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 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.

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Rachel Elior

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