Symposium on Reincarnation and Theodicy

King Narmer conquers the Nile delta

03 – 10 March

Judaism, Reincarnation and Theodicy“ by Tyron Goldschmidt (UNC Greensboro) and Beth Seacord (Grand Valley State). (Faith and Philosophy 30, 4 (October 2013), 393-417.)

For comments by Anastasia Scrutton (Leeds), click here

For comments by Bill Wood (Oxford), click here

For responses by Tyron and Beth, click here

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  1. Dr Nechama Hadari

    I was pleased to see a paper chosen for discussion which attempts to deal seriously with the issue of reincarnation within a framework both Jewish and philosophical: as has been noted, serious discussion of the subject within a Western religio-philosophical framework has been scant. I also appreciated the very thorough and straightforward presentation which the authors offer. However, I would wish to question two of the authors’ basic assumptions, both of which I believe are flawed – and there are a number of other points which I would like to make.
    My first point is an empirical one. One major premise of the authors’ argument is that subjects (people) do not recall their past lives. This is, indeed, a common belief in many religious cultures which espouse a belief in reincarnation – including, classically, Judaism. (Many of those religious cultures, however, also attest to instances in which other individuals [claim to] “recognise” the soul incarnating in a particular individual, as, for instance, in the story of the Baal Shem Tov and the deceased child quoted in the paper under discussion, or the custom whereby each Dalai Lama is recognised.) However, there is a growing body of research which attests to a phenomenon which the authors ignore: namely, that a significant number of ordinary individuals from across a wide spectrum of faith traditions (and none) experience memories, have specific areas of knowledge and/or experience strong emotional reactions which are incompatible with (or hugely unlikely within the context of) their present life history. Such individuals, even when they come from cultures in which a belief in reincarnation is neither prevalent nor respectable, often find that attributing such memories to past life experiences provides the most plausible explanation. It may be this phenomenon which, at least in part, accounts for the dramatic rise in those who hold a belief in reincarnation in the US, as mentioned at the beginning of the paper. Within a Jewish context: I have heard of rabbis in Chassidic traditions now accepting the possibility of accessing past life memories through regression and discouraging their congregants from doing so. Additionally, I find the omission in this paper of any reference to the work of Yonassan Gershom – though his books are admittedly both controversial and non-academic – to be odd, given his wide knowledge of sources both Jewish and contemporary (non-Jewish) on reincarnation and thus his ability to place the testimonies he relates (of people’s past life memories) in an interesting theological, if not philosophical, context. Moreover, his focus on reincarnation in a Holocaust context may surely render his accounts a valuable resource for any discussion of theodicy. I would thus be interested to hear the authors’ reasons for avoiding any mention of him, as well as their exclusion of the possibility of remembering past lives – either intentionally (through regression) or spontaneously.
    My second fundamental question is a moral-philosophical one, related to the authors’ conception of Justice as necessarily, at least in part, retributive. I believe that an entirely non-retributive conception of Justice, though unusual in Jewish thought and perhaps conflicting with the Rambam’s 13 Principles, need not necessarily run counter to the normative Jewish tradition, which in the main stipulates punishments which are largely restorative and stresses the rehabilitative nature of even severe penalties (such as indentured servitude for non-repayment of a theft). To take a concrete example from the paper under discussion: it is, to me, far from self-evident that in the authors’ example of a war criminal (or, indeed any major criminal) now suffering from Alzheimers and unable to recall his crime, “true” justice demands that he nonetheless be punished. Surely an individual who lacks the cognitive facility to comprehend what he is being punished for and can therefore neither acknowledge nor apologise for his crime, neither repent and restore a full relationship with the human community and God nor make amends or learn from his mistakes, amounts to no more than sheer vindictiveness sanctioned (if indeed it is) by law.
    That the moral defensibility of punishment as a form of justice is a problematic and far-from-universally accepted premise is demonstrated, I think, by a fact the authors specifically acknowledge: namely, that the flourishing of “evildoers” is not frequently considered to require a theodicy in explanation – unlike the suffering of the innocent. It should be self-evident, but I think in this context may bear repeating, that the suffering of the perpetrator of an evil does nothing to relieve the suffering of any victim(s) of the perpetrator. Indeed, we might worry that a system or conception of justice (whether human or allegedly divine) that embraces retribution as such an ideal that it may not be relinquished (even after the death of the perpetrator in this incarnation) fosters vengefulness on the part of those who are, or perceive themselves to be, wronged. Such vengefulness not only tends to lead to further violence and the infliction of greater suffering but is an uncomfortable characteristic to live with. Thus, far from comforting or healing the victim of an evil, a punitive system of justice may operate to the detriment of the character and relationships of that very victim. The order of the Bedtime Shema used in many siddurim includes a prayer which specifically forgives all who have wronged the person praying “whether in this incarnation, whether in another incarnation”, asking that “no [person] be punished on my account”.
    This relates to another problem the authors (and their respondents) raise: that of commensurability. Whilst it may indeed be a feature of a strict liability conception of Justice to demand that punishment exacted equals, or at least approximates, the severity of the transgression, it was a feature of Jewish theology long before the advent of Christianity to acknowledge that human propensity for wrong-doing is so great as to necessitate a mechanism through which atonement may be attained without exacting the full penalty for that wrong-doing. Hence the Temple sacrificial system and, in its absence, the availability, upon the wrongdoer’s arrival at an acknowledgement of the wrong committed and resolution to abandon that wrong, of an atonement achieved through prayer, good works and (to use a term whose Christian overtones should in no way exclude it from Jewish discourse) the grace of a loving God. It might be contended that one of the possible benefits (to use a less extreme suggestion than “purposes”) of suffering is to encourage reflection and lead to such teshuva, but that is a very different telos from the infliction of punitive suffering as an end in and of itself in the name of Justice.
    Against this, it may be objected that even after teshuva, there is often still a residual suffering which rebounds upon the wrong-doer. Again, I would suggest that this suffering may be understood as non-punitive; simply the naturally occurring and unavoidable result of the wrong action. It might be added that many religious and philosophical traditions suggest that either the perpetration of evil in and of itself or the recognition of having done that evil is a sufficient suffering on the part of the wrong-doer. Hence Socrates: it is better to be wronged than to wrong [another]; the Buddhist saying that a person “is not punished by his anger; rather his anger is itself the punishment” or Judaism: the recompense of a mitzvah is a mitzvah; the recompense of a sin is a sin.
    My final criticism of the paper under discussion relates to the authors’ assumption that Judaism of necessity has an “individualist” conception of the self and of moral responsibility. I would suggest that precisely the (more mystical) strands of Judaism which espouse a belief in reincarnation understand at least the Jewish community to be one in which souls are not merely individual but hold spiritual responsibility for one another (“all Israel are [guarantors] one for another”). A similar doctrine can be found in New Age understandings of reincarnation, whereby souls are bound together in “soul groups” – and, indeed, in other ancient pagan traditions. This not only leads to a religious understanding wherein it is conceivable that one soul can consent in a particular incarnation to undergo part of the suffering which has resulted from the wrong-doing of a fellow, but can lead us to a fuller examination of our own culpability than that offered by Singer’s secular moral philosophy. The authors’ example of a war criminal is a particularly poignant one in this regard; by their very nature (as opposed to, say, crimes of murder, theft or individual rape) “war crimes” are almost never conceived, justified, ordered and implemented by one individual. Thus the attribution of responsibility and guilt to a particular individual may not only be arbitrary (and therefore unjust); it serves to exculpate all those others who participate in the chain of wrong-doing which culminates in (or includes) the perpetration of such crimes. Such a chain of wrongs, I would stress, also implicates people who are not part of the specific regime in whose name the perpetrator has acted but who participate in a wider culture which has enabled or provoked that regime. Even responsibility for an “individual” criminal’s act must surely extend beyond the perpetrator to include (in varying degrees) parents who fail in their responsibility to nurture his moral development, teachers who have failed to teach him an alternative way of achieving or redefining his needs; friends who have failed to guide or adequately support him; a media which has glamorised whatever it is he seeks through his crime to obtain. We are all, indeed, as Singer argues, much more guilty than we would ever allow – and a wish, therefore, that the wicked should suffer for their wickedness is a dangerous one.
    Of all the theodicies which the authors suggest a doctrine of reincarnation can support or supplement, the one which appears to me most persuasive is what they term “soul-building”. If one possible purpose of suffering is that, in the longer term, it both increases compassion in the one who has experienced it and increases our awareness of our dependency upon and need for God, then without a belief in reincarnation, it could be objected that any suffering which leads to death, or from which the sufferer is left too scarred to learn, is pointless and therefore irreconcilable with belief in a good God. However, if the suffering of one lifetime is remembered – consciously or unconsciously – in a subsequent lifetime, it may be that the memory of that suffering leads to the same increase in compassion and closeness to God that it could not achieve in the lifetime in which the suffering occurred. For that insight, I at least would like to express my gratitude to the authors of this paper.

    1. Ty

      I thank Dr Nechama Hadari for her deep and wide comments, and especially the morally and psychologically sensitive criticisms of retributive views of punishment. Insofar as the points are so well put and so persuasive there’s very little I can expand on or object to. But I will respond to a few points in order and increasing brevity:

      1. I do not take claims about remembering past lives very seriously, and did not find anything in the Jewish tradition about this. However, it would be another way of responding to the memory objection, and so deserved some mention. Of course, if the essay were more about whether reincarnation actually occurs, then whether such apparent memories are real evidence would have deserved more consideration.
      2. We twice draw from and refer to Yonassan Gershom’s ‘Jewish Tales of Reincarnation’—including the case of the Besht and the child mentioned in the comment. We could have drawn more from and discussed more of his work. But that’s so for any of the sources, and there’s only so much that can fit into a single essay.
      3. I don’t think the theodicy developed depends so crucially on a retributive view of punishment, especially insofar as it relates to free will and soul building theodicies.

      Dr Hadari’s comments deserve more consideration, and I might add a little more later. This is at least my initial reaction.

  2. Dani Rabinowitz

    Thanks to Beth and Tyron for an interesting paper. Three quick questions:

    1. Is there any motivation for the concept of reincarnation apart from its role in reward and punishment?

    2. Might the need for punishment via reincarnation not impugn God’s omnipotence i.e. surely an omnipotent God should be able to generate the necessary form of punishment in purgatory without the need for the specific kinds of punishments associated with reincarnation?

    [God might, for example, have an ethereal equivalent of Nozick’s experience machine which generates painful experiences as of reincarnation without actualized reincarnation. This is somewhat akin to Wood’s comment re the metaphysical costs of reincarnation.]

    3. Is there any empirical evidence supporting the supposed widespread affirmation of reincarnation among orthodox Jews?

    1. Ty

      Dani: Thank you for your part in organizing the symposium and for your comments.

      1. I do not know whether there are any philosophical reasons for believing in reincarnation apart from its role in theodicy and soul building. Of course, there might be other more religious reasons for certain religious believers.

      2. I doubt that a need for reincarnation would count against omnipotence. After all, if it’s really necessary, then the alternative is impossible, and we do not expect the impossible even of an omnipotent being. I doubt it would count against omnipotence if there were no need either. That God does something one way when there is another way to do it does not count against omnipotence. Otherwise, that God created Adam and Eve rather than Shmadam and Shmeve would count against his omnipotence—as would his creating Shmadam and Shmeve rather than Adam and Eve.

      3. I haven’t undertaken an official survey. But it is safe to say that it’s widespread. Doubtless some haven’t heard of the idea, and some would reject it. But rejecting it would still count as a little heterodox insofar as it is accepted by virtually all classical Jewish sources that have anything to say about it.

  3. caleb

    In order to totally rebut this essay it would take pages of writing therefore with a few salient notes it will be sufficient to see that the entire premiss is wrong.
    Firstly, the idea of reincarnation from the Zohar and the Bahir are later innovations in Jewish religious literature circa 1300. The global acceptance by the masses was due to Luria and no one ever intellectually endeavoured to refute or even discuss the matter. Saadya Gaon remarks in his book of Beliefs and Opinion that this is called in Arabic ‘tanasukh’ which does not exist in Judaism. As far as the Druze are concerned their concept is called ‘intqal’ which could be loosely translated as ‘the transference of psychic residues’.
    The word ‘reincarnation’ literally means to ‘re-inhabit flesh’ whereas the Hebrew ‘gilgulei neshamot’ translates as ‘transmigration of souls or metempsychosis’ having nothing to do with coming back as flesh in this world.
    The word ‘reincarnation’ was made up by the Theosophists circa 1860 for their own agendas and as far as Hinduism is concerned reincarnation does not exist esp according the theVedanta. In Hindu literature it is only mentioned in a remote tractate “Manava-Dharma-Shastra” but it is sufficient to learn Shankara and the Vedanta for the more ‘orthodox’ attitude.

    1. Ty

      Dear Caleb,

      Thank you for your comment.

      First, the dating of the Zohar and Bahir is noted in the essay (p. 4). I cannot see how the question of when the doctrine of reincarnation was formulated bears on its plausibility or its use in a theodicy.

      Secondly, the essay notes that Saadia Gaon rejects the doctrine (p. 1). The majority of the subsequent Jewish tradition disagrees with him on this.

      Thirdly, as for your claim that Judaism and Hinduism reject reincarnation–Jewish sources are given throughout the essay, and all the books and encyclopedia entries on Hinduism we consulted state that reincarnation is a central doctrine of Hinduism (and other Eastern religions).

      But you do seem familiar with Hinduism, which leads me to think that you must just have something different in mind by the term ‘reincarnation’. We do note (p. 2-3) that the different religions will disagree about some of the crucial ingredients–for example, about the nature of the soul or part of the soul or whatever it is, if anything at all, that’s transferred from one body to the next. But there’s something very similar going on, and the word is almost always applied to all the doctrines.

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