The Jewish View of Reincarnation – A Chance To Get Things Right

In the article “Reincarnation and Jewish Tradition,” by Yaakov Astor, excerpted from Astor’s book Soul Searching (Targum Press), reincarnation—defined as “the reentry of the soul into an entirely new body in the present world”—is discussed at length.

Astor notes that many people are surprised to find that reincarnation is “part of Jewish tradition.” However, he says, reincarnation is mentioned numerous times in Jewish mystical texts, especially the Zohar:
“As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again. (Zohar I:186b)”

Astor notes that the first-century sage Nechuniah ben Hakanah suggested that reincarnation explains “why bad things happen to good people.” In short, people pay for the sins of prior lives by being punished in a current one (or vice versa, but it's predominantly the former).

Reincarnation, says Astor, was a cornerstone of Jewish belief for the great Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), who was known as the “Ari.” Astor claims that the Ari is responsible for transforming reincarnation into a mainstream Jewish belief, “inhabiting the thought and writings of great scholars and leaders from classic commentators on the Talmud…to the founder of the Chassidic Movement, the Baal Shem Tov, as well as the leader of the non-Chassidic world, the Vilna Gaon.”

However, according to BeliefNet, reincarnation is not a focus of Orthodox Judaism, which “generally focuses on strictly following God's commandments rather than on details of afterlife or rewards after death.” This is borne out by another author, at Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroups
, who puts it this way: “The focus of Jewish life is living according to G-d's will as expressed in the Torah. What happens afterwards is up to G-d.”

Where is reincarnation found in the Torah, Nevi’im, or Ketuvim? Astor notes that the book of Job (Eyov) has the following verse: “Behold, all these things does God do -- twice, even three times with a man -- to bring his soul back from the pit that he may be enlightened with the light of the living.” (Job 33:29) Astor explains this verse to mean that God literally brings people out of hell so that they can try again.

What happens to a person after death? Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroups offers a mystical explanation: “When the body dies, if the person merits it, a small portion of the soul remains with it to keep it connected with the soul's source, anticipating the general revival of the dead at the time that G-d decrees. Different parts of the remainder of the soul may go to different places. One might be reincarnated into a new body in an attempt to rectify another of its spiritual aspects, or for other purposes. One part might go to a level of Paradise. Another might go to Gehinnom for a period, to remove the sins of that life and prepare it for a future one. Another part might join temporarily with an already living person, to assist it with its rectification and in the process gather more merit. The reassignments of the soul continues until the time that G-d decrees.” According to this view, the soul can seemingly be subdivided into many mini-souls, each with its own kind of mission.

In “Life in the Hereafter: A Tour of What’s To Come,” Zalman Schachter has this to say about reincarnation: “Nothing new can be gained in heaven. The quantity of mitzvot (deeds or blessings) and Torah acquired by the time of death is what remains with a person after death. In heaven one can gain only a deeper and richer understanding of his life on earth. It is for this reason that souls, once they have absorbed all that heaven has to offer, apply for reincarnation, i.e. in order to attain further perfection. Reincarnation is also granted to allow the soul to bring about a restitution of the wrongs it has committed.”

One thing that all views of reincarnation seem to have in common is the belief that people need a chance to make things right, and that for whatever reason they may not take advantage of the opportunity to do so in their present life. In that case, reincarnation becomes an option once they pass over into the next world.