Body & Soul

Indispensable partners for doing life's sacred work

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According to another midrash, sleep, like death, temporarily separates body and soul (Genesis Rabbah 14:9). Several rituals surrounding going to sleep and waking up evolved from this belief. Like birth and death, even temporary severings of the connection between body and soul require holy acts (for example, the washing of hands or recitation of particular prayers). Jews express gratitude to God every morning for renewal of both body and soul: "I offer thanks to You, living and everlasting King, for having returned to me my soul with compassion and great faithfulness" (the Modeh Ani prayer).

The path of the soul following death was not a particularly significant matter of speculation for the Sages, nor is there consensus on the matter in the Talmud and Midrash.  In Tanhumah, we read a vaguely worded passage suggesting that the body cannot live without the soul nor the soul without the body. On the other hand, many Talmudic Rabbis taught that the soul not only exists separately from the body, but also exists in a fully conscious state in an ethereal realm (Ketubbot 77b, Berakhot 18b-19a, and elsewhere).

A Tool for the Soul's Redemption

Saadia Gaon, a product of Greco-Arabic philosophy as well as Jewish tradition, presented his own view of the soul in the sixth chapter of his work Emunot veDeot. In it, he states that a soul is created at the same moment of the body, from a more subtle, but still material, element. Although he opposed many of Plato's views, Saadia also disagreed with many of the more abstract opinions of the Talmudic Sages. Despite this, he preserved the belief that the soul benefits from its partnership with the body. Without the body, the soul would be unable to do the holy, redemptive work of following the commandments.

Maimonides developed a complicated Aristotelian model of the soul. He described a number of faculties of the soul, all of which are related to the relationship of a person to his or her material environment, perceptions, memories, creativity, and desires. Most of these faculties of soul exist only in a living human body; with the death of the body, they too die. For Maimonides, the only eternal aspects of soul are the logical and spiritual speculations and learning of a person produced over his or her lifetime.

Treatment of the Human Body

Halakhah (Jewish law) teaches us that the paramount holiness of human life extends to the human body. Mitzvot (commandments) cover mundane bodily matters such as clothing, eating, and sexual habits precisely because care of the body is also care for the soul. Healthcare is the maintenance and upkeep of the soul's home. Torah law prohibits mutilations of the body, including tattooing (Leviticus 19:27-28, Deuteronomy 23:3). Not only medical but even hygienic treatments are often elevated to the level of commandment. Maimonides deemed it obligatory to provide proper sustenance and respectful clothing for the body.

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