ARE YOU INTERESTED in learning more about Jewish mysticism? In that case I got some academic books on the subject I wish to recommend. I wrote about Daniel C. Matt’s translation and commentary on The Zohar; the most famous book (12 volumes…) within Jewish mysticism; in a previous post. In this post I want to introduce you to Prof. Gerschom Scholem’s books. Mr. Scholem was the first pioneer within in the field work concerning literature related to mysticism in Judaism. He liked to describe himself as a historian of religious ideas. Scholem was also a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem until his death in the early 1980s.
On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead : Basic Concepts of the Kabbalah (1991) is one of the titles I recommend. THIS BOOK presents the core teachings within the kabbalistic tradition. I will touch briefly on reincarnation within the Kabbalah. The chapters are as follows:
- Sch’ur Komah : The Mystical Shape of the Godhead
- Sitra Achra : Good and Evil
- Tsaddik : The righteous
- Schekhinah : The feminine structures in the divine
- Gilgul : The transmigration of souls
- Tselem : The Concept of The Astral Body
Modern Orthodox usually rejects the theory of gilgul (reincarnation), or transmigration (metempsychosis, is the term used by Scholem) of the soul. The concept varies a bit from the hindu theology about reincarnation, but there are similarities. There’s a strong connection between the idea of transmigration connected to punishment or reward. The soul, or various parts of the human soul transmigrates according to the Kabbalah in order to fulfill all the mitzvot (“commandments”) of the Torah.
While Ultra-orthodox, haredi Jews accept gilgul as “truth” Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism usually let the individual decide on these matters for themselves; although I must say there are little focus on these matters in theological point of view. When Conservative and Reform Judaism developed into separate movements they usually looked down on teachings associated with Kabbalah because illiterate and uneducated Jews accepted them. So, how can we trace this unusual idea within Jewish mysticism? Scholem gives several explanations on why and how it got incorporated into kabbalistic teachings. Let’s mention some of it. The medieval text Sefer ha-Bahir is the oldest book in existence dealing with the concept of gilgul within the Kabbalah. It was redacted in South of France around 1180. This geographical area was inhabited by the Catharism movement which later was becoming wiped out by the Church. They also believed in reincarnation. Not surprisingly the majority of Jewish scholars immediately rejected the doctrine. As did the majority of scholars within Christianity and Islam around the same time. They had to deal with similar religious sects holding different beliefs. Let’s see how it may have influenced Jewish mysticism. In the sixth century the Church was very much afflicted by the teachings of Origen. Ōrigénēs Adamántios; 184/185 – 253/254 was a scholar and an ascetic who believed in reincarnation. He was one of the church fathers but never reached canonization because of several heretical beliefs. His thoughts on reincarnation likely came from Gnostic Christian sects. The Gnostics became heavily persecuted and finally crushed. Their beliefs likely sprung from several Oriental traditions such as the Orphic and Platonic thoughts on the transmigration of souls. A similar process arose within Shiite Islam were the Imams supposedly reincarnated and the belief spread into Ishmaelite Gnostics and Sufis sects; while orthodox Sunnis rejected it completely. There are also evidence some Jews believed in reincarnation from non-jewish sources. In a work on Muslim sects and schism Ibn Mansour al-Bahgdadi (died 1037) mention some Jews held this belief based on the Book of Daniel, third Chapter. In the third chapter king Nebuchadnezzar’s vision indicates he was transformed in seven different kinds of beasts, birds as to punish his wickedness. God later restored Nebuchadnezzar and sent him again to the world as a true believer in Monotheism.
STAY TUNED for more posts on Scholem’s work .
- Gerschom Scholem lectures on the Concept of Tselem – The Astral Body in Jewish Mysticism.
- Scholem, Gershom, Joachim Neugroschel, and Jonathan Chipman. 1991. On the mystical shape of the godhead: basic concepts in the Kabbalah. New York: Schoken Books.