The notion that souls can be reborn after death figures prominently in Jewish mysticism.
in the Western imagination, reincarnation has long been associated with the religious traditions of the East. Transmigration — the journey of an individual soul through many incarnations — is something that religious seekers in the West often think of as samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth which is a core aspect of the great Dharmic religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Sometimes overlooked, both by Jews and by students of Jewish tradition, is gilgul, a concept that is described in great detail throughout the Kabbalah . Very much in line with samsara, which is often depicted as a wheel in Buddhist art, the word gilgul comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to spin.” The soul, in the kabbalistic view, spins onward through a great many bodies, striving after a higher form of perfection.
Though it is likely that Jewish ideas about transmigration are rooted far back in antiquity, the first explications of gilgul appear in medieval Kabbalah, in the Zohar and elsewhere. One of the earliest of these can be found in Sefer HaBahir (“The Book of Brightness”), an abstruse mystical tract of mysterious origin that began to circulate among kabbalists in 13th-century Europe. In a well known passage, the cycle of reincarnation is likened to a vinter who plants grapes that become sour. Disappointed, he clears his vineyard and plants a new crop, which also becomes sour. The Bahir asks: “How many times must he go through the process? He said, ‘Up to a thousand generations.’” Thus it is with the soul, which accrues merit (or not) over the course of countless lifetimes.
In the kabbalistic imagination, this is the situation for the vast majority of souls. While it occasionally happens that new souls may be created, most of us have been here before and will be here again. This particular life comprises but one stage on our path towards a perfected state when the small divine spark of our own soul will become reintegrated into the fires of the divine. This perfected state — i.e. the culmination of gilgul — can be understood as a cognate to the Buddhist notion of nirvana. However, where nirvana means literally “to blow out” — that is, to extinguish the flames of desire and greed — the kabbalists describe ultimate goal of transmigration as a kind of compounded flame, in which the soul’s spark is subsumed by the boundless light of God.
Present also in the Jewish mystical tradition is the belief that one’s actions in this life can affect one’s subsequent reincarnations, for good or ill. According to his students, among the wondrous qualities of Rabbi Isaac Luria, a towering figure 16th-century Kabbalah, was his ability to discern the history of a soul’s reincarnations by peering into the face of another human being. Through this process of discernment, Luria was able to advise his followers about specific spiritual aspects they should focus on in this life.
One of Luria’s followers, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, in his book Sha’ar HaGilgulim (“The Gate of Reincarnations”), explicates in great detail how these dynamics can play out over the many generations. According to Vital, souls are reborn specifically to perfect certain aspects of themselves or to complete unfinished tasks. Ideally each subsequent gilgul marks an ascent to a higher rung of spiritual attainment, however progress is not a given. In fact, a sinful life can lead to a diminished form of reincarnation, including reincarnations as animals, plants, or even inanimate objects.
One particularly colorful example is the possibility of being reborn as water, which is the consequence of committing murder. The idea is that the soul will always be flowing, forever deprived of a home, just as it caused the blood of another to flow in a past life. In a similar vein, though unrelated to punishment, some Hasidic traditions suggest that it is often the case that the sparks of a person’s soul are incarnated not only in a person’s body, but are also bound up with their personal belongings.
While the goal of life is ultimately to transcend the cycles of gilgul altogether, the Kabbalah likewise identifies certain great souls that reincarnate in each generation specifically to assist other souls on their journey or to rectify some past wrong. According to Lurianic tradition, for example, the soul of Abel was reborn as Moses while the soul of Cain was reborn as Jethro. The positive relationship between Moses and Jethro in the Exodus narrative thus rectifies their violent past, bringing about a repair, or tikkun, in their relationship and in the world at large.
These helpful transmigrations can happen both when a great soul is reincarnated into a new body—for instance the soul of Moses, which is reborn in every generation according to some traditions. Or when a soul “impregnates” the body of a living person (a phenomenon known as ibbur) in order to help that person with a certain religious task with which they struggle. This, then, forms the basis of a positive conception of spirit possession.
Among the salient attributes of Jewish thought writ large is a vague and somewhat non-committal attitude towards exactly what happens when this life ends. As with most areas of Jewish speculation, Jewish thinkers ancient and modern have explored a variety of sentiments on the subject of what, if anything, comes after bodily death. And while gilgul as a concept does not figure prominently in non-mystical Jewish sources, over the millennia it has nevertheless become a firmly established option on the menu of Jewish ideas about the afterlife — or rather, about the life to come. Like all the other menu offerings, it has neither been unanimously ratified nor excluded.