Nine million Americans have bought the book “Heaven Is for Real” over the last three years; and many more will see the recently released movie.
This should not be surprising since a Harris Poll released in December 2013, found that 68% of Americans believe in heaven and 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death.
However, only 24% of Americans believe in reincarnation. Thus two and a half times more Americans believe in Heaven than reincarnation (gilgul in Hebrew).
Many fewer American Jews believe in heaven than Americans in general. Thus, the ratio between Jews who believe in heaven and those who believe in gilgul, which means recycling, is about even.
Gilgul teaches that while many people are born with new souls and are here for the first time; others have a soul that has lived on this planet before.
And most people do not need to reincarnate after their life on this earth is over.
An unusual form of evidence for gilgul/reincarnation comes from the Jewish mystical tradition; the Kabbalah.
Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Kabbalah does not teach that reincarnation (gilgul) occurs over the course of millions of years to millions of different sentient species.
According to Kabbalah, only the souls of self conscious moral creatures like human beings reincarnate; and they reincarnate only when they have not fulfilled the purpose of their creation.
Since Judaism is an optimistic religion, most Kabbalists teach that most people can accomplish their life’s purpose in one or two lifetimes. A few souls may take 3-5 lifetimes or more.
The bright souls of great religious figures like Moses or Miriam can turn into dozens of sparks that can each reincarnate several times.
The tragic souls of Jews whose children have been cut off from the Jewish people, either through persecution or forced conversion to another religion, will reincarnate as one of their own no longer Jewish descendants.
These descendant souls will seek to return to the Jewish people.
A majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people have Jewish souls from one of their own ancestors.
Thus, the Jewish mystical tradition, claims that the souls of most converts to Judaism are the reincarnated souls of Jews in previous generations who were cut off from the Jewish people.
Through conversion to Judaism they are coming home. Sometimes these souls are descendants of Jews who were part of whole communities that were cut off, like the Marranos or European Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust and then Communist oppression.
Other times they are simply the descendants of individual Jews who married out and did not raise their own children as faithful Jews.
Most of the time people who become Jewish do not find out that they have a Jewish ancestor until years after their conversion.
But some learn about their Jewish ancestry through genetic or genealogical studies and then find themselves drawn to Judaism and the Jewish People.
For example, Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow announced plans three years ago to raise her two children as Jews.
The Oscar-winning actress, whose mother is not Jewish, says her decision was prompted by a recent discovery about her Jewish heritage when she appeared on NBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?” program.
The show, which explores the genealogy of its guests, revealed that her father, late film producer Bruce Paltrow, was descended from a long line of East European rabbis, and that her Polish great-great-grandfather was Rabbi Simon Paltrowich.
Through genetic studies many hundreds of people every year learn that one or two of their ancestors might have been Jewish.
For most of them this discovery is an interesting fact of little significance. For many of them it might be an embarrassment to be ignored.
But for some of them it becomes a life changing discovery. They feel drawn to Jewish people and seek to learn about Jewish music, food, literature, culture and religion.
They feel more and more attached in some mysterious way to the Holocaust and the struggle of Israel to live in peace in the Middle East.
Many of these people eventually are led to become Jewish either by formal conversion or by informal reversion within Reform synagogues.
A 14th century Jewish Kabbalistic teaching found in Sefer HaPliyah, claims those people who do feel this powerful attraction to Jewish things and Jewish people, have Jewish souls that are reincarnations (gilgulim) of one of their own Jewish ancestors from 3-7 generations in the past.
That explains why they react to the discovery of some Jewish heritage in such a unusual way. It also explains why many people who do not even know that they have Jewish ancestors follow a similar path; and only discover a Jewish ancestor years after they have returned to the Jewish people.
Most people who end up becoming Jewish, especially now, after the Jewish people have experienced several generations of assimilation, marriage to non-Jews, hiding from anti-semitism and outright genocide, are descendants of people whose children, in one way or another, have been cut off from the Jewish People.
Among their non-Jewish descendants a few will inherit a Jewish soul that will seek to return to the Jewish people.
If you know people who you think might have an ancestor who was Jewish, but no one in their family seems to know, you can give them the following introspective personality and character test to aid them in discovering some hints.
1- Do you like to ask questions especially about religion? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others didn’t question it.
2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child. You prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus, the son of God, even though you were told to pray to Jesus. You never could believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven.
3- On first learning of the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than your friends or other members of your family. You feel some sense of connection with the Jewish struggle to defend Israel.
4- You have an attraction to Jewish people, or to Judaism and Jewish culture. You have always been more open to people who were culturally, nationally or religiously different from your own family, than your friends or class mates.
If you answer yes to three of these four items you probably have Jewish ancestors. Many, but not all, people who answer yes to all four items will be interested in learning more about their Jewish roots. If you become very interested in studying Judaism you might have a Jewish soul.
If the following item also applies to you, you certainly have a Jewish soul.
5- When you start to learn about Judaism: the ideas and values seem reasonable to you; the traditions and heritage are very attractive to you; and the non-Jews around you as well as you yourself, are surprised that you slowly come to feel that you are coming home.
Examples of gilgul in action can be found on my web site: rabbimaller.com