The Nefesh – The Individual Person
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How do we go about defining a word that refuses to be defined? Ask a Jew who is somewhat knowledgeable in Jewish lore to translate the word ‘nefesh’ and you are sure to get more than one answer. Ask a group of three or more such Jews and you are sure to get an argument. Look it up in almost any translation of the Bible and you are sure to get multiple meanings for this one word. What does nefesh mean?
A straw poll would probably have the definition of ‘soul’ as the leader, but only by a narrow margin. This definition runs into problems with the parallel word neshama, as we have already seen. But being as ‘neshama’ in the Bible really didn’t mean soul in its traditional connotation of the eternal God-given spiritual essence that lives on after death, maybe this connotation is available for the word nefesh. It turns out that it does not work with nefesh either. With a few isolated exceptions that are very up in the air, that definition simply does not fit in either the Chumash or the rest of the Tanakh. So what else is there?
It turns out that the most likely candidates are concepts that are peripherally related to the traditional idea of the soul. The short list of such candidates would probably include the following:
A living being (animal or higher on the evolutionary scale)
The real problem is how these three categories fit together in the same word, nefesh. On top of this, we have the problem of the actual root of the Hebrew word having something to do with ‘rest’, as in the breath (neshama) which is breathed in, coming to rest in the person. Again, we will have to go back to what was likely the ancient idea of air being the source of life and its resting in the person being the essential quality of that person’s life. How the nefesh expanded from ‘life source’ to the personal inclinations of an individual is really the question that we are exploring.
As far as Biblical sources are concerned, we have so many to choose from that it’s a bit overwhelming. For the sake of brevity we are going to focus on two verses associated with the Patriarch Abraham. The first is a rather innocuous verse that describes his journey from his home in Harran (in northern Mesopotamia) to the land of Canaan. ‘And Abram (that was his name at this early point in his life) took his wife Sarai (that was her name then), and his nephew Lot (rhymes with boat), and all of the possessions that they had amassed, and the nefesh that they made in Harran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan and they reached Canaan’ (12:5).
The second verse serves as an example for one of the more common expressions in the Chumash. It is a description of a rather vague type of Biblical punishment for numerous sins. It comes up dozens of times in the Chumash for transgressions that are so varied that they seem to have no common element. Among these is the sin of a male not undergoing circumcision: ‘And the uncircumcised male who does not remove the flesh of the foreskin, that nefesh shall be cut off from its people, he has annulled My covenant’ (17:14). The phrase ‘cut off’, which seems to suggest a type of banishment, will be our focal point in determining what the nefesh actually is.
What was this nefesh that they made in Harran? How does one make a nefesh to begin with? The traditional Jewish answer is that the word alludes to the converts that Abram and Sarai ‘made’ in Harran whom they brought with them on their journey. Those converts were indeed ‘made’ by them. Abram and Sarai helped them attain an identity – an individual persona – that they would not have been able to attain on their own. This is perhaps the greatest gift that one person can give another. It may even rival the gift of life itself in importance. To give another person their individuality is to give them a new lease on life. It enables them to discover who they are and who they could be.
What is an individual persona? It is not an ID card. It is not a career or a favorite hobby. It is something that is partially within our hands to determine but to a great degree out of our hands. There are so many factors that enter into the forging of an individual persona that it frequently looks like a role of the dice. Childhood traumas, fortunate or unfortunate turns of fate, and genetic disposition, are among the many ‘outside’ forces that one must contend with in this essential task. To establish true individuality may require a lifetime, and frequently even that isn’t enough It is something that we carry around with us all of our lives that is frequently invisible to everyone, including ourselves.
The nefesh is the individual persona. It is the combination of the nature and the nurture that makes up the sum total of our likes and our dislikes, our inclinations and our urges, our emotional advantages and disadvantages, and our ability to deal with all this and steer a steady course through life. We cannot completely shape the person that we become solely through our own decisions, because so much of that person is determined by factors that are largely beyond our control. Yet, by the same token, our decisions play an absolutely vital role in that determination. The nefesh is the individual – predetermined by genetics and formed by outside forces, but just as equally shaped by the internal choices of that person.
By far the most common use of the word nefesh is the second definition on that original list of three – a person. Individual counts of people are frequently totaled in the number of nefesh in the group. Even corpses are referred to as a nefesh, probably in the sense that there was once a life in this body that is now empty of life. But the first and third definitions have their share of the term’s usages. We have already seen the term used for a living being, as in the animals, and it is not uncommon to see personal desires or inclinations expressed as a function of the nefesh. It seems that the Bible had no problem accommodating these three apparently unrelated concepts of life force, persona, and personal inclinations, in the same Biblical term.
Perhaps we can understand the relationship between these three concepts by looking into one of the most common applications of the nefesh in the Chumash. This is the very Biblical punishment of karet, or ‘cutting off’. It is applied to no less than 36 specific sins in the Bible, with no common theme running through them. They vary from disregarding circumcision to idolatry to dozens of forbidden sexual unions. In all of these, the text states that the nefesh who violates the particular law will be ‘cut off’ from his or her people. The standard Talmudic understanding is that it refers to a type of premature death, meaning before a specific age (either 50 or 60). A secondary explanation includes the idea of punishment in the afterlife. This became the explanation that was stressed in the medieval commentaries of Maimonides and Nachmanides. Though various medieval rabbis disagreed on the exact nature of the punishment, common consensus had it as a ‘cutting off the soul’ in the next world. The unwieldy term ‘extirpation’ is frequently employed as a translation of this punishment that leaves it vague enough to accommodate all the different views.
The problem with all this is that there isn’t the slightest indication in any of the many Biblical instances of karet that suggests either premature death or ‘cutting off of the soul’. It invariably seems to refer to a type of banishment from the community or the nation. This was probably the original explanation deep in Biblical times. As physical banishment became impractical or ineffective against these sins, the other explanations may have come into fashion. The other explanations had the advantage of not requiring any proactive punitive measures on the part of the community. It would all be handled by God.
How does 'banishment' apply to the nefesh? Perhaps the person who committed one of these sins would automatically undergo a feeling of alienation from the community/nation due to their unwillingness to conform to the strict social rules of the society. They would no longer find themselves welcome or respected within the society. They would be ‘cut off’. Their personality simply would not fit within the mainstream Israelite society. This was an automatic process that required no community intervention. It was a direct consequence of flaunting essential religious/social norms.
According to this, the real meaning of karet is directly associated with the word nefesh. That life, that person, that personality, would be cut off from the rest the community because their individual persona did not fit in with the others. They could no longer be counted as members of the community. They would be persona non-grata – an unwelcome person. It was really a matter of personality. The clash of basic values was so great that the person was not socially acceptable. This is the ‘cutting off of the nefesh’. In the strict norms of Biblical society, if a person veered so drastically from what was acceptable, they had severed their personal bond with the community.
Gazing in the Mirror
What is an individual persona? It is a combination of genes, family, education, society, and internal development, all combined with a healthy supply of good or bad fortune, which constitutes the result of a living human being becoming a person with feelings, ideas, and inclinations. There really is no simple explanation of the persona, just as there is no single definition of the nefesh. Both terms are the conglomeration of a multitude of contributing and conflicting factors that range from the basic force of life to the preference for one type of clothing over another. The persona and the nefesh are like the software of our lives.
The Bible’s use of the word ‘nefesh’ to refer to all three of its Biblical connotations reveals a fascinating idea. The ‘individual’ is really all three of those things: the living being, the person, and the personal inclinations. That living being is a person, counted as a unique individual among other people, maintaining a residue of that uniqueness even in death. The uniqueness that each individual human being possesses is reflected in their personality. Each one of us is formed and shaped differently from all others. Each one of us undergoes unique experiences that set us apart from all others and set us on a unique course in life that cannot be duplicated by any others, no matter how hard they may try. Finally each one of us gains our own unique bent in life – our own inclinations and drives, our own talents and desires – our own individuality. This individuality, to a great degree is determined by the choices we make in the course of our lives. It is, probably more than anything else, who we are. It is our nefesh.
Is our individuality a function of our genetic makeup or is it something that we determine over the course of our lives? This is the old ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate resurrected. Does the Bible’s use of the term ‘nefesh’ shed any light on this debate?
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