the Jewish soul
JEWISH VIEWS ON THE SOUL
According to Jewish tradition, the soul — the “neshama” or “nefesh” in Hebrew, both of which mean “breath” — is the “I” or the “self” that inhabits the body. Bereshit — or “Genesis” in English — describes the soul as God’s own breath giving us life: “And God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).
Jewish tradition dictates that everything has a soul, from inanimate objects to plants to animals to human beings. A soul is a “spark of Godliness,” the very meaning and purpose of its existence, whether that “it” is a human being or a grain of sand.
That said: in Judaism, the human soul is the most complex of all. The human soul has five different levels: nefesh (breath), ruach (spirit), neshama (breath), chaya (life), and yechidah (singularity).
Additionally human beings have “two souls.” The first is the “animal soul” and the second is the “Godly soul.” The animal soul is driven by self-preservation and self-enhancement, whereas the Godly soul is driven by our desire to connect with the Creator. The two souls are both in conflict with each other and complementary. Because humans have a Godly soul, we are considered even more Godly than angels.
According to tradition, the soul is created in the supernatural spiritual realm where it acquires its mission and purpose and is then assigned to a body.
THE FIVE LEVELS
In Jewish tradition the human soul has five different levels, which are also described as “dimensions”: nefesh (breath), ruach (spirit), neshama (breath), chaya (life), and yechidah (singularity).
The soul as the “engine of physical life.”
The personality and “emotional self.”
The intellectual self.
Will, desire, commitment, and faith.
The essence of the soul and a “piece of God in us.”
THE JEWISH SOUL
The Jewish experience is a collective experience. We believe that every single Jewish soul — past, present, and future — was present at Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments. The suffering of our ancestors is our suffering; the joy of our ancestors is our joy. For example, we are commanded during Passover to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, were slaves in Egypt. Similarly, when a Jew halfway across the world experiences pain, all of Am Israel — the People of Israel — experiences pain. When a Jew halfway across the world experiences joy, all of Am Israel experiences joy.
The core of the Jewish soul is our peoplehood.
Over the centuries, the rabbis have argued with each other over what, precisely, it means to have a Jewish soul. What they did agree on is that all of us carry a Divine Spark within us — non-Jews as well, though perhaps in a different manner — and that every time a Jewish soul performs a Mitzvah (commandment, good deed), it brings God’s presence into the world.
A Jewish soul is said to be in pursuit of both the Torah and the Land of Israel — our ancestral and collective home(s).
Though reincarnation is not generally associated with Judaism, there is actually a long Jewish tradition pertaining to reincarnation. This concept is known as “Gilgul” or “Gilgul Neshamot,” or the “transmitigation of souls.” Gilgul translates to “cycle” or “wheel” in Hebrew, whereas “Neshama” (or “Neshamot” in the plural form) translates to “soul.”
According to Gilgul Neshamot, reincarnation of souls is neither a reward nor a punishment for behavior in a previous life. According to Kabbalistic interpretation, souls are reincarnated just enough times to fulfil the 613 Mitzvot (“commandments”). The souls of the Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jewish people who have protected Jews from persecution, a concept usually associated with the Holocaust) may be reincarnated enough times to fulfil the Seven Laws of Noah.
The Jewish belief in the reincarnation of souls dates back to antiquity, though it is not mentioned in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), and as such, it’s not considered a tenet in Judaism. Like almost everything pertaining Jewish thought, sages across the centuries have disagreed with each other regarding reincarnation, with some sages deeply believing in the concept and others rejecting it entirely.
Gilgul Neshamot is associated with Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism and is a concept especially prominent in Hasidic Judaism. It’s also commonly observed in Jewish folklore.
IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL
Unlike other religions and spiritual frameworks, Judaism places little emphasis on what happens to the soul after a person dies. Instead, we focus on this life; we don’t know exactly what will happen in the afterlife, and as such, it’s more important to be righteous in this life that we have right now.
Though the Torah is not overtly explicit on what exactly happens to our soul after we die, there are hints that the soul does indeed go on.
The most explicit statement on the continuation of the soul in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is told in Samuel I, when the Witch of Endor summons the Prophet Samuel to advise King Saul in battle. The summoned prophet then states: “Why are you bothering me. I am on the other side. Tomorrow, you, King Saul, and your sons will join me.”
By the beginning of the first millenium, the Jewish belief regarding the immortality of the soul was canonized. The Mishna states: “All of Israel have a place in the Olam Haba (World to Come” (Sanhedrin 10:1). In Pirkei Avot 4:21, Rabbi Yaakov stated: “This world is like a passageway to the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the passageway that you will be worthy to enter into the banquet room.”
In short, the Jewish concept of the soul dictates that the soul and the body are separate from each other. While the body perishes at death, the soul does not. However, what exactly happens after that, we do not know for sure.
In the earliest days of Israelite nationhood, “conversion” was simply the process in which outsiders (or “gerim”) came to live within — and, most importantly, assimilate into the culture of — the Israelite nation. In other words, these “converts” adopted Israelite culture, beliefs, identity, laws, and mythologies as their own (with the consent of the Israelites). Foreigners who lived amongst the Israelites but didn’t adopt the culture as their own were not considered converts.
As time went on and Israelite national identity strengthened and evolved, it became necessary for Israelites to contextualize their relationship with the non-Israelite world. The national deity of the Jewish People — the Hebrew God — became inextricable from Israelite identity very early on. In the 800s BCE, the process of assimilating into Israelite identity became more deeply enmeshed with the process of accepting the Hebrew God. As such, the process of assimilating into the Israelite national identity gained an increasingly spiritual dimension. In other words, to become an Israelite, gerim (“foreigners”) would have to adopt the Hebrew God — and the spiritual tenets of Yahwism (the precursor to Judaism) — as their own.
After the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE and exiled about 25 percent of its residents, conversion to Judaism gained an increasingly spiritual dimension, as it could no longer be a process rooted to the physical home of the Jewish People.
This only became truer after the destruction of the Second Temple and the spread of Rabbinic Judaism. Though spiritual and cultural connection to the Land of Israel is at the core of Rabbinic Judaism, the literal physical connection had been severed. Rabbinic Judaism — which is, if we are using a Western, modern, non-Jewish paradigm, a “religion” — became the vehicle through which we preserved our identity while in exile. As such, in major ways, it was our spirituality that preserved our identity and protected our peoplehood. It was also our spirituality that shaped and dictated the process of conversion to Judaism, particularly while in exile.
Like everything in Judaism, Jewish sages have offered a metaphysical explanation for people born into non-Jewish bodies who feel an inexplicable pull toward Judaism and thus end up completing the process of gyur — or naturalization into the Jewish nation (or, to use a modern, non-Jewish term that doesn’t quite encompass the true nature of gyur, “conversion to Judaism”). Judaism teaches that every Jewish soul was present at Mount Sinai. Jewish souls born into non-Jewish bodies are thus searching for their “home” — which is found in the Torah and in the Nation of Israel.
B’nei Anusim, translating to “children of the converted ones,” are the descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to other religions, particularly Christianity and Islam. In recent years, many have sought to formally reconnect with their Jewish heritage.
It’s imperative to note that the Jewish People are first and foremost a nation and a tribe, and like all other tribes, Jews have certain protocols regarding tribe membership and respectful reconnection. In recent years, rabbis and other Jewish leaders have regarded the process of reconnection of B’nei Anusim as a “returning” rather than a “conversion” to Judaism.
As explained prior, Judaism teaches that there is such thing as a “Jewish soul.” Over the years, I’ve met many B’nei Anusim who always felt inexplicably drawn to Judaism, without knowing anything about the Jewish identity of their ancestors. Many converted before learning anything about this, only to later find out, via genealogy research or DNA testing (or both) that their ancestors were actually Jewish. If we are to accept the Jewish metaphysical explanation for the desire to complete gyur, we are to understand that these people simply have a Jewish soul that was yearning to return home.
Jewish views on the soul — and in particular, the immortality of the soul — evolved over time.
In Canaan, long before the Israelites became Israelites, people believed that after death, the soul traveled to the Land of Mot (Death). If you are familiar with Hebrew, the word for death, “mavet,” derives from the same root. The Canaanites venerated their ancestors, bringing offerings to their graves to make sure they didn’t bother the living. To this day, the graves of our patriarchs and matriarchs are considered sacred and are still sites of worship. The Cave of the Patriarchs, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second holiest site in Judaism (Hebron, West Bank).
Early Jewish sources say surprisingly little about the soul and what happens after death. Other than the story of the Witch of Endor, discussed in a prior slide, the Tanakh is vague at best, and oftentimes contradictory. For example: Psalms 115:17 seems to reject the notion that there is life after death: “the dead will not praise you.” But in Jeremiah 31:15, Rachel weeps for her exiled children long after she is dead, suggesting that the soul does indeed go on. In contrast with other contemporary cultures, such as the Egyptians and Akkadians, the Israelite concept of the soul was preoccupied with “breath” (nefesh, ruach) as opposed to appearance, destiny, power, or supernatural influences.
Jewish contact with the ancient Greeks was deeply influential in shaping our understanding of the soul. In particular, the Jews rejected Plato’s notion of the soul: that souls pre-date Creation. By contrast, Jews believe that all human souls were created during the six days of Creation.
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