"They called the soul by five names. Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, Yechida, Chaya. Nefesh is blood...Ruach is the spirit that rises and descends...Neshama is the personality of a person...Chaya, even if all the limbs are dead, it still survives in the body...Yechida, all limbs are in pairs but this one it remains unique."
What is a soul? Do we all have one? What happens to it when we die? These are questions we have as children but they are rarely answered and we push them to the recesses of our minds and carry on with the business of living. So we replace the uncertainty with a cliché and we have our stock responses without really examining what we think or believe.
We use the word "soul", pretty casually in day to day conversation without stopping to think exactly what we mean. There is no specified command in Jewish texts to believe in the existence of a soul and yet it is taken as axiomatic that we have one and indeed it is so obvious that it seems that it does not even need to be posited. Ideally, of course, this is as it should be. Spiritual phenomena should be so immediate and obvious to us that we shouldn't need to prove anything. If a parent meets a child after a long absence, one does not expect the parent to say, as they run to embrace, "You have got to believe it is me!" unless of course someone has called into question the issue of paternity. Nevertheless, in talking about the soul we do have a problem both in defining it and in the relationship it has, both to God and as the element of a human that is supposed to survive after death. All talk about Afterlife and Resurrection implies a function for the soul, whatever it might be.
If we accept convention, "soul" is something Divine in humans that has an existence of its own and survives and is unaffected by physical change. It is the link between humans and God usually a result of something placed by God within humans as an afterthought or addition after the physical body has been completed. There is an old English expression, a euphemism for dying, "to give up the ghost". "The Ghost" is a Christian term for "The Holy Spirit", one of the elements of the Trinity. It has some similarity to the word "Shechina" or to the idea of "The Spirit of God". So to "give up the ghost" suggests that God gives a part of Himself to humans and when humans die they give up that ghost for it to return to God. Is this what we mean when we talk about the soul?
In the Torah we will see several different words used to describe soul or spirit. The rabbis added even more words. And yet the assumptions that have been handed down can be, and in practice are, challenged and varied throughout both the Bible and the Talmud.
There are three main words used in the Torah for what we call "soul". The first is "ruach", spirit, which appears initially as another word to describe the presence of God-"And the spirit of YHVH was hovering over the deep". Some commentators suggest that God caused a wind to blow, like the one that divided the Red Sea for the Israelites. But most take this to mean the Shechina, the presence of God. Since God cannot be confined to any place or said to be in any one place, the rabbis devised a way of talking about the presence of God without it implying the totality of His Being. This is the Shechina, the presence; literally it means "The Dwelling" or "Where She is", the place where God has chosen to have an impact. It does not have an independent reality or function in the way that "The Holy Spirit" is often thought of. Later on, when talking about the flood, the Torah says that God will destroy "all flesh that has the spirit of life" using the same word, "ruach". So the word ruach is applied both to God and to all living creatures as though it is a common link. There is an altogether different use of "ruach" to describe a human passion. Firstly, when Jacob hears that his son Joseph is alive the Torah says that "his heart" missed a beat "or fainted because he did not believe them" but then when he is reassured "his soul (ruach) comes alive again". There "ruach" means his spirit as an aspect of his personality, state of mind. When describing the jealous husband who suspects his wife of infidelity the Torah says that a "spirit of jealousy overcomes him" and the term used for this feeling is "ruach". This only underlines the ambiguity of the word.
The second word for "soul" is "nefesh", as in "And YHVH said, 'Let the earth produce all kinds of living souls, animals, reptiles and beasts', and it was so". And when forbidding the Israelites to drink blood, the Torah says "For the life of a person (nefesh) is in the blood". Nefesh is the word used almost interchangeably with 'adam', a person, to describe a human who comes to bring a sacrifice in the book of Leviticus. Significantly, when the Torah institutes the law of fasting on Yom Kippur, the term it uses is "afflicting your souls" using the word "nefesh". When the affliction referred to could simply be fasting, a physical act, in this context it is clearly meant to have penitentiary and therefore spiritual connotations as well. So this is a clear indication of the dual role of "nefesh". Throughout the Torah, the words "nefesh" and "ruach" seem to be used in similar situations with a heavily spiritual content; nevertheless, both are applied to "all living beings", animal as well as human.
The third word for "soul" and the one that in the Torah (but not in rabbinic literature) is only used of humans, is the word "neshama". "And YHVH Elohim formed man from the dust of the ground and He breathed into his nostrils the breath (soul) of life." But this breath of life does not mean that it is automatically "good". And so later on in the Torah, when talking about Canaanite tribes that have to be destroyed because of their corruption and the threat they present to the newcomers, the word "neshama" is used simply to mean all living humans. "Do not let any breathing being (neshama) live."
The Torah also uses the words "neshama" and "ruach" together describing the destruction of life by the flood--"Everything that had the breath of the spirit of life (nishmat ruach) in its nostrils that was on dry land, died." So the distinction between the ways the two words are used is blurred and ambiguous as to whether it applies to all life or only human life.
If we rely only on the Torah we are left with a confusing picture. The words that we suppose to connote a special relationship between humans and God are used for animals as well. And the one word that might indicate a special spiritual relationship with God is used to apply to all humans, including idol worshippers.
Turning to the later books of the Bible the picture is even more confusing. Ruach and nefesh are the words that the Psalmist uses most often to describe what we would call soul and yet the clearest quote that we would select to indicate the link between soul and God is in Proverbs-"For the light of God is the soul (neshama)." But the most challenging quotation comes from Ecclesiastes, attributed to King Solomon-"For what happens to humans and what happens to animals, the same thing happens, as this one dies so does the other and there is one spirit for all and there is no way in which man is better than animals, everything is meaningless. Everything goes to the same place; everything came from dust and returns to dust. And who knows if the spirit of man rises upwards and the spirit of the animal goes down into the dust."
The use of these "soul" words in the Talmud is just as ambiguous.
The word "nefesh" is used to describe a normal human being. "Whoever keeps alive (or destroys) a person (nefesh) it is as though he has saved (or destroyed) the whole world." "Saving a life (soul) (nefesh) overrides the laws of Shabbat." Human food is described as "Ochel Nefesh", in talking about preparing food for Shabbat. Nefesh is also used to describe a human characteristic, such as "a bitter spirit", or a spirit of self denial (and of course, echoing the terminology of the Torah it is used, in the context of Yom Kippur as it is with regard to the jealous husband). The word is used for a "tough character", a "modest character" and a "reliable character". A similar analysis of the way the word "ruach" is used seems to indicate a more specifically human element, but not necessarily a spiritual one. "Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said Be of very low spirit (humble) because the end of man is worms." Yet, at the same time the Talmud also uses the word in relation to animals-"The righteous understand the souls (nefesh) of their animals." And it is used to describe any living being.
It is the word "neshama" that in the Talmud seems to be the one that corresponds most to our attempts to identify the soul of theology. "The sound of the soul as it leaves the body" is a clear indication of the soul's crucial role in being an essential condition of life. But then one is faced with Antoninus' question which really sounds as though he is coming from a Christian theological stance-"Antoninus asked Rebbi, 'When is the soul placed in the body, at conception or at birth?' He (Rebbi) said, 'At birth.' He (Antoninus) said, 'From conception,' and he produced a quotation from the Book of Job to support his position." In the light of the very different attitudes in Judaism and Christianity towards the fetus and abortion, this is a fascinating historical quote. But it, too, reiterates the idea that human life requires the soul for survival.
A more mystical approach, still using the same word, "neshama", concerns the extra spiritual dimension a person has, that is particularly heightened on days of religious significance in the calendar. "On Erev Shabbat God gives man an extra soul and when Shabbat ends He takes it away." One might have thought that the soul is an independent entity regardless of the circumstances but it seems from this that a soul can be stimulated by special occasions. And if the soul was part of a person's created make up it should have come with the creation of man in the first place. Yet there is disagreement on this too. "God breathed the soul into man on Friday" is one opinion; a contradictory one is that "God breathed the soul into man on Shabbat." All three of these quotes, regardless of the variations, reinforce the notion that "soul" is the spiritual dimension in human beings. This is reiterated in the much later use of "neshama" in the traditional prayer book. All variations of liturgy still commonly include these two prayers. On waking, every day, we echo Abaye's prayer quoted below, "I give thanks to You, living and eternal King, for returning my soul (neshama) to me". And on Shabbat morning we recite the Nishmat prayer, "The soul of every living being will praise your name YHVH our God."
With these different words, names and uses and with the differences of opinion, the question still remains, what exactly did the rabbis understand the soul to be? Is it a part of God in man? Is it a sense? Can it be changed or even obliterated? How are we to understand it?
"When he ( Abaye ) awoke he would say, "My God the soul (neshama) which You have given me is pure. You have breathed it into me and You maintain it within me, and You will take it away from me one day and return it to me in the Future to Come. For as long as the soul is within me I thank You, YHVH my God and God of my fathers, Master of the Universe, Lord of all souls. I bless you YHVH who returns souls to dead bodies.'" From this we could deduce that the soul is to be identified with consciousness. After all, if it is returned when one wakes, the clear implication is that it was removed when the body sleeps. One of the explanations given for the ritual obligation of washing ones hands when waking from sleep is that on waking one returns to a state of sanctity after sleeping when one is in a less sanctified level of existence. Just as ritual requires washing before eating or immersion of vessels in water before being dedicated to laws of kashrut or the convert requires immersion in preparation for a new life or a woman immerses to record the transition into a new phase, so the body needs sanctification when it receives the soul back. The body without the soul is in a state of incompleteness, even inferiority. Of course this is very Greek. The idea that the body, as matter, is inferior to mind, as spirit, is the cornerstone of both the Platonic and Aristotelian way of looking at the world.
There is a famous parable of Rabbi Yishmael, while treating soul and body as two different forces, does not attribute superiority or inferiority to either one. "Rabbi Yishmael taught, 'It (the question of responsibility for human actions) can be compared to a king who had an orchard and in it were choice, ripe, fruits and the king appointed as guardians a lame person and a blind person and said to them, 'Take care of my choice fruits.' After a few days the lame one said to the blind one 'I can see choice fruits in the orchard.' The blind one said, 'Let us eat them.' The lame one said, 'How can I get there?' The blind one said, 'And I cannot see.' So the lame one rode on the blind one and they ate the fruits. After a few days the king came into his orchard and said, ' Where are my choice fruits?' The blind man said, 'My master the king, can I see?' The lame man said, 'My Master the king, can I walk?' That king was wise. He made the lame man ride on the blind man and as they started walking he said ' This is what you did and you ate my choice fruits.' So in the Future to Come, the Holy One Blessed Be He says to the soul, 'Why did you sin against Me?' She will say 'Master of the Universe, I did not sin against You. The body sinned. From the moment that I came out of the body I have been like a pure bird hovering in the air. How could I have sinned against You?' He says to the body, 'Why did you sin against Me?' He will say 'Master of the Universe, I did not sin against You. The soul sinned. From the moment that she has left me I am like a stone cast down on the ground. How could I have sinned against You?' What will God do to them? He will throw the soul into the body and judge them both."
Rabbi Yishmael's narrative, although not suggesting that one is any better or worse than the other, would indicate that the soul is rather like the "Yetzer HaTov" the "Good Inclination" that contrasts with the "Bad Inclination". Both forces battle for control of the human being. It is an important distinction between Rabbinic interpretation and Christian that the rabbis did not totally accept the notion of a "good" mind or soul locked in an evil body. Indeed, they have difficulty with the notion of Good and Evil in general because everything is perceived as coming from one Divine source. "We bless God for the bad in the same way that we bless Him for the good." In the Gnostic tradition, evil is accorded independent power; it is represented as the force of darkness, the Satan. Greek philosophy could not accept, at least Plato's narrator in the Republic could not accept, the idea of a totally good God being responsible for evil. So the Rabbinic tradition allowed for the neutrality of the body and different influences within man battling for supremacy. It was not a battle of states, the state of Sin as opposed to the state of Grace. It was a battle of wills affecting specific actions. Indeed, there could be occasions when the "Bad Inclination" could really be good, otherwise no one would get married, build a house or plant a vineyard. Yet this inclination does not appear to be inborn. It is something that arrives in youth. "There is an inclination in the heart of man that is bad from youth." From this one would deduce that the neutral human is subject to different pulls which develop early on in life; it is almost Freudian. However there is still no clear concept of what it is that influences man to battle this negative inclination. The Greeks and their heirs thought it was the mind. But this creates as many philosophical problems as it answers. Dualism leads to the idea of "The Ghost in The Machine", the good mind controlling the bad body. There is no resonance for this in Biblical literature and in most of rabbinic thinking.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the soul was indeed perceived a sort of mirror of God. "Just as God sees but is not seen, so the soul sees and is not seen. Just as God fills the world, so the soul fills the body. Just as God nourishes the world, so the soul nourishes the body. Just as God is pure, so the soul is pure. Just as God dwells in the inner chambers, so the soul dwells in the inner chambers."
Once again we have entered the metaphysical and, indeed, this seems to be just as important a way of looking at the soul as the rational. "The son of David will not come until all the souls in the bodies have been used up." This implies a solid state of soul energy whose function it is to direct humanity in a Godly way. There is a hint here at the idea that there is a sort of stock of souls that God has created and they are "sent down"' to guide human beings. They have a mission to complete. If they fail, they have to go on returning to bodies after death until they have succeeded in doing what they were designed for. This is similar to the idea of there being a guardian angel or a mazal for each person whose task it is to protect its charge. Only when the human race has used up its souls to improve its state and no longer needs their input, can one reach the neo-heavenly state of messianic days on earth. Yet for all this we are no nearer understanding what the words are really meant to signify and if whatever this is, it has any relevance for us.
One way of reconciling the various words used for soul, is to talk about their each having different functions. By medieval times it was common to speak about an animal soul and a divine soul. This would explain the souls that the Torah implies that animals have while drawing a distinction that elevates humanity above the animal. This was taken further by the mystics to indicate that even amongst humans, some had this Divine Soul and others did not .There is even a view that only Jews have this divine soul and this is supposed to explain the special relationship between God and Israel. This is a clear influence of religious absolutism justifying inhuman behavior to some humans. If one believes that a human who does not share your spiritual belief is relegated to the level of an animal, it is easier to treat them inhumanely. Nevertheless, the different words used to describe soul could indeed be referring to different elements within the human being similar to the way that the different words used to describe God were understood by the rabbis to indicate different "qualities" or manifestations.
It is an artificiality of our scientific world to try to create rigid categories and scientific formulae. This has its use in certain areas but not in every area. The human is, as we well know, a complex organism. There are many different functions and dimensions that can be recognized even if they cannot be accurately defined or scientifically analyzed. "Personality", "Consciousness", "Conscience" are concepts that are still difficult to define. Spirituality is another classic example.
So we talk about mind, human consciousness, conscience and sensitivity without clearly knowing exactly what we are talking about. It is the same with aesthetics. We know that people appreciate art without being absolutely certain what the nature of the attraction is. Is it shape or color or proportion? Is it something triggered by visual laws or by intellectual laws? Does it depend on eye or brain and what part of the brain? All we can do is to try and log as many different elements as we can while encouraging everyone to look and experience as much as possible and try to make as much sense as possible of what it is that they see.
The different words do indeed indicate different elements that we are pretty certain do mean something to us. And they are all vital for human existence and experience on differing levels. Just as medicine is now prepared to incorporate other types of healing without denying its rational, experimental foundations, so too talk about soul must incorporate the metaphysical as well. Consciousness, awareness of the difference between actions and how they affect others as well as ourselves, sensitivity to other creatures and awareness of the Divine, all these combine to create a person who we will describe as having a large soul. Some of these elements can be isolated and humans can function on different levels and on primitive as well as elevated plains. The more elements one employs, the fuller one is using one's capacities as a human to fulfill one's potential and justify one's creation. So the different words that are used are needed to describe different aspects of what soul is. Similarly we speak of "mind" as a general word to describe a very wide range of different functions. We use "mind" to calculate, to communicate, to appreciate the arts. We use it as a general word to cover the different functions of the brain. So the word "spirit" is used in various ways. The French use the word devoid of any religious connotation to describe the creative aspect of the human mind. In French a person described as "spiritual" may be an atheist. In English "spirit" is also used to describe the dynamism of a person. But "spiritual" only has transcendental connotations. The words for soul in Hebrew include both of these areas.
The "animal" soul, the human soul and the Divine soul are all aspects of human life that go towards creating what we call someone's "personality". This is why consciousness, the awake awareness of ourselves and our actions, is important to see the fully aware person in action. This overall application of soul clearly is rooted in the physical world and has no relevance once the body has died and decomposed. But there is the spiritual soul which connects us with God, that transistor for picking up Divine wavebands. It is a capacity that can be enlarged, enhanced or destroyed. Maimonides believes in two types of soul, there is "the soul that is part of the body and the soul that has no part of the body, called 'mind'." "The reward of the righteous is the next world which is a life without death and a good that contains no bad…They will benefit from this delight and be included in this good. The punishment for the wicked is that will not get this life and they will be cut off and die. Anyone who does not achieve this life dies with no eternal life and is cut off for his wickedness and dies like an animal." But it is only the soul that has no relationship to the physical that continues into the world beyond the grave.
Maimonides thinks that this soul is the eternal mind. The kabbalists called it "the part of God from above" that is given to us to use, to develop or to squash. Whether this is figurative or literal, it is a challenge to us to increase the spirituality within our lives and within our personality. The more we are simply material, the more of us disappears with our death. The more we appreciate, value and contribute to the Divine, the more there is to continue in spirit and as part of God. If the metaphorical bubble of spirit is trapped within our bodies and is release at death, it must then return to its source. If our souls are Divine they must return to the Divine. In death we return our souls to God.
The concept of "soul" calls us to rise to our greatest height, to use out potential and to reach beyond our limitations to God. The soul is part of our make up. It is the in-built equivalent of spiritual instinct that gives us an extra dimension for us to use for our own benefit and improvement. A great deal may depend on whether we choose or sometimes whether we are trained to take advantage of it. It is the challenge of a spiritual life.
"When Adam was created he was from one end of the earth to the other; because he did wrong, God placed His hand on him and shrunk him." It is the soul that enables us to restore our greatness.