Joel Furches of the Jarrettsville Christianity Examiner has been worrying lately online about gender and the resurrection of the dead. Furches seems concerned that recent secular legislation that allows people more freedom to choose their gender is out of sync not only with a Christian life in this world, but also in the next (Gender Identity and Resurrection from the Dead). “A person’s body is a permanent part of their identity, and what they do in their body, they do also in their spirit,” explains Furches. Christianity, he feels, is unique in that it argues for a “mind/body unity” and links “a person’s gender as an essential quality of their very nature.” That is, the soul has an essential, stable, and immaterial gender that is not a matter of personal choice or subject to debate.
While I am not particularly qualified to comment on the validity of Furches’s understanding of contemporary American Evangelical Christian theology, I would note that Christians are not the only Americans to argue at least implicitly for a soul gender. In this post I’d like to explore some versions of the concept of soul gender in American Judaism, but simultaneously suggest how Jewish versions of the afterlife complicate the story of “mind/body unity." In this first part, I will look at a few early examples of the gendering of the soul and resurrection. In the second part that I will post next month, I will address how the Jewish concept of transmigration makes Jewish soul gender differ from the Christian version put forth by Furches. Like Furches's comments, my examples come from Jewish texts and artifacts created primarily by practitioners rather than theologians; hence, they represent lived rather than official notions of Jewish theology.
|Gravestone of Mehir A Cohen Belinfante (1752, Barbados)|
|Shofar on a stone in the Ashkenazi Muiderberg Cemetery (The Netherlands).|
Muiderberg like Amsterdam was a feeder community for the American colonies.
|Gravestone of Bella Barrow (1720-77, Barbados)|
|Woman who died in Childbirth. Sarah Hannah Dias Coutiño (1746, Curaçao)|
|Angels blowing trumpets. Gravestone 13d4 (Curaçao)|
Both of these questions (soul gender, embodied resurrection) are complicated within Jewish belief, however, by the doctrine of transmigration of the soul. As Steven Nadler and others have noted, transmigration of the soul (gilgulei haneshamot) was a hot topic in Western Sephardic communities during the seventeenth and eighteenth century (See Spinizoa’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind and Alexander Altmann's "Eternality of Punishment"). As one eighteenth-century Sephardic rabbi explained, “A single soul can be reincarnated a number of times in different bodies, and in this manner, it can rectify the damage done in previous incarnations. Similarly it can also achieve perfection that was not attained in its previous incarnations” (Luzzatto, Way of God, II.3.10, p. 125). For Jews in the Atlantic World, gilgulei haneshamot had the powerful potential to eventually redeemed kin left behind in Iberia who did not have (or did not take advantage of) the opportunity to return to Judaism in their current lifetime. Through reincarnation, the souls of conversos had further opportunity to perform mitzvoth they did not or could not perform the first time around, and provided a means to atone for practicing Catholicism and hence enter the world-to-come.
Transmigration also has implications for soul gender, however. In traditional Judaism, which mitzvoth a soul can perform during any one lifetime are limited by the body the soul is born into, since some mitzvoth are relegated solely to men or primarily to women. Notably post-Enlightenment forms of Judaism such as Reform and Conservative Judaism that don’t emphasize reincarnation solve this problem merely by allowing people of any gender to perform all the commandments. Yet for Jews who do divide at least some mitzvoth along gender lines, reincarnation potentially provides a soul that has lived in one type of body a way to “finish” the mitzvoth it could not perform in its previous existence. While the problem of gender and transmigration was not a hot topic in the colonial era, it has become more crucial in twenty-first century America. Next month I will specifically address this issue of gender and transmigration by reviewing a few recent examples of Jewish American writings on souls that have inhabited more than gender of bodies.
All photographs by Laura Arnold Leibman, 2008-13.