Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Parable of the Vineyard: Reincarnation in Judaism II

I've already given an overview of the concept of reincarnation (gilgul) in Jewish mysticism on this site last year (SEE Jewish Reincarnation? Gilgul of the Soul(s) ), but I was teaching the topic in my UNT Kabbalah course this Spring and I mentioned that the number of reincarnations for a soul could be as little as three and as many as 1000. Asked how the Tradition came up with those numbers, I said, "From the Bible," and cited Job 33:29-30. Alas, someone checked me and found it accounted for the 3x but not the 1000 - "Truly God does all these [things] two, three times to a man, to bring him back from the pit, that he may bask in the light of life." I couldn't recall the other prooftext at the time. I searched briefly, but then moved on.

Now, two days after I completed the class, I find the citation that eluded me in David's Stern's excellent Parables in Midrash. The source in Sefer ha-Bahir. It is embedded in a mashal, a parable, a favorite Jewish illustrative tool (this one's about a vineyard, but for the easily confused - warning! warning! warning! - its not the one Jesus taught):

Why does the wicked man prosper and the righteous suffer?
[R. Rahmai replied] Because this righteous man was once a wicked man in the past, and is now being punished.
[They asked him:] But is a man punished for the sins of his youth? Did not Rabbi Simon say that the heavenly court only punishes a man for [the sins he commits from the time he is] twenty years old?
[R. Rahmai] replied: I do not speak of the [same] life; I speak of the fact that he was already there in the past.
His colleagues said to him: How long will you speak enigmatically?

He said to them: Go and see! A parable: What is the matter like? It is like a man who planted a vineyard in his garden, and he hoped it would grow grapes, but it grew wild grapes. He saw that his planting did not succeed, so he cut down the vineyard, tore it out, and cleaned the good grapes from the wild ones, and planted it a second time. When he saw that that did not succeed, he tore it down and planted after he had cleaned it. When he saw that [the third planting] was not successful, he tore it out and [re]planted it.
And how many times? Until the thousandth generation, as it is written, "The davar [lit. "the thing," i.e., the soul] He gave to a thousandth generation" (Ps. 105:8). And that is to say: 974 generation were missing, so the Holy Blessed One arose and planted them in every generation (Hagigah 13b-14a) (Sefer ha-Bahir 195).

There are a complex web of associations embedded at the end of this seemingly straight-forward parable. To tie his claim for reincarnation to all authoritative Jewish sources, the author of Bahir is citing not only Bible, but Talmud as a second primary proof text, a passage that itself seeks to understand a parallelism of Daniel, a thousand thousands of angels serve Him, and a myriad of myriads rise before Him (Daniel 7:10). The Talmud expounds this verse: These [the myriads] are the 974 generations that were uprooted from being created before the creation of the [our] world. God spread them out in each ensuing generation. They are the most brazen people in each generation. In other words, there were myriads of souls that preexisted Adam and Eve (Surprise - Judaism doesn't teach that Adam and Eve were the first people!). This, in turn, [I know, it's hard to keep score] refers to another rabbinic teaching - seemingly unrelated to gilgul - that God created several unsatisfactory worlds before He made this one (based on Gen. 2:4 and Isa. 65:17. Perhaps I'll explain that legend in the next entry).

The point the Talmud is making is that God did not give up on the souls that were part of those creations, but recycles them into His current creation. This in turn offers an explanation of the 'bad seeds,' people that occasionally appear to be trouble from the get-go, like Donnie Bonaducci. Having gone bad in previous lives, they still have a lot of 'bad karma' (not, admittedly a Hebrew word) they bring from the previous cycle of creation.

In any case, what I appreciate is how the author of the Bahir marshals a surprising number of sources and associations to buttress his doctrine of transmigration and compacts them into the end of this little passage (3 tight lines at the end of the mashal in the published edition), astutely giving a simple illustration for the simple reader, but also giving tantalizing allusions for the more sophisticated reader to unpack the full significance of his proof. An impressive demonstration of intertextual argumentation.

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


Anonymous Kosher Holiday said...

Thanks for your great post. The essential Kabbalistic text in regards to gilgul is called Sha'ar Ha'Gilgulim(The Gate of Reincarnations), based on the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria (and compiled by his disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital). It describes the deep, complex laws of reincarnation. One concept that arises from Sha'ar Ha'gilgulim is the idea that gilgul is paralleled physically by pregnancy.

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