By Rabbi Yerachniel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried
In the last of your 13-part series, you said Jews believe in a time of the revival of the dead. Is this the same concept as reincarnation? As a Reform Jew, I was always taught Jews don’t believe in reincarnation. What is your viewpoint?
— Marcie L.
Although reincarnation is a related topic to the concept of revival of the dead, it is an independent subject. The common denominator is that both are predicated upon the belief that the core of our existence is an eternal soul.
The principle of the resurrection of the dead references a future “time zone,” after the Messianic period, when the world and universe will transform to a different state of being and all righteous individuals will be brought back to the world to a state of eternal life.
Reincarnation, on the other hand, deals with the world we live in and the return of a soul back to this world.
It is a common misconception that reincarnation is foreign to Jewish thinking. It is a widespread feeling that this doctrine is associated with Eastern religions. Many people are surprised to learn that Judaism actually affirms belief in reincarnation, whereby the soul returns to the world to live a new life.
Many of the basic concepts we discussed in our series on the 13 principles of Jewish belief, such as the eternity of the soul, Divine reward and punishment and the future resurrection of the dead are intertwined in the belief in reincarnation. Although the written Torah does not explicitly elucidate this belief, according to the Zohar and other Kabbalistic writings, many sections of the Torah hint to, or are based on, the concept of reincarnation.
To focus on just one example, consider the mitzah of “yibum” (levirate marriage) in Deuteronomy 25:5-6, in which a brother marries the widow of his deceased brother and the first-born son shall bear the name of the deceased brother, that his name not be forgotten. The Zohar and other Kabbalistic sources explain this is based upon the concept of reincarnation: The baby is a reincarnation of the deceased brother.
One more example punctuates the underlying concept of reincarnation. One classical commentary explains the entire book of Jonah, besides the factual account of what transpired, to also be an allegory.
Jonah (the soul) is charged with a mission to fulfill in the world; perfecting itself. The soul (neshama) boards a “ship” to journey through this world: namely, the body. But the person tries to flee from God and avoid fulfilling its charge. Eventually, the individual is “swallowed up by the whale,” meaning it departs from this world, leaving the task unfinished.
After that, the word of God came to Jonah (the soul) a second time, saying “Arise! Go to Nineveh … ” The soul is sent back to earth to finally accomplish its intended mission. (From the 18th-century commentary of the Kabbalistic sage R’ Eliyahu of Vilna; the “Vilna Gaon.”)
God’s desire is to endow each individual with the ultimate possible goodness and bliss. For the person to be a recipient for that closeness and reward, he or she needed to have accomplished their purpose in the world. If they did not do so, God, out of kindness and love, created the possibility to the person to make up those areas he or she are lacking in by a second chance on life.
This puts a very different perspective on many of life occurrences, including tragic events. The Kabbalistic sages have often explained the tragic death of an infant, for example, that they were the reincarnation of a great righteous individual who only needed to live a short time to perfect some aspect of their persona. The parents will be reunited with that baby in the next world, and will be pleasantly surprised to find they are considered the parents of one of the world’s greatest personalities.
Many leading sages have taught that Down syndrome children possess the world’s highest, most spiritual souls who were brought back without they, themselves being tested, but to perfect some small area of their soul and to give the world a chance for redemption through chesed, acts of loving kindness to that individual.
The renowned leader in Israel known as the “Chazon Ish” of the past century was well known to stand fully before a Down syndrome child the same way he would stand before a great Torah scholar, for the above reason.
The concept of reincarnation, although not included in the 13 principles, is, nonetheless, an important belief of Judaism.
Rabbi Yerachniel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.