Thursday, October 06, 2011

Resag's verdict on the Belief in the Transmigration of Souls - Gilgul - Nonsense!

In the most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books there is a rather acerbic exchange between professors Flatto and Nadler about whether the Noda Beyehuda was a crypto-Kabbalist or not.  That exchange then migrated to the web in the form of at times insulting comments and exchanges on a post on the Hirhurim blog here which led to the removal by the blog owner of all comments. I am really not interested in getting into the debate although I am more inclined to side with Nadler, especially since one of the NB’s greatest and most famous pupil, Rabbi Eliezer Fleckeles is noted for his public anti-Kabbalist stand in his Teshuvah Me’ahava, see also here . I however would like to translate a segment of Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) on the subject in the sixth Ma’amar of his Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (page 214 in Rav Kafieh’s edition) which is illuminating about the worldview of one of our classical greats.

“I will further say[1] that there are some people amongst those that are referred to as Jews that I discovered that they believe in Gilgul referring to it as “transmigration”. The idea, to their mind, is that the soul of Reuven passes to Shimon, then to Levi and then to Yehuda. Most of them believe that it is possible for the soul of a human to be present in an animal and the soul of an animal in a person, and other such nonsense and confusions. It became clear to me what illusions has brought them to believe in this and I found that there are four mistakes that caused this, which I will mention and refute. The first mistake of theirs is their erroneous following of four of the theories about the soul which I have disproven, or possibly because they follow the theory of those who believe there can be more than one spiritual entity[2], all theories that I have already disproven[3]. Their second mistake is because they observed the personality of many people and noted that they resemble the nature of animals. Some people are meek like sheep while others are aggressive like feral beasts, while others are nasty and debased like dogs and others are fleet like birds and so on. They therefore deduced that the only possibility for this wide variety amongst humans is because of their animalistic souls. This demonstrates, God preserve you from such calamity, their great stupidity, for they think that the human body causes essential changes to the soul, so much so that it can transform it from an animal one to a human one. That [transformed] soul then changes the human being to the point that he takes on animal behavior while he looks human. It is not enough that they made the soul into an entity that continuously changes essence without establishing for it an individual essence, they also contradicted themselves by giving it the power to change the body by overturning its essence while at the same time the body changes it. This is totally irrational.”

Resag then addresses the two other arguments for transmigration. One argument is that without transmigration it would be unjust on the part of God to let young children die. It is only if we believe they lived in the past that their death can be seen as a punishment for deeds done in a past life and thus see it as justice. He dismisses the argument summarily by pointing to their misunderstanding God’s justice and the concept of reward and punishment. The other argument is from various texts and verses in Tanach.  He addresses every one separately showing how they misinterpret and at times read verses out of context. Finally he adds –

I would not have bothered to mention their theory, rightfully so, as it is quite ridiculous, if not for fear of causing fools to be misguided.”

It is interesting to see how Resag took it for obvious that the idea of Gilgul is irrational and even questions the Jewishness of those who believe in it. Of course other Rishonim felt otherwise and by the time Ramban wrote his Pirush on Chumash he saw it as an essential part of reality as the underlying rationale for certain Mitzvot such as Yibum.  By the time the Arizal arrived it became central Jewish dogma with some of the more mystically inclined considering it heresy to deny such evident “truth”.  I personally am happy and feel quite comfortable to agree with Resag relying on him to pull me out of Gehinom for my heresy in this matter.

[1] This is an idiomatic curiosity of many of the medieval writers.
[2] This segment is a little difficult to decipher (see Rav Kafieh’s note 3). Apparently Resag is saying that they base their understanding of Gilgul on a foreign, non-Jewish, concept of spirituality.
[3] This segment is at the end of a lengthy discussion about the soul and spirituality which I hope to address separately.


  1. David Yishar Koach.
    There is a reference to gilgulim in the nosach-Sefard kriat Shema before going to bed (Ashkenaz doesn't have it, I think). I skip it where it says that I forgive anyone who has insulted me in this or in any previous lifetime. I just can't remember that part of my life.

  2. There is a site by Hannah Newman that describes the dangers of New Age thought.

    Among many items she mentions "It is interesting that several response articles in the _Post_, emphasized the lack of Torah, Mishnaic or Talmudic foundation for the doctrine of reincarnation. I confirmed this in dialog with several Kabbalist students, who remained strangely undisturbed by this lack of support."

    I sent her information about Resag's writing you quoted. She responded:

    "Thanks much for your response and for the quote here. This one issue gets more response from the Torah observant audience than any single other - usually in the form of a challenge (which always baffles me - why do so many Torah Jews go out of their way to defend reincarnation - a marginal idea at best - as though the truth of Judaism depended on it?)."

    I echo her thoughts. I have asked a number of Rabbonim if one has to believe in gilgul. Some say no, some say you must, because so many mainstream Gedolim have "supported" this idea (to the point you are a kofer if you do not believe it).

    Sad. Perhaps you can get a recognized Godol to publicly declare that belief in gilgul is, if not foolish, at least not necessary. After all Resag is at least yesh al me lismoch.


  3. Avraham,

    The problem they have is that Ramban bases his whole understanding of Yibum on this as he does the story of yehuda and Tamar which he sees as related to yibum. He also refers to it indirectly across his pirush and I believe that I once saw a halachik discussion of his using Gilgul as the basis of the discussion. In the current orthodox zeitgeist and virulent cesorship no Gadol would dare contradict such a great Rishon. What more when R Chaim Vital wrote his sha'ar hagilgulim it became dogma and part of the Ikarim. We live in a time of such Sheker, and I mean Jewish ideological sheker that reading the neviim Yrmyahu, Yeshayahu and Yechezkel and the others at the time of the First Commonwealth, sounds like a contemporary mussar shmus that no one dares give. I am writing a post on one aspect of it.Unfortunately i am preaching to the choir as my little blog is probably shunned as apikorsus by the Shakranim and their duped followers.

  4. Avraham,

    and one more thing. Resag was declared apikorsus by R. Moshe Taku in his Ktav Tamim. No one will come out openly and say it but why do you think his Torah is non-existent in contemporary yeshiva circles and his sefarim are completely ignored except by a few on the fringes? Little do they know that most of the "kabballah" of the chassidei ashkenaz is based on it and the shir Hayichud (which BTW the Gra refused to say some claiming he held it was foreign thought)that is said Yom Kippur night is based on Emunot Vede'ot including some poetic workup of his arguments! Feigned ignorance is another aspect of sheker.

  5. Hi. Follow you and other jewish blogs.

    Thought you might be interested in this blog post:

  6. I was unaware of any “problems” with RSEG, he was, after all, the undisputed leader of klal yisroel in his time. I found a discussion of R’ Taku’s approach to corporeality and chochma chitzonit in this, apparently is the basis for his objection to RSEG as well as Rambam, but the Rambam’s view prevailed (at least on corporeality).

    However, RSEG is not the only godol to reject gilgul. I quote from:

    “Why can't we all just get along? As is well known, there have been many rabbinic authorities who subscribed to belief in gilgulim. On the other hand, there have also been numerous opponents to this belief, including Rav Saadiah Gaon (Emunos v’Dayos 6:8); Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (see R. Margoliyos, in his introduction to Milchamos Hashem p. 19 note 11); Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud (Emunah Ramah 7); Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Avraham Ibn Latif (Rav Poalim, p. 9 section 21); Rav Chasdai Crescas (Ohr Hashem, ma’amar 4, derash 7); Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer HaIkkarim 4:29); and Rav Avraham Bedersi (Ktav Hitnatzlut leRashba). See too Rashash to Bava Metzia 107a (I am told that certain Chassidim will never study Rashash because of his comments on this topic). Also see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Genesis 50:2. For further discussion, see Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, “Body And Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy,” The Torah u-Madda Journal vol. 10 (2001).”

    But I agree that belief in gilgul is mainstream today.


  7. Avraham,

    I agree with the understanding of R. David Sedley you refer to about R. Moshe Taku. he does however use very sharp language against Resag in his Ktav Tamim, quite surprisinf as he is talking about a Gaon of Sura.

    I always wonder how many of the ills of our society can be attributed to the mystical becoming mainstream. I can say that to me personally, that has been very harmful. I wish I was taight about it as a position of some Rishonim and Acharonim rather than the 'mesora" or accepted truth of our community.

  8. It would be interesting if you can share your thoughts in more detail not eh extreme difference between RSG on gilgul versus the Ari and R Chaim Vital. There really is no reconciliation of the 2 views. R Chaim Vital wrote a sefer discussing all the gilgulim. If they do not exist, was it all just his imagination in your opinion?

  9. There is no way to reconcile the two and it would be wrong to even try. You don't have to go to Ari and RCV. Ramban bases his whole understanding of Ybum on gilgul.

    I am a big believer that different opinions are just that and if given by great people, only one is probably right in most cases, and that does not make the other lesser, just wrong. he and his approach should be treated with respect and pick the side you know to be true for yourself. That is as long as the followers of the erroneous opinion do not use it to harm themselves, others or the community. In that case one has to voice his opposition, each to his ability.

  10. Do you think that the Arizal and R Chaim Vital made up all this stuff thinking they were receiving divinely inspired secrets?