Do Jews believe in a soul?
The answer is, “Yes, yes, yes, and “sort of.”
The “sort of” arises within the welter of detail regarding the Levitical sacrifices, a system that allowed for different levels of giving depending on personal financial means. Those unable to afford costly animal sacrifices brought a grain offering. Rashi observes that the person offering it is called a “nefesh” — a word usually translated as “soul.” He wants to know why here, particularly, the Torah calls a “person” a nefesh.
The answer, he says, is that grain is offered expressly by the poor. Objectively speaking, it may not cost much, but for the poor it is so enormous a sacrifice that God says to those who offer it, “I consider it as if you have offered your very soul.”
So nefesh — literally, just “person” — implies, for Rashi, something more. It bespeaks the moral core of our being: the part that overcomes selfishness; the deeply rooted sense that we must live up to responsibility, doing what we can, as best we can. We ourselves call such people “good souls.” They come through; you can count on them.
Does nefesh mean “soul” in this case? In a way; metaphorically, at least; “sort of.”
It is the Zohar that provides us with the “yes, yes, and yes” — three affirmatives corresponding to three different biblical and rabbinic words for “soul,” from which the kabbalists deduce the lesson that the soul has three parts.
The first “yes” affirms the highest part of the soul, the neshamah — what we normally think of as the soul that preexists us and lives on after we die. It is non-material, purely spiritual, so scientific study can neither prove nor disprove it. Brain science may discover the electro-chemistry of how we work, but not of all we are. We sense something more, an inexplicable entity that animates the deepest wellsprings of the “self” we hope to become.
The neshamah is that “something more,” an invitation to realize the God-like embrace of morality, creativity, artistry, and truth. Being unexplainable scientifically, it appears within us as a mysterious gift from without. Hence the idea of a neshamah as “heaven-sent”: a glimpse of transcendence; purpose beyond our admittedly paltry — and, conceivably, petty — personal lives, dwarfed as they are by the infinitude of the universe. When the rest of us dies — body, brain, and all — the soul part called neshamah is what we say lives on.
The second “yes” denotes the second part of the soul, the ruach. If the neshamah is wholly other, utterly ethereal and divine, the part of God that reaches down and pulls us up to greater moral, artistic, and intellectual stature, the ruach is the part of human nature that reaches up receptively to embrace the wonder of it all.
The final “yes” returns to the nefesh, the part of the soul that is actually embodied. Even our bodies are sacred, Judaism says. Torture, enslavement, corporal punishment — we know these to be wrong, because human beings are more than conglomerations of bodily organs to be owned, used, or abused. They are, simultaneously, a nefesh — neither the neshamah that is given from on high nor the ruach that reaches up from within, but our very earthly selves that must live with the financial loss engendered by the sacrifices we make.
This nefesh is Rashi’s “sort of.” But it is also a “yes,” because the earthly experience of loss comes with the satisfaction of reaching higher. And that is the nefesh talking.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.