The word eschatology is defined in the dictionary as a branch of theology concerned with the final events of the history of the world. The truth is that eschatology is not exclusively the domain of religion. The most striking example of a secular eschatology would be Marxism: the convulsions and agonies of the class war, its evils resolving themselves into the classless society, the withering of the state and the blissful existence ever after.
Jewish eschatology is made up of three basic pieces:
- “The Era of the JewishMessiah.”
- “The Afterlife.”
- “The World of Resurrection.”
The Jewish Messiah, according to traditional Jewish sources, will be a human being born of a flesh and blood mother and father,1 unlike the Christian idea that has him as the son of God conceived immaculately. In fact, Maimonides writes that the Messiah will complete his job and then die like everyone else. 2
What’s his job? To end the agony of history and usher in a new era of bliss for humanity at large.3 The time period in which he emerges and completes his task is called the Messianic Era. According to one Talmudic opinion it’s not an era of overt miracles, where the rules of nature are overturned. Rather the only new element introduced to the world will be peace among the nations, with the Jewish people living in their land under their own sovereignty, unencumbered by persecution and anti-Semitism, free to pursue their spiritual goals like never before.4
The Afterlife proper is called in the traditional sources olam habah, or the World to Come. However, the same term, “olam habah,” is also used to refer to the renewed utopic world of the future — the World of Resurrection, olam hat’chiah (as explained in the next paragraph). 5 The former is the place righteous souls go to after death — and they have been going there since the first death. That place is also sometimes called the World of Souls. 6 It’s a place where souls exist in a disembodied state, enjoying the pleasures of closeness to God. Thus, genuine near death experiences are presumably glimpses into the World of Souls, the place most people think of when the term Afterlife is mentioned.
Resurrection is the ultimate reward, a place where the body is eternal and the soul even more so.
The World of Resurrection, by contrast, “no eye has seen,” the Talmud remarks.7 It’s a world, according to most authorities, where the body and soul are reunited to live eternally in a truly perfected state. That world will only first come into being after the Messiah and will be initiated by an event known as the “Great Day of Judgment,”(Yom HaDin HaGadol)8 The World of Resurrection is thus the ultimate reward, a place where the body becomes eternal and spiritual, while the soul becomes even more so. 9
In comparison to a concept like the “World To Come,” reincarnation is not, technically speaking, a true eschatology. Reincarnation is merely a vehicle toward attaining an eschatological end. It’s the reentry of the soul into an entirely new body into the present world. Resurrection, by contrast, is the reunification of the soul with the former body (newly reconstituted) into the “World To Come,” a world history has not witnessed yet.
Resurrection is thus a pure eschatological concept. Its purpose is to reward the body with eternity (and the soul with higher perfection). The purpose of reincarnation is generally two-fold: either to make up for a failure in a previous life or to create a new, higher state of personal perfection not previously attained.10 The purpose of resurrection is to reward the body with eternity and the soul with higher perfection. Resurrection is thus a time of reward; reincarnation a time of repairing. Resurrection is a time of reaping; reincarnation a time of sowing.
The fact that reincarnation is part of Jewish tradition comes as a surprise to many people. 11 Nevertheless, it’s mentioned in numerous places throughout the classical texts of Jewish mysticism, starting with the preeminent sourcebook of Kabbalah, the Zohar :12
As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again. (Zohar I 186b)
All souls are subject to reincarnation; and people do not know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He! They do not know that they are brought before the tribunal both before they enter into this world and after they leave it; they are ignorant of the many reincarnations and secret works which they have to undergo, and of the number of naked souls, and how many naked spirits roam about in the other world without being able to enter within the veil of the King’s Palace. Men do not know how the souls revolve like a stone that is thrown from a sling. But the time is at hand when these mysteries will be disclosed. (Zohar II 99b)
The Zohar and related literature 13 are filled with references to reincarnation, 14 addressing such questions as which body is resurrected and what happens to those bodies that did not achieve final perfection, 15 how many chances a soul is given to achieve completion through reincarnation, 16 whether a husband and wife can reincarnate together,17 if a delay in burial can affect reincarnation,18 and if a soul can reincarnate into an animal. 19
The Bahir, attributed to the first century sage, Nechuniah ben Hakanah, used reincarnation to address the classic question of theodicy — why bad things happen to good people and vice versa:
Why is there a righteous person to whom good things happen, while [another] righteous person has bad things happen to him? This is because the [latter] righteous person did bad in a previous [life], and is now experiencing the consequences? What is this like? A person planted a vineyard and hoped to grow grapes, but instead, sour grapes grew. He saw that his planting and harvest were not successful so he tore it out. He cleaned out the sour grape vines and planted again. When he saw that his planting was not successful, he tore it up and planted it again. (Bahir 195)20
Reincarnation is cited by authoritative classic biblical commentators, including Ramban21 (Nachmanides), Menachem Recanti 22 and Rabbenu Bachya.23 Among the many volumes of the holy Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the “Ari,”24 most of which come down to us from the pen of his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, are profound insights explaining issues related to reincarnation. Indeed, his Shaar HaGilgulim, “The Gates of Reincarnation,” 25 is a book devoted exclusively to the subject, including details regarding the soul-roots of many biblical personalities and who they reincarnated into from the times of the Bible down to the Ari.
The Ari’s teachings and systems of viewing the world spread like wildfire after his death throughout the Jewish world in Europe and the Middle East. If reincarnation had been generally accepted by Jewish folk and intelligentsia beforehand, it became part of the fabric of Jewish idiom and scholarship after the Ari, inhabiting the thought and writings of great scholars and leaders from classic commentators on the Talmud (for example, the Maharsha, Rabbi Moshe Eidels ),26 to the founder of the Chassidic Movement, the Baal Shem Tov, as well as the leader of the non-Chassidic world, the Vilna Gaon. 27
One of the texts the mystics like to cite as a scriptural allusion to the principle of reincarnation is the following verse in the Book of Job:
Behold, all these things does God do — twice, even three times with a man — to bring his soul back from the pit that he may be enlightened with the light of the living. (Job 33:29)
In other words, God will allow a person to come back to the world “of the living” from “the pit” (which is one of the classic biblical terms for Gehinnom or “Purgatory”) a second and even third (or multitude of) time(s). Generally speaking, however, this verse and others are understood by mystics as mere allusions to the concept of reincarnation. The true authority for the concept is rooted in the tradition.