On Judaism and the Reincarnation of the Soul (1.0.8)

Abstract The Torah makes no direct reference to it, yet there is evidence -drawn from the Jewish and Christian bibles, and from other sources- that reincarnation has been a traditional aspect of Judaism for a long time…


The Kabbalah and Gilgul

Kabbalah is a set of doctrines, of Jewish origin, concerning the relationship between the infinite realm of God (Ein Sof (סוף)), and God’s creation, the finite realm of man (1). According to Ramak, a central figure in the development of Kabbalistic Judaism, souls cycle through lives or incarnations, being attached to different human bodies over time, depending particularly on the soul’s task in the physical world, and the spiritual levels of the bodies previously occupied by the soul as it journeys through the stations depicted in the “tree of life” below (2):

The word Jews use for reincarnation is “gilgul”, which means in Hebrew means “cycle” or “wheel”, appears neither in the written nor in the oral Torah, leading some rabbis to maintain that reincarnation has no place in Judaism. Kabbalists by contrast maintain that gilgul and reincarnation have always been an important part of Judaism, but a hidden or secret part.

Evidence of the Jewish Belief in Reincarnation in the Bible

Whilst it is true that there is no mention of gigul in the Torah, there are passages in the bible -old testament and new- that make no sense unless reincarnation was indeed an intimate part of Jewish tradition. Malachi 4: 5:

See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.

This reads as if the returning Elijah is the literal Elijah, not merely someone with a similar personality or mission. Knowing that the return of Elijah precedes the coming of Messiah, the disciples ask Jesus in Mathew 17:10:

Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?

Jesus reply (Mathew 17:11-13) is that

To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.

Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist. In what sense was John the Baptist the same as Elijah? Was he the reincarnation of Elijah? Luke 1: 17 says:

And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

This refers back to Malachi, since Malachi 4: 6 says of a future Elijah that

He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children…

One who comes in the spirit and power of another might well be the reincarnation of that other person -a person comes in the spirit and the power of themselves- and John 1: 6 says that

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.

which suggests that John pre-existed his arrival on earth. But John 1: 21 has John the Baptists himself explicitly deny being Elijah. :

Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.

Jewish historian Josephus writes of the Pharisees (3) that they

say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies; — but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.

Thackeray (4) says that this is an expression of “the doctrine of the reincarnation of the soul”, and although it has been argued that is Josephus talking about reincarnation in the sense of the souls being reincarnated in another earthy as opposed to a heavenly body, his account agrees with that of the Safed Kabbalists, Ramak (Moshe Cordovero) and Arizal (Isaac Luria) (5), according to whom reincarnation is a privilege for those who have made an effort to be good in their lives (some sinners, according to Ramak and Arizal, are never reincarnated). This passage in John, together with another passage in which Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is and is told “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, and Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Mathew 16: 13-14), doesn’t make sense unless the Jews of Jesus’ time possessed a belief in reincarnation in this sense of an earthy reincarnation. Jesus’ identity as John the Baptist might have been a matter of resurrection (At that time Herod the Tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Mathew 14: 1 – 2)), but the only possible way Jesus could have been Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets referred to is if he was a reincarnation of these men. We can conclude then that, although John in fact denied being Elijah, he might just as easily have affirmed it, i.e. his denial was not because there could be no such thing as a reincarnated Elijah but because he didn’t believe -or pretended he didn’t believe- he was that person. I say “pretended” because while, on the one hand, John denied being Elijah, on the other hand he identified himself with Elijah by quoting Isaiah 40: 3:

I am the voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

This preparation of the way is very the role of the returned Elijah spoken of in Malachi. Malachi 3: 1:

I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…

His reply is contradictory: “I am not Elijah, yet I am the voice of one calling “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God, i.e. Elijah.””

The Science of Reincarnation

The question of whether reincarnation is -as Hasidic Jews insist- part of Judaic tradition and the question of whether reincarnation is a reality are independent, and a way to approach the latter question is through the scientific evidence that has been accumulated for reincarnation. A well known possible example of reincarnation that of Shanti Devi born in Dehli India in 1926. She never spoke until the age of four years old at which time she told her parents that her real home was in Mathura where her husband lived, 140 km away (6). She said was named “Lugdi” Devi and married to a merchant named “Kedar Nath” and that she died ten days after having given birth to a child, details which proved to be accurate. When Mahatma Gandhi heard about the case, he met Shanti Devi and set up a commission to investigate (7). The commission traveled with Shanti Devi to Mathura where she recognized several family members, including the grandfather of Lugdi Devi and decided that she was indeed the reincarnation of Lugdi Devi. Numerous examples of the same phenomenon come from the research begun in 1960 by the late chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Dr Ian Stephenson (8). Stephenson’s overall thesis is that was that children’s possession of certain knowledge together with unusual abilities, philias, phobias, certain physical defects and illnesses, cannot not be fully explained by heredity or the environment, and that reincarnation provides a third and the best type of explanation (9). His research has been continued by Dr Jon Tucker, his replacement at the University of Virginia. After studying over 2500 cases of seeming childhood reincarnation, Tucker reports that more than 70% of these cases involve people who died unnatural often violent deaths (10). He also reports that over 35% of children in the unnatural-death cases show an intense fear toward the mode of death of the previous person. A related feature of these cases is the presence on the bodies of some of these children of broth marks corresponding to injuries -often fatal injuries- sustained by the deceased.

We can apply the following list of possibilities above to any seeming case of reincarnation where someone seems to possess knowledge particular to the person they claim to re-instantiate:

  • Fraud by the reporter of the case, e.g. Stephenson or Tucker.
  • Fraud by the subject of the case: they guessed the details or they fabricated them based on knowledge and/or research.
  • The subject somehow has access to a realm in which this information is available, although it isn’t the case that they are reincarnated.
  • The subject really is reincarnated.

Orthodox Jews and Christians are inclined to insist that the reincarnation is impossible, and that all apparent cases of reincarnation arise because the person supplying the privileged information that seemingly establishes their claim is possessed or influenced by a spirit (which falls under 3). But this theory can’t account for those many cases when -in addition to the possession of privileged information- there are birth marks or deformities on the living person corresponding to the wounds of a dead person or a strong physical resemblance between the living and the dead person.

In 2000, Tucker analyzed 799 cases of children who claim to remember a previous life and found that in the stronger cases there was a greater facial resemblance to the deceased individual that they were said to have been (11).

Interestingly, most of these cases involve an average time of sixteen months between the death of the one person and their seeming reincarnation, and they involve memories that mainly concern events towards the end of the life of the deceased (12). This feature of the cases naturally raises the question of the what happens if and when there is a long time -say centuries- between incarnations, and whether there could be any clear memories of the previous incarnation in these circumstances, i.e the question of whether there is an inversely proportional relationship between the time between incarnations and the strength of the memories, the strength of the abilities and phobias etc., the strength of the birth marks, and the strength of facial resemblances… This is a question that could be researched by use of hypnotic regression using a similar approach as that of Stephenson and Tucker, i.e. gathering the details given by the subject of their past life, and then seeking to disestablish any connection between lives that requires reincarnation to explain it…

Stephenson studied a case in which a small child named Suzanne Ghanem believed she was a woman named Hanan Monsour (8). At sixteenth months, Suzanne  grasped the phone as if trying to speak into it and said repeatedly, “Hello, Leila?” When she was older, Suzanne explained that Leila was one of her children in her past life and that she was not Suzanne, but Hanan. By the time she was two, Suzanne had correctly identified her (Hanan’s) other children, her husband, Farouk, and her parents and her brothers from the previous lifetime…

A photographic comparison of the two women made when Suzanne was an adult, and of a similar age to Hanan,  reveals a distinct physical resemblance.


An excellent example of the transmission of physical features from one life to another is the facial similarity between Fire Chief Jeffrey Keene and General John B. Gordon. Below we compare Keene with himself and then with Gordon using Microsoft’s facial recognition algorithm (which assigns a number between 0 and 1, where 0 means two faces certainly don’t belong to the same person, and 1 means that they certainly do):

The story of the connection between Keene and Gordon began when Keene walking through a field called “Sunken Road” and was suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by a severe anxiety attack (13):

A wave of grief, sadness and anger washed over me. Without warning, I was suddenly being consumed by sensations. Burning tears ran down my cheeks. It became difficult to breathe. I gasped for air, as I stood transfixed in the old roadbed. To this day I could not tell you how much time transpired, but as these feelings, this emotional overload passed, I found myself exhausted as if I had run a marathon. Crawling up the steep embankment to get out of the road, I turned and looked back. I was a bit shaken to say the least and wondered at what had just taken place. It was difficult getting back to the car because I felt so weak…

A year following this experience, Keene stumbled on a civil war magazine in which there was a picture of Gordon, who was severely wounded in a civil war battle fought on Sunken Road. Thereafter he went on to discover many parallels between himself and Gordon, including a similar physical appearance (looks, height, eye color, birthmarks), personality traits, common lifetime events, writing styles, habits and traits. Keene’s strange experience at Sunken Road by itself is perhaps easily explicable as coincidence, Keene’s close physical resemblance to General Gordon by itself is certainly easily explicable as coincidence, but together they suggest to something other than mere coincidence. Assuming that there is no error or fraud, the possession by people such as Suzanne Ghanem and Jeffrey Keene of privileged information about Hanan Monsour and General Gorden, together with strong physical similarities to these people, imply that reincarnation really has taken place as opposed to an illusion of reincarnation created by a psychic insight into the past.

A compelling case for the reality of reincarnation concerns young boy born in 1998 -James Leininger- who from the age of two claimed to be the reincarnation of an American navy fighter pilot James Huston shot down and killed by the Japanese in 1945 (14).

James (pictured at an older age below left) correctly identified the aircraft carrier from which he which James Huston (below right) was flying his missions and its location at the time Huston was killed, correctly identified one of Huston’s co-pilots, and correctly identified the manner in which Huston was shot down…

The skeptical objection is encapsulated by a comment appearing beneath a you-tube video telling this story:

This is ridiculous. I’ll throw out 3 explanations, what is the most logical:

1. His father is making the whole story up to try and become famous and earn a bit of money. Pretty logical. Everyone likes to make a buck. We didn’t even get to see James speak and be asked questions without his mother and father next to him. That would result in him not being able to answer questions except for the ones mentioned by his father there.

2. He somehow heard about this James Huston guy’s story somewhere. Seeing how he absolutely loved planes, it seems quite possible that some relative could have mentioned this story to him. He wouldn’t have to go in depth, he didn’t reveal that much.

3. When you die, your brain, which holds your memories by the way, somehow gets transfered into the child of a random boy born in the USA.

Now which seems more logical…

This critic is grasping at straws (James’ father is a staunch evangelical Christian, unwaveringly upright, and initially very opposed to the idea of reincarnation, and James Huston’s story only became public knowledge after this case), but the response is typical of the skeptic of reincarnation: regardless of the strength of the evidence, there is something objectionable with the very idea of reincarnation that calls upon the “logical” person to look for alternative explanations.

Reconsider our list of possibilities:

  • Fraud by the reporter of the case.
  • Fraud by the subject of the case: they guessed the details or they fabricated them based on knowledge and/or research.
  • The subject somehow has access to a realm in which this information is available, although it isn’t the case that they are reincarnated.
  • The subject really is reincarnated.

3 and 4 are out for the you-tube critic and skeptics, leaving them with 1 and 2 and with error and/or fraud. But what exactly is the problem with the other possibilities, and with the possibility that the subject is reincarnated? The answer is simply that the assumption that consciousness is in the brain regarded as a piece of machinery means that when the brain dies there is nothing left of consciousness. Stephenson’s most active critic was for a time was philosopher Paul Edwards, editor-in-chief of Macmillan’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy. From 1986, Edwards punished several articles on Stevenson’s work, and discussed Stevenson in his Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (15, 16). He argued that Stevenson’s views were “absurd nonsense” and that when examined in detail his case studies had “big holes” and “do not even begin to add up to a significant counterweight to the initial presumption against reincarnation.” Stevenson, he claimed, “evidently lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land.” Against Edwards, philosopher Robert Almeder points out in Death and Personal Survival (17) that the philosopher has begged the question by stating in advance that the idea of consciousness existing without the brain in the interval between lives was incredible, and that Edwards’s “dogmatic materialism” has forced him to the view that Stevenson’s case studies must be examples of fraud or delusional thinking… This point gets right to the point: Almeder finds that Edwards doesn’t have anything other than empty rhetoric with which to discredit Stephenson’s research, but if one assumes that consciousness can only exist in a functioning brain then what choice does one have but to dismiss afterlife and reincarnation?

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(1) Matt, D (2002) Zohar: Annotated and Explained

(2) Luria, I (2003), Shaar Hagilgulim: The Gates of Reincarnation

(3) Josephus (c 75), Wars of the Jews

(4) Josephus; With an English Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray, in Nine Volumes

(5) Giller, P (2011), Kabbalah: A Guide for the Perplexed

(6) Rawat, K et al (2005), The Life Beyond: Through the eyes of Children who Claim to Remember Previous Lives

(7) Gupta, L et al (1936), An Inquiry into the Case of Shanti Devi

(8) Stephenson, I (1966), Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation

(9) Stephenson, I (1997) Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects

(10) Tucker, J (2008), Children’s Reports of Past-Life Memories: A Review

(11) Keil, H and Tucker, J (2005), Children Who Claim to Remember Previous Lives: Cases
with Written Records Made before the Previous Personality Was Identified

(12) Tucker, J (2000), A scale to measure the strength of children’s claims of previous lives: methodology and initial findings

(13) Keene, J (2003), Someone Else’s Yesterday: The Confederate General and Connecticut Yankee: A Past Life Revealed

(14) Tucker, J (2016), The Case of James Leininger: An American Case of the Reincarnation Type

(15) Edwards, P (1986/87), The Case Against Reincarnation

(16) Edwards, P (1996), Reincarnation: A Critical Examination

(17) Almeider, R (1992), Death and Personal Survival