Nearly all religious traditions have some teaching regarding life after death. To many scholars, this is one of religion’s primary roles: to assuage our fear of death by promising that, on some way, some aspect of ourselves will survive it.
Biblical Judaism is extremely vague on the afterlife. Some verses — “the dead do not praise Yah” (Psalm 115), for example — seem to suggest that there is no life after death of any meaningful kind. Others seem to allude to otherworldly, possibly demonic, realms such as Azazel and Sheol, the latter embellished in legend as a sort of Hades. Much of the Biblical ambiguity (if it is even that) may be attributed to the non-dualistic conception of the soul in Biblical Judaism. Unlike Greek thought, which influenced all subsequent Western thinking about the soul, ancient Judaism did not appear to have a doctrine that there is a soul separate from the body. Today, this doctrine is very intriguing for those of us who believe that Western religion has wrongly separated Aspiritual@ matters from bodily ones. However, it presents problems as well. Whereas Greek-influenced Christianity could promise reward and punishment in a world after this one, ancient Judaism focused on the here and now. If Israel kept its covenant with God, its rewards would not be in heaven; they would be good crops and protection from enemies.
By the time of the Talmud, the orientation had shifted. Perhaps the Talmud’s most extreme statement on the afterlife is “This whole world is merely a vestibule for the world to come.” (Mishna Avot 4:3) Having absorbed some of the dualism of the Greeks, and worked out some idea of an incorporeal soul, the Talmud abounds with comments on who has a place in the world to come and who doesn’t. A careful reader will note, however, that the Talmud uses the world to come primarily as a prod for behavior in this world. Yes, there are promises of an end-time at which all the dead will be resurrected — but there are far fewer descriptions of that time than in Christianity. Yes, there are ideas of heaven, hell, and purgatory. But compared with other religions, there is not a clear, worked out answer to the question of “What happens when we die?”
As a result, Kabbalah and the mystical, esoteric texts which preceded it have a wide-open field on which to speculate. And speculate they do. Early Jewish mystical writings have vivid descriptions of heavenly realms, which scholars today believe were explored using elaborate visualization techniques. Angels, demons, magical creatures, souls of the departed and ghosts populate Kabbalistic literature much more than some contemporary popularizers would like to admit. Yet there is no reason to run away from this mythical material. Angels and demons, present in folk religions throughout the world, speak to our deep, primal selves in terms of archetypes and lore. Whether or not we believe these entities exist outside our own mental projections, they certainly can exist within our mental projections, like beloved characters from Shakespeare or film. And precisely because there was no well-defined Jewish orthodoxy on the afterlife, the imaginative faculties of the Kabbalists were free to create a vibrant, often bewildering array of supernatural characters.
The Kabbalistic term for transmigration of souls is gilgul, a word related to the Hebrew word for wheel, galgal. Many Kabbalists believed that souls transmigrate, and that each of us possesses an ancient soul that was present in many lifetimes before this one. (How the Kabbalists squared this doctrine with the classical Jewish idea of resurrection of the dead is a complicated story.) Moreover, unlike ordinary reincarnation, gilgul followed specific patterns. Great sages were said to be gilgulim of past great sages. Drawing on folk beliefs, righteous persons were believed to be reincarnated as fish (!). And, anticipating New Age practices such as past-life regression, magical Kabbalists developed techniques to discern past gilgulim of individuals alive today.
Now, as with other magical practices, one might ask what all this has to do with the core truths of the Kabbalah, the infinite God and the finite world, and so on. As contemporary teacher Eckhart Tolle once said, “It doesn’t matter who you were in your past life if you don’t know Who you are in this one.” Fair question, and fair critique. Conceptually speaking, gilgul and other magical/mythical ideas have no relation to the core truths of Kabbalah. But Kabbalah is not merely a conceptual scheme. As we access the deep truths of our selves, emotional and imaginative sensitivities become awakened. We are opened to deep wells of our unconscious minds, which many people understand as residue from past lives. We see deeply into the eyes of the Other, which many people understand as gilgulim of past souls. Whatever we make of the mythic language of gilgul, dybbuk, and similar teachings, we should see it as closely connected to the sort of personal transformation that real study of the Kabbalah entails.