Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Saturday, October 30, 2021
In This Moment: Oct. 31, 2021 - All Souls (for Jews): Halloween Special
In This Moment
Shavua Tov (a good week!)
Apologies are in order for those who tried to tune into our livestream this past Friday night. I've heard that the audio feed was flawed (to put it mildly) for much of the service, though the last segment was much improved. I would think that many who came aboard had long since abandoned ship by then. Rest assured that we are working on the problem and hope to come up with both short term fixes and long term solutions that will enable us to sustain the kind of excellence that characterized our High Holidays experience, both in-person and remote. We know how important it is to provide that excellence, and to do it in a manner that maximizes the potential for engagement and participation.
Meanwhile, our Zoom Shabbat morning today had the highest attendance in weeks, and our virtual minyans continue to be quite successful. Last night's service was very well attended too, and it was terrific.
Cantor Kaplan and I focused on a theme related both to Halloween and to the Torah portion of Hayye Sarah: reincarnation. She sang an amazing rendition of the Indigo Girls' song "Galileo," which speaks of reincarnation.
Indigo Girls - Galileo
And for those who may have given up on our livestream, here is the full text of my talk on reincarnation (see a backgrounder here).
Here’s a story that I read several years ago on Yahoo! News: It's about a stray dog who was condemned to death by a rabbinical court in Jerusalem. The story was reprinted from the Israeli press, which reported that a stray dog wandered into a Beit Din (religious court) in the strictly Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and refused to be moved. A judge on the Beit Din determined the dog was a reincarnation of a secular lawyer who died 20 years ago. The article claimed that the judges on the Beit Din then “decreed” that local children stone the dog to death.
Once the story hit Yahoo! News it got picked up by the BBC where it was the most read story of the day. If you don't believe me, you can see the BBC link here.
Of course none of this actually happened. Here's the retraction from the BBC. However, with news items traveling the globe at lightning speed thanks to the Internet, this story was everywhere within an hour. The damage was done even though the Israeli newspaper issued a correction and apology on its website, JTA released an article explaining that there was no stoning of a dog, and Yahoo! News took the story down. It was already re-posted on hundreds of websites around the world.
The religious court issued the following statement:
"There is no basis for stoning dogs or any other animal in the Jewish religion, not since the days of the Temple or Abraham… A female dog did come in and found a seat in the corner of the court. And the children were delighted by it, especially when she raised her right paw and said, “So help me Dog.” (that was me - just kidding)."
"There were hundreds outside the court. They are used to seeing stray cats but most have never seen a dog before. The only action we took was to dial the number of the Jerusalem Municipality to get the people in charge to take it away."
"There was no talk of reincarnation, a lawyer was never mentioned, either now or 20 years ago, and there was no stoning. Such inventions are a kind of blood libel, and we wonder why the inventor of the story did not continue to describe how we collected the blood of the dog to make our matzah." (That was seriously in the statement).
The story, when circulated on Yahoo! News, attracted more than 1,800 comments, most expressing violent anger. Just another example of people believing the truly unbelievable on the Web.
I don’t know where to begin with this. The fact that Haredi kids in Jerusalem almost never see a stray dog is believable. Very traditional Jews and dogs have not historically gotten along.
Cruelty to animals is completely verboten in Jewish law. Stoning an animal would be inconceivable. Even animals marked for kosher slaughter must be killed in a manner where they don’t feel any pain.
But it’s funny how the reincarnation part seems the least objectionable. Almost a given. Even the fact that it was a lawyer who came back as a dog, with the dog apparently higher on the evolutionary scale. Makes sense. :)
Reincarnation has a prominent place in Jewish folklore – which means in Jewish theology too. Remember, we have no dogma (no pun intended) when it comes to life after death. So we can believe pretty much whatever we want. And many Jews, particularly mystics, strongly believe in reincarnation.
And it all comes back to this week’s portion of Hayye Sarah.
Right at the beginning of the portion it says, “These were the lives of Sarah.” "LIVES" is in the plural. And her 127 years are broken down in a strange way. One hundred years, and twenty years and seven years. It’s as if she had three lives.
In the portion, there seem to be interesting correspondences between Abraham and elements of eastern religions, which some believe alludes to reincarnation. After Sarah’s death, Abraham remarries and has a number of kids with Hindu sounding names, like Yokshan, whose name has the same root letters as Krishna, and a grandchild literally named Shiva – and Abraham’s own name has the same root letters as Brama, another Hindu deity.
The text in 25:5 tells us that "Abraham gave "all that he had" to Isaac. But to the concubine-children who were Abraham's from his later wife Ketura, Abraham gave gifts; then he sent them away ( verse 6), "eastward to the land of the east." The classical commentators wonder, if he had already given "all that he had" to Isaac, what were these gifts that he gave the (soon to be) eastbound children? Rashi surmised, from his 11th century perch in the Rhineland, that he gave them spiritual gifts -- knowledge that they would need for their journey to the lands of the east. It's possible that this is the common origin of Judaism and the East's shared belief in reincarnation.
The Kabbalists had a field day with this. But even among mainstream commentators, there is the traditional Jewish belief in a form of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, stemming from the idea that every Jewish soul was present at Sinai. All Souls Day for Jews is Shavuot, and our trick or treat bounty is a plate full of blintzes.
The Zohar adds, 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)
Also from the Zohar:
All souls are subject to reincarnation; and people do not know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be God! 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. Humans 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 great Italian Kabbalist Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal) explained:
A single soul can be reincarnated a number of times in different bodies, and in this manner, it can rectify damage done in previous incarnations. Similarly, it can also achieve perfection that was not attained in its previous incarnations.
This would help to explain the classical existential question of why bad things happen to good people (and vice versa). They make up for it in a future life.
There is a Jewish believe that a human being at their core essence is a consciousness, one that transcends the corporeal self. In this light, the human experience is painted on a vastly larger canvas than we currently imagine and has a critical bearing on who we are. One way of exploring this idea is through the following metaphor: You have an axe. It gets a nick in the head so you have it replaced. Then, the handle breaks, and you replace that. Is it the same axe? Biologically speaking we don't inhabit the same container for the duration of our lives as most of our cells fully replicate about every 10 years. If our consciousness can endure a series of shifting bodies then perhaps it can leap from one to another. It's no less conceivable than the fact of being born in the first place.
Rabbi Isaac Luria's "Gates of Incarnations" is a fascinating exploration of the soul roots of many of the key figures of the Torah. It demonstrates how seemingly unrelated events and people in classic Biblical accounts are actually the same (albeit) reincarnated souls back to take a second crack at achieving their potential or to rectify their poor choices and the negative consequences from previous incarnations.
For example, though Noah was considered a righteous man, he is faulted for failing to take responsibility for his generation and allowing them to be destroyed by the flood. The Hebrew word for the boat he built (and that saved humanity) is "teyva." This word is only used one more time in the Torah and it also involves being saved from the water. It's the name given to the little raft that Moses' mother made to hide him from the Egyptians. According to Rabbi Luria, Moses is the soul of Noah who's been offered a second chance to take responsibility for his people and the unusual word is the hint that links the accounts. (This particular soul succeeds with flying colors in round two). Others see Noah coming back as Isaac Newton and Moses as the reincarnation of Cain
Who knows where the truth lies, but as you hear all about Halloween and All Souls Day this week as being a purely Christian concept, think of that dog in the courtroom. It’s probably Bernie Madoff, just looking for a way to make things right.