Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘Nefesh and neurons

Notes for a discussion on Yom Kippur 5773
soul
CG Jung

‘The soul is Yours and the body is Your creation…’ (Machzor p326)
הנשמה לך והגוף פעלך חוסה על עמלך

Many of our prayers refer to the soul: nefesh or neshamah in Hebrew. Are body and soul distinguishable? What is the relationship of nefesh to neurons? How do the prayers of Yom Kippur connect with modern views of human thought?

One of the reasons why I chose this subject is that I think there is an interesting gap between the words we speak when we read the liturgy, and what we believe; for instance there is a great deal of soul talk on Yom Kippur, as in all religious services, but perhaps what we know or believe about the physicality of mind, thought and the emotions is at variance with the way we pray, however sincerely. I would like to know if you think there is that variance between the language of prayer and of belief, and if so, how do we mind the gap?

In philosophy since the twentieth century, the traditional idea of the soul being something apart from the body, no longer prevails. The mind is regarded as incarnate, the activity of the brain. The body is animate, experiencing emotion through hormones and neurons. Particular regions of the brain are associated with sensations, memories, emotions and there are contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio believes that decision-making and even perceptions are affected by feelings, which are set off by neural and chemical bodily signaling. He uses the term ‘somatic marker’ to describe the kind of gut reaction which often determines our actions.

Emotions, are defined by Damasio as changes in both body and brain states. Physiological changes occur in the body and are relayed to the brain where they are transformed into an emotion that informs the individual’s choice, along with the memory of past experiences. Damasio regards the emotions as adaptive and consistent with evolution.

The truly embodied mind… does not relinquish its most refined levels of operation, those constituting its soul and spirit. From my perspective, it is just that soul and spirit, with all their dignity and human scale, are now complex and unique states of an organism. Perhaps the most indispensable thing we can do as human beings…is remind ourselves and others of our complexity, fragility, finiteness and uniqueness. And this is of course the difficult job, is it not: to move the spirit from its nowhere pedestal to a somewhere place, while preserving its dignity and importance; to recognize its humble origin and vulnerability, yet still call upon its guidance. (Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio 1994 p252)

In1999, Tim Radford, the Science Editor of The Guardian chaired a discussion at Westminster Central Hall with Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. The topic of the discussion was the question: Is Science killing the Soul? Neither Dawkins nor Pinker believed in the soul as a ghost in the machine, that is to say, separate from the body, but both believed in feelings, sensitivity, creativity and imagination.

Steven Pinker says that we are accustomed to making inferences about other people’s thoughts when we perceive their behaviour, choices and responses. In primitive religions, people observed storms, floods or drought and inferred from them the displeasure of their gods, or God. Although Pinker believes that these inferences were mistaken he sees them as having a positive evolutionary value Societies created bonding ceremonies or rituals which reinforced their shared beliefs and religious gatherings created a sense of kinship beyond the blood ties of the immediate family. He also maintains that religion has the function of ameliorating existential anxieties about death and suffering.

Pinker connects belief in immortal souls with the human ability to impute invisible minds to other people.

The responses we attribute to God are often based on scripture, from which we can form definite ideas about what God wants from us.

He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

There is a view that three Hebrew words for the soul have distinct meanings, representing different aspects or levels of the soul.

Nefesh is used in the bible much more often than the word neshamah. Perhaps as a result of biblical usage, it is also the most frequent word for soul in our prayer books, although the neshamah is mentioned in the Shabbat and festival prayer Nishmat kol hai (which means the soul of all life) and the morning prayer Neshamah shenatata bi tehorah hi, which emphasizes the purity of the neshamah.

In the bible, neshamah is often breath, or spirit.

The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all his innermost parts. (Proverbs 20:27)

Neshamah is used also of God’s breath, in Job 32:8

But it is the spirit in man (ruach hi b’enosh), the breath of the Almighty (nishmat Shaddai), that makes him understand.

The Spirit of God (ruach El) has made me, and the breath of the Almighty (nishmat Shaddai) gives me life. (Job  33:4)

In the biblical account, God formed man from the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils nishmat hayyim, the breath of life so that Adam, the man becomes a nefesh hayyah, a living being.

In one of many midrashim on the creation of Adam, one of the sages says that neshamah and nefesh are the same, because the word hayyim, life applies to both, but other sages differentiate, saying that nefesh is the blood and neshamah the breath.

In the early Greek translation of the Hebrew bible (LXX), nefesh is usually translated as psyche (anima in Latin), and ruach, or the biblically rarer neshamah, as pneuma (spiritus in Latin, as in ‘inspire and expire), which is closer in meaning to breathing than to thinking. The spirit of God is also called pneuma/spiritus.

There are many rabbinic traditions concerning the separate existence of the soul – that it pre-exists the body, is independent of the body and that the dead converse among themselves. After the time of the Talmud, the early medieval philosopher Saadia Gaon, who was head of the Sura Yeshiva in Babylon took the view that the soul is created at the same time as the body and that the body has the potential to become purified by obedience to the commandments. He believed that the soul gives the body its faculties of cognition, reason and will power, and the body is simply the means by which the soul achieves its goal At the moment of death, a blazing angel arrives with sword drawn, and his appearance shocks the soul so severely that it is separated from the physical body. Pure souls are rewarded with a blissful afterlife while wicked souls are punished.

About a century later, the Andalusian poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol, some of whose poetry is in our machzor, expressed the view that the human soul reflects the World Soul, which emanates from God.

Maimonides wrote that the knowledge of God and adherence to the mitzvot gives human beings an immaterial, spiritual nature which endows the soul with immortality.

In the seventeenth century, Spinoza took the view that everything which exists is part of the soul of God, that evil is merely the absence of the good and that the way to attain immortality is through scientific and philosophical knowledge.

In the eighteenth century, R. Hayyim of Volozhin wrote a treatise called Nefesh ha Hayyim, in which he reasoned that God created humanity as the sum of all that went before so that each human being includes in his or her makeup something of everything whose creation preceded his or her own. This view sounds as if it could be developed in a way compatible with evolution. Each human being is a microcosm, representative of the multiplicity to be found in God’s creation. I wonder if this could be compatible with Professor Brian Cox’s poetic explanation of the physical composition of the human body – that it is, in a sense, made of stars.
This human being, says R Hayyim, is linked with God through a three-part soul made up of nefesh attached to ruach above it, while ruach is attached to neshamah above it. Yet the ultimate root of these three intertwined souls rests in God, the neshamah of the neshamah. In this way the lowest level of God’s own soul, as it were, can be said to lie within each separate human being, animating him or her.

A Jewish neurologist called Daniel Drubach writes about the plasticity of the brain, meaning that there is a bilateral relationship between brain and behaviour. An individual’s actions impact and “shape” the self, and the self, in turn, impacts and shapes behaviour. He quotes the Jewish philosopher Moses Hayyim Luzzato, who wrote, in the eighteenth century:

The outer action awakens the inner attitude. And the outer action being certainly more subject to man’s control than the inner attitude, if he avails himself of that which is in his control, he will in time acquire that which is beyond his control. Thus one becomes or changes through means of doing.
Path of the Upright, Moses Hayyim Luzzato

Going back to an earlier source, Drubach also quotes Maimonides, as follows:

We tell the wrathful man to train himself to feel no reaction even if he is beaten or cursed. He should follow this course of behaviour for a long time, until the anger is uprooted from his heart. Also, in his prescription of how to reach the “middle road” of all temperaments: How should one train oneself to follow these temperaments to the extent that they become a permanent fixture of his personality? One should perform, repeat, and perform a third time the acts which conform to the middle road temperament.

Drubach points out that the repetition of a motor sequence will lead to a change in the brain substrate for that sequence. He regards this neurobiological view as compatible with the views of the Judaic sages who believed that patterns of behaviour shape the self.

The prayer that we started with refers to the body as well as the soul; both are considered to be God’s work.

‘The soul is Yours and the body is Your creation; have pity on Your work.’
הנשמה לך והגוף פעלך חוסה על עמלך

When, shortly, we read Jonah, the haftarah for the Yom Kippur minchah service, we will see that these words hus (pity) and amal (work) occur in close juxtaposition. God reminds Jonah of his pity for the gourd which withered, and which Jonah had not laboured to produce. Should not God have pity on Nineveh, full of human life?

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