Shmuly Yanklowitz: Reincarnation and a Moral Conscience

This week Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, Founder of Uri L’Tzedek,, published an op-ed using reincarnation as a means to create a metaphysical basis for an ethical Judaism. Reincarnation shows the interconnectedness of all life.

My first thought was that it was nice to hear about God from the pulpit. Especially, since Orthodox rabbinical students at both seminaries are taught not to preach about God, in contrast to HUC-NY where they are encouraged to raise a consciousness of God. So my first reaction was that the op-ed was a good start now onto God, revelation, and prophecy.

Then I thought about it a bit more, and thought that if Rabbi Yanklowitz’s stated goal (email June 11) was to ground ethics in a metaphysics, then was reincarnation the best way to go? Rabbi Wurzbuger used the intuitionism of Saadyah. Maimonides, and Rabbi SR Hirsch combined with a Maimonidean virtue ethic. Shouldn’t one used a more mainstream ethical approach that does not require rereading.

Which reminded me that Lawrence Kushner, noted Reform rabbi and author of Honey from the Rock and God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know tells a story of gnat that flew into his windshield and died leaving a black speck on the glass, Kusher named the gnat Isaac Luria because the death of the gnat shows the cycle of life and the interconnectedness of all life. I never liked that highly metaphoric and flippant use of R. Isaac Luria and his teachings.

Then I was annoyed that the op-ed relied on the very bad modern orthodox attempts to understand gilgul by reading second hand Scholem and then thinking about it without seeing the Hebrew inside.The language is more the neshamah and its return.
The article did not get that the tradition of the Ramban and that of R. Hayyim Vital are different. The former as it became developed by the 16th century was that everyone has two reincarnations and sometimes a need for a third, while the latter tradition assumes that each person has NRN”CY, with a top and bottom, an inner and an outer, and multiplied by 10 sefirot and five partzufim- yielding 1000’s of soul parts which keep getting returned to the hopper and rearranged without a continuity of personal identity. In addition, for Vital gentiles and women have a lower soul, the protagonist of history the soul of Adam Kadmon as shattered into the souls of Israel. For the classic attempts are harmonization see Menashe Israel’s Nishmat Hayyim and for the basic 24 parts of the soul ranging from nervous system to astral bodies see Rama Mifano’s Asarah Maamarot. As a side note, current thinking that follows Idel does not see gilgul in the Bahir as stated by Nahmanides; rather they follow the interpretive tradition of the circle of the Rashba.

Then I was happy that he unknowingly correctly used the traditional divisions of Jewish thought into principles and details. As stated by R. Hasdai Crescas in his Or Adonai. (1) There are three universal principles about God (2) There are six pillars on which the Torah rests. (3) Eight true beliefs of Torah but without them the Torah does not fall and three beliefs needed for mizvot. (4) Finally, there are thirteen principles in which one’s reason can be the arbiter- such as demons and reincarnation. (Crescas accepts the former and rejects the latter). Reincarnation is subject to debate.

Finally, I liked the article because it sought to ground ethics in a metaphysics, but would you ground a religious ethic on the interconnectedness of all beings? Will this resonate to justify fighting for worker’s rights or fair labor practices? Is there another place to ground an ethos of the interconenctedness of all things.

Reincarnation is believed to occur when the neshama, human soul, returns to earth in a new body after death and separation from a previous body.
I would add that a theology of the interconnectedness of our souls offers great potential for our moral lives suggesting a spiritual paradigm for universal love and solidarity. When we encounter another, we can see how our existences are intertwined. One can cultivate greater empathy for another of a different body type, gender, race, or age through the realization that we may have experienced everything in a past life or are yet to in a future life. In a sense, we are all multi-racial beings.

Acquiring this belief offers the potential to enhance the cultivation of a certain moral consciousness. Perhaps we can return to be better parents, more ethical consumers, more spiritually minded, or more giving to the poor? The return to this world is perhaps not a punishment but a vote of confidence that we all can ultimately succeed in the game of life!

If we love life, we must seek and crave its eternal perpetuation. What seems compelling about a theology of afterlife qua reincarnation is not an avoidance of living in this world like some models of heaven may be. Rather this belief is concerned with taking ownership of our complete existence. The moral enterprise of gilgulim is concerned with our taking responsibility for the cultivation of the past, present, and future of our souls for our full transcendental ontological existence, our core being and deeper self. It is taking ownership for eternity and responsibility for all of creation. Global warming is not the problem for my grandchildren rather it is the problem for my own life as well. This is perhaps the highest moral and spiritual challenge: we are asked to take responsibility of our full existence! We are spiritually connected not just in the here and now but in an ongoing way as well.
Read the whole op-ed here

10 responses to “Shmuly Yanklowitz: Reincarnation and a Moral Conscience

  1. I think the biggest question this view raises is the relationship between Jews and non-jews. If a Jew can reincarnate as a baby hindu, does that mean we all have essentially the same soul (going against foundational Kabbalistic views of course)? If not, how can I be really morally responsible for all life?

  2. The real position that he wants to hold is that of various 14th century Jewish positions on reincarnation found in manuscripts which have an interchange of energy between plants, animals, and all people.
    On this topic see Rami Sheqalim, Reshit Torat Ha- Nefesh v’ Ha-Gilgul b’Kabbala b’Meah 12–15 (1994). It was a self-published MA that was excellent.
    The MA was written years before he became a business.
    http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3851134,00.html

  3. This is such a wonderful post inasmuch as in includes elements of a kind of distanciation effect which is necessary for all hermeneutics. Behind this distanciation I see an allergy to ideology and a belated defense of metaphysics. Belated, inasmuch as you acknowledge the critical chasm separating us from these texts. But a defense nonetheless, as you allow them to blossom forth in their full foreignness.

    When you say you want more God talk, I wonder how this would work, though. Does everyone need to actually interpret texts in order to talk about God? What if the things that precluded Yanklowitz from interpreting are precisely tied to the irretrievable nature of metaphysics after (take your pick) Heidegger, Derrida or even Kant.

    Since we are on the topic of gilgul, I will also note in passing that the Heideggarian destruction of metaphysics begins in the second Nietzsche book with a discussion of eternal recurrence of the same. Heidegger cleverly pointed to the fact that the recurrence of the same implies a heterogeneity of the same from the same. We are at an impasse where even a correct recapitulation of metaphysics would not generate much besides endless difference.

  4. Could this op-ed have just as easily (if not more easily) stated using the concept of Yechida of the soul? Not only do you get the same sort of “we’re all in this together,” but it contains within it stuff like tikkun + Moshiach. I’m surprised that something like gilgul (which still feels fairly exotic today and more closely associated with Hinduism than Judaism) would be used instead of something like Yechida which can do the same heavy lifting and feels a little more normative.

  5. What troubles me first is that this seems to recapitulate ethics as universal egoism. Perhaps akrasia can be overcome by appealing to the really big picture of what’s in it for me?

    We are all interconnected in myriad ways to other people who nonetheless remain irreducibly other. When we lack motivation to act in ways that are other-regarding is it for want of metaphysics?

    I am also especially put off by his opening disclaimer where he treats this exercise as a thought experiment and temporary suspension of disbelief. If the exercise leaves one with a warm fuzzy feeling then apparently one can acquire the belief!. Are our theological commitments so weak that they can be tried on for size over the course for a paragraph or two?

    We already have enough people whose religious worldviews are mere accretions of things they’ve heard from kindergarten through the occasional shabbos afternoon shiur without a moments reflection on whether anything coherent emerges. At this point I think that “Hashem is Magic” sums up the beliefs of 90% of Orthodox Jews. So go ahead, throw in one more, it won’t matter.

  6. hi
    I find R. Yanklowitz’s conclusion very original and thought-provoking. But, like the previous commenter, I do have a problem basing our belief in an objective fact (whether souls are reincarnated or not) on what it may or may not achieve – is this not a projection of what we would like to believe onto reality? Moreover, one could take the opposite tack and argue that a belief in gilgul allows people to work less hard in this life. For instance, if everyone needs to come back multiple times to learn through Pardes, then why would people try to prioritize their learning or attempt to cover the most ground that they can? On a more basic level, the ability to treat every day as if it is one’s last day, as Avot suggests, hinges on the view that if we don’t take action to improve the world now, we might not get a second chance.

    • I can’t help but be skeptical of this “objective fact” category. It seems unlikely that we’re going to ascertain the truth of soul reincarnation, so some kind of consequentialism isn’t the worst way to go about it. As to your second point, I’m also very skeptical that gilgul can be used to excuse behavior. Anyone who would be willing to participate in this gilgul-belief is someone who isn’t looking for a trapdoor out of working hard. If you don’t want to be frum, there are easier ways than believing something new — like not believing anything at all.

  7. Len Moskowitz

    Brill wrote:

    >but would you ground a religious ethic on the interconnectedness of all beings?

    The Theravadan Buddhists do so with Indra’s Net.

  8. Mordy,

    Re: objective reality, R. Yanklowitz seems to be doing just that: trying to determine what the reality is based on a subjective analysis of what he would like to see.

  9. moshe shoshan

    I find this kind of disturbing. A functionalist approach to theology and metaphysics. Who cares if its true, the question is, does it have moral or social value? Is this what happens when Social Justice gets placed at the center ofones religious agenda? I hope not.

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