Ami Magazine Tries to Force Gilgulim Down Our Throats

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Ami Magazine published an article by Sara Yocheved Rigler that would have many of our Geonim and Rishonim turning over in their graves. In a nutshell, the article describes strange phenomena such as fear of Nazi related imagery or fear of situations that might be similar to Holocaust experiences. The people experiencing these things are not able to explain why they have these fears.

According to the article, these are manifestations of reincarnated souls from the Holocaust. That is the only explanation given for these oddities (which are not very odd at all). In fact, the article goes so far as to suggest that non-Jews are also reincarnated with Jewish souls from the Holocaust and this is what draws them toward conversion. Of course this is problematic because those who believe in reincarnation and recycling of souls also believe that souls only transmigrate from Jew to Jew and non-Jews are given new souls with each birth. This is waved away by a rabbi quoted in the article who says if you wanted to be a non-Jew in a previous life you come back as a non-Jew.

I have three basic issues with this article.

1. It is disingenuous because it uses anecdotes from people who do not necessarily agree with the article as support for the article’s ideas. For example, Rabbi Berel Wein is quoted at the beginning of the article. He related that the Ponevezher Rav once said to a group of young couples in Miami that their job was to repopulate the world with Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. That is a common Jewish sentiment from the mid-20th century. The problem is that it is being used as some sort of support for the idea that Jews born in America are reincarnations of people who perished in the Holocaust. He said nothing of the sort. He meant nothing of the sort. There is simply no reason to think he did.

Another similar example is using R’ Lau’s recollection of the Holocaust. He famously said that experiencing the Holocaust as a child left him with three strong memories. Dogs, boots, and trains. This is somehow used as support for the idea that someone who is afraid of boots is reincarnated from someone who perished in the Holocaust.

Neither of those stories has anything to do with reincarnation. But it gives the article “credence” to toss a few familiar names into the article to prove irrelevant, agreed upon points.

2. Stay away from the Holocaust. Trying to explain Holocaust deaths as tikkun and a way of cleansing a soul is offensive. We don’t know why people die. We don’t even know if there is always a reason that people die. To try to make death feel better because it’s part of a giant soul reincarnation cleansing plan is no better than saying they died because of their sins. It’s ugly.

But more importantly, it demonstrates that the real reason reincarnation is being discussed in this context is to make us feel better. We don’t understand death and destruction so we explain it with reincarnation. We don’t understand how millions could die for no reason so we explain it with reincarnation. We can’t explain a fear of showers or boots so it must be reincarnated souls from the Holocaust. There might be better answers to these questions. But the article does not explore them. Using the emotional appeal of the Holocaust to draw us into a reincarnation narrative is inappropriate.

3. Most importantly, reincarnation is a very controversial subject in Judaism. It’s not mentioned in Tanach. It’s not mentioned in the Talmud or Medrash. It’s rejected by most of the Geonim. It is rejected or ignored by many of the mainstream Rishonim. It serves no theological purpose other than to explain things that might be able to be explained in another way.


The article jumps right into reincarnation without a moment’s consideration of the very prominent Torah authority figures that reject reincarnation. This is at worst a lie and at best ignorance. But either way it is incomplete. Gilgul is not a necessary belief in orthodox Judaism. In fact, it might be worst to believe in it than not to believe in it. Why are we normalizing this kind of thing? Why are we discarding the valid opinions that don’t hold of gilgul? Why is it okay to just side with the Arizal on everything and forget about everyone else?

I don’t need to make the complete case against gilgul here. But I will make a couple of points.

The Ancient Greeks believed in reincarnation. We did not. We knew their beliefs and we rejected them in the time of Chazal. It’s impossible to say that Jews did not talk about reincarnation because they just didn’t know that it could exist. It was known and it was not accepted. It began to be accepted by a select few Rishonim after being rejected by the two most prominent early Rishonim that discuss Hashkafa, Rambam and Rabbi Judah HaLevi. The one prominent Rishon who does mention gilgul is Ramban and he does so at the expense of an interpretation on the verse that is in Chazal. In other words, they had a different explanation for the verse. The interpretation of Ramban contradicts Chazal.

In the 15th and 16th century there was a renewed interest in this sort of thing. Dybbuks also became more popular in this period. (See: Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism ) But it’s no fait accompli that gilguls and dybbuks are part of Judaism. We have no idea if it’s true and our early sources say that it’s not.

It’s not a positive development that these beliefs have gone mainstream. They are too easy to reject and cast aspersion on the more vital parts of Judaism. We don’t need this stuff in Judaism and it doesn’t improve our lives. Why are we so willing and eager to embrace it in our publications without question? This is my little protest. Don’t force these beliefs down our throats. It’s not integral to Judaism.

(Note: Reincarnation at the times of Messiah has nothing to do with this discussion.)

Read the article here: PDF

  • MarkSoFla

    When you don’t have logic on your side, or you don’t even understand logic, you rely on magic (mysticism, etc).

  • Holy Hyrax

    Rabbi, I know Saadia Gaon in his Deot v’Emunot comes out strongly against reincarnation. Obviously, people in his time were already starting to believe in it or else why would he feel the need to write about it. But do you have other sources for other Geonim and Rishonim against it. Saying Rambam was against it doesn’t help. It would be good to have the actual sources.

    • Rambam doesn’t mention it anywhere. But he does say that an animal has a different soul than a human. This precludes some types of gilgulim. R’ Judah HaLevi says it Kuzari explicitly that it’s fantasy.

  • Heshy R

    “We don鈥檛 need this stuff in Judaism and it doesn鈥檛 improve our lives. ”

    I beg to differ about the last part. While I won’t argue or dispute the fact that these ideas are themselves in dispute in Judaism, as you point out, I will say that the people interviewed in the article seem to have had their lives improved by the therapy described within (which is itself very similar to the past-life regression practiced and expounded upon by Dr Brian L. Weiss, author of Many Lives, Many Masters). In some cases, people suffering from Holocaust-related nightmares (who are not survivors themselves, and have no direct connection to survivors or the Holocaust) and inability to move past related emotional traumas have these problems removed as a result. You can be a skeptic of this if you like; so was Dr Weiss, whose classical medical education at Yale trained him to be a professional skeptic. I, on the other hand, was married to a woman who suffered (and still does) from these nightmares and related phenomena, so I know something of what it’s like to deal with it. Let’s just say that in many cases, traditional therapy has not helped.

    For the record: I am the editor of that Ami article. I freelance for them and do not hold by their editorial stance in most cases.

    • Skeptical, but not rigidly so

      The fact that therapy has helped doesn’t speak to the truth or falsehood of the diagnosis. I just think about the “recovered memories” trend in the 90s. How many of those tales of ritual abuse were debunked? Yet the therapists claimed the patients were helped by the therapy . . . There can be a placebo effect in simply finding A source for the pain, and treating it as such–whether it’s objectively true or not.

      • Agreed. I was also thinking of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scam. That, and the recovered memories business employ hypnosis to create and validate false memories. I would question whether Meister’s wife was also a victim of similar therapists. Perhaps one reason traditional therapy doesn’t work is that the patient requires psychiatric treatment and medication? That a scientist or medical doctor writes a book that sells $$$$ because there is a market for it, is not credible evidence.

  • Garnel Ironheart

    This is part of the bigger picture, the one is which “the Chasidim have won”. Just as history is revised to make everyone’s grandparents Chareidim all the way back to Sinai, just as certain shitos regarding conversion and divorce have always been “the only valid shitos”, so too the authorities who disagreed with the mystics regarding resurrection have been edited out of Jewish history.
    Far easier than first justifying the reasons for believing in it before suggesting what this article did.

    • Nameless

      Well . . . let’s not declare victory yet. R. Frankfurter, the owner of Ami, is definitely of a chassidish bent, and SYR clearly is into the mystical/chassidish approach to things. The fact that chassidish/mystical items appeared in a chassidish-owned publication doesn’t speak to victory . . .

      When readers accept it at face value, though . . . that’s another story entirely

      • Garnel Ironheart

        Nah, it’s over. Eating Gebrokts is considered a lower level of Pesach observance. Not using a chicken for kapparos is considered apikorsus. And what good Jewish boy gets a haircut before his upsherin?

        • Nameless

          Not to mention the disappearance of Glatt meat as a viable option for purchase.

          I had my first haircut when I was 4. Does that mean we were extra-machmir?

  • tesyaa

    Reincarnation appears to be a topic of special intrrest to Ms. Rigler. One minute of googling brings up an article of hers from 2008 in Spirit Magazine about “previous lives”.

    • tesyaa

      In the book Let’s Face It!, found in Google Books, she and her coauthor say explicitly that reincarnation is a “normative Jewish concept”.

      • So is Reform Judaism.

        • MarkSoFla

          A better answer would be “So is the Rakiah” (or spontaneously generated lice, etc).


      • tesyaa

        And she lived in an ashram for nine years.

        • Well that explains her fascination with it. But it’s part of Buddhism, not necessarily part of Judaism.

          • tesyaa

            I wonder how many FFBs who buy her books and attend her lectures are familiar with her background. She doesn’t hide it, but her background raises the question of whether she’s introducing “foreign” ideas into “traditional” Judaism. (Not that I care personally, of course).

        • yidl613

          If Frankfurter knew this, he would not have printed this gobbledygook.
          Remember: Ami is a right wing business & ashram is bad for business.

    • Okay, so perhaps my theory was correct; this is just a method of kiruv to Jews involved in Eastern religions and practices. Hey, you can leave your ashram and yoga mat behind and join a Yeshiva, as we are on the same page as you.

  • I am very far from being an expert on these topics, however, from even a cursory reading of the actual kabbalistic sources that discuss gilgul it is very obvious that the kabbalistic concept of gilgul has very little in common with the popular conception of “reincarnation” used by Mrs. Rigler in her article, nor does it have much in common with the concept of reincarnation found in various pagan systems. In fact, from what I can gather so far, the Kabbalistic concept of gilgulei nefashos is so different from what is commonly called reincarnation that it is somewhat problematic to use that term in reference to it in the first place.

    • Yoni Cooperman

      Could you explain this further? Perhaps privately?

      • Well, as I said, I am far from being an expert on the topic. The conventional understanding of reincarnation (and, for the most part, the pagan conception) tends to be of a recycling of the “self”, or identity, of a person, in which the reincarnated person is actually the same person as that lived previously, just with a different body (and some serious memory loss). However, from what I have seen so far, it seems is fairly clear that gilgul does not involve the return of the actual person, but simply the reuse of (parts of) the soul. One of the basic problems we face here is that the concept of the “soul” in Jewish thought, and especially in kabbala, is far more complex than we tend to realize. Among the complexities is the relationship of the “self” with the soul. While I don’t claim to have full clarity on this, it is clear that the “self” and “soul” (neshama) are not identical. (The best proof to this is the blessing we say every morning, “Elokai neshama.”) Some sources seem to indicate that the human “self” is created specifically through the synthesis of the soul and the physical body (which is one of the reasons why we need resurrection). Thus, my “soul” is not “me”, and the “recycling” of my soul (or parts of it) would not imply, in any way, that I am returning to earth in a different body. Similarly, if parts of my “soul” were previously attached to other human beings, while this might create some kind of spiritual connection between me and those other people, it would not mean that I was actually them.

        I am aware that there are sources (though usually not actual kabbalistic sources) that seem to understand the concept of gilgul in a way that is more along the lines of the conventional understanding. However, asides from the fact that some of those sources may just be wrong, I suspect that the concept is often used in a over-simplified manner in order to explain ideas that, if presented in the full technical sense, would be to esoteric for a general audience. (See, for example, the comments of the Chofetz Chaim on the pasuk, “Hatzur tamim pa’alo” in parshas Ha’azinu in Sefer Chofetz Chaim AHT (in nthe notes), where he discusses the concept of gilgul in the context of understanding that everything Hashem does is just.)

        If you wish to discuss this further in private, feel free to e-mail me (at or contact me through my blog (

  • Mistabra

    “An article by Sara Yocheved Rigler that would have many of our Geonim and Rishonim turning over in their graves.” Your quote could just as easily read, “The zohar and the opinion of the majority of Acharonim on reincarnation would have many of our Geonim and Rishonim turning over in their graves.”

    Furthermore your assertion about non-Jewish souls not reincarnating is wrong or at the least incomplete, as their are many opinions in this regard. Menachem Azaria de Fano held that Nebuchadnezzar was a reincarnation of Amrafel, and Nimrod reincarnated in Sanheriv, both non-Jews, for just one example. I have never come across any sources who said that non-Jews do not reincarnate.

    Finally, I find it very strange that you so strongly advocate and embrace the documentary hypothesis, while rejecting and even showing indignation at the very idea that reincarnation has a place in Jewish thought.

    • G*3

      > Finally, I find it very strange that you so strongly advocate and embrace the documentary hypothesis, while rejecting and even showing indignation at the very idea that reincarnation has a place in Jewish thought.

      Why is that strange? Embracing the DH and rejecting gilgulim are consistent with an academic/a-mystical approach.

  • Holy Hyrax

    And how can the concept of reincarnation work with resurrection of the dead? Which body belonging to one soul would get resurrected?

    • Mistabra

      Ramban held that many bodies would be resurrected with a part of the same soul that had reincarnated in each one, while others held that only the body in which the majority of the commandments and good deeds had been fulfilled would be the one to reincarnate. If I remember correctly, it’s explained through the story of Rav Sheishes commenting on the idea that his body would not be resurrected because his past reincarnation as Buva ben Buta would be the body to arise during resurrection.

    • MarkSoFla

      There are plenty of other internal inconsistencies regarding gilgul. Some hold (Rav Yaakov Chaim Sofer) that gilgul is used for punishment and that a man’s soul can be reincarnated into a woman, a non-Jew, or a slave. Not only that, but he explicitly says that that the punishment for mishkav zachar (prohibited homosexual relations) is to be reincarnated into a woman and says that it is mida k’neged mida. [Kaf HaChaim 46:32]

      • Mistabra

        Could you give any examples of internal inconsistencies with gilgulim?

        • MarkSoFla

          What if each body had exactly the same number of good deeds?
          What if the good deed one was female but the soul was male?
          What if one body had good deeds and another was so evil that it doesn’t get olam haba?
          What if the one that had most good deeds was non-Jewish and isn’t eligible for olam haba?

          • Mistabra

            Those aren’t inconsistencies. Those are unique circumstances, but it doesn’t mean that there is no way these situations could not be dealt with or have no answer. For one, I would be be amazed if two souls living years had exactly the same number of good deeds when you consider how many good deeds there are. If the majority good deeds body was female, maybe the next best incarnation would arise. There are also opinions that even the most wicked will resurrect, and they explain that when it says ALL Jews have a share in the world to come this is speaking about the resurrection, whereas when it says in the talmud that people like Jeroboam and Ahab have no share in the world to come, it is referring to gan eden where souls reside after death but before resurrection. So in end end everyone is resurrected. Finally, I don’t know why non-Jews will not be resurrected and why being in a non-Jewish body would be a problem.

      • Yochanan

        I guess he didn’t hold of the PC, for lack of a better term, interpretation of SheLo’Asani…

      • So, being born a woman is punishment for bad behavior in a previous life? That sounds something like the pre-1979 Mormon belief that being born black was punishment for bad behavior in a pre-life.

  • Jeff S

    R Fink –
    although i agree with your overall distaste with the notion of gilgulim I am a little confused by your first criticism of the ami article. the story with the Ponevezher Rav very strongly supports this concept of gilgulim and that the souls that perished during the holocaust will be given a new body in our generation.

    to quote the story as it appears in the article
    “…the souls of a million and half jewish children murdered in the holocaust are floating in the air above us. your task is to give those souls bodies to live in.”

    • That’s just not how R Wein meant it when he said the story.

      • Jeff S


        although, i think the story demonstrates that these funny ideas are actually promulgated by well respected people in haredi society

  • YS

    It’s an unfortunate fact that in the absence proof for the unproveable, many serious people in the frum/yeshiva community use stories about gilgulim or dibbuks as ‘proof’ that Judaism is ‘right’ etc. I know of at least one very rational educator who has told me many times that one of his main sources of emunah is that he heard ‘mouth-to-mouth’ from a rebbe of his who heard from a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim a story about a dibbuk, who took over the body of a person and made some statements that purport to prove that there’s a G-d etc.
    This educator is deaf to all arguments that might make a dent in this ‘proof’. He’s certain that the story must be authentic because ‘Rav So and So would mot make up something like this’. Try telling him that similar things may have happened elsewhere in the world, involving people of other faiths, and his eyes glaze over or he fidgets uncomfortably. He and many in the yeshiva-world like him are convinced that their faith is based on rational, proveable logic and facts and they grope for proofs like dibbuks. The alternative is accepting that you can never know for sure that your religion is the ‘right’ one and people in the yeshiva-world, by and large, can’t handle that alternative.
    It’s in this context that the Ami article must be seen.

  • Marty Bluke

    See the Rashash to Bava Metzia 107a:

    诪讛 讘讬讗转讱 诇注讜诇诐 讘诇讗 讞讟讗 讗祝 讬爪讬讗转讱 讘诇讗 讞讟讗.

    The Rashash comments there:

    诪讻讗谉 住转讬专讗 拽爪转 诇讘注诇讬 讚注转 讛讙诇讙讜诇

  • A number of years ago I read that 90% of Orthodox rabbis believed in reincarnation, which surprised me, for the reasons you mentioned. I assume this figure is incorrect? Rigler seems to be a story teller, and a pretty good one, but she seems to blur the lines between scholarship and storytelling. I suspect this might be a way to connect with BuJews and Jews involved more deeply in Yoga than the exercise? SMH – Pseudoscience at its best. They use the same tactics for, “recovered memories.”