by Rabbi Allen S. Maller
If people reincarnate, they usually do so within their own religion, gender and culture. But there are always some people who change one, two, or even three of these categories.
According to the Kabbalah -the Jewish mystical tradition – some Jewish souls are born into non-Jewish families, because one of their parents had a Jewish ancestor three or four generations previously.
When those people return to Judaism they of course, change religion and culture. And sometimes they change their gender too; for when a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman and helps to raise his children in a non-Jewish religion, after his death, his soul will reincarnate (Gilgul in Hebrew) in one of his own female descendants three or four generations later, and then be drawn to revert back toward becoming a Jewish male again.
Take as a example Kadin Henningsen, who grew up female and Methodist in the Midwest. As a preteen she was inexplicably drawn to Judaism, empathizing with Jewish characters in Holocaust documentaries on TV.
Then in junior high, Henningsen had a revelation while reading Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”: “I remember thinking I was supposed to grow up to be a Jewish man.”
Less than two decades later, the premonition came true. At 30, Henningsen transitioned genders and converted to Judaism, all within the span of a single summer. “It was a circular process,” he said. “The more entrenched I became in Jewish knowledge, the more comfortable I started to feel with my masculine identity.”
Henningsen’s conversion certificates were the first documents that referred to him with male pronouns. Today, at 35, he is an active member of Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles.
According to Naomi Zeveloff’s article in the Jewish Daily Forward (8/16/13) Henningsen is not alone in his trajectory. Transgender converts constitute a growing minority within the small community of LGBT Jews.
For some transgender converts conversion was intrinsically linked to gender transition; the process of soul-searching unearthed one insight after another.
For others, Judaism was a lifeline during a time of immense vulnerability and isolation. When friends and family members grew distant, transgender individuals found community at the Hillel House or at a local synagogue.
Some transgender converts to Judaism came from strong Christian backgrounds and wanted to supplant their childhood religion with one that would be more accepting of their new gender identity. Others came to Judaism from a nonreligious background.
“In one way it is a search for personal authenticity,” said Rabbi Jane Litman, a congregational consultant with the Reconstructionist movement who has converted close to two dozen transgender Jews. “People who are transitioning in terms of gender are looking for a way to feel most authentically themselves.”
Jesse Krikorian, a 24-year-old engineer, began exploring Judaism as a senior at Swarthmore College, shortly after she began her gender transition.
Unhappy with her decision to take hormones, her parents threatened to withdraw their financial support. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and there was a lot of chaos and uncertainty,” he later recounted. “I found that I really needed community and ritual and all those good things.”
Though he was raised Methodist, Krikorian was always interested in the Old Testament. A visit to the campus Hillel confirmed that Judaism might provide him with the community he was seeking: The Hillel director at the time, Jacob Lieberman, was also a transgender man. “I didn’t have any questions of whether I could be transgender and Jewish,” Krikorian said. “It was really clear that the combination could work.”
Krikorian attended Friday night services at Hillel each week and began to recite a prayer about transformation each time he bound his chest to appear more masculine. After graduating from college, he moved to Philadelphia. There he joined Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue. He converted in June, and hopes to go to rabbinical school.
Thus the Gilgul process, especially due to the large amount of geographic and social mobility in modern times, ofter leads to transformations that lead Non-Jews to become Jewish.
Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Kabbalah does not teach that reincarnation (gilgul) occurs over the course of millions of years to millions of different sentient species.
According to Kabbalah, only the souls of self conscious moral creatures like human beings reincarnate; and they reincarnate only when they have not fulfilled the purpose of their creation in their present incarnation.
Since Judaism is an optimistic religion, Kabbalists teach that most people can accomplish their life’s purpose in one or two lifetimes. A few souls may need as many as 3-7 lifetimes.
The bright souls of great religious figures like Moses or Miriam can turn into a dozen or more sparks that may each reincarnate several times.
The tragic souls of Jews whose children or grandchildren have been cut off from the Jewish people, either through persecution or conversion to another religion, will reincarnate as one of their no longer Jewish descendants.
These souls will seek to return to the Jewish people, and a majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people have Jewish souls from one of their ancestors.
It is possible to see this form of reincarnation occurring in the world today in the experience of thousands of non-Jews who become Jewish.
Every human on earth has 8 great grandparents and 16 great great grandparents. Each of these 24 individuals contributes an equal amount of genetic material to each of their descendants. Nevertheless, brothers or sisters who share the same 24 ancestors do not have identical genomes.
Unless they are identical twins their physical, mental and personality traits always differ, sometimes greatly, from their siblings who share the same physical genetic heritage.
This difference is the result of the unique physical combination of genes that occurs at conception; and the unique soul-personality that enters the body sometime during the second trimester.
Every year many hundreds of people find out that one or two of their 24 great grandparents and great great grandparent ancestors might have been Jewish.
For most of them this discovery is an interesting fact of little significance. For many of them it might be an embarrassment to be ignored.
But for some, an initial curiosity becomes a life changing discovery. They feel drawn to Jewish people and seek to learn about Jewish music, food, literature, culture and religion. They feel more attached in some mysterious way to the Holocaust and the struggle of Israel to live in peace in the Middle East.
Many of these people eventually are led to become Jewish either by formal conversion or by informal reversion within Reform synagogues.
According to a mystical 14th century Jewish Kabbalistic teaching found in Sefer HaPliyah, those people who do feel this powerful attraction to Jewish things and Jewish people, have a Jewish soul that is a reincarnation (gilgul) of one of their own Jewish ancestors from 3-7 generations in the past.
That explains why they react to the discovery of some Jewish heritage in such a unusual way. It also explains why some people who do not even know that they have Jewish ancestors follow a similar path; and only discover a Jewish ancestor years after they have returned to the Jewish people.
The Hebrew word for reincarnation- gilgul, means recycling. Many people are born with new souls; they are here for the first time. Others have a soul that has lived on this planet before. Most people do not reincarnate after their life on this earth is over.
Of those who do reincarnate, most do so in one of their own descendants. Most non-Jews who end up becoming Jewish; especially now after the Jewish people have experienced several generations of assimilation, marriage to non-Jews, or hiding from anti-semitism, are descendants of people whose children, in one way or another, have been cut off from the Jewish People.
Among their non-Jewish descendants a few will inherit their Jewish soul or that of one of their grandparents and that soul will lead them to return to the Jewish people.
Leiah Moser, a 31-year-old student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, wrote on her blog about why “being transgender is a lot like being a convert to Judaism.”
“Many people who convert to Judaism do so out of a sense that they were born with a Jewish soul and that only now they are finally coming home,” she wrote. “Being trans is also all about that uncomfortable separation between your truest soul and the outward circumstances of your birth.”
Moser, who grew up in a secular home, traces her interest in Judaism to reading “Yearnings” by Rabbi Irwin Kula. The book describes Judaism as a faith that embraces rigorous skepticism and questioning, a tenet that resonates with many trans folks.
When she moved to Tulsa, Okla., she sought out a Conservative synagogue to begin the process of conversion. “That initial period of finding a synagogue community and getting plugged in and becoming engaged in the Jewish traditions sort of had an air of inevitability, of rediscovery of something I had forgotten, even though I had never discovered it before,” Moser said.
“I think that is an experience that a lot of Jewish converts have, the uncanny experience of feeling more at home in this environment that they were incredibly new to.”
About the author:
Moser began her gender transition last year, after her first year of rabbinical school. She began to experience her new religion in a new way, shedding certain traditions that were typically assigned to men, and embracing aspects of Jewish femininity.
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com