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36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 30, The Origin of Chaos

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Origin of Chaos.

Day 30: The Origin of Chaos

The Gnostic Kabbalah Myth Salad!

The Gnostic Kabbalah Myth Salad!

Before the existence of the world, there was tohu and vohu, chaos and void. Chaos comes from darkness, and the darkness was created by an infinite force that existed before all creation, since the very beginning of existence. This infinite force created many kinds of immortal creatures, all the gods, and all the demons. And from this infinite source came Wisdom, which was made in its likeness. Wisdom took the form of the primordial light and acted as a veil separating us from the world above.

The Myth’s Origins

This myth comes from the Gnostic text, On the Origin of the World, one of the 13 Gnostic texts found in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The text appears to comment on the book of Genesis. Genesis 1:2 says, “Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” And Genesis 1:26 says, “And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'”

The myth predates the Kabbalistic system of Sephirot, or divine emanations, but shares many similarities with that concept. The infinite force that predates all things may be the Ein Sof, the endless. When the Ein Sof decides to create, it forms Keter, or crown. This is the first stirrings of its will. This will then creates a vessel in its “image,” known as Wisdom. In the Sephirotic system of Kabbalah, this is Chokhmah. In Gnosticism, this is Sophia.   

But whereas the Gnostics see this world as totally evil and needed to be escaped at all costs, the Lurianic Kabbalists see this world as full of good and evil; this world is broken and needs repair to bring it into holiness, and we play a necessary part in that process. 

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

One of the central tenets of Gnosticism is the notion that we each have s holy spark within us that has fallen into this world and become trapped in a human soul. This spark needs to be awakened by a divine aspect of ourselves so that we can be reunited with the divine. This is quite similar to the later Lurianic concept of the Shattering of the Vessels and the raising of the Holy Sparks, or Tikkun Olam. 

There are other parallels as well. In Gnosticism, creation of the world is seen as a kind of divine accident or fall from a prior supernal state. In Lurianic Kabbalah, creation is a conscious decision by God. Nevertheless, God’s creation shatters; his primordial worlds cannot hold his light, and they “fall” to the earth. 

In Gnosticism, the divine spark within us is trapped in a realm of shadows. This parallels the Kabbalistic Sitra Achra, or the Other Side, in which forces of evil cling to the fallen sparks when we commit acts of sin. In both traditions, the purpose of existence is to reunite these fallen sparks back to their divine home. In Gnosticism, the sparks are wholly within, but in Kabbalah, the sparks are seen as within and without: the world needs repairing too.

It makes me wonder how much Isaac Luria knew of Gnosticism and its teachings. Was he learned in Gnostic texts, or were the ideas transmitted to him through other means? While Isaac Luria’s myths are said to have come from his readings of the Zohar, his ideas are close enough to Gnostic concepts that it’s clear their’s a causal relationship between the two conceptual systems, but perhaps not a direct one.

Modern Jewish orthodoxy follow many customs based on the kabbalistic myths set down by Isaac Luria and his disciples, which means that, in an indirect way, the Hasidim are modern practitioners of an ancient form of Gnosticism, filtered through a Talmudic lens. Which is super fascinating to consider, because the Gnostics were a second-century heretical Christian sect who got their ideas from Buddhists and Neoplatonists and Aristotelians, to name a few!

Just call it a myth salad.

Tomorrow’s Myth: Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 29, Dune, Frank Herbert, and The Shortening of the Way

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Dune, Frank Herbert, and The Shortening of the Way.

Day 29: Dune, Frank Herbert, and The Shortening of the Way

Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach

Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach

Tales are told of great and learned rabbis who, by the practice of using the secret Holy Names of God, were able to travel vast distances in a short amount of time. One such tale is of Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century rabbi who lived in Poland. Often he and his disciples would set off for a town hundreds of miles away, only to arrive in a few hours.

One night he and some new students had been traveling all day, and the town was nowhere in sight. The sun was nearing the horizon, when the Sabbath would begin. They could not drive their horses on the Sabbath, and this was no place to set up camp for the night, for in those parts of the world Jews were treated with suspicion, contempt, and often violence, and the roads were known to be filled with dangerous men at night. “Rebbe!” his disciples cried. “We are hours from any town and the Sabbath approaches! What shall we do?”

“Not to worry,” said the Baal Shem Tov. And just as he spoke, the town appeared as if from beyond a cloud, and the landscape all around them had changed, as if they had crossed a vast distance suddenly. “Ah,” the students said. “Our master has performed kefitzat ha-derekh, the Shortening of the Way.”

One of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples is quoted as saying, “That was one of my first experiences with kefitzat ha-derekh, the Shortening of the Way. Somehow the rebbe was able to travel great distances in impossibly short periods of time. I do not know how he did it. Dozens of times we traveled hundreds of miles in only a few hours. As the horses could normally cover only five to ten miles in an hour, we never understood how the master was able to accomplish such a feat. But he did it so many times, we stopped questioning.”

It is said that throughout history all baalei shem, or masters of the name, had this power of kefitzat ha-derekh. They studied the inner secrets of Kabbalah, and using special incantations of God’s Holy Name and the names of the angels, they were able to perform their miracles of transport.

The Myth’s Origins

The Talmud speaks of three individuals who kefitzat ha-aretz, earth jumped. They are Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, Jacob the Patriarch, and Abishai ben Zeruiah. As the awareness of and study of Kabbalah increased, tales of individuals being able to jump across vast distances became more common throughout Europe. People who performed this miracle were called the baalei shem, or masters of the Holy Name. Sometimes they chanted the name, other times they inscribed it on the horses’ hooves.

Though this miracle was typically performed by those learned in Kabbalah, sometimes the miracle happened without the traveler’s knowledge; it was performed by God for the traveler’s benefit. But frequently it is the holy man, like the Baal Shem Tov, who uses the kefitzat ha-derekh to reach a distant city so he may perform his righteous duty, his religious obligations, or help someone in need. Though the Torah explicitly forbids using any kind of magic, the use of kefitzat ha-derekh was nonetheless widespread in folktales.

The first written mention of the kefitzat ha-derekh is in a letter sent by a North African community to one Rabbi Hai Gaon. The community wanted to know if kefitzat ha-derekh was possible, because they had heard tales of a learned holy man who was seen in one place on Sabbath eve, and on the very same night he was seen hundreds of miles away. The next morning, he was seen in the first place again. How was this possible? they asked. Rabbi Hai Gaon did not believe in kefitzat ha-derekh, and denied the existence of such miracles. Yet the stories lived on in folktales, especially from the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

So what does all this have to do with Frank Herbert and his novel Dune, as in the title of my post? In Frank Herbert’s book, the religious order of the Bene Gesserit has been attempting to breed a super-being, one whom they call the Kwisatz Haderach. They wanted this being to be a woman and thus fall under the control of their female religious order. But Lady Jessica unexpectedly gives birth to a boy, Paul Atreides, and thus the Bene Gesserit’s plan for domination of the universe fails when Paul cannot be controlled by anyone. The Kwisatz Haderach is known in the books as “the one who can be two places simultaneously” and “the one who can be many places at once.” Hebert defines the Kwisatz Haderach as “The Shortening of the Way.”

Also of interest to me is that the words “Bene Gesserit” resemble one of the names of the Jewish people, the Bene Jeshurun, which approximately means “Children of the Upright” in Hebrew.

I was unable to find any sources where Herbert describes how he came up with the Kwisatz Haderach, but it’s clear the myth influenced his concept of Dune.

So here we see again, as with Spock’s Vulcan salute, another Judaic myth making its way into popular science fiction culture, often with few people realizing their mythical origins. 

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Origin of Chaos

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 27, Tzimtzum, the Contraction of God

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Tzimtzum, the Contraction of God

Day 27: Tzimtzum, the Contraction of God

Tzimtzum and the Sephirot

Tzimtzum and the Sephirot

Before God decided to create the universe, his light pervaded all; he was omnipresent and infinite and there was no place where God wasn’t. This aspect of God is known as the Ein Sof, the endless. So in order to create the world, where humanity, individual experience, and free will exist, God needed to withdraw his infinite light from himself. This is called the tzimtzum, or “contraction” of God. And in this new, empty vessel, God slowly filtered his light into the new space through the divine vessels known as the sephirot. Yet these vessels were not strong enough to hold even the diminished light of God, and so they shattered. This is known as the Shevirat Hakelim, the Shattering of the Vessels. It is our role as humans to gather together and raise these fragment sparks of God’s Light that rained down with the shards of the shattered vessels. This is known as tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

The Myth’s Origins

The bible is clear that God is omnipresent and inescapable. Exodus 40:34 says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Jerimiah 23:34 says, “‘Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him?’ said the Lord. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ said the Lord.” Isaiah 6:3 says, “And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”

Among the disciples of the 16th century Rabbi Isaac Luria, or the Ari, there arose a metaphysical question: if God is omnipresent and total, how then can humanity and the world exist? Wouldn’t the universe be destroyed and overwhelmed by God’s total light? The Ari answered them with the idea of tzimtzim, the withdrawal or contraction of God, which was put into text by Ari’s disciple, Rabbi Hayim Vital, in his book Etz Hayim, the Tree of Life. 

The myth states that God’s light withdrew itself from his exact “center” (a metaphysical, rather than physical concept, as God has no “center”) to a sphere surrounding a new void. This void was empty and full of vacuum, until God desired to create the world. Knowing that he could not fill the void completely with his light, because that would obliterate his creation, he needed to “step down” the light, which is what the sephirot, or vessels do. But the first sephirot (in some cases all 10; in others, 7) were not strong enough even then — they shattered, and sparks of God’s light spread out to the far corners of this new universe. By following God’s commandments — that is, by living a righteous life — one “raises” these sparks and “repairs” the world, thus fulfilling the goal of tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

God is thus transcendent, i.e. beyond this world, and at the same time immanent, present in all things.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

The Ten Dimensions of String Theory

The Ten Dimensions of String Theory

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the tzimtzum myth is its parallels to modern Big Bang theory (and not the TV show). Modern science postulates that there was a “singularity” or point of infinite energy and density a the beginning of the universe, which exploded into all the matter and energy we known today. In other descriptions I’ve heard, since space was also infinitely compressed at the beginning, calling the singularity a “point” is misleading, since that implies there was space around such a point. Instead, imagine an infinite field of infinite energy and density.

It’s quite curious that a 16th century myth, which Isaac Luria and his disciple Hayim Vital elucidated, has so many similarities with modern science. Of course, modern science disregards the metaphysical connections as mostly coincidental. Scientists merely extrapolated current measurements back in time to come up with their theory, and lots of evidence bears out their theory: the cosmic microwave background, the redshift of galaxies, among other measurements. Also curious is that the Sephirot are the ten divine emanations of God responsible for the world we live in today, according to Kabbalah. In some versions of String Theory, we live in a ten-dimensional universe, seven dimensions of which have been “curled” up so that, by all measurements, we appear to be in a three-dimensional universe (plus one of time). In some versions of the Shevirat Hakelim, the Shattering of the Vessels, seven of the original ten sephirot were “shattered” when God’s light filled them.

Of course, this might all be a coincidence. One theory was arrived at by contemplation of biblical questions. Another, by measurements of the universe. My preference is to trust the latter. However, when I am confronted with information that seems strangely correlated, even if it may not be, my ears perk up. As string theory develops over time it will be interesting to see if the parallels continue or the theories diverge.

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Business of Demons

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 24, The Golem of Prague

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Golem of Prague. 

Day 24: The Golem of Prague

The Golem of Prague from the 1920 film

The Golem of Prague from the 1920 film

In late 16th century Prague, Jews suffered often from the blood libel, the false accusation that they used the blood of Christian children for the Passover unleavened bread. Because of this false accusation, there were many pogroms, or murderous attacks against the Jewish communities. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel worried for his community night and day. He prayed to God how he might protect his people. In his dream, he learned how to construct a golem out of clay, a creation that would defend the Jews of Prague from harm.

On the 20th day of the month of Adar in the year 5340 (1580 in the new calendar), he went down to the Vltava river with his student and his son-in-law and there performed the ritual to make a man out of clay. They walked around the clay figure seven times, while reciting secret verses he had learned in his dream. He placed in its mouth a piece of paper upon which was written a shem, one of the secret holy names of God. When he did this, the golem glowed and came to life, opening his eyes. They dressed him to look like a poor man, and Rabbi Loew instructed him that he must obey all his commands. The golem could not speak, and so he named the golem Joseph, who they sometimes called Yossele. The golem could make himself invisible and summon the spirits of the dead. 

And so when the locals came to attack the Jews of Prague, the golem fought them off with great strength. And for many weeks, the pogroms ceased. Rabbi Loew was pleased. He knew he could use his creation to protect the Jewish community any day of the week. But never on the Sabbath, for that is the holy day of rest, when all work is forbidden. Before the Sabbath, Rabbi Loew would remove the shem from the golem’s mouth to deactivate him, and Yossele would collapse into a lifeless body until Sabbath ended and Rabbi Loew could return the shem to Yossele’s mouth. But one Sabbath, Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the shem. The golem thus broke the Sabbath laws and because he was animated through divine magic, he became an abomination. He thrashed about on a violent rampage and hurt and killed many people, both Jews and Christians, before Rabbi Loew was able to remove the shem from his mouth. The golem collapsed, but the damage was done. Rabbi Loew decided the risk was too great.

He placed the golem in the attic genizah, or storage location, of the Old New Synagogue in Prague and hoped he’d never need to use its dreaded power again. Yossele’s body still remains there today. It is said that children who enter the attic of the synagogue fall into a deep sleep and cannot be awakened until taken back down, and that adults who are brave enough to venture up into the attic are overcome with great terror, and feel the need to leave the place and never speak of it again.

The Myth’s Origins

Golem movie poster (1920)

Golem movie poster (1920)

The word golem comes from Psalm 139 and means an “unshaped form,” which refers to the human creature as being unfinished in God’s eyes. Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” In the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 38b, Adam, the first human, is described as being a golem until God breathes life into him. In the Middle Ages, the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Formation, a Kabbalistic text, was studied for the secret to create a golem. But the earliest known account of how to create a golem is found in Sodei Razayya, a book by Eleazar ben Judah of Worms of the late 12th and early 13th century.

Most of the modern versions of the myth of the Golem of Prague come from the Niflaot Maharal, a book published in 1909 by Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg. Maharal was another name for Rabbi Loew, and Rosenberg’s book summarized many of the written and oral tales of the golem. Another famous version of the myth comes from The Brothers Grimm in their 1808 book Journal for Hermits. Their version of the tale describes not a “shem,” or strip of paper with God’s holy name written upon it, but the word emet, אמת, “truth” in Hebrew, inscribed on the golem’s forehead. Wipe away the first letter aleph, א, and the word becomes “dead”, met מת, thus killing the creature. 

The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (who some Hasidic Jews believe was the promised Messiah) asked his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef, what he’d seen when he ventured up into the attic of the Old New Synagogue in Prague, where the golem supposedly is stored. Rabbi Yosef, however, would not speak of it. But his daughter recounts that her father told her he saw the “form of a man wrapped up and covered. The body was lying on its side.”

Many Hasidic Jews still believe that Rabbi Judah Loew did in fact create a golem, though there is no evidence of a creature in the still extant Old New Synagogue.

There are a trilogy of German silent films exploring the myth beginning with The Golem (1915), followed by The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), and finally The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920). 

Some Thoughts on the Myth

It is perhaps the most well known of the Jewish myths, the story of the golem, especially Rabbi Loew’s one of Prague. The story predates Shelly’s Frankenstein by hundreds of years, and Shelly’s dark tale follows a similar narrative structure. A man creates a living being from lifeless material and animates it back to life. The being begins under the control of his master, but because of a various moral lapses on the part of his creator, the master loses control of his creation. The creation, frustrated, angry, alone, goes on a violent rampage. It’s interesting to note that in versions of the golem tale, as in the Frankenstein story, the monster falls in love, only to be scorned.

In Shelly’s work, the Rabbi’s magic has transformed into Dr. Frankenstein’s science, but the plot is the same. And we have a similar narratives happening in today’s tales. There are those who believe in the Singularity, the supposed point at which machine “intelligence” will surpass human intelligence and thus accelerate magnitudes beyond what we can understand or control. And in many of these tales, this Singularity doesn’t always have our best interests at heart. In other words, it might destroy us, or keep us as its pet. Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey share similar themes. Hal 9000 is a golem, a being created by humans who eventually grows beyond his servitude to violently rebel against his creator. Even Star Trek’s Data is a type of golem, evolving beyond his inanimate form, seeking freedom from his bondage as a “robot.” This theme is echoed again and again in modern times. The replicants in Blade Runner, the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. All golems. All seek to break free of the limitations their creator placed upon them.

In the older stories, the golem is subdued. In the more modern ones, the golem destroys its master. So if in our modern stories, our golems eventually rebel against their creator, then what about the notion that we are God’s creations? If we are God’s “golems,” what does that say about humanity in that in our recent stories the golems rebel against, seek to surpass, and oftentimes destroy their masters? This to me, I think, suggests a growing trend of dissatisfaction toward traditional belief systems and their cumbersome rules and laws. That these golems in our tales are often seen as evil (though sometimes they are presented as just supremely misguided) suggests that we are not quite comfortable with our rebellion against God. 

 

Tomorrow’s Myth: Sheol, the Underworld

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 23, The Seven Shepherds of Sukkot

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Seven Shepherds of Sukkot. 

Day 23: The Seven Shepherds of Sukkot

An elaborate sukkah in Israel

An elaborate sukkah in Israel

God told Moses to command his people that once a year, on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, they should live in booths for seven days, in order that future generations remember that God made them live in booths when he brought them out of of Egypt. And so we build the sukkah, or booth, outside our homes, and decorate it with hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, to remember our days wandering in the desert for forty years.

It is said that each night an Ushpizin, or guest, visits the sukkah of the righteous person. On the first night, Abraham the patriarch appears. On the second night, his son Isaac. The third, Jacob. The fourth, Joseph. Moses comes on the fifth. Aaron on the sixth. And on the last night, King David visits the righteous person’s sukkah.

But it is also said that the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, appears inside the righteous person’s sukkah every night. These sukkot transform into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Tabernacle, where the Divine Presence dwells.

Therefore, each night, as one enters the sukkah, one should say, “Let us invite our guests. Let us prepare the table.”  

The Myth’s Origins

Etrog and Lulav

Etrog and Lulav

Religious Jews are currently celebrating the holiday of Sukkot*, or Booths. Some have likened the holiday of Sukkot to a religious version of the harvest festival of the American Thanksgiving. The holiday comes straight from Leviticus 23:40, “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook.” And Leviticus 23:42-43, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

As such the primary goal of the holiday is not only to mark the harvest time, but to recall the Exodus from Egypt and how God is ultimately responsible for our freedom. Part of the holiday involves building a sukkah, or booth, outdoors, usually next to one’s home, though it doesn’t have to be. Traditionally, meals are eaten in the sukkah, and religious men will sleep within its walls.

Religious Jews will also say hoshanot, special prayers commemorating the holiday. They do this while holding a lulav (a palm frond) an etrog (a citron), aravah (willow), and hadass (myrtle) and shaking them in all six directions (up, down, left, right, forward, back, while reciting a prayer). The prayers are meant to symbolize the omnipresence of God (God is in all directions) and the abundance of God (he creates the four species). The four species, according to some interpretations, stand for the four types of Jews.

Isaac Luria, the 16th century Kabbalist who has made many appearances in this blog series, elaborated the idea of the Ushpizin, or guests, who visit the sukkot of the righteous. Each guest represents a different aspect of one’s character, and also represents one of the ten Sephirot, or divine characteristics. Each night, they impart their nourishing essence upon us.

In more modern times, some Jews have added the Matriarchs to the list of guests. So along with the male seven, there are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah, and Esther.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

Among the orthodox, Sukkot is a fairly religious holiday, and observant Jews often take off from work. In the Conservative Jewish world in which I was raised, Sukkot was always a fun holiday, but not too religious, at least in our home. We built and decorated an outdoor sukkah at the family shul, or synagogue, and I distinctly remember drawing a biblical scene, which got hung in the sukkah and praised by the parents. I recall performing the hoshanot, or waving of the palm front and citron around. I remember at the time thinking the whole thing was rather silly. Did God really command this ritual of us? It seemed left over from a more pagan age. But still, Sukkot was always a nice time for our family, when the weather began to grow colder and we spent more time inside, with each other.

One trend I notice creeping into Conservative Judaism is the addition of the Matriarchs into rituals. Traditionally a patriarchal faith, the feminist movements of the late 20th and early 21st century has changed a lot of people’s views. The reform movement had adopted more feminist views a long time ago, but like its title implies, the Conservative movement has been slow to adapt. It’s nice to see the addition of the Matriarchs to the list of “guests” visiting the sukkot each night. 

One of the nice things about Sukkot, even if you don’t believe in God or are not of the Jewish faith, is eating meals outside, especially at this time of year. Because I live in a dense urban area, I often forget to appreciate the outdoors, and especially the starry sky, which is usually clear this time of year. In that sense, eating dinner in a sukkah sounds kind of nice. But I haven’t done that for a long, long time.

* Note I use the Hebrew pronunciation of Sukkot here, with the hard “T” ending. Traditional Ashkenazi, or Central and Eastern European Jews, pronounced the holiday Sukkos, with a soft “s” ending. Generally I prefer the Ashkenazi pronunciations, as this reflects the Yiddish spoken by Jews for a millennium, but the holiday is generally spelled in English with its “T” ending.

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Golem of Prague

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 16, The Transmigration of Souls

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today is Yom Kippur. G’mar hatimah tovah! May you be sealed for a good year! Today’s entry is on The Transmigration of Souls

Day 16: The Transmigration of Souls

The Cycle of Birth and Death

The Cycle of Birth and Death

When a person dies, his soul lives on, and he is reborn in a new body. The righteous are reborn up to a thousand times, each time purifying themselves of the trail of sins they have left behind. But the unjust are reborn only three times. This is because those who are learned in Torah are prevented from entering Gehenna, where sins are purified through punishments. But the wicked enter Gehenna much sooner due to their baser nature.

The righteous are reborn enough times so that they might fulfill the 613 biblical commandments, rectifying themselves and the world in the process, and participating directly in the Tikkun Olam, or repairing of the world. As the soul is perfected, so is the world itself. We call this cycle of death and rebirth Gilgul.

Occasionally, some souls never find their way back to the cycle of birth and deah. They get caught in ocean currents and trapped inside fish. Flying across land they pass through fruit-bearing trees and get stuck in the fruits or get caught in the guts of animals. If these animals are then eaten without proper blessings and care, woe to these trapped souls, for their suffering will not end till the End of Days. And sometimes these lost souls find a human to inhabit, and take possession of him or her. We call these possessing spirits dybbuks.

The Myth’s Origins

Metempsychosis, or reincarnation, is not a central belief in Judaism. However, central to Jewish thought is the belief of the resurrection of the dead in the Messianic era. Beginning with the Safed kabbalists in the 16th century, through the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, and his student, Rabbi Chaim Vital. the notion of gilgul became prominent in Hasidic thought. These rabbis taught that reincarnation wasn’t punishment for sin or a reward for justice, but simply God allowing each soul to go through its process of perfecting itself. Through the lens of reincarnation, Tikkun Olam, the notion that the Creation is unfinished and it is the righteous person’s duty to “repair” the world through justice, is seen as one more step on this process. The microcosmic soul is seen as a parallel of the larger universe. We each were created flawed, but through successive lifetimes we perfect ourselves.

The ultimate goal is to be freed from this cycle to reunite permanently with God, not as his children, but as partners in creation. Gilgul, or reincarnation, is thus an expression of divine compassion.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

"Reincarnation" by Blake Flynn

“Reincarnation” by Blake Flynn

This is clearly Judaism borrowing from other traditions. Reincarnation, central to both Buddhism and Hinduism, doesn’t appear in Judaism until a 16th century mystical group elaborates the esoteric process. The word gilgul literally means wheel or cycle, and is a direct analog to the Eastern notion of Samsara. Even the complex process of rebirth roughly mirrors in ways the Buddhist concept of bardos, or realms the souls traverse after death. It seems these rabbis incorporated ideas that were widely available at the time into the folds of their belief system. 

I’ve always felt that reincarnation answers the problem, at least in part, of theodicy. How does God permit the existence of evil in the world? To the Kabbalists, evil is the result of our imperfect world. Evil is refusing to tikkun olam, to repair the world through acts of righteousness, and instead performing acts of wickedness to further distance the world from its perfection and the Messianic era. But what of the child who sickens and dies at a young age? What about the wicked man who attains great wealth via other people’s suffering and never atones nor repents for his sins? What about the person who suffers from mental illness and can never lead a full life? Reincarnation says that these people, both the innocent killed too young, and the wicked who receives no punishment, the mentally ill, will be reborn again. This was all temporary. 

Yet the Judaic version of this myth states that rebirth is not personal karma playing out over cosmic time, but a way to allow human to perfect or repair themselves over successive lives. It’s a version of divine compassion. This supposes that what happens to individuals during their life is their fault, that we are always able to perfect ourselves. But often what befalls us is by pure chance, or results from the actions of others. A sick child who dies young is not responsible for her illness, so giving that soul another change to perfect herself seems as if the blame for the illness falls on the child. If each life is a chance for us to perfect ourselves, what of the lives that are cut short before they have such a chance? It seems to me that the myth of gilgul doesn’t answer that question.

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Priestly Blessing and Spock