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Body and soul

Judaism's view of man as the crown of a "very good" creation entails a positive attitude towards the body, which is to be guided by the soul so as to sanctify the physical. The Bible appreciates physical prowess and beauty, while regulating sexual behavior and forbidding physical mutilation. Its laws of purity and impurity govern relations between the sexes and impose a sequestered posture on women periodically. Partially for this reason, the female body in rabbinic eyes came to be viewed negatively, its beauty having to be kept hidden in public.

Jewish theology has no clearly elaborated views on the relationship between body and soul, nor on the nature of the soul itself. Apart from Jewish philosophical and kabbalistic literature on the subject (see *Soul ), the major traditional sources for any normative doctrines are the various texts in talmudic and midrashic literature. These latter are not systematic, nor is their interpretation generally agreed on. The talmudic rabbis, as opposed to certain Jewish philosophers of the medieval period, never considered views on such a purely theoretical subject as important. Their interest was focused on the connected, but more practically orientated beliefs, such as in the resurrection of the body and God's future judgment. For the talmudic rabbis the soul is, in some sense, clearly separable from the body: God breathed the soul into the body of Adam (Gen. 2:7; Ta'an. 22b). During sleep the soul departs and draws spiritual refreshment from on high (Gen. R. 14:9). At death it leaves the body only to be united with it again at the resurrection (Sanh. 90b–91a). As a prayer of the morning liturgy, uttered on awakening, expresses it: "O my God, the soul which thou gavest me is pure; thou didst create it, thou didst form it, thou didst breathe it into me. Thou preservest it within me, and thou wilt take it from me, but wilt restore it unto me hereafter" (Hertz, Prayer, 19).

Whether the soul is capable of living an independent, fully conscious existence away from the body after death is unclear from rabbinic sources. The Midrash puts it somewhat vaguely – that the body cannot survive without the soul–nor the soul without the body (cf. Tanḥ. Va-Yikra 11). Although a view is found maintaining that the soul after death is in a quiescent state (Shab. 152b), the predominant view seems to be that the soul is capable of having a fully conscious life of its own when disembodied (see, for instance, Ket. 77b; Ber. 18b–19a). It is even maintained that the soul pre-exists the body (Ḥag. 12b); but how this predominant view is to be interpreted is problematic. Since the various anecdotes and descriptions about the soul in its disembodied state are given in terms of physical imagery, it might be assumed that an ethereal body was ascribed to the soul, enabling it to parallel the most important functions of its embodied state when disembodied. This assumption is unwarranted, however, since the rabbis do not seek conceptual coherence in their theological speculation. Imagery has a homiletic, rather than a speculative, function.

The elliptical and practically oriented aspect of rabbinic teaching is brought out further in the view that the soul is a guest in the body here on earth (Lev. R. 34:3), for this means that the body must be respected and well treated for the sake of its honored guest. The Gnostic idea of the body as a prison of the soul is absent from rabbinic literature; body and soul form a harmonious unity. Just as God fills the world, sees but is not seen, so the soul fills the body, sees but is not seen (Ber. 10a). On the eve of the Sabbath God gives each man an extra soul, which He takes back at its termination (Beẓ. 16a). This is the rabbinic way of emphasizing the spirituality of the soul, its closeness in nature to God, and the extra spirituality with which it is imbued on the Sabbath. The soul is pure as God is pure; its introduction into the human embryo is God's part in the ever-renewed creation of human life (Nid. 31a). Because God originally gave man his soul, it is for God to take it away and not man himself. Thus *suicide , *euthanasia , and anything which would hasten death is forbidden (Job 1:21; Av. Zar. 18a and Tos.; Sh. Ar. YD 345). If man safeguards the purity of his soul by walking in the ways of the Torah, all will be well, but if not God will take his soul from him (Nid. 31a). For his sins, which contaminate the soul, man will be judged; indeed his soul will be his accuser. Nor can the body plead that it was the soul which sinned, nor the soul blame the body, for at the resurrection God will return soul to body and judge them as one.

Theological considerations aside, the rabbis of the Talmud prescribed regimens of cleanliness, moderation, and medical care for the body. It was viewed primarily as a religious instrument: "One should wash his face, hands, and feet every day out of respect for His maker" (Shab.50b).

Medieval Jewish philosophers studied the body with the aid of Aristotle and Galen primarily, and appreciated its role in ethical behavior and in the sensory stages of learning. Ultimate human perfection, however, lay in the cultivation of one's intellect, often loosely called "soul." The relative devaluation of the body, in comparison with the soul, in rabbinic and philosophical circles was countered by a strong assertion of corporeal images and actions among Jewish mystics. In modern times, Labor Zionism was known for its celebration of the body's ability to perform physical labor.


K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1918), 212–7; G.F. Moore, Judaism (1946), 485–8; 2 (1946), index; A. Marmorstein, Studies in Jewish Theology (1950), 145–61; L. Finkelstein, in: Freedom and Reason (1951), 354–71; J. Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism (1964) 109, 137–40; G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1967), 63–67, 99.

[Alfred L. Ivry (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.