The former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef, was at the centre of a furore last week over his nauseating suggestion that the six million who died in the Holocaust were "reincarnated sinners".
Behind his preposterous theory lies the mystical doctrine of gilgul, where the soul is reincarnated or "transmigrated" to reach a new level of perfection or to atone for some gross imperfection in a previous earthly existence. This idea, however, did not originate in Jewish sources and is not found in the Talmud, though it was widespread in early Christian circles from the second century.
Scholars variously trace it to early Gnostic sectarian teaching, to Greek, Platonic or neo-Platonic thought, or Indian philosophy. It was later promoted by Anan ben David in Baghdad, the eighth centry founder of Karaism (the dissident Jewish sect which accepts the Bible but not the Talmud), who may have borrowed it from the Islamic Mutazila sect, and it entered Jewish Kabbalistic literature in the late 12th century work, Sefer Habahir.
Though it met with trenchant opposition from our major medieval philosophers, this did not prevent its becoming a cardinal doctrine in the later kabbalistic system of Isaac Luria, leader of the 16th century Safed circle of mysticism. It was even defended by such sages as Moses Nachmanides and Menasseh ben Israel. With the rise of Chasidism in the 18th century, belief in reincarnation was, as it were, reincarnated.
Over the years the gilgul concept underwent various developments, such as the notion of the transmigration of a soul into the body of lower forms of nature; or the doctrine of ibbur, "impregnation", when a reincarnated soul may enter a host body in later life as an attachment to, or impregnation of, the existing soul.
Its residence, for but a brief period there, is in order to enable some restless, righteous soul to compensate for any particular mitzvah that it neglected to perform in its original incarnation, and so attain spiritual perfection.
A large body of opinion, however, did not view transmigration so positively. Rather, it was seen as a punishment imposed upon those inferior souls that had failed to stop their previous bodies from perpetrating particularly heinous (especially sexual) sins. Out of this came the idea of a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit possessing a person, often to seek some personal retribution, a theme taken up in Yiddish literature from the 17th century onward.
There is a great danger in mysticism: that unless one has a firm grounding in normative Judaism, it can totally distort one's faith and undermine one's observance. This is what happened to the followers of Shabbetai Zvi, the 17th century false Messiah, and to those of Jacob Frank (mid 18th century), who was regarded as Shabbetai's reincarnation.
The Frankists paraded outwardly as Orthodox Jews, but were committed to a belief in Shabbatcanism which prompted them to initiate a widespread attack on the Talmud and Jewish law. Under the influence of the Zohar, the main kabbalistic work, and some distorted Jewish mystical ideas, they ignored the Torah's sexual prohibitions, adopting at first a synthesis of Jewish and Christian principles, and the celebration of avowedly religious orgies, and ended up embracing Catholicism.
The result of their attacks on the Talmud was that the Church authorities carried out a systematic burning of cartloads of Jewish religious works. In addition to the rabbinic cherem, or ex-communication, imposed upon the sect. Isaac Luria's recommendation that kabbalah should not be studied by those under the age of 40 was vigorously enforced.
In our own day, alternative religions and cults have mushroomed, some using brain-washing techniques on recruits, estranging them from their families, and subjecting them to fearsome regimentation. Ruined lives, sometimes even suicides, have been the result.
Popular mysticism is generally incomprehensible to those who merely dabble in it, leading to their potential manipulation by charlatans who seek to control the minds and pockets of their followers.
As for the courses in mysticism being promoted by some in our own community, while there is no evidence of any of the above excesses, our response should be to spell out, at the very least, their philosophical pitfalls.
There is a lifetime of spiritual stimulation in our own traditional sources, which are far more elevating and compelling than any of the alternative traditions on offer.
Like the communication of G-d to Moses, the truths of our tradition are framed, according to the Torah, "mouth to mouth, with clarity and not in riddles, so that the nature of G-d may be clearly perceived."
Our sources hold that the everyday life that G-d would have us lead can be invested with the beauty of holiness; that our rational mind is sufficient to think spiritual thoughts; and that our need to interrelate ethically with our fellow-man is far more important than a leap into the whirlpool of mystic speculation.
Rabbi Cohen is minister of Stanmore Synagogue
From The Jewish Chronicle, London
Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen's article confirming that reincarnation is an alien belief is a shining light in the current darkness of superstitious and magical beliefs still propagated by some Orthodox rabbis in this country, Israel and other parts of the world.
The late Ernest Wallis Budge, who was a leading Hebrew scholar and keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities at the British Museum, made it clear in "amulets and Superstitions" that the Kabbalah, as we know it today, is also foreign to authentic Jewish belief. He wrote: "The Kabbalah of Middle Ages represents a mass of beliefs and traditions which the Hebrews adopted from the Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians, Syrians, Zoroastrians, Gnostics, Greeks, Arabs and even European peoples."
The tragedy for Judaism in this country is that Rabbi Cohen is one of the few Orthodox rabbis who has the integrity and courage to speak out about the challenge superstitions impose on the future of authentic traditional Judaism.
Maurice J Summerfield
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