Who Are We?
Who are We?
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Let's get right down to business on this question. Who are we? Our subject is not what we are, but who we are. Neurons and the brain waves are what; the soul and the will are who. Now that we've narrowed down the playing field considerably, we can begin to explore our subject. Who is the spiritual; what is the physical. We want to get into the nitty-gritty of the spiritual.
What is the spiritual? This is one of those vague things like time, that people intuitive feel they understand but cannot even begin to explain in any logical manner whatsoever. Most people, if forced, would probably explain it as something to do with the soul, or God, or some weird form of energy. We want to really clarify what the spiritual is and in doing so, be able to present it in a manner that almost anybody can intelligently decide if they believe it is real or not.
Without further ado, let's lay the cards on the table. The 'spiritual' is a dimension, just as time and space are dimensions. A dimension is not merely a convenient way of measuring things, as the more physical dimensions of time and space might suggest. Even with those two more familiar dimensions, they are much more than that. They, along with the spiritual, are arenas for existence. It is difficult to imagine existence without either space or time, but it is equally difficult to imagine it without the spiritual. Where would all the ideas exist, the logic, the sense of hope or despair, if not in a 'space' called the spiritual? Where does 1 + 1 + 2 exist? Where does the reality of meaning and purpose exist? This gives us a little window into what we mean by the spiritual. It is that dimension in which ideas, thoughts, feelings, will, and conscience exist. This is the arena which we shall explore.
There are a few other very important matters that should be clarified in this introduction. First is the notion of the soul. With the soul we have entered much further into spiritual territory than with a logical idea like 1 + 1. Although there was hardly any doubt about the existence of the soul until a little over 150 years ago, that is certainly no longer the case. Modern science has effectively eliminated the soul from all discussion about life and human beings. It was a case of steady reduction of responsibilities, until it was simply retired due to lack of need. In the way, it mirrors the fate of God in the eyes of the secular world.
But the soul, like the cat, has nine lives. It keeps coming back in the form of near-death experiences, or deja vu insight, or past-life memories, or energy pulsing through the body that heals or gives superhuman strength. It is what enables the imagination to journey to the places that it goes. It is the well of unfathomable depths that the will taps into. It is the mind that can span the universe in a timeless instant and feel love or fear that makes all else seem insignificant. These are the ways in which the soul has been resurrected, or perhaps reincarnated.
The soul will probably be the most frequent topic of our exploration. From a Jewish point of view we shall explore it from its beginnings in the Bible to the most modern views of Hasidism. There will be some surprising ideas put forth, some of which will disturb those who are most familiar with Jewish notions of the soul. The main theme will be the three names that are applied to the soul in classic Judaism – the neshama (usually translated as simply 'soul'); the nefesh (translated in many ways including soul, breath, person, self, and a few others); the ruach (pronounced as 'ru-ach' and translated as wind or spirit). Obviously, with three different words that mean almost the same thing, there will be a lot of overlap and confusion. It should be clear from the outset that whatever picture we present of each of these terms is by no means universally agreed upon. These terms are subject to great debate and have never had a single well-defined meaning.
But the subject of 'Who are we' is by no means limited to soul talk. In addition there is the matter of what it means to be a human being. This is only peripherally related to the soul. There are more basic issues that have to be examined that, in a sense, precede the spiritual concerns of the soul. We shall focus on three of these issues:
The difference between human beings as individuals and as members of a species
The nature of the male/female relationships of human beings
How we deal with the inevitable reality of death
The individual/species combination is where the key elements of both the spiritual and the physical are to be found. It is the source of the great contrast between the two sides. As individuals we are possessors of great spiritual potential. We each have a unique soul equipped with powers that make each one of us the unique person that we are. But as members of a species we are really nothing more than advanced animals. In truth, we are neither the individual or the species alone. We are both.
Male/female differences are probably the most distinguishing feature within the human species – greater than any racial or cultural difference and rivaled only by the effects of aging on the body and the mind. They are the primary source of love - the most desired emotion known to human beings. But they are also the source of an almost infinite amount of personal strife and emotional turmoil. They are the glue that holds together a marriage and a family – the most significant unit of human cooperation that has played a vital role in virtually every human society since the dawn of the modern species. The male/female contrasts and mutual attractions are rooted in the very physical soil of the body and the genes. But they are so mysterious that only with the addition of some spiritual component can we hope to fathom the depths of the relationship.
What happens when we die? Who hasn't wondered about this? Death holds us in an eternal sense of mystery. We know it is going to happen and we know what it means from a purely physical standpoint, but we cannot help wondering if there is some way around its inevitable finality. The obvious answer is the existence of the soul or some other mechanism of continuance. But this assumption takes us out of the secure world of facts and figures and places us firmly in the world of the spirit and the mysterious. Death forces us to face the question of spirituality right in the eye – is there a spirit or is there not?
In addition to these fundamentals, we shall also examine the most important faculties of the human mind, for it is these faculties that shape our personalities into what they are. We have selected six powers of the mind as the most vital. They are:
The moral conscience
The urge towards evil
The will to choose
The moral conscience is a rather subtle force that usually lurks in the back burners of the mind. But it is always there. What is it? Is it a product of our evolutionary heritage? Is it built into the physical workings of the brain? Or is it something that comes from 'outside' – a gentle voice that speaks of good and of ultimate fulfillment, as opposed to the stronger voice that demands the pleasures of the moment and all manner of selfish desires?
The same question must be asked its notorious sibling, the urge to evil. What is it? Why is it there? Is it simply the natural result of evolution pushing for the survival of the individual working its way into choices that go against that very drive? Or is it also a 'outside' voice speaking a very opposite message, but every bit as spiritual as its counterpart? These two parallel voices play astoundingly major roles in Jewish thought and find their way into any discussion of our spiritual composition.
The will is the equally mysterious power that must choose between those opposing forces of good and evil. While there are those who may doubt the true reality of any powers of good or evil in the human mind, nobody seriously doubts the reality of the will. But in spite of its obvious presence, there are still problems with how it can really be free. How, if it is limited by the physical and deterministic properties of the brain, can it make choices that are anything but pre-programmed or, at best, random? From the theological level there are also problems. If God is truly omnipotent (all-knowing) to a degree that goes beyond limits of time, then how can any free will choice not be known in advance to God and thus not be a free choice at all? These are questions that must be asked if we are to hope to understand this power that lies at our very core.
The intellect and the emotions are frequently seen as paralleling the moral conscience and the urge to evil. The great temptation is to line up the intellect with the force of good and the emotions with evil. This has been such a standard assumption among western religions, including Judaism, that it rarely gets questioned. But is this assumption really so? Is it true that the intellect is always 'good' and the emotions always 'evil'? Our most personal experiences frequently reveal the exact opposite. Again, we must ask what these powers are. Are they purely physical functions of the physical brain or do they contain some spiritual component that cannot be explained by the physical laws of science?
The imagination is the most mysterious power of all. Where do its visions and images come from? Are they merely the rehashing of memories or random flashes zipping through the mind, or do they contain some element that comes from another domain that is not part of the familiar limitations of the physical brain? It is difficult to even define the imagination, let alone get an understanding of how it works and what it's true function really is.
We shall explore these twelve topics through the writings of four distinct arenas of Jewish wisdom:
The Tanakh and post-Biblical literature
The early rabbinic period (100-1000)
The later rabbinic period (1000-present)
Each topic will be examined through a selection from each of the periods. Hopefully, patterns will emerge as we trace the development of each topic through Jewish history. In addition, perhaps we will see general development of the Jewish understanding of the human being and the soul through the ages.
Two additional sections follow the Jewish sections: the secular view and the author's personal view. It is impossible to gain a complete knowledge of the secular view of such vast topics in short essays. We will focus only on very contemporary details of the topics and how they are viewed in light of modern science and modern thought in general. The personal views are not meant to be seen as the final word. They are really an attempt to salvage some compromise between the Jewish ideas and the scientific ideas. Some may say that this is a hopeless task, since there is no possible way to fit the strictly religious and traditional Jewish views with the modern ideas that are the result of scientific inquiry and secular knowledge. But who really knows? Maybe a middle path can be found. It is with this hope that the final section is included. Perhaps by exploring all of this together, a small glimmer of light can shed on the great mystery of the human being – who are we.
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