QUESTION: A friend of mine told me some rabbis believe in reincarnation and that we are sent back to the world to atone for the sins we committed in a previous life. Surely this can’t be an acceptable view because it is borrowing ideas from other religions?
Rabbi Brawer: The earliest idea about reincarnation appears long after the close of the biblical canon. It seems to have made its way into Jewish conciousneness in Iraq between the eighth and 10th centuries. The direct source of the idea is difficult to pin down, though scholars suggest it may have come from Mutazilite Muslims.
The doctrine was eagerly picked up by the Karaites and strenuously denounced by Rabbi Saadia Gaon as “nonsense and stupidity”. However, around the turn of the 12th century the idea of reincarnation gained currency among French kabbalists and by the 13th century, Spanish kabbalists — among them Nachmanides — took it as axiomatic that souls transmigrate after death into new bodies.
The doctrine became even more widespread during the 16th century, particularly in Lurianic Kabbalah, which in subsequent centuries was to have a profound impact on Judaism. So while there were rationalist rabbis who rejected the doctrine, and some still do, it seems that the view of the mystics prevailed.
As I mentioned above, the idea of reincarnation is not rooted in the Bible, and it is likely to have migrated into Judaism via Mutazilite or possibly Gnostic thought. Does this undermine the doctrine’s claim to Jewish authenticity? The simple answer is no. If we were to invalidate as Jewish any idea with non-Jewish origins, our Judaism would look very different to the way it looks today.
Religions are porous. People have always moved about and in encountering each other they have brought new ideas and perspectives across religious and cultural borders. Judaism has exported its fair share of ideas; it has given birth to two major monotheistic religions. At the same time it has absorbed elements of thought and culture from other religions as well. The provenance of an idea is less important than how it is integrated into a culture or religion.
It might be helpful to think of language as an example. How much of the English language is authentically English? Does such a question even make sense? While a significant percentage of the English language consists of loan words from Latin, Greek and French, no one thinks of such words today as any less English.
The same is true for Judaism, while the external roots of some of our particular practices and beliefs may be of interest to scholars, what matters to practitioners is that our ancestors wove these into the wider fabric of our religion, making them integral to Judaism.
Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation
Rabbi Romain: It is true that we associate reincarnation with other faiths, such as Hinduism, where it is a central tenet. It is certainly not part of the Bible or Talmud.
When Saadia Gaon hears about it in the 10th century, he has no hesitation in describing it as nonsense. Yet somehow the idea crept into various strands of later rabbinic thinking via the kabbalists, with the notion of the soul taking several lifetimes to purify itself.
Unfortunately this concept has been taken up in a twisted version by some modern rabbis as a way of explaining why bad things happen to good people — because the soul had been sinful in a previous life and was being punished in a reincarnated form now.
Thus in September 2000, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, declared that that the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust were “reincarnated sinners”. They had been born again as German or Polish Jews in the 1930s so that they could suffer in the gas chambers and be redeemed for former faults.
A contemporary American rabbi, Yosef Mizrachi, claimed three years ago that children born with Down’s Syndrome were also reincarnated souls atoning for past misdeeds.
The widespread condemnation of both statements at the time indicated how alien such views are to the vast majority of rabbis across the religious spectrum. Nor has there been any acceptance of more benign concepts of reincarnation having Jewish roots.
Instead, the assumption is that we have one life and then maybe some form of afterlife, although what form that takes is ill-defined. The rabbis are very sensible in avoiding assertions about the unknown.
For instance, they leave open the question as to whether we will still have individual identity or will simply become assimilated into the lifeforce of God’s universe, like a drop of rain that falls into a puddle: it is there, but no longer distinguishable. Instead, the emphasis is on the here and now. What is also more measurable, and worth aiming at, is how we live on in this life after our death.
This could be through achievements we leave behind, ways we have influenced others, positive memories people associate with us, individuals whom we helped, our contribution to society as a whole or how we kept Jewish tradition alive for another generation.
Who needs reincarnation, when we can have immortality in this world?
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue
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