When Rabbi Josh Strulowitz began brainstorming for a topic to discuss during the monthly downtown “lunch and learn” preceding the High Holy Days, he was inspired by none other than the final installment of the Harry Potter series.
The novel is full of imagery about the soul (don’t worry, no spoilers here).
He read the book in the summer, but felt that the soul would be a prime topic to discuss in the fall, preceding the annual self-reflection that happens each Yom Kippur.
After all, if you’re atoning to your family, friends and to God, defining and debating the soul seemed a natural extension of that effort.
“Jewish sources say the soul is intertwined with the body, intertwined so completely that they make each other work,” said the rabbi at S.F.’s Adath Israel. “The soul runs through the body, it is not a separate entity. Without the body, the soul can’t live on in this world, and without the soul, the body doesn’t have its electrical current.”
First things first. If you’ve had a really bad year, if you’ve made some really big mistakes, your soul is not damaged beyond repair.
“Al-chet is translated as sin, but it’s not really a sin in Judaism, it actually means ‘having missed the mark,'” said Sara Shendelman, a Renewal rabbi at Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev. “It’s as if you were walking through the woods on a path, but you get distracted and you go off the path into poison oak. But you can get back on the path you were walking. You can make teshuvah [repentance], go back to that path and become your best self.”
In Judaism, the soul has five elements, or levels: nefesh (the body), ruach (the heart), neshama (the intellect), ha-yah (the ability to see beyond the self) and yechidah (the ability to connect with God).
“In every subject that we undertake, we attempt to connect, affect and harmonize these voices of the soul,” wrote Aryeh Ben David, a rabbi at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
So are all souls the same?
Strulowitz likened souls to DNA — their basic elements are the same but the specific combinations of strands are different, thus making each soul different.
But everyone has the potential for all five levels, he said.
The soul grows by connecting to the external (friends, family, community service, social action) and the internal (learning, reading, thinking, praying). The soul you are born with is not necessarily the soul you will die with, since numerous external and internal forces affect the way a person’s soul grows (or stagnates).
Many Jewish thinkers also believe that not only is the soul the vehicle by which humans connect to God, but that the soul is a part of God.
“Personally, I believe that if all creation is one, then all creation is God,” Shendelman said. “A part of God is in everyone’s soul. We are all part of the great oneness of God.”
At times a soul teeters on the brink of no return, following a particularly bad deed or string of bad deeds. What happens if you go through life without ever feeling remorse for your missteps?
Judaism has no purgatory. Instead, the rabbis wrote of Gehenna. Long ago, Gehenna was a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem (“Maybe it was the filthiest place the rabbis could imagine,” Shendelman guessed).
Gehenna is thought to be a checkpoint before entering heaven, where God sits with you and makes you watch two movies: One of what your life was, and the other of what your life could have been had you lived it better.
Teshuvah is an attempt to go through Gehenna in this world, Strulowitz said. That is, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the 10 days in between give Jews a chance to repent and to think about how learning from the previous year can make for a better year to come. It gives Jews a chance to water their souls like a plant — through prayer, contemplation and even community service.
“It’s not always about asking HaShem, ‘Forgive me,'” he said. “Sometimes, it’s ‘Help me. Help me want to change. Help me have the will to change.'”