For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog at January 2006.
Three Levels of the Soul
In this passage the Zohar conducts a fairly elaborate discussion of the human soul and its various distinct levels. It begins, as almost always, with an exegesis of biblical verses, in which the creation of the soul within man is placed within the larger context of the Creation as a whole. Notice the idea that the lower world, and especially the human being, mirrors the supernal world. Zohar I: 205b-206a:
Rabbi Yitzhak and Rabbi Yehudah were sitting one night and studying Torah. Rabbi Yitzhak said to Rabbi Yehudah: We have learned that when the blessed Holy One created the world, He formed the lower world on the pattern of the upper world, corresponding to one another; this is His glory above and below.
Rabbi Yehudah said: Certainly so! And He created the human being above all, as is written, “I made the earth and created humankind upon it” (Isa 45:12). “I made the earth”—obviously! Why did I make the earth? Because I “created humankind upon it,” for he sustains the world, so that all will be indivisibly complete.
He opened, saying, “Thus says God, the Lord, who creates the heavens and stretches them out, who spreads out the earth and what emerges from it…” (Isa 42:5). This verse has been established, but “Thus says God, the Lord”—the blessed Holy One, above, above, who “creates the heavens and stretches them out,” arraying the constantly, ceaselessly.
“Who spreads out the earth and what emerges from it”—Holy Land, bundle of life. “Who gives nesahama, soul, to the people upon it”—“the earth” is the one who gives “soul.”
Rabbi Yitzhak said: All is above, for from there issues soul of life to this “earth,” and “earth” grasps the soul, giving to all; for that flowing, gushing river conveys soul, conducting them into this “earth,” who grasps them, providing to all.
This introductory midrashic exposition concludes with one central point: that the “earth” (which in Zohar is a symbol for Malkhut or Shekhinah) is the source of souls—a kind of “Great Mother.” The section that follows elaborates the three levels of soul:
Come and see: When the blessed Holy One created the human being, He gathered his dust from the four directions of the world and formed his body on the site of the Temple below and emanated upon him a soul of life from the Temple above.
The soul comprises three aspects and therefore has three names, corresponding to supernal mystery: nefesh, ruah, neshama. Nefesh, as has been established, is lowest of all. Ruah is sustenance, presiding over nefesh, a higher rung above her, sustaining her completely, fittingly. Neshama is highest sustaining existence of all, prevailing over all, holy rung transcending all.
These three rungs are included within human beings—in those who attain devotion to their Lord. At first one possesses nefesh, a holy preparation by which a person is refined. When one begins to purify himself on this rung, he is ready to be crowned with ruah, a holy rung hovering over nefesh, by which a virtuous person is aroused. Once he is elevated by nefesh and ruah, initiated into perfection through serving his Lord, then neshama alights upon him—supernal, holy rung prevailing over all—so that he is crowned by that rung. Then he is consummate, perfected on all sides, worthy of the world that is coming; he is beloved by the blessed Holy one, as is said: “Endowing those who love me with existence” (Prov 8:21). Who are “those who love me”? Those who have a holy neshama.
Rabbi Yehudah said: If so, look at what is written, “All that had the neshama of the spirit of life in its nostrils, of all that was on dry land, died” (Gen 7:22)!
He replied: Certainly so! For there did not remain among them any of those who possessed a holy neshama, such as Jared, Enoch, of all those righteous ones whose merit could have saved the world from destruction, as is written: “All that had the neshama of the spirit of life in its nostrils, of all that was on dry land, died”—they had already died and departed from the world; none of them remained to protect the world at that time.
We will discuss the three soul levels and their meaning below. At this point, I would like to note a surprising aspect point of this passage. We are used to thinking of all the levels of the soul being innate in every human being from birth, or even in utero (some might say, forty days after conception, when the embryo begins to assume rudimentary human firm). This idea is found in many presentations of Kabbalah widely circulated today, whether in popular contemporary presentations, or in various streams of post- Zoharic thought, Lurianic or Hasidic. Thus, one finds in Tanya, the seminal work of Habad Hasidism, that the soul is helek eloha mema’al mamash, “the spark of the Divine, literally”—that is, immanent within the person even before birth. But this is not the doctrine of the Zohar; as presented here, the higher soul-levels of ruah and neshama are acquired by deeds, by devotion to Divine worship, as the person gradually becomes spiritually refined and perfected during the course of his/her life. Hence, in many individuals these higher “rungs” may never exist in actuality at all. The soul is thus a kind of capacity or potential that exists in all people, and is developed as the person becomes sensitized to the realm of holiness, but not a given reality. Hence the reference to Jared and Enoch in connection with the phrase cited from the Flood narrative, “all that had the soul of the spirit of life.” On the literal level, the word neshama is used there as a synonym for life energy; but the Zohar, consistent with its view, reinterprets this as referring, not to the destruction of every living being, but to the (natural , ante-deluvian) death of the handful of individuals between Adam and Noah who attained this high level. We continue:
Come and see: all are rungs, one above the other: nefesh, ruah, neshama—rung upon rung. First nefesh, lowest ruing, as we have said. Then ruah, hovering over nefesh, sustaining her. Neshama, a rung transcending all, as has been established.
Nefesh—nefesh of David, poised to receive nefesh from that flowing, gushing river. Ruah— ruah pressing over it, and nefesh is sustained by ruah. This is the ruah dwelling between fire and water; from here this nefesh is nourished,
Ruah endures through the sustenance of another, higher rung, called neshama, source of nefesh and ruah. From there ruah is nourished, and when ruah receives, nefesh receives, and all is one. All draw near one another: nefesh to ruah, ruah to neshama, and all is one.
Come and see: “He approached him” (Gen 44:18)—world approaching world, to unite with one another, so that all becomes one. Because Judah is king and Joseph is king, they approach one another and unite.
—Translation by Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, III: 261-264
The Midrash, at Genesis Rabbah 14.9, already mentions that the soul is called by five different names: in addition to those mentioned here, there are also hayah, which may mean simply vital energy; and yehidah, “the unique one,” usually considered the very highest level (the word as such is used in Psalm 22:21). Interestingly, at least one major Talmudic passage that speaks of the judgment undergone by a person after death and the reward or punishment that ensue (b. Rosh Hashana 17b-18a) does not speak of the soul at all, but simply of the person as such.
In any event, the various soul levels mentioned in the Zohar may best be seen as representing levels of human potential, “vessels” to contain the potential of what a person is supposed to do in life. Are these given, either at birth or at various stages of life (Sabba de-Mishpatim, for example, which is considered by most scholars to belong to a separate strand of Kabbalistic thought outside of the Zohar proper, speaks of the three levels of soul entering a person, respectively, at birth, at age 13, and at age 20), being lost or “withering” away if they are not realized? Or are they acquired gradually, as a result of one’s deeds, as implied by our passage? In either event, the picture that emerges is of the human being as having spiritual potential, but not as something automatically realized.
As for the characteristics of these three soul levels: Man’s starting point is as a biological, vital being, as symbolized by nefesh, the vital soul. Nefesh is seen by the Zohar as that vital element which partakes of the spirit of the cosmos as a whole: the soul of the world, or the soul of nature. For that reason, this soul level is more open to external factors, and hence also more subject to being contaminated by ruah de-mesa’ava, the “spirit of impurity.” Ruah and neshama, by contrast, relate to a more spiritual level: to human consciousness, whether on an emotional or an intellective level; to that which makes for God-awareness.
Elsewhere in the Zohar, the different levels of the soul are depicted as corresponding to various different sefirot (although, as always in the Zohar, this is only implied by way of allusion, not stated explicitly). Thus, Nefesh corresponds to Malkhut; Ruah to Tiferet; Neshama to Binah. The three levels also correspond to different organs of the body and, by extension, to their different functions: Nefesh corresponds to the abdomen, kidneys, the lower parts of body (including the genitalia?)—i.e., the sources of the basic life functions; Ruah corresponds to the chest, heart and lungs (i.e., the source of emotive life), and also to the organ of speech (= Kol = ruah memal’la); while the Neshama is seen as being seated in the brain, corresponding to the intellective, perhaps contemplative connection to God. (Do these three also correspond to the three sub-Divine worlds of Asiyah, Yezirah and Beriah—i.e., Action, Formation and Creation—upon which, in Kabbalistic thought, the first three ascending parts of the Morning Prayer are also based?) Finally, in another Zohar passage the three souls are described as three “knots” tying life together (Zohar Terumah: II:141b-142a; for more on the functions of the soul, see Zohar Vayikra, III:24b ff.).
The various parts of the soul are also related to the ability to function in other worlds—after life, before birth, etc.—and are identified with that part of the person which survives after death. (I wish to thank Avraham Leader who assisted me with understanding this passage, and provided useful sources and insights on the entire matter.)
I would like to conclude with something I wrote many years ago in which I said certain things pertinent to this discussion. In responding to the call of the editor of a local tourism-advertising paper to provide convincing arguments as to why he ought to be religious, I intuitively hit upon a concept of the soul as the source of religious life. In my response, I first explain why rational, philosophical “proofs” of the existence of God are not to the point. I wrote there, in part:
…. Religious knowledge is ultimately a function of a particular faculty of the human personality other than the intellect. Iron-clad rational proofs [for the existence of God, Revelation of Torah, etc.] are rather besides the point, because religion speaks, not to the human mind, but to some other faculty -- if you like, to that which is conventionally called the soul….
It is often argued by Jewish religious “missionaries” that one should “do mitzvot first, and then ask questions,” a claim whose underlying premise is “doing is believing.” (Or, to quote the somewhat more eloquent framing of this idea found in its source in our classic tradition, “Let a person always engage in Torah and mitzvot even not-for-their-own-sake, for through doing them not-for-their-own-sake, he will come to do them for-their-own-sake”— Pesahim 50b and elsewhere).
The cynical, psychologically sophisticated modernist will dismiss this argument as an exercise in self-persuasion by behavior modification. But the religious Jew will assert that, by performing mitzvot, an individual gradually enables the religious faculty within his personality or soul to grow and flourish; that, in fact, many of the difficulties with belief which you, like so many others, express are rooted in the fact that the anti-religious and anti-spiritual bias of contemporary culture lead to the atrophy of this faculty.
Thus, religious knowledge belongs to a different order, qualitatively speaking, than mundane, secular knowledge. To my mind, it is impossible to move from a secular, materialistic set of axioms to a religious world-view, accepting the existence of some sort of spiritual dimension in life, without some kind of “leap of faith”—that is, a mental act of radically scrapping one’s existing mind-set and working axioms about the world, at least provisionally, and opening oneself to the possibility of an entirely different way of looking at the world and at one’s own self.
A well-known Rabbinic saying concerning Hanukah states that the Greeks (i.e. Seleucids) wanted to abolish three mitzvot in particular: Shabbat, milah and Kiddush ha-Hodesh—that is, the observance of one day of rest each week; the mark of circumcision; and the sanctification of the New Moon, by which the Jewish calendar, with all its various holidays, is determined. I once heard from Art Green that the common denominator of these three is that they reflect a common theme: human participation in holiness. Shabbat is innately holy, but by observing its holiness through refraining from labor and through declaring its holiness in the Kiddush over wine, we actively participate in the holiness created by God. Brit Milah takes this idea one step further: we make a mark upon our own (male) body, indicating that our very flesh is sanctified to the service of God (and specifically in the most problematic organ of the body). Finally, the Bet Din, by declaring new moons, creates the holiness of such holidays as Pesah and Yom Kippur, with all the stringencies of, for example, the prohibitions of eating hametz or fasting connected with them.
Thus, unlike the language used in the Shabbat Kiddush, where we simply acknowledge God as מקדש השבת, “He who sanctifies the Shabbat,” the blessing recited at Kiddush and in the Amidah for festivals involves two steps: מקדש ישראל והזמנים , מקדש ישראל ויום הכפורים, מקדש ישראל ויום הזכרון, (“He who sanctifies Israel and the seasons… Israel and the Day of Remembrance … Israel and the Day of Atonement”)—as if to say that their sanctity only comes about via Israel, who sanctify them. Indeed, a famous midrash states that the Heavenly Entourage came to God asking Him when the various festivals days were, and He answered, as if shrugging His shoulders, by saying: “I don’t know; go ask the Beit Din Hagadol of Israel!” Whether or not their astronomical observations or calculations are correct, “these are my festivals”—God himself as no festivals, so to speak, other than these.
Elaborating upon this, it seems to me that this pithy midrash says something very profound and even radical inherent in the very nature of Judaism: namely, that it isn’t based upon a servile relation to God, in which man is passive and sees himself as a naught, a cipher. Whiel there is such an element as well, it is only half of the dialectic. The other half is one on which the human being himself participates in holiness—in experiencing it and declaring it; in marking it on his body and those of his children; and, finally, through the Court that represent the collectivity, the community, in creating actual holiness in time.
I thought about this recently in terms of the concepts of the holy articulated by the influential early twentieth century Protestant theologian, Rudolph Otto, who spoke of God (in his important book Das Heigele or The Idea of the Holy) as “wholly other” and as the mysterium tremendum. To Otto, the essential characteristic of God is His awesomeness, His being totally unreachable, utterly outside the human ken, inspiring awe and fear and more than a little of the sense of the strange, the uncanny and weird. Such an emotion, it seems to me, underlies the concept of submission to God so central to Islam—indeed, that is the very meaning of the word islām. And the sense of total dependence, of innate sinfulness and the existential need for salvation, seem to be the basic religious emotions in Christianity, at least of the classical Pauline variety (albeit admittedly many modern Christian theologians have labored hard to introduce elements of human value and dignity into their religious equation). But in Judaism it seems to me that these elements have always been there, in a constant dialectic between love and awe of God, between Divine transcendence and immanence, between intimacy and familiarity (which loom especially large in Kabbalah, as we have seen in almost nearly every Zohar passage we have studied thus far this year) and distance and standing back.
To return to Hanukkah: it seems to me that there is a certain irony—both in light of this message of Hanukkah being connected to the Jewish concept of holiness, and the accompanying stubbornness and refusal to budge from our religious commitment reflected in it—that Hanukkah has itself become grist for the mill of acculturation among certain parts of American Jewry. The so-called “Chrismukah” synthesis touted by some is utterly alien to the historical message of these days, whose entire message is militant resistance to assimilation or even to acculturation when that contradicts basic Jewish values.
APPENDIX: Letter to a Seeker: “Know What to Answer”
The following essay was published pseudonymously in Your Jerusalem, a monthly local aimed at tourists and devoted largely to advertising, lists of cultural events, etc. However, its then-editor, Ralph Dobrin, a self-declared agnostic, had opened its pages to attempts to persuade him why he ought to be a religious Jew. This challenge elicited many off-beat responses, including my own, which was published in the July 1994 issue. Beyond the slightly kinky style, keeping with the general tenor of the forum in question, I regarded this as an opportunity to present something of a serious, even comprehensive statement of my own personal theology.
I must admit to being slightly bemused by the combination of ad copy for up-beat and trendy boutiques with the atmosphere of an on-going college “bull session” on the great questions of religion, truth, and the meaning of life in the letters column of Our Jerusalem. I cannot hope to compete for color with the rarified metaphysics of the good rabbi who writes of the cosmos as Divine thought made holy energy; nor with the Christian contributor who gladdens the heart of his readers with the good tidings of the ultimate downfall of the Papacy; nor with the memorable gentleman from Australia, who promises a racially pure Israel, cleaned of fornicators, thieves, adulterers, etc., to be produced from the pure seed of Yaakov’s penis (mentioning in an aside that one can have a thousand women, provided they’re all lawfully wed). Nevertheless, allow me to contribute my own bit of wisdom to Mr. Dobrin’s ongoing quest for religious enlightenment and, if I understand correctly, an irrefutable argument to sway his agnostic heart.
In one word, I believe that the basic premises of this quest are incorrectly formulated. The name of the game is not absolute certainty, because religious axioms by their very nature are ultimately not subject to rational, demonstrable proof. True, there is a vast literature of attempted proofs for the existence of God, but at bottom all these proofs depend upon a predisposition on the part of the reader to accept religious truths ab initio. This does not mean that God does not exist; rather, that statements about Him refer to an order of reality that stands outside of the physical, material world, and hence outside the sphere of demonstrable reality with which the axioms and proofs of our world of thought are concerned.
I would argue that, within the context of Jewish tradition, even the great arch-rationalist, Maimonides, did not in the final analysis see the existence of God as absolutely demonstrable. Thus, his famous statement at the very beginning of the Mishneh Torah, in which he asserts that the first commandment of the Torah is to “know that there is First Cause,” in fact refers to a type of knowledge which is not demonstrable through iron-clad philosophical argumentation, but rather one that is apprehended through a gradual process of perceiving God’s presence in the wonders of the Creation and contemplating the sciences of physics and metaphysics over a life-time (see the end of Ch. 4 there). Indeed, this knowledge is not really knowledge in the usual sense, but something closer to “belief” or “faith” -- i.e., the acceptance, as a willed cognitive act on the part of man, of the existence of God as a fundamental axiom (see S. Rawidowicz, Studies in Jewish Thought [Philadelphia, 1974], pp. 317-323, who claims that the Arabic i’tiqad, used in the cognate passage in Sefer ha-Mizvot, Positive Commandments, #1, in fact alludes to belief and not to knowledge). True, Maimonides does offer proofs for the existence of God in the Guide for the Perplexed, but these seem to be presented in a spirit of polemics, as a means of convincing the non-believer, or at least as a way of demonstrating that belief in God may be consistent with the dominant Aristotelian philosophy of his day, rather than as a necessary component of the inner religious experience of the Jew. The proof of this is that even on so central an issue as the eternity or createdness of the universe, Maimonides falls back upon the argument that, inasmuch as one has no basis for choosing one position against another on purely rational, philosophical grounds, one may choose to believe whatever position is most consistent with traditional religious dogma -- i.e., that the world is created.
Turning to another leading medieval Jewish philosopher of a less strictly rational cast, R. Yehudah Halevi, he speaks, in his Book of the Kuzari, of a “religious faculty” (inyan eloki) present in the soul of Adam, passed down in one particular line to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and from there to the entire Jewish people. In other words, religious knowledge is ultimately a function of a particular faculty of the human personality other than the intellect. Again, iron-clad, rational proofs are rather besides the point, because religion speaks, not to the human mind, but to some other faculty -- if you like, to that which is conventionally called the soul.
Needless to say, at this point the difficulties for the typical modernistic agnostic become even greater, as he is expected to accept, not only various axioms about the universe and its Creator for which he has no proof, but also the existence of faculties or functions within the human personality whose very existence is unknown to conventional modern psychology.
But in this very difficulty lies the way towards the solution. You are no doubt familiar with the common argument of Jewish religious “missionaries”—“do mitzvot first, and then ask questions,” a claim whose underlying premise is “doing is believing.” (Or, to quote the somewhat more eloquent framing of this idea found in its source in our classic tradition, “Let a person always engage in Torah and mitzvot even not-for-their-own-sake, for through doing them not-for-their-ownsake, he will come to do them for-their-own-sake”— Pesahim 50b and elsewhere). The cynical, psychologically sophisticated modernist will dismiss this argument as an exercise in self-persuasion by behavior modification. However, the religious Jew will assert that, by performing mitzvot, an individual gradually enables the religious faculty within his personality or soul to grow and flourish; that, in fact, many of the difficulties with belief which you, like so many others, express are rooted in the fact that the anti-religious and anti-spiritual bias of contemporary culture lead to the atrophy of this faculty (see on this James Kugel, To Be a Jew; Huston Smith, The Forgotten Truth; Jacob Needleman, A Sense of the Cosmos).
In brief: religious knowledge belongs to a different order, qualitatively speaking, than mundane, secular knowledge. To my mind, it is impossible to move from a secular, materialistic set of axioms to a religious world-view, accepting the existence of some sort of spiritual dimension in life, without some kind of “leap of faith”—that is, a mental act of radically scrapping one’s existing mind-set and working axioms about the world, at least provisionally, and opening oneself to the possibility of an entirely different way of looking at the world and at one’s own self.
I should add here a word about the importance of Torah and mitzvot.
One of the central practical insights of Judaism is that the above process takes place, not only on the level of mind, but on that of action, through the performance of the mitzvot --again, as a means of cultivating this spiritual faculty within the personality. If you wish to undertake this quest seriously, I would counsel, as a ground minimum, that you undertake a certain minimal observance of Shabbat, the daily donning of tefillin, and the recitation of Shema morning and evening, thereby providing a certain basic practical infrastructure for seeking God’s presence. Rudimentary observance of kashrut and sexual purity would also be helpful in purifying your body and mind from the constant bombardment of hedonism one receives from the modern environment, and in neutralizing the message of “find the meaning of life in bodily pleasure” which is omnipresent in our culture.
As for the question, on the more cognitive level: “Why Torah? Why Revelation?” Given that the true religious path is not one of the intellect or the ratio, and given that not all people are able to arrive at this truth through their own by themselves (How many Abrahams or Moseses are there?), the tradition is essential to complement the intuitions of the religious faculty implanted within man. This, of course, in addition to the fact that it happens to be true and Divinely revealed.
Two more points: Another way towards reaching this kind of perception (one that has been important in my own thinking), one that is ultimately emotional and ethical rather than rational, may be found in the sense of disgust at the ethical, spiritual and, increasingly, cultural bankruptcy of Western culture. The answer to man’s deepest need is not to be found in a brave new world of computers, networking, genetic engineering, fiber-optics, and compact disks containing the entire Boeadlian Library, available through your neighborhood mall (sorry, I meant your virtual mall in cyberspace) next to the strawberry-flavored condoms. Nor, on the value level, will our salvation come from a politically correct world where all races, sexes, creeds, and sexual orientations (lovely phrase, that!) are equally free to pursue their happiness and gratification. If you find this dream a nightmarish parody of the noble hopes of seventeenth century humanism and enlightenment, then perhaps the Torah has something to say to you.
I would like to conclude with a few specific comments about the letter in your last issue from Rabbi Moshe Davis. He spoke of the embodiment of Divine lights made holy energy within our created world, mitzvot being the Divinely taught path to live properly and harmoniously. While in principle his position is not as far from my own as you might think, he needs a perush Rashi to be comprehended by the average modern, sceptical, scientifically educated man. I fear that he is guilty of the educational sin of presenting mystical concepts in their full force and original terminology without the necessary explanations or, as Maimonides calls them in another context, “introductions” or “prefatory remarks,” needed to make himself minimally coherent to the modernist reader. One must understand that such language must be understand as metaphor, as an attempt to embody in human language insights pertaining to a world which is ultimately beyond our grasp and apprehension—certainly through our mind. Even to the religious adept, to the unique person who has cultivated his “religious faculty,” these concepts are only truly useful after long and arduous training, and with siyata dishemaya, with Divine grace and help. Such language only serves to estrange and to alienate the unprepared, secularist reader, and do not serve to create a common language of discourse, as I hope I have done in the above—and pardon me if I’ve been excessively wordy in the process.