This week Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, Founder of Uri L’Tzedek,, published an op-ed using reincarnation as a means to create a metaphysical basis for an ethical Judaism. Reincarnation shows the interconnectedness of all life.
My first thought was that it was nice to hear about God from the pulpit. Especially, since Orthodox rabbinical students at both seminaries are taught not to preach about God, in contrast to HUC-NY where they are encouraged to raise a consciousness of God. So my first reaction was that the op-ed was a good start now onto God, revelation, and prophecy.
Then I thought about it a bit more, and thought that if Rabbi Yanklowitz’s stated goal (email June 11) was to ground ethics in a metaphysics, then was reincarnation the best way to go? Rabbi Wurzbuger used the intuitionism of Saadyah. Maimonides, and Rabbi SR Hirsch combined with a Maimonidean virtue ethic. Shouldn’t one used a more mainstream ethical approach that does not require rereading.
Which reminded me that Lawrence Kushner, noted Reform rabbi and author of Honey from the Rock and God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know tells a story of gnat that flew into his windshield and died leaving a black speck on the glass, Kusher named the gnat Isaac Luria because the death of the gnat shows the cycle of life and the interconnectedness of all life. I never liked that highly metaphoric and flippant use of R. Isaac Luria and his teachings.
Then I was annoyed that the op-ed relied on the very bad modern orthodox attempts to understand gilgul by reading second hand Scholem and then thinking about it without seeing the Hebrew inside.The language is more the neshamah and its return.
The article did not get that the tradition of the Ramban and that of R. Hayyim Vital are different. The former as it became developed by the 16th century was that everyone has two reincarnations and sometimes a need for a third, while the latter tradition assumes that each person has NRN”CY, with a top and bottom, an inner and an outer, and multiplied by 10 sefirot and five partzufim- yielding 1000’s of soul parts which keep getting returned to the hopper and rearranged without a continuity of personal identity. In addition, for Vital gentiles and women have a lower soul, the protagonist of history the soul of Adam Kadmon as shattered into the souls of Israel. For the classic attempts are harmonization see Menashe Israel’s Nishmat Hayyim and for the basic 24 parts of the soul ranging from nervous system to astral bodies see Rama Mifano’s Asarah Maamarot. As a side note, current thinking that follows Idel does not see gilgul in the Bahir as stated by Nahmanides; rather they follow the interpretive tradition of the circle of the Rashba.
Then I was happy that he unknowingly correctly used the traditional divisions of Jewish thought into principles and details. As stated by R. Hasdai Crescas in his Or Adonai. (1) There are three universal principles about God (2) There are six pillars on which the Torah rests. (3) Eight true beliefs of Torah but without them the Torah does not fall and three beliefs needed for mizvot. (4) Finally, there are thirteen principles in which one’s reason can be the arbiter- such as demons and reincarnation. (Crescas accepts the former and rejects the latter). Reincarnation is subject to debate.
Finally, I liked the article because it sought to ground ethics in a metaphysics, but would you ground a religious ethic on the interconnectedness of all beings? Will this resonate to justify fighting for worker’s rights or fair labor practices? Is there another place to ground an ethos of the interconenctedness of all things.
Reincarnation is believed to occur when the neshama, human soul, returns to earth in a new body after death and separation from a previous body.
I would add that a theology of the interconnectedness of our souls offers great potential for our moral lives suggesting a spiritual paradigm for universal love and solidarity. When we encounter another, we can see how our existences are intertwined. One can cultivate greater empathy for another of a different body type, gender, race, or age through the realization that we may have experienced everything in a past life or are yet to in a future life. In a sense, we are all multi-racial beings.
Acquiring this belief offers the potential to enhance the cultivation of a certain moral consciousness. Perhaps we can return to be better parents, more ethical consumers, more spiritually minded, or more giving to the poor? The return to this world is perhaps not a punishment but a vote of confidence that we all can ultimately succeed in the game of life!
If we love life, we must seek and crave its eternal perpetuation. What seems compelling about a theology of afterlife qua reincarnation is not an avoidance of living in this world like some models of heaven may be. Rather this belief is concerned with taking ownership of our complete existence. The moral enterprise of gilgulim is concerned with our taking responsibility for the cultivation of the past, present, and future of our souls for our full transcendental ontological existence, our core being and deeper self. It is taking ownership for eternity and responsibility for all of creation. Global warming is not the problem for my grandchildren rather it is the problem for my own life as well. This is perhaps the highest moral and spiritual challenge: we are asked to take responsibility of our full existence! We are spiritually connected not just in the here and now but in an ongoing way as well.
Read the whole op-ed here