- Reincarnation in Jewish Mysticism and Gnosticism
Dina Eylon's monograph Reincarnation in Jewish Mysticism and Gnosticism offers a worthwhile contribution to the history of one of the most intriguing, though misunderstood, doctrines in Judaism. There is a common misconception that Judaism, like Christianity, rejects the notion of reincarnation. Eylon's [End Page 173] study dispels this fallacy by offering a detailed examination of the numerous discussions of reincarnation in the medieval kabbalistic classic, Sefer ha-Bahir. She also explores precursors and possible influences on this text, through an analysis of Rabbinic and Gnostic writings. In so doing, Eylon presents a wide variety of fascinating sources in a methodical and accessible fashion.
At the core of Eylon's study is the Bahir. Long considered by Gershom Scholem and most other scholars of the Jewish mysticism to be the oldest treatise of the Kabbalah, the Bahir is well deserving of Eylon's attention. In a mere half a dozen pages Scholem presented and discussed some of the pertinent passages from the Bahir in his seminal essay, "Gilgul: The Transmigration of Souls," included in On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead. Eylon is thus the first to consider the full range of the Bahir's statements on this topic. Her comments are illuminating and interesting. As background Eylon provides a broad-ranging presentation of the concept of the soul and afterlife in Biblical and post-Biblical Jewish sources, as well as in Gnostic literature. She is to be commended for the breadth and richness of her discussion and for her solid knowledge and comprehension of this vast array of primary and secondary literature. Central to Eylon's thesis is the assertion that "the rabbinic belief-system regarding the afterlife and the human soul was the paramount influence on the development of the doctrine of reincarnation that crystallized in the Bahir" (p. v). She effectively supports this argument through a careful discussion of numerous Talmudic and Midrashic sources. In terms of the Bahir itself, Eylon succeeds in elucidating a very difficult and enigmatic work.
Eylon divides her study into four chapters. In Chapter One, "Reincarnation in Prior Research," she traces the topic of the afterlife and reincarnation in Pre-Bahiric Jewish thought. She also provides an overview of the treatment of the soul in Gnostic writings. Chapter Two is entitled "The Soul and Afterlife in Talmudic and Midrashic Literature." Herein, she offers numerous substantive and edifying citations from classical Rabbinic sources. In contradistinction to Scholem, who denied that reincarnation is found in Rabbinic literature, Eylon expands upon obscure Rabbinic sources first noted in 1938 by Herbert Loewe in A Rabbinic Anthology (p. 662), presenting Talmudic texts that seem to affirm the reincarnation of animals. She effectively draws parallels between this material and the Greek philosophical tradition. In this regard one could note a significant missed opportunity. Although she does mention Philo on several occasions, she neglects to consider his allusions to reincarnation. For example in De Somniis I:138 Philo reframes Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28 as the ascent and descent of souls: "[S]ome, longing for familiar and accustomed ways of mortal life, again retrace their steps." In so doing, Philo is interjecting a common theme from Platonic writings into the Biblical narrative. [End Page 174]
In Chapter Three, "The Soul and Afterlife in the Nag Hammadi Literature," Eylon illuminates assertions that she made in the first chapter concerning the role of reincarnation in Gnostic literature. By drawing attention to the imagery and symbolism found in these Gnostic sources in relation to reincarnation she has opened up an important new avenue for further research and investigation.
Chapter Four, "The Doctrine of Reincarnation in Sefer ha-Bahir," constitutes the heart of her presentation. Herein she methodically presents lengthy extracts from the Bahir and analyzes them in order to demonstrate her thesis that these discussions of reincarnation were ultimately influenced by both classical Rabbinic literature and Gnostic texts. The influence of the former is quite evident and undeniable, whereas the Bahir's familiarity with...