"W hen you come back, what do you want to come back as?”
My interlocutor was referring to that ancient Jewish concept of gilgul haneshamos, transmigration of the souls, whereby an individual soul can return to earth time and again, each time within a different physical body with a specific mission to accomplish. In truth, I had never considered the matter before. Trying to live a decent life in this gilgul is challenging enough without worrying about what I would become in the next go-round. But his question forced me to give it some thought.
Since it took many years of challenging study to get my ordination, or semichah, as a rabbi, plus additional years to obtain university degrees, and then even more hard work to be a pulpit rabbi, it would only be fair, in partial compensation for all this travail, to come back as something less labor-intensive. That is to say, I would like to come back as something that I don’t have to work so hard to be. I would like to come back as a Jewish thinker.
How does one become a Jewish thinker? No one seems to know. (Though I have glancingly referred to it in previous columns.) Thinkers don’t need to attend special schools like lawyers or doctors, do not have to receive special training, do not undergo rigorous examinations by licensing authorities. No one is quite sure how thinkers become thinkers, or what the requirements are, or who decides who is and who is not a thinker, or if there is a thinker association that issues official certificates. Apparently, Jewish thinkers just “become” thinkers by some mysterious osmotic process.
What does a thinker do all day? Obviously, he sits and thinks. If he is a deep thinker, he sits and ponders. If he is a very deep thinker, he contemplates. And then, if he is a respected thinker, he meditates and ruminates. But a truly genuine, profound thinker just sits and cogitates. (Thinkers always sit: they cannot stand and think at the same time.) No one is quite sure what they think about. Some might think about G-d – which is laudatory. (But what really matters is what G-d thinks of them….)
Thinking, it is clear, can be a full-time job if one is serious about it — and I would be very serious. I like nothing better than sitting and thinking all day. And, time permitting, I might even go for the brass ring and try my hand at some cogitating.
What does a thinker look like? Auguste Rodin’s famous statue, “The Thinker,” is the universal model which all self-respecting thinkers take as their guidepost. He leans forward, deep into his own thoughts, his brow furrowed, his lips compressed, his chin in his hand. Thinking is serious stuff; it is not for sissies.
What does a thinker think about? Usually, he thinks about our parlous situation and that if we don’t follow his advice and counsel, tomorrow will be even worse. He thinks about yesterday’s historic mistakes, today’s tragic errors, and tomorrow’s radical solutions if we follow his prescriptions.
A serious thinker is never optimistic. If he says anything positive about the present situation he loses all credibility and could be demoted to not-very-serious-thinker status. That’s why Jewish thinkers rarely smile. Personally, I know of so many societal ills that I qualify as a genuine profound Jewish thinker. For such an honorific, I would be ready to give up smiling for a while.
How does a thinker dress? Preferably rumpled, his hair a bit unruly, his beard shaggy (for serious thinkers, beard is de rigueur), the look on his face far-off. I have several very rumpled suits, hate taking haircuts, have a beard, and own some old eye glasses that give me a far-off look.
How does a thinker behave? Absent-mindedly. This is a sure sign of a thinker. He is too busy contemplating our sorry state of affairs to have to worry about mundane issues like where he put his purse or his keys. He lives in a different universe. His hat might be a bit askew, his worn-out sweater is unevenly buttoned (thinkers always wear worn-out sweaters, preferably patched at the elbows) his tie clashes with his seedy jacket, his shoes are scuffed — but thinkers cannot be bothered with such trifles.
Since I already possess the requisite hat, sweater, shoes, and jacket, and since I love to sit, don’t smile too often, and am quite absent-minded, I am obviously most qualified to become a serious and respected Jewish thinker. This is what I would like to come back as.
At least I think so. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 656)