Jewish Spirituality and the Soul

The idea that the soul is the human instrument of spirituality became more prominent over the course of Jewish history.

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The kabbalists--the medieval Jewish mystics--believed that human life, including the life of the soul, reflected and affected the divine world, the world of the sefirot: God's ten attributes or emanations. The following is reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

The Jewish doctrine of the soul, in its passage from its biblical beginnings to the later versions wrought by philosophy, the kabbalah, and Hasidic thought, has undergone a far‑reaching transformation.afterlife 

In the Bible, body and soul are viewed as one, and existence and meaning are attributed to the soul on the physical, human, and historical plane. With the passing of time, however, the soul came to be viewed as a metaphysical entity that belonged to, affected, and was affected by the realm of the divine, transcending the confines of history and nature.

No Existence Separate from the Body

The biblical conception, as noted, views the soul as part of the psychophysical unity of man, who, by his very nature, is composed of a body and a soul. As such, the Bible is dominated by a monistic view that ascribes no metaphysical significance to human existence, for it sees in man only his tangible body and views the soul simply as that element that imparts to the body its vitality.

The soul is, indeed, considered the site of the emotions, but not of a spiritual life separate from that of the body, or of a mental or emotional life in conflict with that of the body, it is, rather, the seat of all of man's feelings and desires, physical as well as spiritual.

body and soulSuch a conception views the entire entity of man as a "living soul," or, to put it in our terms, a psychophysical organism created in the image of God, whose existence has religious significance within the reality of time and place alone. Nevertheless, the fact that man is defined as having been created in the image of God allowed for the expansive development of post-biblical thought.

The talmudic conception of man has its roots in the biblical worldview, but it was also influenced by developments in religious thought and by ideas current in the post-biblical world, especially within Hellenism, which embraces the possibility of the soul's simultaneous existence on both a physical and a spiritual level. Although in rabbinic texts we find the heritage of the biblical conception regarding the psychophysical unity of the soul, under Greek influence there begins to develop alongside it a moderately dualistic anthropology suggesting a different status for body and soul.

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Rachel Elior

Dr. Rachel Elior is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University.