In relation to Spinoza (d.1677), his contemporary Leibniz (d.1716) reported the former's belief in “a sort of Pythagorical transmigration” (Klever 1996:47). This report has tended to be ignored, and sometimes dismissed as an exaggeration. Some reflection is perhaps necessary.
The Leibniz reference can invite associations of Neoplatonism, and also Kabbalist gilgul. However, a substantial problem with the latter subject is the wide variation of Kabbalist belief. Gilgul or transmigration was a common Kabbalist theme, emerging in many writings of the fourteenth century and later.
The Sefer Ha-Bahir is associated with Kabbalist thought. The complexities are pronounced. “The literary production and kabbalistic recension are the products of unidentified circles of medieval, European esotericists” (Sefer Ha-Bahir). The anthology was formerly believed to have appeared in Provence, but is now described in terms of Ashkenaz. Many writers contributed to this text in an ongoing process of editing. The Bahir gained a canonical status amongst Kabbalists in Spain from the thirteenth century.
Ashkenaz is “a geographical and cultural category,” identified with the Rhineland in south Germany, where Jewish pietists were active from the late twelfth century. The Ashkenaz activity was distinct from Provencal Kabbalah and the Catalan or Castilian version (Idel 2011:4).
The Bahir refers to transmigration only in relation to the bodies of men, not to animals. Other early texts refer to transmigration as occurring in all forms of existence, while another theme is that human souls reincarnate into animals. These concepts are also found in other religious and philosophical traditions. The Bahir corpus indicates that transmigration may continue for 1,000 generations (see Scholem, Gilgul). Yet some Kabbalists believed that a soul may reincarnate only three times after the first body.
According to Kabbalah expert Gershom Scholem (d.1982), the Hebrew word gilgul is a translation of tanasukh, the Arabic term for transmigration, and having "the same significance of moving from place to place" (Scholem 1987:188 note 216). The word gilgul is not found in the Bahir, and came into usage "two or three generations" afterwards (ibid:188). No justification for the transmigration theme is given in the Bahir, despite the fact that official Jewish theology completely rejected this doctrine (ibid:191). In the ninth and tenth centuries, Oriental Jews are known to have been subscribers to transmigration, a doctrine also favoured in some Muslim circles prior to orthodox prohibitions (ibid:192).
After several generations, the gilgul doctrine gained influence “with startling rapidity after 1550” (Scholem 1961:283). An elaborate version appeared in the Galli Razaya (Revealed Mysteries), composed in 1552 by an anonymous author. The doctrine then quickly “became an integral part of Jewish popular belief and Jewish folklore” (ibid).
The Kabbalists of Safed cultivated the theme of transmigration in their literature. Safed is a high altitude town in the mountains of Upper Galilee. Safed flourished in the sixteenth century, when many Jewish scholars and mystics migrated there after the expulsion from Spain. Kabbalah now reached a peak in terms of influence.
Rabbi Hayim Vital (d.1620) composed the Sefer Ha-Gilgulim (Book of Transmigrations), his exegesis occurring within the school of Isaac Luria (d.1572). This school became influential in Judaism from about 1630, favouring millenarian themes and reincarnation.
“Transmigration leaves no room at all for the conception of hell” (Scholem 1961:282). Biblical passages were enthusiastically interpreted by Kabbalists in terms of gilgul. Their texts exhibit pronounced contradictions. Some of the concepts reflect religious orthodoxy. Conservative Kabbalists resisted the idea of transmigration into the bodies of women and gentiles, an unorthodox theme favoured by a bold minority.
The prevalence of gilgul doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused new disputes between adherents and critics of Kabbalah.
Meanwhile, Elijah Delmedigo (d.1493) was expressing a theme of philosophical relevance. This Averroist of Crete lived for some years in Italy, and was familiar with events relating to the school of Marsilio Ficino (d.1499). Delmedigo regarded himself as an Aristotelian follower of Maimonides, although he is generally classified as an Averroist. He ended his first work (Treatises on Intellect and Conjunction) by expressing an opinion that the ancient teaching of transmigration harmonised with an Averroist theme ("unicity of the intellect"), in contrast to the traditional religious doctrine of immortality, in which the deceased human was believed to inhabit a permanent heaven or hell.
Delmedigo was referring, via unicity of the intellect, to a teaching of Ibn Rushd, alias Averroes (d.1198), who maintained that only the intellectual part of the soul is immortal. In this perspective, at the death of the physical body, the "intellect" rejoins the Active Intellect, losing the personality attaching to the body. That doctrine, possessing Aristotelian associations, was resented by orthodox Christianity. This Averroist theme was condemned at Paris in the late thirteenth century. That event involved the prohibition of many philosophical texts deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic clergy.
Delmedigo was apparently more sympathetic to Kabbalist transmigration than to Neoplatonism. However, his strongly rationalist approach was critical of persons whom he considered to be "pseudo-savants" of his time, meaning “the sham Kabbalists of the new school, not the genuine ones of the older and more authentic school” (Ross 2011).
Delmedigo’s subsequent letter to Pico della Mirandola (d.1494), dating to 1486, expresses an aversion to Pico’s confidence in the “Platonically corrupted Kabbalah” (ibid).
Delmedigo’s Behinat Hadat (Examination of Religion) features a strong critique of the Ficino school of Florence, to which Pico della Mirandola was affiliated. Ficino and others were enthusiastic about alchemy and magic. Delmedigo did not agree with their Kabbalist theurgy, which he evidently regarded as an aberration.
The Behinat comprised “a refutation of the Neoplatonic philosophy of Ficino and his circle, and of Christian doctrine in general, for which reason it was heavily censored when first printed in 1629” (Solomon 2015:127).
Censorship removed all the anti-Christian passages from the Behinat, creating confusion about the subject of criticism. Three and a half centuries later, due scholarship established that the main target of criticism was the Ficino school, and not Jewish Kabbalah. The Ficino Academy was basically Neoplatonist, with an extension in Christian Kabbalah and magic.
Spinoza (1632-77) is now believed to have read the Behinat, which he acquired for his personal library (Fraenkel 2012:207ff). Whether he knew anything more about Delmedigo is uncertain. A possibility is that his own critical reference to Kabbalist triflers may follow on from Delmedigo.
A contemporary of Delmedigo was Yitzhaq Abravanel (1437-1508), who is noted for a philosophical justification of gilgul. Abravanel was a prominent figure of the Spanish Jewish community before and after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Exiled in Italy, he was receptive to the contemporary Renaissance Neoplatonism. Abravanel also promoted gilgul, although his sources were more in the Renaissance idiom than the Kabbalist original. He is thought to have been a student of Ficino’s output.
Fraenkel, Carlos, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Guetta, Alessandro, “The Immortality of the Soul and Opening Up to the Christian World” (80-115) in I. Zinguer, A. Melamed, and Z. Shalev, eds., Hebraic Aspects of the Renaissance: Sources and Encounters (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
Idel, Moshe, Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510: A Survey (Yale University Press, 2011).
Klever, W. N. A., "Spinoza's life and works" (13-60) in D. Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Ross, Jacob J., Sefer Behinat Hadat of Elijah Del-Medigo (Tel Aviv: Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies, 1984).
Samuel, Gabriella, The Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopaedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2007).
Scholem, Gershom, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1946; New York: Schocken, 1961).
Scholem, Gershom, Origins of the Kabbalah (Princeton University Press, 1987).
Solomon, Norman, Historical Dictionary of Judaism (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).
ENTRY no. 65
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