This week’s big new big budget movie release Assassin’s Creed brings the popular action-adventure video game to the screen. In it, a man played by Michael Fassbender uses new technology to uncover his “genetic memories” of a previous life as a skillful challenger to an oppressive, evil organization. While this story is fantasy, every culture around the world seems to have both a mystical and a practical approach to the concept of past lives. I’ve been asked, are “genetic memory” and “past lives” concepts that exist within the Jewish outlook? Can we recover memories and skills that we acquire in past lives?
Reincarnation is a fundamental concept of Kabbalah. While not all Jewish thinkers have been kabbalists, some of the greatest rabbis of the past have questioned whether reincarnation exists. Does a soul move from one body to another over the generations? Reincarnation solves a key philosophical problem. Why do seemingly righteous people suffer? Why does God allow the suffering of children, who are too young to be responsible for their actions? According to some interpretations, a person could possibly be experiencing divine punishment for sins the soul committed in previous lives. Seen more positively, reincarnation allows people to complete tasks they did not finish in a previous life.
The Ramban (Nahmanides; 13th cen., Spain and Israel) invokes the concept of reincarnation throughout his classical biblical commentary. In particular, he sees reincarnation as the final answer to the book of Job, which is dedicated to the question of why the righteous Job suffered. After all the different answers to suffering in this world, such as that even good people sometimes do bad things, reincarnation completes the puzzle. Some suffering remains inexplicable without the concept of reincarnation (Ramban, Kol Kisvei, vol. 2 pp. 275-279).
Rav Sa’adia Gaon (10th cen., Babylonia) explicitly rejects the concept of reincarnation. He is not convinced by the arguments in favor and received no tradition on the matter from his teachers. Suffering in this world can be explained otherwise. In general, it is hard to prove an idea by eliminating all other possibilities because others might find a creative alternative that was overlooked (Emunos Ve-Dei’os 6:8).
Rav Chasdai Crescas (14th cen., Spain) argues against reincarnation due to memory. If you were a reincarnated soul, you would be born with knowledge and memories. The fact that babies have to learn even the most basic facts, indicates that they are not reincarnations from previous lives. Similarly, the lack of memory from previous lives indicates that people are not reincarnations (Or Hashem 4:7).
Rav Yosef Albo (15th cen., Spain) says that the idea of reincarnation is just wrong. He explains that God implants a soul into a body in order to allow the soul free will. When a soul exists merely in the spiritual realm, it lacks the ability to choose to do good or bad. However, once a soul has already attained that free will, it does not need that opportunity a second time. Reincarnation offers a soul a second chance, when it only needs one lifetime (Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 4:29).
However, Kabbalists accept the idea of reincarnation. They believe that sometimes a soul needs another chance to accomplish what it failed in previous lives. Rav Crescas writes that while he finds the idea of reincarnation problematic, if we have such a tradition then we must accept it. Rav Albo says that Kabbalists deduced the idea of reincarnation, despite the fact that he rejects it.
Regardless of whether or not we personally accept the idea of reincarnation, we see from Rav Crescas and our own experiences that memories do not survive from previous lives. When and if a soul enters another body, it does not bring with it any tangible part of who it used to be. Therefore, the notion of genetic memories seems contrary to the Jewish idea of reincarnation, while the topic of past lives itself may still be up for debate.