I was surprised to hear that Judaism believes in reincarnation. I was told that in Jewish thought, reincarnation only happens under certain conditions. Is that true? If it is, what are these conditions and is there Biblical support of this?
The concept of reincarnation most likely predates the receiving of our Torah at Mt.Sinai 3300 years ago. Curiously there is no direct mention of reincarnation in the Torah. Nonetheless, the fact that the Zohar (attributed to the teachings of 2nd Century Mishnaic scholar Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai) mentions reincarnation explicitly (as we will see later), it falls within the pale of Torah Judaism, according to many authorities. Whether or not other cultures developed an independent tradition concerning reincarnation or it was disseminated to them by early Biblical figures, probably makes little difference. However, a brief explanation of the concept, which forms the center-piece of two major world religions, is worth mentioning to get a better grasp of the Jewish concept.
In Hinduism, it is believed that an immortal soul survives after death, spends a variable amount of time in another realm, and then becomes associated with a new body. Rebirth into the opposite sex or, under certain circumstances, into a nonhuman animal form is not only considered possible, but certain religious practices reinforce this notion. Of course, Hinduism includes the concept of karma, the idea that the conditions into which one is born are determined by one's conduct in previous lives. (Not inconsistent with certain kabbalistic teachings), many Hindus believe life on Earth is considered undesirable, and an individual should engage in various religious practices in each life until eventually earning liberation from the cycle of rebirth, shedding individuality and ego, and achieving union with the infinite spirit ( nirvana ).
Buddhism shares some concepts with Hinduism but also has some significant differences. In particular, Theravada Buddhism, found in the southern parts of Asia, emphasizes the doctrine of anatta, or no soul, which states there is no enduring entity that persists from one life to the next. At the death of one personality, a new one comes into being, much as the flame of a dying candle can serve to light the flame of another. When an individual dies, a new personality is born, generally first into a non-terrestrial plane of existence followed later by a new terrestrial reality. (Interestingly, Talmudic and post-Talmudic sources discuss a heavenly repository for souls following this existence, where they remain until Techiat Hamesim, or the "Resurrection," reuniting body and soul in this world) As in Hinduism, karma determines the circumstances of subsequent lives, so there is continuity between personalities but not persistence of identity. In fact, Theravada Buddhists prefer the term rebirth to reincarnation.
As mentioned above, the rationale behind reincarnation or transmigration in Judaism is dealt with in the Zohar in a long passage called Saba d'Mishpatim. The central idea is that reincarnation, or gilgul, has two purposes: a) to rectify sin; b) to acquire higher levels of soul. The former types of souls are the "old souls" referred to above, while the latter are "new souls," which do not require rectification as such. Soul must be reincarnated either because of sin or because it failed to completely fulfill its obligations in Torah and mitzvot, or to assist another person (such as a wife for her husband). In extreme cases, a soul reincarnates solely to interact with one individual, a family, or community. Infant mortality is often explained in kabbalistically-guided Judaism as a way for either the parents to learn a profound lesson tailored made for them, or the soul of this child belonged to an otherwise saintly individual who was lacking some minor experience, which could only be fulfilled by returning for a month, six months or a few years.
In the aforementioned section of the Zohar on Parshas Mishpatim, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai began his discourse reciting the verse:
"These are the ordinances ('mishpatim') that you shall place before them..." (Exodus. 21:2).
The Targum translates this as "these are the judgments ['mishpatim'] that you shall arrange before them." This refers to the coordination of gilgulim [reincarnations, sing. gilgul] - the judgments of souls that must be reincarnated and return to this world to receive the consequences of their actions for which they have been judged and sentenced.
The entire discourse of Rabbi Shimon is rather lengthy and complex, and fascinating to study. Reincarnation was a serious topic to him. However, it's not the purpose of this response to delve deeply into the minutiae of the Jewish reincarnation. My hope is that this serves as a citation of the source for the phenomenon and catalyst to encourage readers to investigate this traditional Talmudic and Zoharic passages to gain a better insight into this fascinating aspect of Judaism.
One later source who elaborates on this topic was Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), also known by the acronym "Ari" or "Arizal." He was one of the greatest kabbalists of all times, he founded a new school in Kabbalah - the so-called "Lurianic Kabbalah" - which is the basis of almost all mystical works that followed him. His chief disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, wrote several treatises of his master later called Kitvei HaAri, which were divided in various "Shaarim," or "Gates." Prominent among these works is a rather lengthy exposition on reincarnation called "Shaar HaGilgulim," (Gate of Reincarnation).
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