Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Jewish Thought: The Structure of Man's Soul

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

We have discussed the soul-structure of the lower beings in creation.  When we turn our focus toward man, we can conclude that man’s complex soul is made up of three distinct forces.[1]

  1. The first is the vegetative force, which gives “life” to his physical body, grants him the ability to grow, and enables consumption of food and nourishment.  This force – which we saw above is the dominant force in a plant’s soul – is one component of man’s soul.
  2. The second force in man is his animalistic force.  It is this force in man that grants him his ability to move and function.  It accounts for his instinctive desires and passions, and is the source of his raw emotions.  This force – which is the dominant force in animals – is another component of man’s soul.[2]
  3. The third force in man is his intellectual force.  This force is not found in animals, and certainly not in plants.  It is this extra faculty of mankind that elevates him over the rest of creation.[3]  It is his “intellectual force” (נפש השכלית), and it is the dominant force in man.

These three forces comprise the meta-physical properties of man, and together they form man’s complex soul.[4]  In many sources these three forces have other names.  The lowest vegetative force is also called nefesh (נפש), the middle animalistic force is man’s ruach (רוח), and the elevated intellectual force is man’s neshamah (נשמה).[5]  United, they are the human soul.[6]

These three forces are utilized in Jewish thought in various ways.  For example, they are associated with three primary human expressions.  The vegetative force is associated with actions, the animalistic force with speech, and the intellectual force with thought.[7]  Similarly, we find that these properties are associated with organs in the body.   The vegetative force is associated with the liver, for it is the headquarters of the body’s blood.  As the verse teaches, “For man’s life is in his blood” (Devarim 12, 23).  The animalistic force is associated with the heart, for it is the headquarters of man’s desires and passion.  The intellectual force is associated with the mind, as it is the headquarters of man’s intellect. 

According to these associations, the physical makeup of man parallels his meta-physical makeup.  His head, housing his mind, is on top of his body, as it corresponds to man’s most elevated property.  Below man’s head is his heart, corresponding to the middle property in man.  Below man’s heart is his liver, corresponding to man’s least elevated property. 

Intellectual Force
Animalistic Force
Vegetative Force

The Dual Functioning of the Intellect

In light of our earlier discussions we can appreciate that man’s intellect, which accounts for man’s elevated status, operates with a dual function.  On its own elevated plane, man’s intellect provides man with an ability to think abstractly and theoretically and drive his pursuit of truth and sharpen his perception of reality.  In this realm, man’s intellect operates independently, on level distinct from the rest of his being.  

However, man’s intellect does not only operate on its own plane as an independent distinct force.  Man’s also utilizes his intellect “downward,” as it were, in order to confront and engage his lower properties.  Man’s intellect can be directed toward his lower forces, i.e. those that he shares with the animal world.  The goal being to influence them and channeling them to proper expression. 

Man’s intellect is itself elevated, but it is also can elevate.  It is man’s intellect that empowers him to purify his other forces.  His emotions, his drives, his passions – which stem from his lower animalistic essence - can be raised up via his intellect.  Through the acquisition of wisdom and the proper application and implementation of that wisdom, man’s entire being is elevated, not only his intellect.

If we use the terms we introduced earlier, we can say as follows:  Man’s neshamah serves two primary functions.  Firstly, it operates alone as a neshamah and connects man to a higher reality of abstract thought and a greater perception of reality.  Secondly, it rules over man’s lower ruach and nefesh, elevating them to a higher standard, and uniting them with the neshama to propel man to his exalted position in the hierarchy of creation. 

If man successfully engages his neshama, then – and only then – does he embraces his very own identity.   Only through the neshama does one truly become a man and assume his elevated position in the hierarchy of creation. 

[1] This is beyond the basic force that provides existence. This basic component, the existence-property, is called in some sources the נפש הטבעית

[2] See Ramban’s Torah Commentary on Devarim 22:6-7 where he quotes the Rambam in reference to the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken that a mother’s instinctive compassion finds it source in the animalistic force, which is a force that man shares with the animals.

[3] The earlier mentioned passages in the Kuzari do not explicitly define this force, but merely describe it as that which allows man to develop his traits and create a proper society.

[4] Beyond the scope of our current discussion, there is a debate if man’s single soul contains all of these force, which is how we have presented it, or if each force is in itself a separate soul.  According to the first approach man contains a complex soul that contains multiple force.  According to the second approach man contains multiple souls, each one responsible for a different force.  For more on this dispute see the first chapter of Rambam’s Shemonah Perakim and Ramban’s Torah commentary to Bereshis 2:7.

[5] These three forces in man’s soul, plus two additional forces that are beyond the scope of our current discussion – chayah and yechidah - are enumerated in Bereshis Rabbah 14.  For another relatively early description of these three forces, see R. Saadiah Gaon (Egypt-Bavel, d. 942), Emunos ve-Deos (6:3).  It is important to note that different writers refer to these forces in different ways.  For example, the Maharal of Prague refers to the vegetative force or nefesh as guf (גוף), the animalistic force or ruach as nefesh (נפש), and the intellectual force or neshamah as sechel (שכל).  But different terms notwithstanding, the concepts are similar.  See Mahral’s Derech Chayim (Chapter 4, Mishna 22), Gevuros Hashem (Chapter 41).

[6] The entire united soul itself is also called nefesh (נפש).  Accordingly, the lowest component, i.e. the vegetative force, is thus correctly called: nefesh of nefesh (נפש שבנפש), the animalistic force: ruach of nefesh (רוח שבנפש), and the intellectual force: neshamah of nefesh (נשמה שבנפש).

[7] Sefer Shnei Luchos ha-Bris, Meseches Hullin, Torah Or #55.    

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