The God Squad: Born Again: Are we reincarnated after death?

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

Q: Some people say reincarnation is biblical and happens today, what is

your take on reincarnation? – (From S)

A: Thank you, dear S, for bringing up one of the great and enduring mysteries of the human condition. Despite the fact that death is inevitable, we humans cling to the belief that death is just a bump along the way of our soul’s journey to God.

Let us begin in the Bible where there was no belief in life after death or of the radical difference between body and soul. After Aristotle planted the seeds of the Greek philosophical belief in matter and form among the Jews after the conquests of Alexander in 331 BCE, the rabbinic doctrines of body and soul and life after death in Heaven (The World To Come) and Hell entered Judaism and from there entered Christianity and Islam.

Traditional Orthodox Judaism, traditional Islam, and Catholicism do not believe in or teach reincarnation. However, among believers, those who are persuaded by the claims of reincarnation may be as high as 25 percent.

Hinduism is another matter altogether. Life after death for the soul in Hindu teachings, (punarjanma) has been a major foundational teaching since the Upanishads. According to Hindu belief, the soul (atman) is born again and again after death. These reincarnations carry the soul either higher or lower depending upon their karma which is the sum of their good deeds and bad deeds while alive.

In my view, the best reason for rejecting the belief in reincarnation is that it devalues death. Death is either the end of us or it isn’t. If we are born again and again then death is not that big a deal. It is just one inning in a very long game. However, if we approach this life as if it is the only life we will ever be given then we can develop a moral urgency for our lives. We can and must try to do the best we can to do God’s will every single day. Waiting for another life devalues this one.

Also, how would reincarnation actually work? If we cannot remember our previous lives, what is the point of being reborn? We cannot benefit from the knowledge gained before our rebirth. If we can recall our previous lives, as the psychiatrist Brian Weiss believes in his work in hypnosis and past lives regression, how do we sort out what we learned then and what is just a hazy vision? It is just not clear to me how we realize the supposed benefits of living a previous life.

On the other hand, the best argument for reincarnation is the mercy of God. For God to limit our souls to one life in one body seems spiritually unfair. Life is tough and we are weak vessels, and we make mistakes. Why should our entire life be held hostage to our weakest moments? Why not give us a chance for a lifetime mulligan – a second swing – to try to get right what we messed up in our previous life? Furthermore, some people die very young and never have a chance to even live one full life. Why not give those who died with their song still in them another chance to sing?

Resolving the question of reincarnation is clearly above my pay grade, but it is a fascinating speculation on what awaits our soul after the death of our bodies. I am definitely on board with the belief that death is not the end of us. I fervently believe that we will not be separated forever from those we love. However, I am just not sure that I believe in or even desire a return ticket to earth after I enter Heaven (or not). My view is that I have enough to worry about trying to live a good life here and now to worry about what will happen to me there and then.

If all this is not enough for you, then try this glorious poem by Mary Oliver, may her memory be blessed:


When Death Comes,

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)

©2024 The God Squad. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.




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