Recently a neighbor came up to me and said,:
“A Jewish friend told me Judaism doesn’t believe in a soul and that when you are dead you are dead. Can you help?”
I thought I would share my answer.
The first 3/4 of this article is a bit academic.
The last section is where I get into “the question behind the question.”
Judaism ≠ (Christianity)^-1.
First of all, don’t listen to most Jews. I don’t mean offense, but most Jews don’t know as much as they think they know about Judaism. They know a lot, but they also seem to promote this cultural and false belief that Judaism is a type of inverse-Christianity. The logic seems to be that if Christians believe in life after death, heaven and hell, a devil, and efficacy of prayer, Judaism does not.
However, this is not true. Judaism ≠ (Christianity)^-1. That’s just ridiculous. In fact, Judaism has believed – and there are Jews today who believe – in ideas of life after death, heaven and hell, the devil, and the efficacy of prayer.
And Judaism does believe in a soul. Let me explain.
There are three words that are commonly used in Hebrew to define a soul.
- Ruah – רוח
- Nefesh – נֶ֫פֶשׁ
- Neshama – נשמה
Ruah is best translated as “spirit” or “wind.” The ruah elohim,” the spirit of God, was over everything before all of creation, in the very beginning of the Bible. So, ruah means soul, in a spirit kind of way. (Note: it’s a guttural ‘ch’ at the end of the word.)
Nefesh ha’chaim is the breath of life that God breathes into clay to make it animate. The book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi points to the connection between the soul and air. What’s that difference? When does breath become air? So, nefesh means soul, in a breath kind of way.
Neshama. I think this is the closest word for what we mean by soul. This Yiddish and Hebrew loan word gets used in English – at least by people with whom I hang out. “He’s got such a lovely neshama” means he would be the type of person you’d want to do business with. (Note, the word neshama, when said, rhymes with “the fauna.”)
When you are dead, you’re dead. Maybe not.
The above doesn’t tell you very much about Judaism’s notion of a soul’s ability to transcend death. So, let me tell you a story. (We rabbis love to tell a good story.)
Here’s story about Rava and Nachman, two rabbis of the Talmud. This is my loose translation of the 1500 year old text.
Rava dies and comes back to visit his friend Nachman.
The two talk for a while until Nachman says, “Rava, tell me about death. Was it so painful to die?”
“No, death itself was like pulling a hair out of a cup of milk. It wasn’t painful at all.”
“Well, then, my friend, would you come back? Would you, if given the chance to come back to life, would you come back?”
“I would not come back not because death was so painful but because the fear of death is so great.”
I love this story – that we are all living with such fear of death and it’s terrifying. Truly, when you wake up your eyes to the fact that this could be over, it’s terrifying. And something that is humbling and should fill us with awe.
A few little things more about soul
Soul isn’t a thing, and yet it is – and a thing to be examined.
- Annie Lennox sings with soul, yet you can’t find the soul in her singing.
- The greek word ψυχή psyche is used to translate the Hebrew word neshama (soul) and is the root of the word psychology – which makes good sense to me and my therapist.
The Question Behind The Questions
I am very frequently asked by non-Jews as to Judaism’s notion of the soul and of life after death.
I’ve been asked these twin questions for so long that I have wondered, “Where are these questions coming from?” and “Why am I getting these questions so much?”
I do not know, exactly. But here is my suspicion.
I suspect that I often get asked about “the soul” and about “life after death” by non-Jews as they are unsettled by the societal, Christian notion that souls are judged and punished for all of eternity. I imagine that I am asked because there is a sense that normative Judaism doesn’t promote an idea of one’s soul burning for eternity in a lake of fire. And, that folk are looking, perhaps unconsciously, of when Christianity jumped from thinking life is about this world to thinking life is about a world to come. (I have much more to say about this in some upcoming articles.)
Judaism’s stance and my own: – what happens after we die, I don’t know.
The story of Rava and Nachman? I nice story, has truth in it about the fear of death – but, I don’t know believe it is true the same way I believe the screen in front of my face right now is truly in front of my face. And, of course, it doesn’t mean that I don’t beleive there is no communion with the departed. My dad, my grandmother, my BFF Shauna and others show up in my life despite their life status as deceased.
As best as I can, I tend to my soul. As best as I can understand how.
And, I hope you do too.