Soul Gender, Transmigration, and Embodied Resurrection (Part 1)

Laura Arnold Leibman

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)
Since as early as the eighteenth century, American Jews have been gendering their representations of resurrection. One of the most common symbols associated with the resurrection on early Atlantic World Jewish gravestones was the shofar, which often pointed to the deceased’s role as a shofar blower in synagogue and in addition referenced the messianic ingathering of the tribes and the resurrection (Isaiah 27:13; 18:3). Indeed, the symbol of the shofar crucially connected the performance of mitzvoth by the deceased (the blowing of the shofar) with the bringing of the messiah and approach of the resurrection. Sometimes this symbol appeared with a man blowing the shofar and other times with only the shofar itself and not a human figure (below). In all instances I have seen, however, the symbol is only associated with men and appears solely on men’s gravestones, since only men could blow shofars in early Atlantic world synagogues.
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)
Although they did not use the shofar symbol, early Jewish American women’s gravestones also contained gendered and embodied visions of the resurrection. One of the most interesting examples of this is from the gravestone of Bella Barrow (1720-77, Barbados; left), which depicts a female figure rising out of a coffin in response to the trumpet call of a hovering angel. That is, the response of the figure is (accurately) gendered as that of a listener to the call of the shofar/trumpet, rather than the maker of the call. Although relatively unique in its formulation, Barrow’s stone combines and echoes two other more common motifs on Jewish women’s gravestones: (1) the dead, reclining body of women who died in childbirth (Curaçao, Amsterdam, Suriname) and (2) angels blowing on trumpets signaling the resurrection, to which the deceased will presumably respond (Suriname, Curaçao). Women did not transcend their gender at death; rather, their embodied experiences from life were figured into the way women are represented at death and resurrection.

Woman who died in Childbirth. Sarah Hannah Dias Coutiño (1746, Curaçao)

 Angels blowing trumpets. Gravestone 13d4 (Curaçao)
While such stones were most likely commissioned for dead women by male relatives, textual evidence suggest that Jewish women in the colonies actively pondered the relationship between their current bodies and their perfected bodies following the resurrection.  For example, Hannah Rodriguez Rivera joined in on a conversation with Rabbi Karigal, Ezra Stiles, and her husband regarding whether after the resurrection she would be married to her current husband (Jacob Rodriguez Rivera) or to her deceased first husband (Abraham Sasportas) (Ezra Stiles, Literary Diary, I.399-400. July 19, 1773). Apparently the answer was relatively straightforward--her first husband, Sasportas; yet, Karigal demurred, presumably for the sake of shalom bayit (household peace). Notably the question asked by the Rodriguez Riveras regarding which of multiple partners would be Hannah’s eternal soul mate was only relevant for women who had been married twice, since Jewish law technically allows for the possibility of men having more than one wife, but heavily sanctions women who have more than one husband at a time. That is, the need for the question points to the stability of gender identities after the resurrection and the sense that Hannah’s enduring, unified status as female would impact her existence even after her earthly body had been perfected and resurrected.

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.


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