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Reincarnation in Judaism

Posted: Wed Feb 15, 2012 10:13 pm
by Ariel
I have just stumbled upon a video produced by promoting belief in reincarnation. I have objected on their Facebook page and they promptly deleted my comment. However, I have reposted it on our own page:

How is it that belief in reincarnation is so widespread in Judaism, quite contrary to the worldview of the biblical authors and of the sages (hazal) – and of course in complete contradiction to Christian tradition? Should we consider this as a corruption of Judaism? How to respond to it?

Re: Reincarnation in Judaism

Posted: Fri Feb 17, 2012 4:43 am
by Athol
One of the greatest and most secret and hidden concepts in Jewish Mysticism is the concepts of the World of Galgalim (Rounds/spheres). Perverted concepts of Gilgul which in English is translated as reincarnation has come to dominate in certain branches of Judaism eventhough Jewish authorities such as Saadia Gaon condemned such beliefs. In recent centuries this concept of gilgul has come to mean reincarnation in Jewish circles. It comes from the words galgal (circle/round) and Gilgal (places of stone circles mentioned in the Bible). It actually refers to mystical rounds of ascent of the souls in the spiritual life/world. It is linked to the wheel (or Galgal ) in Ezekiel. This has been linked to the Buddhist and Hindu concepts of reincarnation and the Wheel of Life etc. but this is a perversion of the original concept. These modern developments are then read back into old Jewish texts such as the Bahir and the Zohar confusing the issue even more. The problem occurs when those not so mystically advanced misinterpret the mystical insights of the great mystics whether they be Jewish or Christian. Perle Besserman a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov in her book "Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism" discusses how those references in the Jewish mystical texts that have been interpreted as referring to reincarnation are actually texts revealing the stages of meditation in the mystics practice of prayer.

In Judaism there are different levels to the soul called nefesh, ruach, neshamah and coverings of the soul chayah and yechidah. The nefesh is the soul we are born with- or the vessel of the soul. The concept of Gilgul refers especially to the level of neshamah and Gilgul is also called Gilgul Neshamot. The four higher levels according to some are states the soul merits or attains to. It is also connected to the universal soul of Adam (Adam Klalit) in which all mankind shared but with Adam's sin it broke into many individual neshamot. So we see the idea of the soul as Neshamah is not what most of us think about when we use the term soul. Just as John the Baptist and Elisha shared in the spirit/soul of Elijah in some mystical way- this does not mean reincarnation in the sense of the person/nefesh of Elijah being reincarnated. We see that Elisha received the double portion of the spirit of Elijah and Elisha was alive at the same time as Elijah. This concept reminds one of the Catholic idea of entering into the charism of certain saints and founders of spirtitual works. The concept of Gilgal and rounds is alluded to in the life of Samuel the Prophet: "And he went every year and made rounds of Beit El, Gilgal and Mitzpeh"(1 Samuel 7:16)

Re: Reincarnation in Judaism

Posted: Fri Feb 17, 2012 5:09 am
by Athol
Rav Avraham Brandwein writes: "There is another kind of gilgul that can take place while a person is still alive. The Ari calls this form of reincarnation, Ibur. It is usually thought that gilgul takes place after a person passes from this world, after the death of the body, at which time or soon after the soul transmigrates into another body. Ibur does not work like this. It involves receiving a new (higher) soul sometime during one's lifetime. That is, a new soul comes into a person's heart while he is still alive. The reason this is called Ibur, gestation or pregnancy, is because this person becomes "pregnant" with this new soul while he is still alive. This phenomenon is the deeper explanation behind certain people going through drastic changes in their lives. They either undergo a change of mind about certain things or change their lifestyle, and thereby ascend to the next spiritual level. This is also included under the general heading of gilgul-incarnation because they are now hosting a new soul [or an aspect of their own soul or a higher soul of which they are a part] in order to be a vehicle for that soul's rectification. This is what occurs when a person is ready to advance in his soul evolution. This is why the soul has five names, each higher than the other, nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah and yechidah. [According to the Zohar, the four higher levels of the soul usually enter a person during his lifetime in Ibur: First, a person receives nefesh when he or she is born; then, when they merit it, they receive ruach; when they merit it, they receive neshamah; when they merit it, they receive chayah. The higher the level, the rarer its occurrence. Very few have ever merited to neshamah, let alone chayah. Nobody has ever received the highest level, yechidah. Adam would have received it had he not sinned. " We thus see that the terms gilgul and gilgulim (which mean cycle and cycles rather then reincarnation)is referring more to spiritual states and graces that the soul attains to in the spiritual realm of the galgalim.

Re: Reincarnation in Judaism

Posted: Fri Feb 17, 2012 7:39 am
by Richard
Hi Ariel,

You wrote: How do you explain that belief in reincarnation is so widespread in Judaism, quite contrary to the worldview of the biblical authors and of chazal – and of course in complete contradiction to Christian tradition? Should we consider this as a corruption of Judaism? How to respond to it?

It is not a corruption of Judaism because it is not an essential teaching of Judaism. Besides, It arose out of the mystical tradition, and if you’ve ever opened the mystical books on reincarnation, you’d understand—even if you found that you understood nothing else—that it describes things which have no place in the common idea of reincarnation. For example, different dimensions of an individual’s soul can be reincarnated in different people, and the souls of tzaddikim enter the body of a person to help him out with his spiritual. In Judaism, reincarnation is a mystical idea only taught within mystical circles until the rise of Hassidut. That means, it doesn’t mean something that everyone can understand. Now, everyone can understand the idea of transmigration of souls: One man dies and his soul enters the body of a child just conceived, or just turned 40 days old in the womb (depending when that soul enters the child, at conception according to Catholic teaching, after 40 according to Jewish teaching.) The very fact that it is so simple means that it cannot be what the mystics had in mind.

The idea of reincarnation entered Jewish popular religious culture with the Baal Shem Tov and the Hassidic movement. He used the idea to console for the loss of children and to justify the ways of G-d, as when he would explain the sufferings of a saintly man as an atonement for a sin committed in his past life.
The idea of reincarnation may also appeal to Jews because it encourages people to take responsibility for their lives. If you do this sin, you will have to come back to atone for it before entering Heaven!
We see a suggestion of the idea in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 8
[27] And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesare'a Philip'pi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?"
[28] And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Eli'jah; and others one of the prophets."

Similarly, there is a midrash which identifies Pinchas as Eli’jah the prophet.
The men to whom Jesus referred clearly did not mean to say that Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist. After all, Jesus was born long before the soul of John the Baptist left his body, long before he died! What, then did they mean? They meant that Jesus was like John the Baptist, that Jesus seemed to be animated by the same spirit that governed the ministry of John the Baptist. That spirit is not identifiable with the personal soul, and I couldn’t tell you just what it refers to, but we can sense it as mystical reality, something indefinable and elusive but very real. That, it seems to me, is how we have to interpret the idea that Jesus is John the Baptist or Elijah the prophet. We still talk that way. Didn’t Netanyahu say only recently that Arminijad is Hitler?

My personal opinion, based, in truth, on very little, is that the Jewish mystical idea of reincarnation ponders the interpenetration and mutual influence of the spirits that govern men’s souls, so that, for example, a few generations after Hitler, an Arminjad pops up in the middle east. Of course, sociologists and historians also address that question. They give sociological and historical explanations. The mystics, who aspire to know things from G-d’s point of view, give mystical explanations. But I am, by no means, sure that I know what they are talking about, after all, I certainly don’t understand what they are saying, and the fact that the idea of reincarnation to atone for personal sin is also a fundamental principle of their teaching doesn’t seem to square very well with my general take on what they mean by reincarnation.

I have the greatest respect for the giants of Jewish mysticism who taught reincarnation. I can only assume that I don’t know what they are talking about…no, I am CERTAIN that I don’t know what these men of incredible genius, learning, saintliness and insight had in mind. So, I am satisfied to stay with the teachings of the ancient rabbis of the Talmud and the non-mystical tradition, and believe that that when the soul leaves the body, it is judged, spends up to 12 months in purgatory and the proceeds on to his place in Heaven. It is significant, I think, that the laws of mourning are based on this. A child who loses his parent recites kaddish for only 11 months—only the wicked spend the full 12 months in purgatory, and we conduct ourselves on the assumption that our parents are not wicked.

We are taught to walk humbly before the Lord, and for me, that means, don’t try to understand what is beyond your understanding. That effort is better invested in deepening one’s faith, prayer, good works, and sincere dedicated observance of the commandments. For me, personally, the idea of reincarnation as it is commonly understood makes that simple faith harder because it makes me feel further away from G-d. So I reject it, but not because I reject the teachings of the giants in whose name the idea is taught. Who am I to judge them and say that they were wrong? (And then, I don’t even know what they are saying!) I reject the idea because I don’t find it helpful and there is no obligation to believe it. Have a look at Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith. It’s not there. Nor was it ever taught to me as a principle of faith over the course of the many years I was in yeshiva.

G-d bless,

Re: Reincarnation in Judaism

Posted: Fri Feb 17, 2012 7:41 am
by Ariel
Thanks for your replies and thanks to Athol for reminding me that the topic had been previously discussed. See thread:

Re: Reincarnation in Judaism

Posted: Fri Feb 17, 2012 1:04 pm
by Athol
Today among many Breslovers and other Haredi Jews we read in their writings about reincarnation (gilgulim). This is worrying as it suits a generation influenced by the reincarnation teachings of Eastern religions and of new Age and occult groups. As a devoted disciple and descendant of Rebbe Nachman this worried me as I had formerly been a strong believer in this eastern form of reincarnation but had come to see it as demonic teaching. This literalistic approach to the term gilgul as reincarnation is not waht the great mystics of Judaism are referring to. On this I totally agree with Richard.

One of the greats of Breslover Chasidim Reb Abraham Chazan(1849-1917)warns about this as well. Reb Abraham Chazan was the son of the leader of Brelsov Chasidim Reb Nachman Chazan of Tulchin (1813-1884) who in turn was the most intimate disciple of Reb Noson (Nathan) of Nemirov (1780-1844) who in turn was the chief follower of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810). The writings of Reb Abraham Chazan are some of the greats of Breslover Chasidim. His 'Biur HaLikutim' is a Breslov commentary on Rebbe Nachman's teachings. When his father died in 1884 he began recording all the Breslov stories and traditions he had received from his father. These formed the base of his books 'Kokhavei Or' and 'Sichot VeSipurim' and other writings.

Reb Abraham Chazan in his warning about the concept of reincarnation points us back to the actual teachings of Rebbe Nachman recorded in Sichot Haran by Reb Nosan (Nathan of Nemirov). When the Jewish mystics speak about gilgulim and the soul or spirit of Moses or Joseph etc being part of the soul of another later sage they are not referring to Moses or Joseph's actual soul being born into a new body. This is clear as many people living at the same time may share in the spirit of Moses. In Catholic language we would say the charism of Moses. Reb Abraham Chazan speaks of Rebbe Nachman sharing in the soul or spirit or likeness of the Messiah ben Joseph and the Messiah ben David. Kabbalah speaks of Ishmael being a gilgul of Joseph the Tzadik. This demonstrates that this is not literal reincarnation as Ishmael was born before Joseph and was in fact his great uncle.

Zvi Mark of Bar Ilan Univeristy a leading scholar today in the writings of Rebbe Nachman and Breslov writes on this topic in his book "The Scroll of Secrets: The hidden messianic vision of R. Nachman of Breslav". He writes: "...R. Chazan himself warned against understanding the entire notion of reincarnation literally. In an answer to a question concerning a seeming contradiction between his discussion of Moses as the final messiah with a tradition that he would not return to redeem Israel, he referred his readers to one of R. Nachman's sermons which deals with the subject of reincarnation." This sermon is found in Sichot Haran 70-1. Rebbe Nachman teaches: "God does not do the same thing twice. Even with gilgul this is not an instance of the soul returning a second time. Rather, this is a case of this soul with this spirit and the likeness, as is known. Now when this soul combines with another spirit and the likeness, this is not what once was- for God does not do the same thing twice." Zvi Mark after quoting this passage from the Rebbe continues: "...R. Nathan added a note here- "This is something else, a completely new thing". It is clear, then, when one speaks of the soul of the Tzadik as the soul of the 'Moses-messiah', one is not referring to the actual return of the soul to a body that it once inhabited, nor to the return of the same spiritual object to a different body at a different time, but rather to the complicated co-mixture of spiritual entities which creates a 'completely new thing'. It is this new creation- which shares something of Moses' soul- that will eventually enact the final redemption..."

Thus it is clear that the early sages of Breslov Chasidism did not hold to the modern perverted idea of reincarnation. The term gilgulim is a mystical concept to do with sharing in the charism or 'spirit' of Tzadikim just as Elisha was granted a double portion of the 'spirit of Elijah'. As Elisha and Elijah lived at the same time this had nothing to do with reincarnation.