Q. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef has unleashed a storm of criticism* with his suggestion that the martyrs of the Holocaust were sinning souls from the past, reincarnated to be punished. What is the general Jewish view of reincarnation?
A. There is no question that reincarnation plays a role in Jewish thinking and it is not only mystics and Chassidim who accept it. The Tenach (Hebrew Bible), however, contains no clear statement of the belief, nor is it certain that the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud deemed it essential. It is only in about the 8th century that the doctrine entered Judaism, to the dismay of Sa’adia Gaon who thought it foolish. Chasdai Crescas and his disciple Joseph Albo said the doctrine was opposed to the spirit of Judaism.
On the other hand Isaac Abravanel and Manasseh ben Israel supported it. Abravanel thought it was logical and fair that another chance should be given to a soul that had become tainted by a particular body, that if a person died young their soul should have a chance to perform in another body the good deeds it did not have time for in the first, and that the soul of the wicked should sometimes pass into another body to be punished on earth instead of in the other world.
The Zohar says, “All souls must undergo transmigration, but human beings do not perceive the ways of the Holy One, how the revolving scale is set up. They perceive not the many transmigrations and the many mysterious works which the Holy One accomplishes with many naked souls…” (Mishpatim 99b).
Clearly, reincarnation is – like all things – possible for God. But opponents of the doctrine are bothered with the thought that a soul can have many identities. How can one pray for the repose of a person’s soul when for all we know that soul has already been recycled? What happens at the time of resurrection – into which of possibly many bodies does a soul re-enter? Does the doctrine not suggest that the soul and body can never attain a unique, intimate bonding?
The fact that there are great sages on both sides of the debate shows that neither can be said to be normative. There is a major difference between essential beliefs such as the Unity of God, the authority of the Torah and the coming of Mashiach, which everyone accepts as fundamental and binding, and the idea of reincarnation, which has respectable but not unanimous support.
* This article first appeared in May 2009.