Body & Soul

Indispensable partners for doing life's sacred work

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Pure in Body & Soul

Ancient Jews displayed an awareness of how influential non-Jewish philosophers regarded the soul. For example, the Greek Jew Philo tried to use the three words associated with spirit--neshamah, nefesh, ruah--to support Plato's claim that the soul has three parts. The Sages of the Talmud, however, were not as keen on many of these foreign ideas. Although the Rabbis also saw human beings as composed of body and soul, they generally rejected the Greeks' and Gnostics' belief that the earthly body imprisons the soul.

Instead, literature of the Talmudic period gives us images of body and soul in harmony. "Just as the Holy One of Blessing fills the world, so does the soul [neshamah] fill the body. Just as the Holy One of Blessing sees but cannot be seen, so does the soul see but cannot be seen… Just as the Holy One of Blessing is pure, so is the soul pure" (Berakhot 10a).

In Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, we read that the soul is a guest in the body and that care of the body is deemed a commandment by the great sage Hillel the Elder, who cited the idea in the Creation story that God made the human in the divine image. In the medieval period, Rabbeinu Bahya points out that even bodily fluids (menstrual blood, semen, and fluid from certain skin eruptions) considered impure (tamei) are only deemed such after they have left the human body.

In the mind of the Sages, sin is not the product of an unruly body asserting itself over a pure soul; on the contrary, the body and soul are seen in a partnership of equal responsibility for actions, in this life as well as the next.

This concept is illustrated in the following Talmudic anecdote, from tractate Sanhedrin: The Emperor Antoninus tries to convince Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi that the body and soul can each excuse themselves from sin by claiming that the transgression is the fault of the other, since without its counterpart, it is lifeless. Rabbi Yehudah counters with a parable: Two guards--one blind and one lame--are in a garden. Together, they are able to steal some fruit from a high tree. When caught, each claims that he is obviously unable to commit the crime due to his disability. In the end, the orchard owner places the lame man on the back of the blind man, and they are judged as one (91b). Similarly, God judges the actions of the body and soul in partnership after returning the soul to the body at resurrection.

Where Souls Come From & Where They Go To

The Rabbis rejected another claim Plato made for the soul--that souls pre-date Creation. Many in the ancient world believed that all human souls were created before the material world, but the midrash Tanhumah tells us that all souls were made during the six days of Creation. Before the birth of each person, God calls forward the proper soul and has angels show that soul how earthly existence benefits spirit by allowing for spiritual development.

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