Reincarnation (גּלְגּוּל “transmigration of souls,”“metempsychosis”)
Reincarnation is the religious belief that after someone dies, their soul is transferred to a newly created fetus, so the person’s soul is literally reborn in a new body. This new גּלְגּוּל /incarnation, usually is in another human; but some kabbalists also hold that the soul may be reborn in an animal’s body.
There is no doubt that many religious Jews do accept that reincarnation is real. See What Judaism Says About Reincarnation, by Rabbi Louis Jacobs and also Judaism and Reincarnation, from Chabad Lubavitch.
Historians hold that reincarnation is a pagan, non-Jewish belief that only much later was adopted by some of the Jewish community. This occured in the medieval era. From there, this belief became widely accepted by Hasidic Jews, and by many Jews who hold by the Zohar, the 13th century basic text of Kabbalah. Most Jews, however, reject reincarnation as a non-Jewish belief, added into Judaism by syncretism.
Reincarnation is not mentioned in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible.) Nor does this idea exist in the classic works of rabbinic Judaism : the Mishnah, and the two Talmuds.
Reincarnation was originally taught by Hinduism. Later, in the ancient near east, it was taught by some Gnostic sects, and after that, in some parts of the Christian Church.
One of the first Jewish people to adopt this belief was Anan ben David, founder of Karaism, whom Orthodox Jews generally regard as violating Jewish tradition. To see reincarnation later accepted by Orthodox Jews is, thus surprising.
Jews who accepted Kabbalah (mysticism) felt that reincarnation solved the otherwise intractable problems of theodicy: how to reconcile the existence of evil with the premise of a good God.
There was an appeal to reincarnation by Jews who accepted Kabbalah (mysticism) – the concept seemed to solve otherwise intractable problems of theodicy: how to reconcile the existence of evil with the premise of a good God.
By the medieval era the idea of reincarnation (gilgul) became popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews. Among a few kabbalists, it was posited that some human souls could end up being reincarnated into non-human bodies. These ideas were found in a number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and also among many mystics in the late 1500s.
Martin Buber’s early collection of stories of the Baal Shem Tov’s life includes several about reincarnation.
Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation include:
Saadia Gaon (סעדיה הגאון)
Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century)
Abraham ibn Daud
Leon de Modena.
Saadia Gaon, in his “Emunoth ve-Deoth,” writes:
“Yet, I must say that I have found certain people, who call themselves Jews, professing the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation) which is designated by them as the theory of “transmigration” of souls. What the mean thereby is that the spirit of Ruben is transferred to Simon and afterwards to Levi and after that to Judah. Many of them would go so far as to assert that the spirit of a human being might enter into the body of a beast or that of a beast into the body of a human being, and other such nonsense and stupidities.”
Hasdai Crescas ( חסדאי קרשקש )writes that if reincarnation was real, people should remember details of their previous lives.
Rabbi Yedayah Bedershi offers three reasons why the concept is dangerous:
* There is no reason for people to try and do good in this life, if they fear that they will nonetheless be punished for some unknown sin committed in a past life.
* Some people may assume that they did not sin in their past life, and so can coast on their success; thus there is no need to try hard to live a good life. In Bedershi’s view, the only psychologically tenable worldview for a healthy life is to deal with the here-and-now.
* It presents a conundrum for those who believe that at the end of days, God will resurrect the souls and physical bodies of the dead. If a person has lived multiple lives, which body will God resurrect?
Joseph Albo writes that, in theory, gilgulim could be compatible with Jewish theology. However, Albo argues that there is a purpose for a soul to enter the body, creating a being with free-will. However, a return of the soul to another body, again and again, has no point.
Rabbi Leon De Modena writes that the idea of reincarnation make a mockery of God’s plans for humans; why does God need to send the soul back over and over? If God requires an individual to achieve some perfection or atone for some sin, then God can just extend that person’s life until they have time to do what is necessary. De Modena’s notes that reincarnation is absent from the entire Bible and corpus of classical rabbinic literature.
Eventually, some Jews began to teach that even animals were involved in reincarnation!
“Over time however, the philosophical teaching limiting reincarnation to human bodies emerged as the dominant view. Nonetheless, the idea that one can reborn as an animal was never completely eliminated from Jewish thought, and appears centuries later in the Eastern European folk tradition”.
– Simcha Paull-Raphael, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p.319
Most Jews today do not believe in reincarnation, but the belief is common amongst Haredim, particularly amongst Hasidim. Hasidic siddurim (prayerbooks) have a prayer asking for forgiveness for one’s sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one.
Adherents of philosophical rationalism, such as Maimonides, Gersonides, Saadya Gaon, etc. reject the idea of reincarnation. The same is true among Dor Daim, and among Gaonists. Very few within Modern Orthodox Judaism accept reincarnation as a serious belief.
Some contemporary thoughts on reincarnation
On the Union for Reform Judaism website, Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin writes:
“If you visit a Barnes and Noble superstore, you will see what much of American religion has become. There are three bookcases for Judaism; three bookcases for general religion and Christianity; three for general inspiration; two each for Bible, eastern philosophy, and myth; and nine bookcases for New Age. The New Age menu is diverse, including spiritualism, astrology, and psychic phenomena; alchemy, tarot, goddess worship, and Wicca (witchcraft); out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and reincarnation: angels, Satanism, and the occult…”
New Ager or Jew?, by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Do I seek guidance in the Torah or in notions of incarnate gods or reincarnated souls or mentor-spirits? One cannot understand the beauty and radical message of the Torah
without realizing what the Torah argues against. Adam is created from dust to show that no human being can claim to be incarnate divine light or substance. .. and enjoy the commandments (see Psalm 119)…. Various New Age doctrines have elaborate notions of the spiritual or racial purgation of those too “tied” to the old age, generally Jews or Christians or Muslims (that is, scripturally oriented monotheists). True, doctrines of reincarnation and of clean and unclean souls entered into some aspects of Jewish mysticism and other Jewish thought, as well, in certain centuries and climates. Judaism never squelched speculation, especially of the mystical kind. But all schools and streams of Judaism have had to toe the biblical line on human equality and dignity. New Age doctrines regard biblical texts as obstacles to higher spiritual consciousness.