, the soul will always remain in the body” (The Gate of Reward).

In yet another reference to Moses, Nachmanides maintains that Moses’ nonearthly independence continued even after his tenure on Mount Sinai. Rather, his entire sustenance derived from his proximity and communion with Godliness: “Now Moses, whose soul was unique and elevated above those [other] people in the knowledge of his Creator, had no need of that thing [the manna] since his body was made intangible and supported by the Glory of the Divine Presence and his lofty perception [of God]” (The Gate of Reward).

It is for this reason-the divine sustenance the body will enjoy-that eternity and new sublimity of the body are guar anteed. As it will no longer be sustained by finite material objects, the body will not be susceptible to expiration or demise. The infinite spiritual quality that will sustain it will make it indestructible and bestow upon it spiritual qualities thus far only enjoyed by truly spiritual entities, such as angels and souls.

I have found [following text] in the Mekhilta: Therefore we believe in the Rabbis’ statement: “The dead which the Holy One, blessed he He, will resurrect, will never again return to the earth. You may ask: During that millennium in which the Holy One, blessed be He, will be re-creating His world, how will they be sustained? The Holy One, blessed be He, will make them wings, and they will roam over the face of the waters.” The connotation of “the wings” is that the soul will be endowed with angelic qualities that the body will enjoy with it. Thus, [the body will] avoid destruction when the elements of the world will be voided [during that millennium]. This is a very familiar and common theme throughout the teachings of the rabbis of blessed memory as they said in the Midrash and in the Gemara:

“That it may be well with you in the world that is all good; and that you may prolong your days in the world that endures for all eternity.” That is to say, all who merit that existence will live forever because there will be no death in [world] . . . [the world where the resurrected] will never again return to their dust. [Gate of Reward]

Here Nachmanides forcefully argues against the assertion of Maimonides that the resurrection of the dead would be only a temporary matter. He further argues that in that time the body will transcend even the soul because, in addition to the physical virtue it possesses over the soul, it would also acquire the spiritual virtues of the soul. Playing the role of the mystic, Nachmanides introduces a notion that, to the unitiated, is the ludicrous concept of the supremacy of the body over the soul. The human mind almost naturally associates holiness with spirituality and disembodiment. Anything earthly is automatically assumed to be more distant from God than something physical, hence the uniform belief found throughout non Jewish religions of the inferiority of the body to the soul. Nachmanides understood that one could not accept the argument for the eternity of the body in the messianic era if one did not properly apprehend this principle that the body is not a physical shell, but supercedes even the soul in sublimity. Furthermore, as the normal physiological and biological functions such as digestion and procreation would cease during the messianic era, some other purpose would have to be found for the body:

You may ask [this question] of us: “As the philosophers have said: the body consists of three parts that serve organic functions. They are: the organs of food [digestion] the organs of procreation, and the organs serving the well-balancing of the body. The general purpose of the body’s existence, [according to the philosophers], is but for one goal, and that is the consumption of food, which enables the body to exist and to give birth to its like. In the World-to-Come, however, when that goal will be eliminated, inasmuch as there will be neither eating nor drinking then, the body will have no purpose. [Yet we know] that in God’s work nothing is in vain.

The answer to all these [apparent contradictions] is that this creation [of the body which will occur] at the time of the resurrection of the dead will be for the purpose of [facilitating] the [biological] services mentioned. The Holy One, blessed be He, does not desire their subsequent cessation. Moreover, there are profound secrets in this formation [of the body] for the [original] creation in this form was not [the result of] some unbridled, meaningless deed.

Rather, [the human form was so created] only for the great need and eminent reason, and He Who creates it, blessed be He, desires its [future] existence. If you will press us with the question about the eternal existence of the body that stems from the lower elements, [be advised that] we have already answered you that the existence of the body will [then] be like that of the soul. The existence of the soul will be [effectuated] through its unification with the knowledge of the Most High, and the existence [of the body and soul] will then be assured by that unification. [The Gate of Reward]

Nachmanides does not suffice with his insights into the sublimity of the body, but proceeds to criticize Maimonides for failing to see any higher purpose in the body save the execution of its mundane physiological and biological processes.

We wonder, moreover, why the Rabbi of blessed memory found necessary to write the following in the Scroll of the Resurrection of Dead: However, the life that is not followed by death is the life of the World-to-Come because it contains no [physical] body. And this is the correct opinion for all knowledgeable people-that those who attain life in the World- to-Come are, like the angels, souls without bodies. The proof for this [belief] is that the body consists of limbs that serve the activity of the soul, and the general purpose of the body’s existence is but for one goal. That is to say, consumption of food serves the purpose of sustaining the body procreating its kind so that the generic form can exist. When purpose is removed, there will be no need for [for body] in the World-to-Come.

A host of sages have explicitly stated that there will be no eating, drinking, or sexual intercourse in [the World-to-Come]. If their intention is to state that the body will not exist in that world, God, blessed be He, will not bring forth a purposeless thing, and will not create anything except for a purpose. Far be it from His deeds that they should be comparable to those [of the ones who] make the idols. Eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear, not. In the eyes of those thinkers, the Creator, too, will create human limbs which serve no functions. Perhaps, according to these people, those [meriting] the world-to-come will not possess limbs at all, but only trunks! Perhaps they will be round or straight as pillars or columns. The opinions of these fools are nothing but laughable to all nations. Oh that they would altogether hold their peace! And it would be their wisdom. All these are the words of the Rabbi, son of Maimon, of blessed memory. …We shall now express our surprise at him. …What is the sense of these arguments? [The Gate of Reward]

The rational and allegorical approach to messianism adopted by Maimonides amazes Nachmanides. He feels that the inability of Maimonides to consign any miraculous nature to the messianic era leads him to misrepresent the essential characteristics of that era. The divide separating the two great scholars seems unbreachable. What is at stake is the entire characterization of Judaism’s most awaited epoch. Nachmanides saw a radical and miraculous transformation of the observable world as we know it, while Maimonides, true to his rationalistic approach, saw a far better, but not too different world.

But it is the conviction with which Nachmanides argues his view of the messianic age that enforces the conclusion that he saw his theory as being beyond refutation and that Maimonides, albeit for good reason, had confused the Garden of Eden for the World-to-Come. Nachmanides’ argument is methodical, well supported by scores of rabbinic pronouncements, and chronologically sensible. He showed how only through his interpretation could the various stages of the historical process as outlined in the Written and Oral Law fit together:

We have now explained our intent regarding the reward [observing] the commandments and the punishment for the [transgression]. Let us restate it briefly: The reward of the souls and their existence in the World of Souls is called Gan Eden by our rabbis. Occasionally, they call it “the Upper Chamber” or “the Academy on High.” After [the World of Souls] will come the era of the Messiah, which is part of this world. At the conclusion thereof, the [great] judgment and the resurrection of the dead will occur. This is the recompense that includes the body and the soul. . . . This is the great principle that is the hope of all who look longingly to the Holy One, blessed be He. It is the world-to-come, in which the body will become like the soul and the soul will be cleaving to the knowledge of the Most High just as it. adhered [to that knowledge] in the Garden of Eden of the World of Souls. Now, however, it will be elevated to an even greater [degree of] perception than heretofore, and the existence of all will be forever and ever. [The Gate of Reward]

He concludes with an assurance that his view is the most consistent with the statements of the rabbis and the one held by the majority of scholars, despite some significant dissent.

However, in spite of the fact that Maimonides’ theory finds support in the writings of Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol, you should accept our opinion because we have spoken according to the law and have brought proofs to [our] words from those of our Rabbis of blessed memory. I have further found that in his commentary on the Book of Daniel, the Gaon Ray Saadia of blessed memory speaks of the meaning of the term “world- to-come” in accordance with our words. Thus, it is a tradition of the ancients; do not forget their teaching. Still, there is no difference between us with the sole exception of a difference in nomenclature. All, however, agree about the resurrection of the dead and the existence of that time in its general outlines and details, as I have explained. The only [dissenting] opinion is that of Harav Rabbi Moshe [ben Maimon] of blessed memory, who assigned a limited time to the resurrection [of the body and soul] and reverts everything to the World of Souls, as mentioned above. We, however, declare that the people of the resurrection will exist forever, from the time of the resurrection of the dead, to the world-to-come, which is an everlasting world. [The Gate of Reward]

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