Before I left for India, my first rabbinical position after graduation from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological seminary, Rabbi Norman Lamm, then president of Yeshiva University called me into his office. He related that 30 years prior he had gone to India and met with the Bene Israel. They had had one important question for him which was asked several times and he wanted to be sure I was prepared for it. He said that the answer I would give was very important and had enormous bearing for them on who they are as Jews. The question, which is hardly ever asked of me in the United States, was asked of me often in India: “Rabbi, do we Jews believe in reincarnation?”The answer I must give them, Rabbi Lamm told me, was not a complex one drawing on Kabbala or the Talmud, but rather, a clear, “no, we Jews do not believe in reincarnation.” Reincarnation is perhaps the central tenant of Hinduism, the Bene Israel’s host culture. The Bene Israel work hard to be separate from their polytheistic Hindu neighbors while still living integrated among them. Knowing full well that much of Kabbala, philosophy, and even Midrash does accept the notion of reincarnation, I tried to muster a definitive “No!”
Rabbi Shafner knows that the belief in reincarnation exists in Judaism, but chooses to deny the belief out of a wish to distinguish and separate the Jewish community from its surrounding Hindu culture. Is this legitimate? what if reincarnation is such an accepted belief for them and their culture that denying it would turn them away from Judaism? What about intellectual honesty and "letting the heavens fall?"
I understand the reasoning, but I'm not sure I would have decided in a similar manner.
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