Reincarnation and Anamnesis (recollection) in Judaism

I was reading the comments on the Report on the Debate between Michael Brown and Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal. One of the questions raised was: “Is there any group of mainstream/traditional Jews that hold to a teaching of any type of reincarnation?” Michael Brown responded: “As for the idea that a Jewish soul is reincarnated in a new body, I have found no confirmation of that whatsoever. If anyone has a Jewish source confirming that, please do send it my way.”

Here is one comment (Christopher):

“I don’t know if most traditional Jews believe in reincarnation, but the Brestlovers do. Rabbi Nachman was a proponent of this idea, and most of his followers today do. It’s funny too. I’m part Sephardic and we tend not to very pro-Hasidic, since this is a Eastern European sect. But for some reason, the Brestlovers in Jerusalem and in the State of Israel have been doing some Chabad-type outreach to the Sephardi/Mizrahi communities and now a lot of secular Sephardim, mostly twenty or thirty years olds who are becoming integrated into the community and they look ridiculous wearing this garb that is not even the ethnic garb of their ancestors and trying to learn Ashkenazic Hebrew. But one thing that you can’t say against this sect is that they don’t love the L-rd, they love sporadic worship and spend an hour or so a day in seclusion to reach a state of consciousness with G-d. Pray that they meet G-d Incarnate-Moshiach as they pray.”

Not only is reincarnation and the transmigration of souls a basic doctrine in Kabbalah, but, and very importantly, the beliefs of Kabbalah extend far beyond the Brestlovers. “One avenue , says Chabad, in which Kabbalah refreshes our faith is in its presentation of reincarnation and soul migration. Although no overt reference is made in the scripture to the subject, however the greatest Kabbalists—notably the Arizal as quoted in the work Shaar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincarnation), expound clearly its principles.”

Arizal is Isaac Luria, the Kabbalist, whose version of Kabbalah is accepted by the majority of halachic Jews.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson comes from the mainstream line of Lurianic Kabbalah. Rebbe Schneerson is regarded by many of his followers as the Messiah. We can trace the Rebbe all the way back through Kook, Zalman, Luzzatto, Baal Shem Tov, Moses de Leon and on to Luria.

One of the main doctrines shared by Hinduism and Kabbalah is reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Hindus would describe Kabbalah, if not as a Hindu heresy, as a Jewish offshoot of Hinduism.

“Luria’s disciples raised the dogma of transmigration of souls to a science and an art. The concept of “impregnation of souls” permitted a soul that had attained purity in a former life to enter the body of another individual to help his resident soul in its quest for purity. Souls which missed attaining full purity could try for the required “elevation” in a new body, in the process “elevating” another soul. The process took on material and cosmic proportions. The purified souls of Israelites unite with the impure souls of other peoples to free them of their taint and uplift them so that the whole world may come closer to redemption. Hence, the dispersal of Israel is not intended as punishment but as the salvation of humankind.” (Jewish Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress: The World Within).

So, for Luria’s disciples, the impure Hindu soul will never reach Nirvana (the World to come) without the help of the purified soul of an Israelite. Luria’s influence is so strong that many Jews consider his view on the Olam Haba (world to come) to be the final word. If so, what Luria says, according to them, must have been revealed to Moses at Sinai in the Oral Torah. It just took longer, a couple of thousand years, for Luria to receive the imprimatur – let it be printed – from Above.

Jews who believes in the Oral Torah given at Sinai also believe that in some mysterious way they were also present at Sinai. If they were not brought up in this tradition, this does not mean, according to this view,  that they were not “at” Sinai but merely that they have no recollection of being there; he has forgotten and needs to recollect. This reminds me of Plato’s theory of anamnesis “recollection.” In his Phaedrus we read: “The soul of a man may descend into a beast, and return again into the form of man. But the form of man will only be taken by the soul which has once seen truth and acquired some conception of the universal:–this is the recollection of the knowledge which she attained when in the company of the Gods.” This recollection points to knowledge previous attained.

So, both in Plato and Judaism (of the Oral Torah kind), a person can only become a true “mensch” once he or she has seen truth, which implies the acquisition of some concept of the universal. This acquisition is not the intake of new knowledge but the recollection (zekher in Hebrew) of what the soul attained before it was born; what it previously attained in the company of “the Gods” (Plato) or God (the Jew).

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