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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Dualism: The Body and Soul As Separate Entities

Once belief in the immortality of the soul, the revival of the dead, and the World to Come had become part of post-biblical Judaism, its religious view of man in relation to the world underwent a change. The religious significance of the world was no longer limited by concrete reality or by its psychophysical expression in a human entity, which consisted of a united body and soul existing within historical time.

Alongside that reality was another, different one, which looked beyond the historical present and future. Thus, Judaism began to adopt a transcendental view of history and the meaning of human existence, and at the same time to view the soul as existing on a spiritual plane. It began, too, to speak of the soul remaining beyond the demise of the body, and of a spiritual life beginning prior to material existence.

The rabbinic view of the soul as an entity having a spiritual character and as a fixed, defined metaphysical element almost certainly developed under the influence of Orphic and Platonic Greek thought. We may assume, too, that the Greek view of the soul as belonging to the realm of the divine, infinite, and eternal, and the body to the realm of the material, finite, and mortal, also left its mark upon Jewish thought.

Plato's idea of the preexistence and eternity of the soul, derived from his dualistic outlook, which set matter and spirit at odds with one another, was also influential. We must bear in mind, however, that for all that the dualistic anthropology expressed in the rabbinic texts had in common with the Platonic and Stoic attitudes current in the Hellenistic world, the rabbinic sages' conception of this dualism and of the conflict between flesh and spirit was far less radical than that of the Greeks, who viewed body and soul as an absolute dichotomy.

Disembodied Spirituality

The dualistic conception of man, in which body and soul are diametrically opposed, bears within it, in addition to its metaphysical significance, the first stirrings of a religious striving toward the ideal of liberating the soul from the bonds of the physical, thereby enhancing its spiritual purity. This kind of outlook was entirely foreign to biblical Judaism, but became highly developed in medieval thought and especially in the kabbalah.

Having accepted the idea of the divine essence of the soul, Judaism now had to elaborate the non-divine, more vital and functional aspects of the human soul. This need to elaborate, as well as the influence of Greek thought, led to the development of the distinctions between the soul's material and spiritual elements, between its intellectual, vital, and vegetable natures, and between the divine soul and the animal soul. These divisions gradually yielded symbols of spirit and matter, of nonbeing (ayin) and being (yesh).

In later stages of development, the Jewish conception of the soul was influenced by Greek philosophical views, as these were reformulated and interpreted by the Moslem and Christian theologians of the Middle Ages. For the first time, Judaism viewed the doctrine of the soul as belonging to the realm of philosophy, and medieval Jewish thought made a unique attempt to adapt these philosophical views to the Torah and to make them a means for interpreting concepts relating to ethics, religious piety, prophecy, and the knowledge of God.

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Rachel Elior

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