Taking on the Human Soul

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ends and Effort

R. Arama intends the sixth sha’ar to discuss the nature of the human soul. He starts with the connection between understanding the value of an act and the effort we put into it. Anywhere we cannot see the purpose of an act—a failing to which we are all prone, he says, since we are not optimally far-sighted—we struggle to invest ourselves as fully as we need to be successful.

Yoav provides an example. He disagreed with David’s order to count the Jewish people (II Shemuel 24), and then only performed an incomplete census, I Divrei Ha-Yamim 21 telling us he failed to include Levi and Binyamin.  Shaul did not wipe out Amalek because he misunderstood what Shemuel sent him to do. He thought he was supposed to conquer them and take spoils of war, a claim R. Arama supports by pointing to Shaul’s first words to Shemuel after the war (I Shemuel 15), I did as you told me [R. Arama rightly notes a strangeness in Shaul’s words, since he so clearly had not done what he was told, but he seems to ignore verses which give a different explanation of Shaul’s motives].

The Challenge of What We Cannot Know

Once we know the role understanding plays in motivation, we see the challenge of our inability to know Hashem, which then means we cannot fully know where we’re headed or why. The problem is so intractable, the wiser we get, the worse it gets, since we learn more and more how unbridgeable is the gap between our cognition and Hashem. The more we learn, the more deeply we understand Hashem’s words to Moshe (Shemot 33), no person can see Me and live. (Moshe at that point thought he could see Hashem, in some sense, says R. Arama.)

Rambam in Guide I;59 identified this as the dividing line between the wise and the foolish. Neither knows Hashem any better, but the wise person has a better hold on the impossibility of the attempt. [I skipped a discussion of the planets and Heavenly bodies, which R. Arama says move faster and more fluidly because they are closer than we are to knowing their purpose. He also explains Aristotle’s choice to write about the nature of human perfection and success as having similar motives, showing people their goal so they can progress towards it.]

A bit of a pickle, our human need to know our goal to be able to advance towards it most successfully, along with our inability to know Hashem (one of our central goals).

Turning Towards the Soul

Our souls present one place to start working on the problem, their opaqueness meaning we cannot be sure how the soul works, and therefore how to improve it, what role our actions play in developing it. Our lack of clarity as to what’s better or worse for our souls also discourages us from working to improve them, since we cannot know if we’re succeeding. R. Arama plans to use this current sha’ar to help people find their way to their most productive lives.

He first addresses the level of connection between the soul and the body. To believe the soul inheres in the body, is completely part of it, as some philosophers did, seems to mean it dies with the body as well. On the other hand, if it’s separate, a noble element which can grasp spiritual/intellectual truths, R. Arama thinks we have to wonder why Hashem doomed it to reside within a body which longs and tends toward the material and materialistic.

Worse, some bodily sins lead the soul to be punished. The Torah refers to karet as destruction of the soul (Vayikra 22;23), for one example. Chazal’’s pessimism about human success led them (Eruvin 13b) to say it would have been better for people to never have been created. Why would Hashem so endanger the august soul?

Worse, most souls were placed in members of nations with no Torah, which seems unfair, leaving them no easy way to achieve the World to Come, the marker of having lived as Hashem wanted. (R. Arama dismisses the possibility Hashem made separate kinds of souls for Jews and non-Jews; it would mean non-Jews could complain about having been set up for failure, given an inferior soul, he says. Theoretically, it could have meant non-Jews had a different standard of success, for which Torah is unnecessary, but R. Arama does not entertain the idea).

Women could also complain, since their servitude to men makes it harder to act as they should or would wish. This servitude is why he thought the Torah exempted them from mitzvot ‘aseh she-hazman grama [he does not elaborate how he knew this; my guess is he drew it from Chagigah 4a, where the Gemara relates the exemption of partially converted slaves from some mitzvot to their similarity to women, without telling us how they are similar. R. Arama seems to be saying the similarity lies in their both lacking full control of their lives, as in one of Rashi’s explanations of the blessing of she-lo ‘asani ishahMenachot 43b].

Working Our Way to an Answer, Thinking Out Loud

R. Arama advises diligent investigation when wrestling with tough problems. The person who thinks s/he has an idea should say it out loud, let his/her ears hear it (I think he means it will be easier to catch flaws in the logic, advice still given to those preparing presentations). Once the person thinks s/he has found a workable solution, R. Arama says to write it down, to help others.

He reads Tehillim 39 as reflecting a similar search for how to achieve one’s potential, but I am skipping most of it. I did find particularly stimulating his view of David as having opened the Psalm by declaring he kept quiet in the presence of evildoers, for fear they would draw the wrong conclusions from his words. He wants us to share our ideas when we have them, while also trying to keep them from those who will misuse them.

R. Arama makes a point of the care with which he treads. He presents his conclusions with the hope Hashem has allowed him to see correctly and clearly, and is including them in his work in the hopes it might help others bothered by the same questions. 

His last caveat denies these are his thoughts; they are ideas he has gathered in a long and wide search, from many earlier authors, some of them transmitted secretly.

Long Term Thinking

Once Hashem decided to place the soul in the body (for reasons R. Arama does not explain), Hashem prepared the soul for its task by giving it the unique power of long-term thinking. People naturally reject short-term pleasures they know they will lead to long-term damage, an ability R. Arama sources to our souls, and accept short-term discomfort for the sake of the long-term gain. (Sadly, this human power seems at a low ebb today, too many people denying the long-term costs of their indulgences as well as refusing to accept near-term privations for longer-term success).

R. Arama thinks only choices made with such correct perspective qualify as free will, as an intellectual want or desire. Animals do not have this ability, which is why Yeshayahu 7;16 speaks of an exile to come before a child will have learned to avoid evil and choose good. For the warning to have teeth, this must be an ability which children acquire very young, as opposed to animals, who never achieve.

Different cultures and nations express this power in their own ways, says R. Arama. Some are more focused on business negotiations, some on setting up just societies, some develop tools of speech and writing to express their concerns and interests to each other. Regardless of how they go about it, they are all using a uniquely human power, the intellect which Hashem implanted in them.

We will see where this takes R. Arama in two weeks, since next week we will have a special Chanukkah edition of our study of ‘Akedat Yitzchak. Until then.

About Gidon Rothstein

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