This piece by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue appeared in the Credo section of The Times on 10 August 2019.
Have you noticed how reincarnation, which was once on the radar of very few people, now seems to be a more common subject of conversation in Britain? Perhaps it is because, although reincarnation is key to several faiths, few people were familiar with it unless they had travelled to the Far East. Now there are Buddhist centres, Sikh gurdwaras and Hindu temples in many high streets.
Reincarnation also provides an answer to the mystery that tantalises us: what happens when we die? What next? To misquote Shakespeare: “To be again, or not to be again? That is the question.” The concept is as alien to Judaism as it is to Christianity, and it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. However, that has not stopped some rabbis — particularly in the mystical tradition — from suggesting that reincarnation is a punishment for misdemeanours that must be rectified until spiritual perfection is achieved.
This solves another big problem that bedevils all faiths: why do innocent people suffer? Answer: because of what they did wrong in a former existence. It neatly explains why young people get cancer, or why some people are born with disabilities, or why millions of people were murdered in the Holocaust.
It comes, however, at a significant theological price and leads us to ask if this is the way of a loving God. It also means that we lack free will and suffer the consequences of what happened in a previous life.
As we do not know for sure what occurs after death, we cannot rule out reincarnation any more than we can assert the definite existence of Heaven and Hell. That is why mainstream Judaism, whether Orthodox or Progressive, tends to discourage talk of what awaits us and concentrates instead on how we behave in this world. This prosaic “getting on with things” is in recognition of the innate human urge to live on in some way, and it offers routes to immortality through what we do in the here and now.
One route, for those with children, is that we live on in them and their descendants. Even after several generations, our genes are still carried by our descendants. Another route is the memory of us, through our families, friends, colleagues and neighbours. For as long as they are alive, we continue too (although we need to ensure they have good memories of us).
Our influence also lives on if those who knew us act in a certain way because of us, or see the world through a lens that we helped to shape. Good deeds also survive, through the charities we supported, the people we mentored, the ventures we helped, and the individuals to whom we offered a kind word when they were in need.
Lastly, our bodies, or ashes, go into the earth, replenish it, nourish it, sustain it and become part of its longevity.
As well as these long-term thoughts, there is also a more immediate angle. I recently asked a group of people in the twilight of their lives what they would do if they came back as themselves. Some people said that they would take more risks, make different choices and move out of their comfort zone. Others said that they would live each day as if it were their last and live it more joyously.
This is where religion can make a difference. It challenges people while they are still alive to adopt alternatives, rise above the ruts they are in and become a better version of themselves.
In Judaism, that is the purpose of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is a chance not just to reflect on the faults of the past year, which is relatively easy, but to tackle the much more difficult task of making sure that the next year is not a repeat performance.
We need to avoid the fate of the employee who, after being given a gold watch for completing 50 years at his factory, said that it had not really been 50 years, but one year 50 times over.
Whether it be changing our jobs, relationships, or personal conduct, it is far better to assume that there is only one life and that we have to make the best of it. Who needs reincarnation as someone else or in another world when we can renew ourselves in this one?