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.

Dualism: The Body and Soul As Separate Entities

Once belief in the immortality of the soul, the revival of the dead, and the World to Come had become part of post-biblical Judaism, its religious view of man in relation to the world underwent a change. The religious significance of the world was no longer limited by concrete reality or by its psychophysical expression in a human entity, which consisted of a united body and soul existing within historical time.

Alongside that reality was another, different one, which looked beyond the historical present and future. Thus, Judaism began to adopt a transcendental view of history and the meaning of human existence, and at the same time to view the soul as existing on a spiritual plane. It began, too, to speak of the soul remaining beyond the demise of the body, and of a spiritual life beginning prior to material existence.

The rabbinic view of the soul as an entity having a spiritual character and as a fixed, defined metaphysical element almost certainly developed under the influence of Orphic and Platonic Greek thought. We may assume, too, that the Greek view of the soul as belonging to the realm of the divine, infinite, and eternal, and the body to the realm of the material, finite, and mortal, also left its mark upon Jewish thought.

Plato's idea of the preexistence and eternity of the soul, derived from his dualistic outlook, which set matter and spirit at odds with one another, was also influential. We must bear in mind, however, that for all that the dualistic anthropology expressed in the rabbinic texts had in common with the Platonic and Stoic attitudes current in the Hellenistic world, the rabbinic sages' conception of this dualism and of the conflict between flesh and spirit was far less radical than that of the Greeks, who viewed body and soul as an absolute dichotomy.

Disembodied Spirituality

The dualistic conception of man, in which body and soul are diametrically opposed, bears within it, in addition to its metaphysical significance, the first stirrings of a religious striving toward the ideal of liberating the soul from the bonds of the physical, thereby enhancing its spiritual purity. This kind of outlook was entirely foreign to biblical Judaism, but became highly developed in medieval thought and especially in the kabbalah.

Having accepted the idea of the divine essence of the soul, Judaism now had to elaborate the non-divine, more vital and functional aspects of the human soul. This need to elaborate, as well as the influence of Greek thought, led to the development of the distinctions between the soul's material and spiritual elements, between its intellectual, vital, and vegetable natures, and between the divine soul and the animal soul. These divisions gradually yielded symbols of spirit and matter, of nonbeing (ayin) and being (yesh).

In later stages of development, the Jewish conception of the soul was influenced by Greek philosophical views, as these were reformulated and interpreted by the Moslem and Christian theologians of the Middle Ages. For the first time, Judaism viewed the doctrine of the soul as belonging to the realm of philosophy, and medieval Jewish thought made a unique attempt to adapt these philosophical views to the Torah and to make them a means for interpreting concepts relating to ethics, religious piety, prophecy, and the knowledge of God.

The Soul as the Instrument of Perfection

Medieval Jewish thought focused its attention on the one hand on the immortality of the soul and the relationship between body and soul, or between matter and spirit, and on the other on the hierarchy of the upper worlds and the theory of knowledge. The answers that were proposed for these problems were clearly influenced by the medieval interpretations of Stoicism, Neo‑Platonism, and Aristotelianism.

In consonance with these influences, the medieval Jewish doctrine of the soul was often associated with the idea of perfection. Personal perfection could be achieved by means of the soul's communion with or, as the Hebrew had it, cleaving to (devekut) the spiritual element surrounding it, that is, the "universal soul," the "active intelligence," or God himself. Looked at from a different perspective, the emphasis on communion meant that man's relationship to God was established through intellectual effort, philosophical contemplation, or mystical devotion.

The Jewish doctrine of the soul, however, did not remain within the confines of the Greek schools of thought and their view of the soul as being essentially a philosophical problem. The philosophical concepts it had acquired regarding the spiritual hierarchy of the universe and questions bound up with the conception of the soul underwent a mythical‑Gnostic transformation in the twelfth century, when they encountered the early kabbalah and the Sefer ha‑Bahir.

The Divine Origin of the Soul

In the Sefer ha‑Bahir, the creation and the molding and sustenance of souls is bound up with an erotic myth that speaks of sexual union between cosmic entities in the world of the sefirot (divine emanations) and of the process of creation in general. The text alludes, in highly symbolic language, to a system that was further developed in the Zohar and other kabbalistic literature.

Three stages of development are discerned in the formation of souls: the ideal, the ontological, and the actual. These stages parallel both the processes of intercourse, pregnancy, and birth, by which the physical body comes into being, and the relationships between the sefirot in the supernal [i.e. divine] world.

The erotic symbolism by which the dynamic relationship between the various aspects of the divine is described in the kabbalistic system relates to the idea that the creation of souls takes place in connection with an act of cosmic union. In addition, it reflects deep religious implications regarding the exalted nature of the soul that were attached to human sexual union on account of its archetypal parallel in the supernal worlds.

The kabbalistic doctrine of the soul is based upon three fundamental assumptions regarding the nature of man: (1) the divine origin of the human soul; (2) the idea that man is structured in the image of the sefirot, and that his soul reflects the hierarchy of the supernatural worlds, and (3) the idea that man can influence the world of the divine.

The kabbalah borrowed the philosophical division of the soul into parts and superimposed a mystical quality upon it, holding that each part was expressive of different sefirot.

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Rachel Elior

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