Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz replies


I’d like to share my appreciation with Professor Brill for posting this op-ed and to all the thoughtful commentators. I have a few replies here:

1. Gilgul’s implications for relationships between Jews & Non-Jews: This is exactly the kind of conversation I would like to further. I think that by embracing Sartre’s notion that “existence precedes essence” we can embrace a past soul’s existence (not essence) as a Hindu, for example, and we can do so without saying that our soul was essentially different. I’m suggesting that perhaps we can embrace gilgul and be post-essentialist. The soul has a universal nature which enters different cultural realties. What divides me between a Muslim or Buddhist is not our determinism but our freedom. Our choices and affiliations, not our essences, have more weight.

In Keriat Shema al Mita, we ask for forgiveness for our past gilgulim. We are, in fact, held accountable for those existences not because they have scarred the essences of our souls but because the free will (the real stuff of existence) has carried over into our next gilgul. Our decisions, in this life, have more weight and moral implication beyond this body.

2. I’m suggesting less of a metaphysical truth and more of a spiritual activity or a hermeneutic for human phenomenological encounter. I was surprised that someone was “put off” by my treating “this exercise as a thought experiment and temporary suspension of belief.” We live in an age of religious skepticism and I was merely stating the obvious here. Given the current epistemic foundations of Judaism (and religion), we can no longer state hard truths. What does this commentator propose as a different way of framing our theological discourse in a post-modern age (with certainty and perfect belief)?

3. “One could take the opposite tack and argue that a belief in gilgul allows people to work less hard in this life” – you’re right that someone could do that. But I think that our intentions when crafting our personal theologies are vital in religious life. I think we can embrace a more pragmatic consequentalist theology – one that works for us and that improves us. Is it wrong to embrace a theology that one believes to be true if it produces a racist or sexist culture? To have integrity in confirming one’s beliefs, one must embrace more comprehensive truths.” One who needs a personal G-d to feel connected religiously and spiritually engaged simply should not embrace Rambam’s theology even if they find it logically compelling. Maybe in the next gilgul they can embrace it, but this life demands more – it demands that their chosen hermeneutic actualizes them!

I look forward to replies.

B’Shalom, Shmuly Yanklowitz

3 responses to “Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz replies

  1. Thank you, that made things more clear, and more compelling!

  2. If we have to look relatively far afield to the obscure gilgul doctrine to find some social justice, does this imply that mainstream Jewish texts are unconcerned with social justice? Why is there no social justice in Taanis or even Uktzin? Why do we need esotericism to get there?

  3. Now I’m even more disturbed. First you take a doctrine that proposes an essential soul that operates and transmigrates via particular mechanisms. This is clearly not Aristotelian conception of the soul, but you seem to think that the two can be effortlessly joined. Why? Because you want it to work. Does coherence not factor into the way you think about these things? Does the actual text not matter, only its distillation into cliffs notes?

    My earlier point is that particularly when we cannot state hard truths (although the majority of your orthodox coreligionists do not have this problem) we need to delineate why we attach ourselves, nay, hang our collective spiritual identities, on particular theological pegs such as a divine Torah and “soul” that in some way is not dependent on a body.

    We are at a our peril when we multiply necessities simply out of convenience or the desire for a theology with a particular functional orientation instead of the burden of history and the weight of compelling texts.

    It does not even look like you are trying to seriously read the texts. Perhaps if you were you could move from critical distance to reclamation – that is a hermeneutic, but you cannot begin by projecting your idols into the texts and make them dance around like marionettes.

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