GILGULIM: DO THE JEWS BELIEVE IN REINCARNATION ?
A brief look at the concept of Gilgulei Ha Neshamot (Heb. גלגול הנשמות), also called Gilgul, Gilgulim, or reincarnation, as taught by the Jewish Rabbis.
I was personally quite surprised at how many Rabbis seem to accept or be positively inclined toward the concept.
I hadn’t really given the idea a serious consideration before; but I knew that if true, Gilgulim would mean the plan of God (or “the plan of G-d” as the Rabbis might spell it) is quite a bit different than what I thought, and would probably require me to reconceptualize a few things in my head. It is certainly an interesting idea to say the least.
I went into it without the least knowledge of the concept, with only a vague suspicion that it would turn out to be somehow connected to or derived from New Age ideology or otherwise syncretistic or contrived.
But the more I learned about the subject, I found myself not only finding the logic and morality of the concept unobjectionable, but also found it meaningfully distinct from Karmic conceptions of reincarnation.
My presumption had been that it would clash with, contradict, the resurrection of the dead, either actually or “in spirit”. This I found to be less and less true the more I learned about it, however.
So what exactly do the Jewish Rabbis teach about reincarnation ?
Gilgulim, or reincarnation, is not directly mentioned in the Bible, but that by itself doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Cats aren’t mentioned in the Bible, yet they exist.
As taught by the Rabbis, Gilgulim is usually a way to explain siamese twins, autistic children, what happens to newborn children who die, miscarriages, etc. A person who only lived an hour cannot be judged now can he? He hasn’t lived a full life. Hence he must be reborn, so he can live a full life and then he can be fairly judged, the sages teach.
Contrary to the assumption of some, Gilgulim is not necessarily a punishment. Let’s say you died when you were one week old and never got to experience life – now what ?
Gilgulei ha Neshamot would allow for you to have a real, full, life, and hence you would be equal to any other person at the judgment of God, and no other special provision would have to be invented (such as Limbo) for the dead children.
A good way to gain an undestanding of Gilgulim is to contrast it with reincarnation as taught by other religions.
The Karmic religions of Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the Ultimate Reality, sometimes called Parabrahman, sometimes called God, is divided into trillions and trillions of what we might call souls, and these souls are reborn again and again in the form of humans, animals, inanimate objects, bacteria, insects, and that all hence have an equality of some sort, and are reborn continually into good or bad situations depending on their actions. Hinduism and Buddhism both vacillate between, on the one hand, the idea of earning good reincarnations through good deeds, and, on the other hand, escaping the cycle of reincarnation into the eternal transcendence of Moksha/Nirvana. According to Buddhism and many Hindus, reincarnation happens of itself, with no specific deity choosing who gets reincarnated where.
According to Rabbinical traditions, relatively few people, for very specific reasons, have been or may be reincarnated, (almost always as humans, though there are exceptions to this in the traditions,) with the resurrection and the “judgment day” associated with the resurrection being seen as separate and more momentous events which include all or most of mankind. Reincarnation is understood to happen by a specific decree from God, and again, it is a decree that relatively rarely is decreed.
It is not only the stillborn or those with medical conditions that are candidates for reincarnation, however. Rabbinic tradition includes many tales of Gilgulim involving well known personages.
There is a tradition that teaches that Abel was reborn as Moses, and Cain as Jethro.
The background is that Cain killed Abel because they were supposed to marry each their twin sister, and Abel’s sister was fairer than Cain’s, so he killed him, among several reasons, to get his twin sister as his wife. Hence Jethro, his reincarnation, gives his daughter to Moses, Abel’s reincarnation, to compensate.
The fact that Abel was not given the opportunity to beget a people (descendants of which could hypothetically have been taken aboard the ark and hence Abel could have lived on til today) could relate to the story told in Exodus 32:9-14, wherein God offers to make a great people out of Moses, in place of Israel. Hence, according to this tradition, he is being offered the chance he was denied in his past life.
Another tradition teaches that Nadav, son of Aaron, was reborn as Samson.
Hence NDB (pronounced “Nadav”) was reborn BDN (“in Dan”). Nadav apparently has a reputation within Rabbinic tradition for disrespecting women, and hence was reborn into a situation where he would be continually get into trouble with women.
Another tradition says Phinehas was reborn as Elijah, while yet another tradition agrees that Phinehas is indeed Elijah, but says he was not reborn as Elijah; rather, he never died, living from the time of the wandering in the Sinai and well into the time of the kings, before being, as recounted in scripture, assumed into heaven on a burning chariot. An interesting similarity between Elijah and Phinehas is that they both dealt with Israel and not the gentiles, and had to resort to extreme measures to get their points across to the entire nation and thereby inspire repentance.
History of the Teaching
Gilgulim is said to have long been kept secret and, unlike most other parts of the Oral Tradition, not been written down or even made public until relatively late times.
It appears the earliest definite mentions of Gilgulim appear to be from the time of the Gaonim (589-1040 CE), at which point discussion of the subject quickly flourished among certain sages, who appear to have been specially interested.
Rabbinic tradition purports to hand down ancient teachings, hence it is believed a doctrine can be much older than the earliest manuscript mentioning the doctrine.
The history of Gilgulim is known to us today to the extent it is mentioned, whether in the spirit of acceptance or rejection, in the writings of famous Rabbis.
Hai Gaon (939-1038 CE), Nachmanides (Ramban), Isaac Luria, Baal Shem Tov (and hence the Chasidim) and the Vilna Gaon accepted it, whereas Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE), David Kimchi and Joseph Albo, among others, rejected it.
It is hard to determine how broadly the teaching is accepted or viewed with favor among Jews today, however judging by how much modern Rabbis have to say on it, and how much material is now available online, it seems to be not the obscure or hidden doctrine it once was. A noteworthy development is that it is now much easier to come across Jewish sources arguing for Gilgulim than against, with the argument against Gilgulim primarily coming from non-Jews.
Gilgul in the New Testament ?
Some have argued that the concept of Gilgulim is referenced in the New Testament:
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2)
Question: How can his sin lead to him being BORN blind, except that he had a previous life?
Or so the argument goes.
(It has also been suggested he committed some sin in the womb – but the question will probably remain difficult to answer.)
Note that the reincarnationist argument assumes in this case that you can be born blind because of past sin(s), whereas the Rabbinical tradition typically would prefer to say that Gilgulim would be the solution to the problem of people being born blind, rather than a punishment inflicted, albeit this possibility is taught as well.
The New Testament says “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), and some have been tempted to say, in reference to the Rabbinic teaching of Gilgulim: “either the Bible is right, or the Rabbis are right” (ie. there is a contradiction). But as the Rabbis say, there is an exception to every rule.
Do we understand this verse to contradict, and therefore deny, the story of the resurrection of Lazarus?
Or the resurrection of the widow’s son?
Clearly we cannot take this verse to literally apply to every person, since some have lived and died more than once.
That is to say, Hebrews 9:27 does not necessarily deny the possibility of Gilgul, seeing as this too would be an exception and not the norm (in fact, regardless of the doctrine of Gilgul, Hebrews 9:27 should be seen as describing the normal pattern of things, with the understanding that there are exceptions to this pattern, such as the case of Lazarus.)
The mysterious references in the Bible to John the Baptist as “Elijah” have of course also been taken in a reincarnationist context.
So then, what do I ultimately make of the Jewish version of reincarnation ?
Since scripture doesn’t explicitly mention it, and since I haven’t personally experienced anything that would give me experiential knowledge of the phenomenon, I cannot affirmatively declare a belief in Gilgulim.
But I can say I have a greatly increased appreciation for the concept, to the degree that I don’t think I would mind if it were true.
It probably would be a good answer to certain problems (eg. people born with certain burdens, or the stillborn).
Indeed, if God were the one managing the whole thing, why would there be a problem anyway ?
~~ Abel Zechariah