Monday, May 11, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man - Body and Soul

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

We discussed the split between the intellect operating on its own elevated plane, and its focus downward towards man's "lower" forces.  That discussions allows us to define man’s essential makeup as containing two primary components. 

  1. The first component features those forces in man that we have identified as the vegetative and animalistic forces.  These forces together form “lower” man and reflect his material qualities.  They form his guf (body) – the physical non-transcendent human.    
  2. The second component is what we have identified as the intellectual force in man.  It is the force that stems from having been created “in the image” of God.  It is his neshama (soul) and is that which gives man the potential to be elevated above the rest of creation. 

At first, man’s elevated Godly neshama is foreign to him.  Man, understandably, identifies more readily with his inborn physical guf, i.e. lower man.  Initially, man perceives himself as a physical being, and from a young age he identifies most immediately with the physical aspect of himself.  But as he develops, the transcendent neshama that he bequeathed from God – which manifest itself first and foremost via man’s unique intellectual abilities – emerges as a dominant force and grants him the ability to transcend his inborn physicality

These very different components of man pull him in opposite directions, as they seek to control him.  In fact, man perpetually exists in a state of inner conflict.  Throughout his life, man is pulled in opposite directions by these powerful forces battling for dominion over him.[1]

On one side of this struggle stands man’s Godly neshama.  This pure component of man directs him away from physical pursuits and draws him toward an existence that seeks higher pursuits that will allow him to transcend his own physicality. 

Man affirms his belief in this pure component in the morning prayer, “Eloki Neshama,” that states, “God, the neshama that you placed within me is pure.”  This prayer serves as a declaration by man that he identifies with that which is elevated, Godly, and pure within him.    

But man does not consist only of a neshama.  As we have seen, man also contains lower forces that provide him with capabilities and proclivities that he shares with the less elevated creations.  The forces in man that are shared with the plant world and animal kingdom are also a critical element of his makeup, but they naturally draw man toward physical pursuits and power his passions and his base drives. 

Man’s lower forces – which we earlier identified in general as his ruach and nefesh – encourage man to pursue those actions that bring the animal kingdom and plant world towards completion.  Drives and lusts for physical advancement, be it consumption of food and drink, engagement in reproductive activities, etc. are often expressions of man’s lower forces and stand in stark opposition to the pursuits of the neshama.  Whereas the neshama leads man towards that which is deep, transcendent, and even Godly, the other elements in man lead him towards that which is material, mundane, and physical.   

Hence, a duality is found in man that reflects his unique position in creation.  Man is both a physical creature like the plants and animals, but at the same time he is a spiritual being that contains the potential to transcend the physical world.  The Talmud notes this and describes man as follows, 

Six things were stated about mankind.  Three resemble the ministering angels of God, and three resemble an animal.  Three resemble the ministering angels: [Man] has intellect like the ministering angels, walks upright like the ministering angels, and converses in Hebrew like the ministering angels.   Three resemble an animal:  [Man] eats and drinks like an animal, procreates like an animal, and defecates like an animal. (Chagiga 16a)

This duality is well described by R. Moses of Coucy (d. 1260) in his introduction to Sefer Mitzvos Gadol,

[God] united in man’s body the qualities of an angel with those of an animal. Man’s flesh is like an animal’s flesh, for he eats, drinks, sleeps, and engages in other activities.  But, in addition, God gave man a neshama from a more elevated world that enlightens man…to be like an angel. (Introduction to Sefer Mitzvos Gadol, Positive Commandments)

[1] In fact, our sages teach that the physical and spiritual sides of man exert greater influence at various stages of life.  In utero, man is not yet endowed with a Godly neshama and is therefore purely physical.  During early childhood, man does have his Godly neshama but it is basically dormant, dominated by the physical side of man.  Adolescence and young adulthood is characterized by an equal standing between physical and spiritual, as both vie for dominion over man.  As adulthood and eventual old age sets in, the grip of the physical side of man weakens, allowing a greater expression of man’s Godly neshama.  With death, man is divorced from his physicality, and only the Godly neshama remains.  

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