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 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, all theories that I have already disproven. 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.
 This is an idiomatic curiosity of many of the medieval writers.
 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.
 This segment is at the end of a lengthy discussion about the soul and spirituality which I hope to address separately.