Article: The Other Eastern Religion: Reincarnation in Modern Jewish Thought – Thomas G. Shafer (Is.15)

Thomas G. Shafer, M.D.

Dr. Shafer, a psychiatrist, addresses potential difficulties Jewish and Christian clients and patients may have dealing with the possibility of reincarnation suggested by past-life therapy. He surveys past and modern Jewish concepts of Gilgul or reincarnation and posits that this belief system may make PLT more acceptable to clients from strictly monotheistic religious traditions.

I’ve been personally active in past-life regression therapy for a little more than a year. I find it a fascinating and highly effective modality, but in our Judaeo-Christian Western culture there is one major problem: the underlying concept. Survival after death is, of course, a commonly held belief. But what do we do with survival before birth? This implies some form of transmigration or reincarnation of souls, which is a totally foreign concept to our Judaeo-Christian tradition. Or is it?

Multiple authors, including Drs. Raymond Moody (1992) and Brian Weiss (1988, 1992), have settled on a compromise position: One does not have to believe in past lives to benefit from past-life therapy. This is apparently true, as many case histories suggest. However, some writers consider that past-life experiences are just some manifestations of subconscious processes where Freudian symbolism meets with Jungian archetypes, and that we have discovered a symbolic extension of older psychoanalytic techniques with powerful implications. Yet, it gets progressively more difficult to maintain this position. I read case histories by individuals whom I personally know to be cautious, scientifically oriented researchers like Ian Stevenson where documentation of unexplainable memories, sometimes of the most trivial details, is strong.

Friends and clients recount strange experiences. An ultra “level headed” Canadian Registered Nurse who has recurrent dreams of being a young woman who fought and died in the French Resistance and who, even as a young child, woke from these dreams speaking perfect French with a Lyonaisse accent. A Vietnam veteran who states he has not been bothered by his Vietnam experience for almost a quarter of a century reads a book on the Civil War and totally decompensates within a week. He can’t understand what triggered it all. He has dreams of his actual experiences as a Medevac medic in ‘Nam but, interspersed with these, there is this “crazy dream” of being a young Confederate soldier dying alone of a chest wound on the bloody fields of Shiloh. What could such a “crazy dream” have to do with a sudden onset of panic attacks characterized by severe chest pain, gasping for breath and an intense phobic terror of dying alone? These are people from religious traditions which they believe completely reject past-life beliefs, people who know little about modern past-life regressions: Why are they having these spontaneous experiences?

Most of the writings I have seen to date have drawn on the traditional Eastern religious concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism, even to the point of extensive use of terminology like Karma, Buddhahood, etc. These concepts and terms, along with the psychological formulations previously mentioned, will give many of our clients a framework in which to assimilate their experiences. But what about our other clients who need a religious framework for their experience but are uncomfortable with Eastern religious concepts and with psychological concepts as well? What of those who are uncomfortable outside of a monotheistic framework?

As a convert to Judaism, one of the things I have most enjoyed about discussing transmigration of souls, past-life recall, and related topics with Internet and “3-D” friends is the surprised reactions I often get when I tell them that these beliefs have been a part of Jewish tradition for hundreds if not thousands of years. This is a minority position to be sure, but it is a well established tradition which is perfectly kosher and legitimate for many Jews and, for many Christians, at least intriguing. The general, generic name for this tradition is Hasidic Judaism and the body of literature and thought connected with it is commonly called Kabbala.

I first heard the term “Kabbala” in reference to those large eight balls they used to sell in the five and dime which would produce answers to your questions when you shook them and turned them over to peer through the clear pane in the bottom. But true Kabbala is not a system of divination. Rather it is a body of literature and thought which appeared to the public eye in a book called The Zohar, published in the 13th century by Moses De Leon. De Leon claimed that the book contained mystical writings by Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, who lived in the second century and reflected a mystical tradition going back to Moses himself in the Sinai desert.

Written in a somewhat obscure dialect of Aramaic, The Zohar on the surface represents the tale of a journey by four Rabbis. However, it is highly allegorical; a truly in-depth study of The Zohar and other Kabbalistic literature requires decades of work under the tutelage of an experienced teacher to find the “hidden keys” to a deeper spiritual understanding of Jewish Scripture. Eventually, the seeker is led into a mystical world where even the numerical equivalents of Hebrew letters reveal deeper and deeper levels of meaning. The classic psychotherapist’s analogy of peeling away an onion layer by layer was, in fact, originally used to describe this type of Biblical study.

While individual Kabbala study under a mentor continues to this day, mystical Judaism took another turn in 1736. This was the beginning of the Hasidic movement under Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Holy Name. Hasidic Jews historically have been ultra-orthodox in their observance of Jewish law and tend to gather under the direction of a spiritual teacher and master, or Rebbe. The Lubavitcher Hasidim, followers of the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the largest current Hassidic group, with thousands of members worldwide. There are smaller Hasidic groups, like the Breslover Hasidim (followers of a 19th century Russian Jew, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov), and also a growing tendency of modern writers such as Martin Buber, Lawrence Kuschner and Aryeh Kaplan to popularize Hasidic thought and legends of the Rebbes. This influential minority of modern Jewry is represented by individuals such as the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, and this century’s greatest Talmudic scholar, Adin Steinsalz.

An important tenet of Kabalistic/Hasidic thought is the belief in the existence of souls before, as well as after, this earthly life. A common image of the Hasidim is that the human soul was born from the Breath which emanated from God into the nostrils of the first man, Adam, whom He had just molded from the clay of the Earth. (While most modern translations use the phrase “Spirit of the Lord” the actual Hebrew word is “Ruach,” which literally means “Breath”). Of course, we all know that Adam and God had a falling out; the Hasidic image is that this estrangement from God caused the original Adamic soul to shatter into millions, even billions of “sparks” which make up the souls of individual men and women.

The traditional Hasidic Jew envisions life as a gradual process of perfection of our inner selves by prayer, study and observance of Mitzvot (God-given laws) until the sparks are elevated to higher spiritual planes and the original Edenic state of perfect union of the wills of man and God is recreated. Note that this does not necessarily mean the same as the Hindu concept of a reunion of the God within us with the totality of God, like the proverbial raindrop falling back into the ocean. Man’s free will is an essential concept of Judaism and what we are talking about here is a gradual freely chosen submission of individual wills but not any loss of the ability to perform acts separate from the Divine Will.

This often requires the process of Gilgul, roughly translatable as transmigration of the soul. One enters a state of purification and study after death but may eventually realize that one left unfinished work in the earthly plane. Perhaps it was a Mitzvot which could only be performed on Earth, perhaps it is a lesson which cannot be completely learned without putting oneself to the test of another incarnation. In any event, we are not talking about some inflexible Karmic debt which needs to be repaid or a wheel of suffering which much be escaped from. Rather, we make a free choice, a decision regarding when, where and in what circumstances we return.

But why return? What soul in its “right mind” would ever do such a thing voluntarily? Part of the answer lies in what I call the image of “curtains.” Christians and Jews alike will recall that in the Jewish Temple the Ark of the Covenant was kept in a special room, the Holy of Holies, and the Divine Presence was separated from man by a curtain which was only pulled aside once a year when the High Priest entered on Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement (or at-one-ment) with God.

The Hasidim have extended this tradition to a teaching that our ability to view the true Light of God is blocked by a series of metaphysical curtains. In the higher realms, the curtains get fewer and thinner as we ascend toward higher spiritual reality. But, the more we see of God, the less our free will is operative. It’s kind of like the old idea that nobody exceeds the speed limit when they see a State Trooper on the road.

On this earthly level the curtains are so many and so thick that we cannot even be certain of the existence of God. We see, at best, brief glimpses of the Divine Light through cracks and holes in the curtains and must make our decisions in a world filled with suffering and uncertainty. And the further we are from the Source of Light, the more we must fan the spark within us until it grows and lights our way back home. It’s kind of like a Las Vegas mentality, where the higher degree of uncertainty and apparent randomness means a higher risk but also a higher potential reward.

But the long term odds are in our favor. Exodus 20:5, 6 state “For I the Lord our God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Do we have here a vengeful God who punishes or rewards unborn children for the actions of their parents? The Hasidic Jew would quickly point out that the “generations” referred to are our own rebirths and they would be quick to add that this gives us 250 to one odds in our favor. Even given man’s natural tendency to mess up, with odds like that, we’re all going to make it eventually.

Is there hard scientific evidence to support these beliefs? Of course not. Is there Biblical evidence? The Hasidim say there is when one reads with opened eyes. Consider the annunciation of Samson in Judges 13:7. The barren woman was told she would bear a son but to not drink wine or eat anything unclean from that moment on “for the boy is to be a Nazirite to God from the womb until the day of his death.” Yet one had to personally take a specific vow to become a Nazirite and how could an unborn child do this? Then there is God’s statement to Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” How can the unconceived child be selected and the unborn be consecrated in the absence of a preexisting soul which accepted God’s call?

What I’ve enjoyed most about studying Hasidic thought is the sense of empowerment it can bring to me and my clients. We have an eternal destiny but it is not determined by our actions in this three score and ten alone. We have an eternal choice to return to this plane as many times as we need to grow and to learn. And this whole process is overseen by an infinitely patient, infinitely compassionate Creator Who quickly forgets our mistakes but remembers each act of kindness and devotion until we freely choose to completely turn our lives over to Him. The choice is always ours and the Love is always His.



Moody, R., & Perry, P. Coming Back: A Psychiatrist Explores Past Life Journeys. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

Weiss, B.L. Many Lives, Many Masters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

——— Through Time Into Healing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.


Selected Annotated Bibliography

On Judaism

Gershom, Rabbi Yonassen. (1992). Beyond the Ashes. Virginia Beach, VA: A.R.E. Press. Rabbi Gershom discusses people who have spontaneous recall of past lives as Holocaust victims. He also has a good discussion of the reincarnation-related beliefs of his Breslover Hasidic branch of Judaism.

Kaplan, A. (1985). Jewish Meditation: a Practical Guide. New York: Schocken Books. If you can’t get a teacher, get this book. It is a very practical guide to meditation practices commonly used by various Jewish sects. Many could be easily adapted by those of other traditions.

Sonsino, R., & Syme, D. (1994). What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life After Death. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aaronson Inc. A good discussion of all the various Jewish beliefs regarding life after death, including a chapter on reincarnation.

Steinsaltz, A. (1988). The Long Shorter Way. Northvale, New Jersey, Jason Aaronson, Inc. Steinsaltz is arguably the most respected Jewish scholar and translator of our era. A detailed but readable discourse on Hasidic thought. Come prepared to do a lot of thinking.

Weiner, H. (1992). 9 1/2 Mystics: the Kabbala Today. New York: Collier Books, McMillan. A study of the various Hasidic Jewish groups today. The tenth chapter’s discussion past-life readings by Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, is especially interesting.

Buddhist and Buddhist Related

Boorstein, S. (1997). That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist. San Francisco: Harper Collins. What’s a nice Jewish girl like Sylvia Boorstein doing practicing and teaching Jewish/Buddhist meditation? A very readable discussion of the interface between both traditions.

Kamenetz, R. (1994). The Jew in the Lotus. San Francisco: Harper Collins. Jews from various traditions exchange ideas with the Dalai Lama in India. Also a discussion of the growing phenomenon of “JuBus,” Jews practicing Buddhism.

Rinpoche, S. (1994). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper Collins. An excellent interpretation of classic Tibetan Buddhist thought by a Tibetan Buddhist with both Eastern and Western educations.


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