Portrait of Madame Blavatsky resized


No Religion Higher Than Truth

Reincarnation in Judaism

BNet Newsletter
by Reed Carson

Members of Blavatsky Net,

The two most readily accessible ideas of the occult teachings are the twin doctrines of reincarnation and karma. These ideas often strike us first and show us most directly the relevance of occult teachings to our daily life. In this letter I look at reincarnation.

Madame Blavatsky not only brought the idea of reincarnation to the West, she also asserted that reincarnation is an idea that has found expression around the world and in both ancient and modern times. Quite a claim -especially in her day.

There is a book “Reincarnation, the Phoenix Fire Mystery”, by Sylvia Cranston published in 1994, that superbly documents this claim. In the process of providing the documentation, this book gives much additional helpful information as it looks at reincarnation from different aspects. Cranston has written the master anthology on reincarnation, collecting material from around the world and many traditions.

Over the years I have found myself referring to one section of the book more often than others as an aid to learning myself and, I admit, also for settling discussions amongst friends. That is the section that explains how reincarnation is/was a teaching in the Jewish tradition. Oddly, this is controversial. So, for this reason, I am sharing with you words from Cranston’s book on the subject of reincarnation in the Jewish tradition. As we might hope, she covers reincarnation in Judaism in both ancient and modern times. I Hope you find them as interesting and informative as I do. The following is quoted from Cranston from Reincarnation: The Pheonix Fire Mystery p 124-127. 

In her study of ancient and modern religions and sciences, Isis Unveiled, H.P. Blavatsky says of the Israelites that “the present remains of a once-glorious people bear witness [to] how faithfully and nobly they have stood by their ancestral faith under the most diabolical persecutions. … The Christian world has been in a state of convulsion from the first to the present century; it has been cleft into thousands of sects; but the Jews remain substantially united. Even their differences of opinion do not destroy their unity.”

One difference of opinion concerns reincarnation. The strictly orthodox tend to reject it and deny it a place in early Jewish philosophy. Others, including some orthodox rabbis, accept rebirth as an integral part of Judaism, as does Sholem Asch in the opening of “The Nazarene”:

Not the power to remember, but it’s very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition of our existence. If the lore of the transmigration of souls is a true one, then these, between their exchange of bodies, must pass through the sea of forgetfulness. According to the Jewish view we make the transition under the overlordship of the Angel of Forgetfulness. But it sometimes happens that the Angel of Forgetfulness himself forgets to remove from our memories the records of the former world; and then our senses are haunted by fragmentary recollections of another life. They drift like torn clouds above the hills and valleys of the mind, and weave themselves into the incidents of our current existence. They assert themselves, clothed with reality, in the form of nightmares which visit our beds. Then the effect is exactly the same as when, listening to a concert broadcast through the air, we suddenly hear a strange voice break in, carried from afar on another ether-wave and charged with another melody.

In the first century the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus matter-of-factly speaks of reincarnation in his famed work “The Jewish War”. As a general in the campaign against the Roman commander Vespasian, he had been one of the few survivors of a bloody siege. Addressing some Jewish soldiers who were about to commit suicide rather than be captured by the Romans, he said:

“The bodies of all men are, indeed mortal, and are created out of corruptible mater; but the soul is ever immortal, and is a portion of the divinity that inhabits our bodies. … Do not you know, that those who depart out of this life according to the law of nature… enjoy eternal fame; that their houses and their posterity are sure; that their souls are pure and obedient, and obtain a most holy place in heaven, from whence, in the revolution of ages, they are again sent into pure bodies; while the souls of those whose hands have acted madly against themselves are received by the darkest place in Hades?

Josephus also tells how the three chief schools of Jewish philosophy, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, regarded immortality. The Sadducees apparently believed that the soul dies with the body. The Pharisees “say that all the souls are incorruptible, but the souls of good men only, are removed into other bodies, but the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. (With the Jews, “eternal” did not mean everlasting but a very long time.) In “The Antiquities of the Jews”, Josephus repeats that the Parisees “believe that souls have an immortal vigor,” and that the virtuous “shall have power to revive and live again” on earth, “on account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people.

Josephus gives a fascinating picture of the communal life of the Essenses of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ fame, recounting their religious beliefs too. A passage from “The Jewish Wars” shows that the Essenes taught the soul’s pre-existence – the foundation for all reincarnation teaching – but it is not clear whether rebirth is implied by the words “expecting to receive their souls again.” However, in “Die Christliche Mystick,”, J.V. Gorres says that “the Kabala was held in high esteem particularly by the Essenes,” and reincarnation is basic in kabalistic thinking. … Quoting from “The Jewish War”:

The Essenes condemn the miseries of life, and are above pain, by the generosity of their mind. And as for death … our war with the Romans gave abundant evidence what great souls they had in their trails. … They smiled in their very pains and laughed to scorn those who inflicted torments upon them and resigned up their souls with great alacrity, as expecting to receive them again. For the doctrine is this, that bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue forever; and they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. … These are the divine doctrines of the Essenes about the soul, which lay an unavoidable bait for such as have once had a taste of their philosophy.

Another witness to this period is the Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus. He penetrated into the exotericism of the oldest Judaic teachings and made
correlations with the Platonic philosophy. In his “De Somniis” (I:22) he said that:

“the air is full of souls; those who are nearest to earth descending to be tied to mortal bodies, return to other bodies, desiring to live in them.;”

In “De Gigantes”(2 et seq.) he wrote that

“the company of disembodied souls is distributed in various orders. The law of some is to enter moral bodies and after certain prescribed periods to be again set free. But those possessed of a diviner structure are absolved form all local bonds, of earth. Some souls choose confinement in mortal bodies because they are corporeally inclined, … Yet those who are wise, like Moses, are also living abroad from home because they chose this expatriation from heaven in order to acquire knowledge and so came to dwell in earthly nature. While here they urge men to return to their original source.”

End of material from Sylvia Cranston


It is particularly fascinating to see these above words written two millenium ago: “Those who are wise … living abroad from home … they chose this expatriation from heaven … to acquire knowledge … dwell in earthly nature … they urge men to return to their original source.”

This is Theosophy stated back then. As an interesting comparison, note how similar are these words of Philo Judaeus to what Blavatsky says in the “third fundamental”:

Moreover, the Secret Doctrine teaches: —
(c) The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul — a spark of the former — through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term. In other words, no purely spiritual Buddhi (divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the Universal Sixth principle, — or the OVER-SOUL, — has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas, from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyani-Buddha). The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychosis and reincarnations. (SD i 17)

So now we see the larger perspective. We are on an obligatory pilgrimage. We employ self-induced and self-devised efforts, we acquire individuality through a long series of reincarnations, we reach even the level of the holiest archangel.

Is such a perspective useful in our daily living? I think so. It shows us the larger scheme. We work to understand the meaning of our lives and our daily events in this larger context. We try to order our lives, so we are moving compatibly with this larger view. We take some solace from our daily problems as we see the larger picture. We develop a greater sense of unity with all of humanity as we understand that not only ourselves, but our neighbors as well, are on this same obligatory pilgrimage. In that process we live so as to align ourselves more properly with the design of nature.

Now we have a question for each of us to ask ourselves. Have we aligned ourselves with the larger design of nature?

Reed Carson

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