...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Friday, March 16, 2007

Nefesh, ruach, and n'shama

Jewish tradition speaks of three kinds, or levels, of souls: nefesh, ruach, and n'shama. When I talk about the soul in my thesis, I generally use the word n'shama, since that's the word I'm most acquainted with: it's all over Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers, and every Shabbat at P'nai Or we sing this song "Elohai N'shama," a traditional prayer from the morning liturgy that Reb Aryeh set to music. (See a reflection on that prayer here.)

Yesterday I met with Reb Aryeh at his office to interview him for my thesis. Explaining to me the major differences he perceives between Chabad-Lubavitch and Jewish Renewal, he pulled big volume off his shelf: the Tanya, also known as the Liqqutei Amarim, the mystical work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. It's one of the most important foundational texts of Chabad. "You see," he told me, flipping through the text and tracing the Hebrew right to left with his finger, "There's a certain kind of...spiritual racism in Chabad. Here, in the Tanya, you read, 'The second soul of a Jew is truly a part of God above.' Jews have a nefesh elohit, a divine, godly soul, and non-Jews don't have this. And that, to me, is spiritual racism. Now, part of it comes from the time period it was written--non-Jews didn't exactly treat Jews well. The Alter Rebbe didn't have contact with Eastern Orthodox mystics, with Catholic mystics, with Hindus and Buddhists, and so he maybe assumed that only Jews had that kind of mystical connection. But to maintain that idea nowadays, that's not an acceptable attitude."

Discussing the meeting with my thesis advisor Sylvia this morning, she nodded. "I'm also uncomfortable with that idea," she said, explaining to me the three different kinds of souls. In Chassidus, the nefesh is the lowest, most universal soul-level, and the n'shama is the highest: the essential, unique part of the Jewish soul that is part of God Himself.

"What level of soul do non-Jews have?" I asked.

"Oh, according to Maimonides, everyone has a nefesh. Even animals have a nefesh."

"So, potentially, it would be inappropriate for a Gentile to talk about their n'shama?"

Sylvia smiled kind of guiltily. "Well...if you wanted to use their language...then I suppose so. A Gentile has a nefesh, not a n'shama."

Yesterday, talking with Reb Aryeh, I mentioned Reb Asi's assurance to me that Chabad doesn't believe the souls of Jews are better than those of Gentiles, just different. Reb Aryeh scoffed: "That's just apologetics. That's not genuine. You can't tell me that there are two people, and one of them you has a nefesh elohit, and the other doesn't, that you don't believe that the one with the nefesh elohit is closer to God." It made me sad to hear that according to Chabad, a tradition for which I have so much respect and admiration, that I don't have a nefesh elohit, that I only have the same kind of soul as the animals. In truth, it makes me a little angry, too--and a little like I've been deceived.

I'm still going to sing "Elohai N'shama" tomorrow, though, and rest in the assurance that the Jewish Renewal does not believe in that kind of essentialist spiritual exceptionalism.