Every human on earth has 8 great grandparents and 16 great great grandparents. Each of these 24 individuals contributes an equal amount of genetic material to their descendants. Nevertheless, siblings who share the same 24 ancestors do not have identical genomes.
Unless they are identical twins their physical, mental and personality traits always differ, sometimes greatly, from their siblings who share the same physical genetic heritage.
This difference is the result of both the unique physical combination of genes that occurs at conception; and the unique human soul that enters the body during the first or second trimester.
Every year many hundreds of people find out that one or two of their 24 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 Progressive synagogues.
These people provide a rather unusual form of evidence for reincarnation that comes from the Jewish mystical tradition; the Kabbalah. Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Kabbalah does not teach that reincarnation (gilgul) occurs over the course of hundreds 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 in their current lifetime. These esoteric Kabbalistic concepts from the 12th to 17th centuries; were popularized and spread throughout Eastern Europe, especially in Poland and Ukraine, by the Hassidic movement in the last half of the 18th and 19th century.
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 Abraham and Moses or Sarah and Miriam can turn into dozens of individual sparks that can reincarnate several times over many centuries.
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 non-Jewish descendant souls will then 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 either voluntarily or involuntarily.
Through conversion to Judaism they feel they are coming home.
Sometimes these souls are descendants of Jews who were part of whole communities that were cut off, like the Marranos of Spain and Portugal, or European Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust and then the decades of Communist oppression.
Other times they are descendants of individual Jews who married non-Jews and did not raise their children to be faithful Jews.
An example of the later from England is recounted by Rabbi Barbara Borts: “One of the most touching conversions I ever did was a young girl of 11, brought to me by her mother, to discuss Judaism. The mother was a widow, living back at home with her mother and her father, who was a minister.
This girl had done some research on Hanukkah for her school class, and in the process both loved what she learned and discovered that her late father’s grandfather was a German Jew.
I asked her mother why she would support this. Her response was that her two daughters were no longer going to church, and she was delighted that one of them had found a religious home.
When I said that I could not imagine doing what she was doing if the positions were reversed, she said, ”It’s different for Jews, after the Holocaust and all.”
So, the girl started Hebrew school classes, and attending services. I moved a couple of years later, and bequeathed her to the next rabbi. Some years later, we met up again when she was in University. She had converted, changed her name permanently, was an active member of a Jewish student organization, and planed to become a Rabbi; she may even now be in rabbinical school.”
Most of the time people who become Jewish do not find out that they have a Jewish ancestor until years after their conversion.
According to a mystical 14th century Kabbalistic teaching found in Sefer HaPliyah, those non-Jews 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.
The Hebrew word for reincarnation is gilgul which means recycling. Many people are born with new souls who are here for the first time. Others have a soul that has lived on this planet before. Most people do not reincarnate after their life on this earth is over.
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 (gilgul) that will seek to return to the Jewish people (Sefer HaPliyah).
Take as an example Kadin Henningsen, who grew up female and Methodist in the Midwest. As a preteen she was inexplicably drawn to Judaism, empathizing with Jewish characters in Holocaust documentaries on TV.
Then in junior high, Henningsen had a revelation while reading Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”: “I remember thinking I was supposed to grow up to be a Jewish man.”
Less than two decades later, the premonition came true. At 30, Henningsen transitioned genders and converted to Judaism, all within the span of a single summer. “It was a circular process,” he said. “The more entrenched I became in Jewish knowledge, the more comfortable I started to feel with my masculine identity.”
Henningsen’s conversion certificates were the first documents that referred to him with male pronouns. Today he is an active member of Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles.
According to Naomi Zeveloff’s article in the Jewish Daily Forward (8/16/13) Henningsen is not alone in his trajectory. Transgender converts constitute a growing minority within the small community of LGBT Jews.
For some transgender converts conversion was intrinsically linked to gender transition; the process of soul-searching unearthed one insight after another.
For others, Judaism was a lifeline during a time of immense vulnerability and isolation. When friends and family members grew distant, transgender individuals found community at the Hillel House or at a local synagogue.
Some transgender converts to Judaism came from strong Christian backgrounds and wanted to supplant their childhood religion with one that would be more accepting of their new gender identity. Others came to Judaism from a nonreligious background.
“In one way it is a search for personal authenticity,” said Rabbi Jane Litman, a congregational consultant with the Reconstructionist movement who has converted close to two dozen transgender Jews. “People who are transitioning in terms of gender are looking for a way to feel most authentically themselves.”
Jesse Krikorian, a 24-year-old engineer, began exploring Judaism as a senior at Swarthmore College, shortly after she began her gender transition.
Unhappy with her decision to take hormones, her parents threatened to withdraw their financial support. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and there was a lot of chaos and uncertainty,” he later recounted. “I found that I really needed community and ritual and all those good things.”
Though he was raised Methodist, Krikorian was always interested in the Old Testament. A visit to the campus Hillel confirmed that Judaism might provide him with the community he was seeking: The Hillel director at the time, Jacob Lieberman, was also a transgender man.
“I didn’t have any questions of whether I could be transgender and Jewish,” Krikorian said. “It was really clear that the combination could work.”
Krikorian attended Friday night services at Hillel each week and began to recite a prayer about transformation each time he bound his chest to appear more masculine. After graduating from college, he moved to Philadelphia. There he joined Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue. He converted and hopes to go to rabbinical school.
Thus the Gilgul process, especially due to the large amount of geographic and social mobility in modern times, ofter leads to transformations that lead Non-Jews to become Jewish.
These souls will seek to return to the Jewish people, and a majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people have Jewish souls from one of their ancestors.
It is possible to see this form of reincarnation occurring in the world today in the experience of thousands of non-Jews who become Jewish.