Monday, November 27, 2006

Gilgul in Waco: Kabbalah and Reincarnation in Texas

[Illustration: Turned back from America, by E. M. Lilien]
I have returned from a speaking engagement in Waco, TX. at Congregation Rodef Shalom. It was lovely; Rabbi Moti Rotem was a gracious host and I addressed a great group of about 65 people. It's tough to try and give people a taste of Jewish esoteric thought and Kabbalah in 1.5 hrs., but I did my darndest and people were very receptive.
The second part of my program was entitled Sex, Food, and Death: Kabbalah Perspectives on the most Interesting Things in Life. The entire talk was really grounded in gilgul, the Jewish doctrine of reincarnation. I have found this is one of the topics that persistently intrigues Jews who are otherwise uninitiated in Kabbalah. While it is largely neglected today, there was a time when belief in transmigration of souls was widely accepted in the Jewish world. The 17th Century Dutch think Menasseh Ben Israel affirmed it to be a central teaching of Judaism in his magnum opus, Nishmat Hayyim. A few decades later no less an authority then the Vilna Gaon expounded on how the book of Jonah was nothing less then an esoteric allegory on the journey of the soul:
The name "Yonah," which translates as "Dove," is a standard reference to the human soul. The soul is called "Ben Amitai," "Son of the Truth," as the soul is a child of God, whose seal is Truth. God selected this soul, and sent it to our plane with a mission of informing the world - Ninveh - why we are here. He told the soul to go to the "large city," which is a reference to Earth, and tell people that they are put here on Earth to perform good rather than evil. The soul refused, though, and instead became distracted by desire....Yonah found a boat, which is a reference to a body, and he descended into the boat and embarked on a trip to sate his desires. The sea is a reference to this world, and it is often used thus in the Talmud (Tamid 32a). Storms begin, and the boat is threatened with destruction! The sailors, [representing] a person's organs, are unable to control the boat. The sailors go through the motions of prayer, but Yonah is resigned to death. The organs call to the soul, as the only entity capable of effecting change; they ask what its mission is, but the soul is beyond caring for this world at that point. The soul is thrown into the sea, and dies. The fish, symbolizing the grave, swallows Yonah. Yonah is in the fish for three days; [traditionally, the soul is understood to hover by the body for three days]. Yonah then calls out to God to bring it close to Him. Yonah is then regurgitated on to dry land - the Garden of Eden. This is not the end for the soul, though; he is reincarnated, and given his mission anew. This time he agrees to go to Ninveh/world and rebuke those who have gone astray. He carries out his task in Ninveh, and the people listen, and God decides to forgive them. (From the Vilna Gaon's commentary on Jonah).
Later Kabbalistic writings integrate the role of sex and food (and virtually everything else) into this model, revealing how all our actions are tied to advancing the journey of every soul toward her ultimate tikkun, her perfection and return to God.
There were two lovers, who were really into spiritualism. They vowed that if either of them died, the one remaining would try to contact the partner in the world beyond exactly 30 days after their death. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, the young man died in a car wreck. True to her word, his sweetheart tried to contact him in the spirit world exactly 30 days later.At the seance, she called out, "John, John, this is Martha. Do you hear me?" A ghostly voice answered her, "Yes Martha, this is John. I can hear you."Martha tearfully asked, "Oh John, what is it like where you are?" "It's beautiful. There are azure skies, a soft breeze, sunshine most of the time." "What do you do all day?" asked Martha. "Well, Martha, we get up before sunrise, eat some good breakfast, and there's nothing but making love until noon. After lunch, we nap until two and then make love again until about five. After dinner, we go at it again until we fall asleep about 11 p.m." Martha was somewhat taken aback. "Is that what heaven really is like?""Heaven? I'm not in heaven, Martha.""Well, then, where are you?""I'm a rabbit in Texas."

Sometimes like people, ideas too experience transmigrations to unexpected places. Kabbalah is pretty much a novelty in this part of Texas. Largely unaware of Jewish esoteric teachings, my audience was far from accepting every aspect of what I explained to be traditional Kabbalah. That being said, for one evening in Waco we did consider how these teachings can take on a new and more perfected incarnation for modern Jews.
To learn more, consult the entries Death; Eternal Life; Reincarnation; and Soul in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


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