A Meditation on the Soul

Thoughts About the Soul From a Kabbalistic Perspective

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A great deal of Kabbalistic doctrine is concerned one way or another with the nature, experience, and destiny of the soul. Yet, although many authors, both ancient and modern, have engaged with the psychology of the soul, few have really explained what they mean by the word. Some refer to the soul in terms of it being an entity; that such and such a person is a young or old soul; others refer to it in terms of it being a vehicle: my soul is filled with joy or love. But still the question remains: What is meant by the term ‘soul?’ Perhaps this question remains unanswered because many of us think of the soul as a synonym for ‘Self’ and deny its existence beyond that of a synonym.

Where it is accepted, the general consensus treats the soul as being the life-principle by which we think, will, know, and feel. Some believe that this principle is of an entirely non-material and spiritual nature, whilst others think of it as a material substance, a simple by-product of the chemistry of matter. Some attribute to it immortality, others believe it to be no more than mortal. Some think of it being a simple undifferentiated creature incapable of division, while others see it as a creature of many parts - so many definitions!

For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that a person possessed a physical body (Khat), and an immaterial double of the body known as the Ka. Furthermore, the Ka was also associated with the Ba, which was understood to reside within the heart. The Ka and the Ba dwelled in the tomb with the body, and were able to wander away from the body. Their continued existence, however, depended upon offerings being made by family and friends of the deceased. The existence of the Ka and the Ba was understood to come to an end eventually when offerings ceased.

The permanent life-giving principle was the Khu, a term that means something like ‘spirit-soul’, whose nature was understood to be unchangeable, incorruptible, and immortal. When the body died, it was possible to raise up from it, by means of sacred rituals, a spirit-body called a Sahu, which the Khu would inhabit and enter heaven to live with Osiris and the blessed for all eternity. There are other views concerning the apparently very complex psychology of the ancient Egyptians.

In Hinduism the Sanskrit word for the soul is atman, a word that means breath or wind, a correspondence that appears to be almost universal. The atman is regarded as a fragment or particle of the divine, and as such is understood to have divine attributes; thus it is eternal, without magnitude, and indestructible.

The atman is often confused with the jiva, which is the vitalizing element in all living things, affected by phenomena and subject to the transitory effects of the sensitive life, such as pain and pleasure, whereas the atman is the permanent substrate of the individual. 

To the people of ancient Greece, the soul was commonly known as Psyche, which besides meaning breath, life, and spirit, also signified a butterfly or moth - a motif frequently used in ancient Greece as an emblem of the immortal soul. In the late Hellenic world it was held that the soul descended to earth from the heights of heaven, and that as it descended it was first clothed in an ethereal garment of non-material purity; as it continued its descent through the planetary spheres, it received first a solar garment then a lunar garment. Finally it was born into a physical body.

Alternatively, the followers of Orpheus understood that man consisted of two distinct natures: a mortal, physical nature, derived from the Titans and an immortal spiritual nature derived from Dionysus. From this principle they taught that the soul must free itself by sublimating the passionate titanic nature and regenerating the divine Dionysian nature that lies within. In both cases the soul must shed the garments of the body to regain its own pristine nature.

Within the Christian Church the most popular view today is that a person consists of an immortal soul and a mortal body. Many Christian theologians maintain that a fully developed soul is infused into the embryo at conception. However, opinions concerning this do vary; within the Church the constitution and formation of the soul has been the subject of a long and continuing debate.

In the first century, St. Paul taught that man consisted of a mortal terrestrial body and an immortal celestial body. He writes, ‘The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man’[1].

In the first half of the third century, Origen taught that the soul existed in heaven, before Adam, and before descending into the world; that its imprisonment in a physical body was the result of a primeval fall from grace; and that the resurrection will not involve a physical body. Against this, Tertullian argued that souls were contained with Adam, and that they were passed on to children from their parents in an act of material generation. Augustine held a similar opinion to that of Tertullian, except for him the generation was a spiritual generation. This doctrine is known as Traducianism.

Scholastic philosophers, as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, understood the soul to be composed of a spiritual substance, and that it incarnated in three progressive stages of development: vegetative, sensitive, and rational. The first, the vegetative stage, corresponds with conception and the earliest development of the embryo; the second, the sensitive stage, emerges as the embryo develops; and the third, the rational stage, manifests as the embryo reaches maturity in the womb and completes the process of incarnation.

These stages are consistent with Aquinas’ assertion that three things are to be found in spiritual substances: Essence, Power, and Operation[2]. It is a notion that is comparable with the Hypostases of Neoplatonic thought; Essence corresponding with the One, Power with Nous, and Operation with the World Soul. Indeed, the influence of Neoplatonism is to be found in the doctrines of medieval Kabbalah and is in keeping with the doctrines taught in many esoteric Christian circles.

This doctrine can be traced back to the teachings of Plato, who maintained that all souls existed before incarnating in a body, and that they exist for all eternity. These ideas are also expressed in Kabbalistic thought, which maintains that the soul was formed before the beginning of the world, hidden in the Divine; as the process of creation began souls were brought forth into the upper paradise and stored in a great ‘Treasure-house’ (Binah), from whence they progressed into this world.

Over the course of time, Jewish theology has expressed many different views on the nature and destiny of the soul. The classical and most enduring view is that of the Resurrection; which is the belief that at the end of the age the dead will be revived by God, complete with their bodies, to live again on earth. The biblical view of the Resurrection is best summed up in Daniel 12:2–3, where it says, ‘And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproach and everlasting shame. And the wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament and some of the many righteous as the stars for ever and ever’. This doctrine encapsulates two basic conceptions. The first suggests the unity of body and soul; two equal components of humanity. The second proposes a moral dimension that determines the nature of post-resurrection existence.

However, the Bible is not absolutely clear about the posthumous fate of the soul—the most distinct view expressed being that the soul descends into a kind of Hades called Sheol, wherein it leads a vague, ethereal, and shadowy existence. During the time of the Second Temple, the concept of an immortal, posthumous existence in the heavenly realms emerged, and competed with the more traditional concept of the resurrection of the dead. Eventually, the belief in the immortality of the soul became a fundamental principle of both the Jewish and Christian faiths.

In the Talmudic period the rabbis generally taught that the soul was separable from the body (Gen. 2:7); separating during sleep to draw nourishment from the spiritual realms and, at death, leaving the body only to be reunited with it again at the Resurrection. At the same time, some of the rabbis taught that after death, righteous souls entered the Garden of Eden, and that wicked souls were sent to Gehinnom; or that righteous souls ascended upward, to be gathered into the Treasury, while wicked souls were cast back upon the earth—in other words, they were subject to reincarnation; opinions about this have differed from time to time, and place to place.

The Hebrew word for reincarnation or the transmigration of souls is Gilgul. However, it should be noted that Talmudic tradition does not overtly acknowledge this doctrine, although later mystics have interpreted various rabbinical texts as allegories suggesting it. On the other hand, Kabbalistic doctrine does clearly support and teach the transmigration of souls. Gilgul is evident in the Bahir, the earliest of the medieval Kabbalistic texts, in which several passages refer to the transmigration of souls. For example:

"Why is there a righteous person who has good, and [another] righteous person who has evil? This is because the [second] righteous person was wicked previously, and is now being punished. Is one then punished for his childhood deeds? Did not Rabbi Simon say that in the Tribunal on high, no punishment is meted out until one is twenty years or older. He said: I am not speaking of his present lifetime. I am speaking about what he has already been, previously."[3]

The Bahir was not unique in holding this position on transmigration. But it should be noted that among medieval Kabbalists the teachings concerning transmigration were quite narrow and generally confined to specific circumstances. Not every soul was subject to transmigration, but only those for whom it was absolutely necessary. It was taught that the righteous—those who had fulfilled their obligations as Jews—had no need to reincarnate, whereas, the majority of souls, those who had failed in their obligations, and were therefore to some degree sinners, became subject to the process of transmigration. The incorrigibly wicked, alas, were to be condemned to the fires of hell.  It was also taught that the number of incarnations was generally limited to three.

This notion is clearly drawn from the Book of Job, where it states: ‘Behold, God works all these things twice, in fact three times with a man to bring back his soul from the Pit that he may be enlightened with the light of life’[4]. However, it was also understood that the righteous are the zaddik[5], who are souls sent by God with the ability to reincarnate many times for the benefit of the world. Kabbalistic doctrine maintains that the soul is a spiritual entity whose origin is divine and whose immortal nature is an incontrovertible fact, and that it incarnates in the world only to fulfil a specific task; the fulfilment of which enables it to engage in a many-staged ascent to its primal dwelling place. This ascent begins with the soul attaining entrance to the earthly paradise, from where it begins its ascent. The teaching concerning the soul’s role in this work is central to Kabbalism.

Although the soul is essentially one thing it may be divided into several distinct parts. This is clearly demonstrated in the Zohar where the prevailing view is that the soul consists of three parts: the Nephesh, Ruach, and Neshemah. Gershom Scholem states that the early Kabbalists knew of only three parts to the soul, and it was only at a later date further refinements took place in schools such as Safed[6]. Subsequent schools have identified more varied and complex divisions.

The term Nephesh refers to the part of the soul that is associated with the body and all of those things connected with sustaining our physical being throughout life. It is not the body itself, but the lowest expression of the spiritual life of the soul. Its nature is to fulfil the needs of the flesh and to preserve it from harm; it is appetitive and driven to survive at all costs. It has no light or energy of its own but receives its sustenance from the Ruach. Although its responsibility is to the physical body it is attributed to the world of Yetzirah and corresponds with the etheric body.

The term ‘Ruach’ refers to the faculty of consciousness associated with the principle of rational thought. It is through the Ruach that the life of the soul is sustained. If the life force of the Ruach were to be withdrawn then bodily death would ensue because the Nephesh would be unable to maintain itself in the body. The Ruach is attributed to the world of Briah and corresponds with the spiritual body, but for most of humanity it is a spiritual body subject to the vicissitudes of the passionate nature.

The term ‘Neshamah’ refers to the spiritual faculty of the soul. It is the sovereign reason within us, which is the true spiritual intellect above the rational mind. It is a creature of Light hewn from the source of life and from the wellspring of intelligence and wisdom, and is attributed to the world of Atziluth.

That all exist as part of one thing is unquestionable, but few in this world are able to take advantage of the powers of all three. It is said that every soul is conscious at the level of Nephesh; however, it is taught that if it is used well, to its highest potential, then consciousness of the Ruach is bestowed upon the soul. If the soul is also able to use the Ruach to its highest purpose then the divine Godhead exalts the soul, bestowing upon it the crown of Neshamah. It is the objective of all true seekers, for it is through the power of the Neshamah that the Ruach is emancipated from the shackles of the mundane world and thus able to realise its true spiritual nature. Other names attributed to it are the Higher Self, the Overself, and the Holy Guardian Angel of the soul.

These attributions, however, should not be confused with the concept of the Tselem, which notionally, at least, corresponds with the astral body. In medieval Kabbalistic thought the Higher Self, or true spiritual self, was attributed to the Tselem. This concept is based on Genesis 1:26, where it states: ‘Then God said, let Us make man, in our image, according to our likeness’. However, the Zohar regards the Tselem as the etheric or astral body that serves as the intermediary between the soul and the physical body. It was thought that because the nature of the Neshamah and the Nephesh were too removed from each other to form a proper bond, the Tselem was created, woven, as it were, as a garment from man’s previous good deeds. Thereby illustrating a deeper teaching concerning how significant morality and obedience to the Torah was to the soul’s ongoing existence. This etheric form was considered to be our true form, which could only be revealed to the purified spiritual sight of the dedicated Kabbalist.

The distinction between the Neshamah, our essential spiritual individuality, and the Tselem is that the Tselem is the vehicle—the form, not the essence—through which the will of the Neshamah is manifest, its primary purpose being to serve as a mould or pattern, for the physical body. It is better known today as the etheric body. It is also the vehicle through which other unnatural and perverse forces and entities of the Klippoth may manifest themselves. Innumerable magical texts, particularly from medieval times, are concerned with invoking this vehicle or form to serve purposes for which it was not intended, and for which there is invariably a terrible cost to pay. Concerning which it is said: ‘Invoke not the visible Image of the Soul of Nature’.[7]

There is a tradition, albeit one that arose much later than the Zohar, of attributing the letters of the Tetragrammaton to different levels of the soul This requires dividing the soul into four distinct parts, the highest of which is the Yehidah. Much of what we have contemplated so far concerning the Neshamah is attributed in this scale to the Yehidah. Concerning this method of attribution Arthur Edward Waite states:

"There is also a correspondence between the four letters of the Tetragrammaton and certain diverse parts or aspects of the soul in man. The letter YOD is in analogy with YEHIDAH, a spiritual state or mode in the ascending scale of inward being, and with all that is postulated above it, the human singularitas, the Christian apex of the soul and Divine Selfhood. The HE primal answers to NESHAMAH the sovereign reason within us, above material mind; the VAU connects with RUA’H which is the normal intellectuality, the rational principle; and the HE final with NEPHESH, the side on which humanity is related to the animal world. It is the lower vitalitas, and is not as such the physical body, which is, however, its vehicle."[8]

There is another perspective that perceives the soul as being divided into five distinct parts. According to the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria, there are five worlds: the first is that of the Adam Kadmon, the rest follow the traditional system of the four worlds—Atziluth, Briah, Yetzirah, and Assiah. Accordingly, Yehidah is allocated to the world of Adam Kadmon. In human terms the Yehidah is the essential self, the quintessence of the human personality. Chiah is attributed to Atziluth; in us it is the real life-principle, the vitalitas, as distinct from the more illusionary life of the physical body. Neshamah is attributed to Briah, Ruach, to Yetzirah, and the Nephesh, to Assiah. 

Another variation is based on the Tree of Life being divided into two sections: an upper and a lower. The upper section corresponds to the spiritual dimension of the soul and the lower to the physical. Thus: to Kether is attributed Yehidah, to Chokmah is attributed Chiah, to Binah is attributed Neshamah, to Chesed is attributed the Ruach, and to Geburah is attributed the Nephesh. Rabbi Azriel of Gerona maintains the same concept but with different attributions. He assigned the Ruach to Binah, the Nephesh to Chesed, and the Neshamah to Geburah. There are other attributions, many of which are confusing to anyone but those initiated into their use.

From both a Jewish and a Christian Kabbalistic perspective, the soul is in a fallen state and must rise out of it; this is the principal work of the Kabbalist, to regenerate and reintegrate the soul; both of the individual and of humanity itself. The first step in achieving this objective, as is the primary work of spiritual aspirants everywhere, lies in undertaking the work of self-improvement, whereby one may participate in the great work of spiritual regeneration. In the Christian mysteries, the path of the soul’s spiritual perfection may be understood as consisting of seven stages, thus:

               1. Purification of the senses, appetites and desires
               2. Control of the tongue
               3. Examination and purification of conscience
               4. Prayer
               5. Meditation on the maxims of faith
               6. Development of virtue
               7. Frequent Communion.

It is no different for initiates in any other faith or philosophy. Indeed, the same kind of work is undertaken by the apprentice Freemason, who is likened to a rough stone freshly taken from the quarry, and who must be shaped into the perfect cube before he is fit for use in the construction of the Temple; the analogy being that until his mind and nature are sufficiently refined he will be unable to engage in the spiritual work.

The same may be recognised in the labours of the initiates of the mystery schools of the Greco-Roman world. Before undertaking the Cathartic rites, they must first develop the civic virtues, moderating their passions and learning to live in harmony with society. These virtues—prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance, are also the basis for the essential work of spiritual regeneration.

Thus it is that the Talmud instructs those who have the eyes to see that the process of spiritual regeneration begins with purifying the instinctive nature of the Nephesh. Aryeh Kaplan informs us that there are ten steps outlined in the Talmud that if followed diligently, will enable the soul to purify the Nephesh; these are:

               1. Study
              2. Carefulness
               3. Diligence
               4. Cleanliness
               5. Abstention
               6. Purity
               7. Piety
               9. Fear of sin
               10. Holiness.[9]

The completion of these preparatory steps enables the soul to engage with work that is invariably far too refined for a mind otherwise steeped in the animal nature of the Nephesh. Such a soul, having struggled in the outer halls of discipline understands the real meaning of the words:

‘Receive instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than tried gold. For Wisdom is better than precious stones; and no valuable substance is of equal worth to it’.[10]

Those who have laboured thus, find themselves in a state of consciousness that enables them to enter the silent depths of their being and engage in the work of a Kabbalist. Indeed, the point cannot be emphasised too much that the work of the Kabbalist is an interior work that uses the rational mind as a launching point toward spiritual integration and understanding. The main objective is not the elevation of consciousness but the transformation of the nature of consciousness. It goes without saying that the study of the scriptures along with other relevant material is an important part of the work. However, without the discipline of prayer and meditation, such studies are merely an intellectual exercise...

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This article is based upon Chapter Four of my book The Secret Garden of the Soul published by Imagier Publishing in 2008.

[1] 1 Cor 15: 47-49
[2] Aquinas, Summa Theologia, vol 1, (New York: 1981,) Ques 75, p. 363
[3] Aryeh Kaplan, trans. The Bahir: Illumination p.77, v. 195
[4] Job 33:29-30
[5] A ‘Righteous’ one
[6] Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead, p. 230. Safed is a town in upper Galilee that became a centre of rabbinic and Kabbalistic activity in the 16th Cent. [7] W.W. Westcott, Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster (See Collectanae Hermetica [York, ME: Weiser, 1998}, p.46), verse 149.
[8] A.E. Waite The Holy Kabbalah, pp.129-130.
[9] Areyah Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible (York, ME, Weiser, 1988) p. 20
[10] Proverbs 8: 10-11