Reincarnation: The Transmigration of a Jewish Idea

Though some Jewish thinkers vigorously rejected the notion of reincarnation, kabbalists embraced it enthusiastically.

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The reincarnation of souls into other people or animals--known as gilgul hanefesh (lit. the rolling of the soul) in Hebrew--is an outgrowth of the idea of the soul's immortality. It has seized the imagination of many Jews and remains a popular literary subject. Numerous stories of demonic possession and exorcism by wonder rabbis are based on the idea of lonely souls, sinners in previous lives, entering into other bodies. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Reincarnation is the idea that a soul now residing in a particular body may have resided in the body of another person in an earlier period of time. Theories of reincarnation or metempsychosis are found in many religions and cultures, ancient and modern, but there are no references to the idea in the Bible or the Talmud and it was unknown in Judaism until the eighth century CE, when it began to be adopted by the Karaites [a sectarian Jewish group] (possibly, it has been suggested, under the influence of Islamic mysticism). 

The Philosophers Were Scornful

The usual Hebrew term for reincarnation is gilgul, "rolling," that is, the soul "rolls" through time from one body to a different body. The earliest [non-Karaite] reference to the doctrine is that of Saadiah [882-942] (Beliefs and Opinions, vi. 8). Saadiah writes:

jewish reincarnation"Yet I must say that I have found certain people, who call themselves Jews, professing the doctrine of metempsychosis, which is designated by them as the theory of the 'transmigration' of souls. What they mean thereby is that the spirit of Reuben is transferred to Simeon and afterwards to Levi and after that to Judah. [These names are generic, like Tom, Dick and Harry; no reference to the sons of Jacob is intended. Ed.] Many of them would even 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."

We learn incidentally from Saadiah's discussion that one of the reasons these people believed in reincarnation (this reason resurfaces in the Kabbalah) was because of the theological difficulties in God allowing little children to suffer. That they do, it was argued, is because of sins they had committed in a previous existence.

Among the other medieval thinkers, neither Judah Halevi [died 1141] nor Maimonides [1135-1204] makes any mention of the doctrine. Albo [15th century] (Ikkarim, vi. 20) refers to the doctrine only to refute it. He argues that the whole purpose for which the soul enters the body is to become a free agent, but once a soul has become a free agent why should it return to occupy another body? It is even more unlikely, says Albo, that human souls transmigrate into the bodies of animals.

The Mystics Were Believers

The kabbalists, on the other hand, do believe in reincarnation. The Zohar [the great 13th century kabbalistic text] refers to the doctrine in a number of passages (e.g. ii. 94a, 99b). Nahmanides [1194-1270], in his commentary to the book of Job (to Job 33:30), speaks of reincarnation as a great mystery and the key to an understanding of many biblical passages. The later Kabbalah is full of the belief in the transmigration of souls.

Various sins are punished by particular transmigrations; for example, the soul of an excessively proud man enters the body of a bee or a worm until atonement is attained. The heroes of the Bible and later Jewish histories are said to be the reincarnation of earlier heroes. Thus the soul of Cain (Genesis 4:1‑16) entered the body of Jethro and the soul of Abel the body of Moses. When Moses and Jethro met in friendship they rectified the sin caused by the estrangement of the two brothers (Exodus 18:1‑12).

Manasseh ben Israel (died 1657) devotes a large portion of his Nishmat Hayyim ("The Soul of Life") to a defense of reincarnation. In chapter 21 Manasseh observes that the doctrine was originally taught to Adam but was later forgotten. It was revived by Pythagoras [the 6th-century BCE Greek mathematician and philosopher], who was a Jew (!), and he was taught the doctrine by the prophet Ezekiel.

The Hasidim believe explicitly in the doctrine, and tales are told of Hasidic masters who remembered their activities in a previous incarnation.

Three Kinds of Reincarnation

In the kabbalistic literature three types of reincarnation are mentioned:

1.      gilgul, transmigration proper, in which a soul that had previously inhabited one body is sent back to earth to inhabit another body.

2.      ibbur, "impregnation," in which a soul descends from heaven in order to assist another soul in the body.

3.      dybbuk, a generally late concept, in which a guilt‑laden soul pursued by devils enters a human body in order to find rest and has to be exorcised.

The philosophical difficulty in the whole doctrine of reincarnation lies in the problem of what possible meaning can be given to the identity of the soul that has been reincarnated, since the experiences of the body determine the character of the soul. How can the soul that has been in two or more bodies be the "same" soul?

[Gershom] Scholem has suggested that it was this difficulty which led the Zohar to postulate the existence of the tzelem ("image"), a kind of "astral body" which does not migrate from body to body and which therefore preserves individual identity. We are here in the realm of the occult, as, indeed, we are in the whole area of reincarnation.

Some modern Jews are attracted to the occult and believe in reincarnation. Otherwise the doctrine has had its day, and is believed in by very few modern Jews, although hardly any Orthodox Jew today will positively denounce the doctrine. This doctrine of reincarnation shows how precarious it is to attempt to see Judaism in monolithic terms. Here is a doctrine rejected as a foreign importation by a notable thinker such as Saadiah, and upon which other thinkers, including Maimonides, are silent, and yet, for the kabbalists, it is revealed truth. 

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.