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Kabbalah on Judaism and reincarnation

Judaism and Reincarnation

Judaism and Reincarnation

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Judaism and Reincarnation
Kabbalah on Judaism and reincarnation

How prevalent is the Jewish belief in reincarnation today? How does it differ from the Asian belief? What do the Rabbis think of it?

The root of the word "Torah" is the verb "to instruct". Torah's primary function is to teach us how to live Jewishly, in harmony with G‑d's will. As such, the basic levels of scriptural interpretation lead to a practical understanding of mitzvot and related Jewish values.

Many Jews are surprised to learn, or may even wish to deny, that reincarnation…is an integral part of Jewish belief…

The Torah, however, is a multi-layered document. Many of its deeper levels of interpretation are not readily accessible; and they may not lend themselves to obvious, practical application in daily life. As such, these more esoteric aspects of Torah are not of interest to significant segments of the Jewish population, including some rabbis and scholars.

Consequently, many Jews are surprised to learn, or may even wish to deny, that reincarnation - the "revolving" of souls through a succession of lives, or "gilgulim" - is an integral part of Jewish belief. But this teaching has always been around. And it is firmly rooted in source-verses.

Examples abound. Ramban, one of the greatest commentators on the Torah (and on the Talmud), and a seminal figure in Jewish history, hints several times that reincarnation is the key to penetrating the deep mysteries involved in the mitzvah of yibum (the obligation of the brother of a childless, deceased man to marry the widow). In his explanation of Gen 38:8, he insists that Yehudah and his sons were aware of the secret of reincarnation, and that this was a major factor in their respective attitudes towards Tamar.

The responsibility
lies with us…

The Jewish understanding of reincarnation is different from Buddhist doctrines. It in no way leads to fatalism. At every point of moral decision in his life, a Jew has complete free choice. If not for freedom of choice, how unfair it would be of G‑d to make demands of us - especially when reward and punishment is involved! Reincarnation does not imply pre-determination. It is, rather, an opportunity for rectification and soul-perfection.

The holy Ari explained it most simply: every Jew must fulfill all 613 mitzvot, and if he doesn't succeed in one lifetime, he comes back again and again until he finishes. For this reason, events in a person's life may lead him towards certain places, encounters, etc., in ways that may or may not make sense. Divine providence provides each person with the opportunities he needs to fulfill those particular mitzvot necessary for the perfection of his soul. But the responsibility lies with us. At the actual moment of decision in any given situation, the choice is ours.

One of the ways in which heaven maintains our ability to exercise complete freedom of choice is by not allowing us conscious knowledge of previous incarnations. Consequently, it might seem to some people that there is little practical benefit in being aware of this doctrine. Furthermore, many scholars contend that these mystical concepts can easily be misunderstood, or carried to erroneous and misleading conclusions. We can therefore understand why this and similar subjects are only hinted at in scripture, and why some knowledge and a great deal of determination are often required in order to gain access to this information.

For an in-depth English treatment of the Jewish doctrine of reincarnation, see the running translation and commentary of Shaar Gilgulim on (For the first article in the series, "Gate of Reincarnations", click here).

(Also, the English edition of "Derech Hashem" by Rabbi Moshe-Chaim Luzzatto, "The Way of G‑d", translated by Aryeh Kaplan (Feldheim, 1983), II:3:10 (page 125) plus notes 39-40 (pp. 342-3) provides an English list of Torah sources on this topic in both scripture and Kabbalah.)

Yerachmiel Tilles is the co-founder of Ascent-of-Safed, and was its educational director for 18 years. He is the creator of and and currently the director of both sites. He is also a well-known storyteller, a columnist for numerous chassidic publications, and a staff rabbi on, as well as and the author of "Saturday Night, Full Moon": Intriguing Stories of Kabbalah Sages, Chasidic Masters and other Jewish Heroes.
The Zohar is a basic work of Kabbalah authored by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his students (2nd century CE). English translation of annotated selections by Rabbi Moshe Miller (Morristown, N.J.: Fiftieth Gate Publications, 2000) includes a detailed introduction covering the history and basic concepts of Kabbalah. Volume 1 (36 pp.) covers the first half of the first of the original’s three volumes. It is available online from our store, KabbalaOnline Shop.
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Discussion (22)
November 23, 2016
Actually, rebirth is implicit in Moses' final talk in Deuteronomy. Who did he think he was addressing in Chapter five? These are supposed to be new people, and he talks as though these are the same souls at the original Covenant 40 years ago!
Nicholas Gray
April 18, 2016
I have been in the process of converting to Judaism since 2012, but I have had a yearning for Judaism since I was in my teens (mother taught world religions at the local college). The only reason it is taking me so long is because of the fact that I continue to relocate between LA and FL. I know that I am not quite ready to truly study Kabbalah as I have been studying Judaism on my own for the most part and I know I still have a lot to learn, but I love this article. I still remember when I was attending the Catholic church (raised protestant) I questioned one of my teachers and asked her if purgatory and reincarnation were the same thing. If what was being taught as a place that we went for our soul to be purified was another life? It would make more sense. G-d gives us choices, and to me that is what Judaism is about, making the choice to follow the mitzvot, not follow it blindly. I love reading stuff like this I guess because it gives me that reassurance I am making the right thing.
Shreveport, LA
January 2, 2016
How strange life is..
When my son was 4 years old. He was asleep on the lounge and wake up screaming, I claimed him and asked what scared him so much. He replied. We were on a train for a long time there were so many trees. We stopped and there was wolves barking and really scary. We were taken into a big cage. Then taken down stairs and we died. I asked him who was we? He replied us, I was his mother, and he said he was 15. I was very shocked and looked into it. The cage was a big fence and the wolves were dogs. And I was his mother. And we died there. Life is strange. We had our life's taken from us, only to be reunited in this life.
Michel Ann
December 29, 2015
In line with Anonymous' post, Buddhist reincarnation is not fatalist at all. In fact, having a degree of understanding of both traditions, there is some similarity. While Kabbalah (according to your post) focuses on completing the Mitzvot as a reason to be reincarnated, in Buddhism, becoming a Buddha by achieving enlightenment and eliminating suffering through a life of right speech, thought and action (along with freedom from craving, hatred and delusion) is the end result of repeated enlightenment. In neither case is choice removed.
New York, NY
October 27, 2015
I am not sure how thoroughly you understand the Buddhist view of reincarnation. Much like your description of Jewish belief, Buddhism teaches that we always have a choice in our action. Our choices have consequences, which I suppose you may have interpreted as fatalism, but this is a distorted (if frequent) understanding of the teachings.
August 21, 2015
I think it is something more deeply mystical than that. We are taught that the point of death is to free the soul or spirit from the bonds of the earth. And yet as living Jews we are taught to focus on bringing spirit to even the most mundane of tasks. Why would we not continue this mandate after death?

The soul will not rest until it experiences the promise that life holds for it, no matter how many incarnations it takes. Paradise is found deep within the physical realm, not outside of it. That's why we keep coming back.
Mindy Rutkovitz
Concord, CA
July 14, 2015
not convincing
the claim that the concept is rooted in Torah passages is very far fetched. It is pure speculation for anyone to argue that it has anything to do with the law of marrying a brother's widow. I accept that rabbis over the years have believed in the concept and have searched to try and find Torah support - but this kind of backward analysis is not convincing and rarely stands up, absent some far more direct references in Torah.
jerry l tanenbaum
April 20, 2015
I just want to thank everyone posting their opinions and comments. My interest in reincarnation has peaked. I have no recollection of a previous life but circumstances in my life would lead me to believe its not so impossible. I hold Christian beliefs as do most Americans and I also believe we were not given the whole truth when men put what we know as The Bible together. How can I know more truth? I'm starving for it.
March 5, 2015
I have serious issues with your article. It's not about reincarnation, but about the fact that the Torah doesn't lend itself to obvious interpretation.
Jessica Rabbit
January 18, 2015
Reincarnation is an interesting idea. I have read of the work of Rabbi Gershom in trying to locate the reborn souls of holocaust survivors and what worries me is what would someone feel if they found they had been on the other side of the holocaust?
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