When I was 10, I thought my friend Kevin Hennessey was nuts. Whenever he’d get mad at me, he’d scream out, “You Jews are all gonna boin in hell!” To which I’d respond, with all the cocky self-assuredness that drove him nuts in the first place: “Nyaaa! There ain’t no hell in my religion!”
Only decades later did I learn, to my shock, that his religion had borrowed hell from mine! As Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up!”
The Talmudic rabbis, in fact, were convinced that there is a special place — Gehinnom — for notorious sinners, such as Korach’s rebels, Jewish kings who sponsored idolatry and, lest we forget, a certain Messiah, who was said to be spending eternity in boiling excrement.
All this came to mind one recent morning when my buddy the Archbishop forwarded me a news item — with his own outraged commentary at an apparent anti-Semitic slander. The report claimed (erroneously, it turns out) that a “Haredi rabbinic court” in Jerusalem presided over the stoning death of a stray dog after determining its body harbored the reincarnated soul of “a secular lawyer, now deceased, who had insulted the court 20 years earlier.”
So which do you consider more bizarre: That Torah sages would stone a dog to death or that the same sages harbor a worldview that includes metempsychosis (a fancy Greek term for “transmigration of the soul from body to body”)?
Let’s begin with metempsychosis. As any survivor of Prof. Jaffee’s UW offering on “Jewish Mystical Tradition” well knows, from roughly the 16th-18th centuries, not only did most Jews — Sephardic or Ashkenazic — believe in the restoration of the soul to the body at resurrection, they also held, as a matter of conviction, the idea that each individual soul, in the course of millennial wanderings, routinely inhabits many bodies until it completes the mission for which God sent it into the world!
The idea is unknown to the Talmud and finds no place in Maimonides. It first surfaces publicly in the Sefer ha-Bahir (around the 12th century) and, riding the coattails of the Zohar, makes steady progress among Kabbalistic adepts. It finally goes viral among the disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great 16th-century theologian of Kabbalah.
In full Lurianic dress, this process of soul-migration is called gilgul hanefashot. The idea is that every soul has a repair (tikkun) to make in this world in order to prepare the world for redemption. And each soul might take a number of “circuits” (gilgulim) through this world until it accomplishes its particular tikkun. Sometimes, the new gilgul brings one to a higher form of life. Sometimes not.
Consider this story from the Toledot ha-Ari, a collection of legends about Rabbi Isaac Luria compiled by his disciple, Shlomil of Dresnitz, a generation after the master sloughed off his mortal coil in 1572:
Once the rabbi went with his disciples to Ayn Zatun.
When they arrived at a grove of olive trees, a raven came and perched on a branch near the rabbi and called out repeatedly.
Said the rabbi: “Remember Shabbetai, the tax collector? Well his soul has become embodied in this raven! Because of his cruelty to the poor, he was punished with this heartache of being reborn as a raven. And now he asks me to pray for him!”
Immediately, the rabbi rebuked him and said: “Wicked One! Be on your way!” And the raven flew off.
You’ll get why this Shabbetai surely had coming to him a few more years pecking seeds out of cow pies! But let’s fast-forward from 16th-century Tsfat to 21st-century Jerusalem and the case of the chutzpadik lawyer trapped in the body of a dog.
This case of gilgul has drawn international attention, despite the disclaimer by the Maariv daily, whose editors hastily apologized for turning a vicious rumor into an occasion for anti-Semitic factoids. Everyone from PETA (animal rights) to Al Jazeera (Palestinian rights) has weighed in on this latest “Zionist assault” on humanitarian norms.
Well, in order to set the record straight, and restore the Jewish people’s reputation for humaneness, let me share another story that might reassure the humanitarian community that there are indeed Jews who cherish humankind’s best friend — even one unwittingly harboring the soul of a shark!
Consider this account of events surrounding the death of one Nahman David Dovinski, in 2009:
Upon returning to their Meah Shearim flat from the funeral, Reb Dovinski’s family found an unfamiliar dog sitting at their door. All attempts to remove him failed. The family took the dog out of the neighborhood, but it returned again to the same spot. Despite endless attempts to expel the dog, it refused to leave.
Meanwhile, a neighborhood rabbi arrived and instructed that the dog be served a Shabbat meal, in hopes that this would convince him to leave.
Only after the dog was told, “you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven,” did it agree to eat.
Finally, a renowned Kabbalist, Rabbi Meir Brandsdorfer z”l, recommended reciting tehilim and mishnayot. The rabbi himself left the home of the deceased at dawn in order to say kaddish on Dovinski’s grave.
Neighborhood residents and family members report that the dog willingly left the house during the kaddish!
Finally, a crew from Jerusalem municipality’s veterinary services arrived at the scene and picked up the dog, as hundreds of residents from Meah Shearim and other neighborhoods escorted the vehicle that evacuated the dog. (Condensed from failedmessiah.com).
If you’re like me, you’ll want to know: Was this loyal pooch a gilgul of Nahman Dovinski? Did the rabbi’s kaddish permit Reb Nahman’s soul to finally leave his beloved home for this next gilgul? And, finally, what was that next gilgul?
Rebirth in the body of a lawyer, I suppose, is too much to hope for.