Monday, March 05, 2007

Jewish Reincarnation? Gilgul of the Soul(s)

Scenes from the life of a congregational rabbi, #3: I just had a great experience speaking at a local high school. This school has after-school clubs, and this particular club is the "Interfaith Club." What a concept! Since the eighties, religious groups have been allowed to form "clubs" after hours

["The Floating Clouds" from Die Bucher der Bibel by E.M. Lilien]

in the public schools. But given that America is 80% Christian, effectively that's meant that only Christian religious clubs have the critical mass of students to succeed in most schools. This idea of an interfaith club gives everyone else someplace to belong - I love it.

So anyway, one of the students mentioned he had once heard a Hasidic rabbi speak and that rabbi alluded to reincarnation/transmigration/metempsychosis in Judaism, and the student wondered if that was really true.
Well, yes it is. There is a long standing belief in reincarnation, but largely confined to the mystical traditions of Judaism. The rationalists, such as Maimonides, Crescas, and Albo, either ignored or dismissed this concept. As a result, many modern Jews [we are mostly the children of Maimonides rather than the Zohar] are unaware of this aspect of Jewish metaphysics.

Technically speaking, gigul [reincarnation] and/or ha'atakah [transmigration] is not part of Jewish eschatology (The study of end things) because transmigration of the soul is not the ultimate fate of the soul. Gilgul is what the soul undergoes prior to returning to God at the end of time.

While Kabbalist insist reincarnation is mentioned in the Bible (Eccl. 1:4), that much of Job is really talking about it when it discusses divine justice, and that the entire book of Jonah is actually an allegory for the experience of the transmigrating soul (according to the GR'E), so far as I can see there is no explicit or unambiguous mention of this doctrine in any Jewish literature prior to the Middle Ages. The rationalist Saadia Gaon (10th Cent.) mentions that some Jews believe in reincarnation, but then ridicules the idea (Sefer Emunah v'Daat 6) as absurd. This suggests that the concept had some occult existence in the Jewish world for some time prior to Saadia, but we cannot say for how long with any certainty.

Reincarnation really only gets explicit mention in a Jewish source in the 12th Century, in Sefer ha-Bahir. By the time the Sefer Zohar is composed a century later, an elaborate metaphysic of migrating souls is at last being expounded. For me, the most striking aspect of Jewish reincarnation doctrine is the deft way the Kabbalists interpret and justify certain Biblical commandments, such as halitzah (A widow being required to marry her dead husband's brother), and aspects of Jewish law, such as the requirement for burial rather than cremation, as springing from a need for humans to facilitate the movement of souls from one body to another. According to the Kabbalists, transmigration can involve as few as three (Job 33:29) and as many as a 1000 incarnations. Each incarnation is made necessary because the "soul work" incumbent of every soul has not yet been fulfilled.

Complicating the picture is the Jewish belief that the human soul is poly-psychic, that it is actually composite, being made up of a neshamah ('soul'), ruach ('spirit'), and nefesh ('life force') (to paraphrase Shrek, "It's like an ogre - it has layers"). Each of these elements undergo different fates once they leave the body of the deceased, and different mystics have offered a vast array of schemes as to what happens to what part of each soul. Later works, such as Sha'arei ha-Gilgulim, are complex, almost to the point of unreadablity, in their efforts to make explicit all the possible permutations for the fate(s) of all these soul sparks.

Because of the complex structure of the soul, most people have souls that are composed of soul sparks from several different prior lives. Some writings insist human souls always stay within human bodies (though they may switch gender), while others teach that human souls can migrate into animals, plants, and even inanimate matter (none of which is good, for that make the tikkun, the proper rectification of that soul fragment, harder to achieve).

In a future entry I will discuss how souls can also migrate into those already living and fully ensouled - the concepts of ibbur (spirit impregnation) and dybbuk (spirit possession).
Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


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