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Jewish Journal

The Soul and the Self

by Beit T'shuvah

December 10, 2012 | 12:34 pm

By Yeshaia Blakeney

Michel Foucault defined the beginning of modernity as the period when human beings first took themselves as the subject of scientific inquiry.  This period is commonly known as The Enlightenment, and began in the 18th century.  This is the beginning of the medicalization of the body, the psychologization of the mind, and the eradication of the soul. It used to be that people walked around believing they had a soul, an eternal essence given to them by G-d.  This soul was encased in the body, but that body was simply a vehicle for the soul.  Science has yet to find this elusive soul, so they freed us from this childish idea and replaced it with a new and improved one, the self.  The self is kind of like the soul, with a few exceptions: the self is not eternal; it dies when the body dies because, in fact, it is created by the body. It is kind of a magic trick the brain plays on us, making the self think it is indeed a self, when in reality it is just a few organs wrapped in skin, trapped in space-time, heading for oblivion.   The soul needs confession; the self needs therapy.  The soul suffers, the self feels empty.  Actually this is one of the most interesting things to observe about the self when it has problems.  It says things like: I don't even know who I am?  I feel so empty, so numb? It feels as if there is a G-d shaped hole in my life.  Duh, we extracted the soul from the body because it was a huge pain in the ass to be eternally accountable. We gained a lot of freedom from this procedure but there are some small side effects: we feel a little empty, a little robotic, a little, well, dead. 

In all seriousness I am frightened by how removed we have become from our souls/selves.  Whenever I am in class or hearing a psychological lecture they talk about people, human beings as if they are objects.  There is a total and complete denial of essence, of all of that which makes existence unique.  That which you feel to be most essential about your life (namely YOU) is being denied as real.  The deeper we inquire into the nature of ourselves, the more we create language and systems to understand the pieces and their relationships, the further we are getting from the capital Truth!  I believe this is a law of learning.  The more you know about something, the less you know about something, it is a paradox.  The reason for this is we are inquiring into infinity—the more you look, the more there is.  I don't, therefore, promote ignorance, rather I believe true genius is the ability to delve into the small components, and simultaneously not lose sight of the big picture.  To hold both ways of seeing at the same time is one of the defining features of man; to hold a vision of the universe in all its glory, from the most minute to the possibility of eternity; from the vibrating potentials in the flutter of a butterflies wings, to the infinite potential of the human spirit.  I believe there are certain eternal concepts that help us to not lose this vital vision of the whole. These concepts are (for lack of a better language) sacred.  The soul is one of those concepts.  It means there is a you in there that is significant beyond its parts, that is more than an existential experience, that loves, hurts, strives, and most importantly... LIVES!  There is one other reason the soul should not so quickly be discarded; the soul is accountable to G-d, the highest measure.  The self is accountable to itself, embarrassingly pathetic at times.  I believe, as we can see that modern life presents as many crises as it proposes to solve, this old raggedy soul might need to be pulled out of the linen closet, dusted off and placed back in our complicated selves. It may not save us, but perhaps it will make us worthy of being saved.

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