Since the beginning of time, humans have sought to discover the essence and location of the soul, the Divine essence constitutive of our humanity. Some scientists today claim that le siege de l’ame (the seat of the soul) is in the temporal lobe of the human brain (“the God spot”), and V.S. Ramachandran demonstrated in the 1990s that patients with temporal lobe epilepsy were particularly affected by religious experiences. Others reject the claim that the soul has a physical location, thus preserving its mystery. But more important than knowing the soul’s location is to understand the soul’s value. Today, in a world flooded with external stimuli, we often forget the greatest treasure we have access to—the depths of our own souls.
To the Jew, the soul is not some esoteric mystery to wonder about, but a force to be accessed and lived with. We should neither neglect nor obsess over the body and soul. Activism requires both mental work, to understand the issues and come up with a strategic response, and physical work, to apply that response in practice, in our streets. More important than mind and body, however, sustained social justice activism needs the soul, to inspire the deeper sensitivity that ensures we help, more than harm, others. The soul is where our moral and spiritual choices leave their eternal mark. In today’s world, and especially in Jewish social justice activism, the soul has in many ways been forgotten. It is of tremendous importance that we return to our spiritual essence.
The soul is our holy transcendental channel to the infinite and eternal, our source of immortality. Those who choose enlightened life can access spiritual wisdom: “For G-d speaks time and again, though man does not perceive it. In a dream, in a night vision, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, then it is He opens people’s understanding” (Job 33:14-16). Our social identities in this world are helpful but not eternal: We can embrace them but we must also transcend them. Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now explains this well: “Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret to life is to ‘die before you die’—and find that there is no death.” Remembering that we have a deeper essence inspires us to live and strip away the falsity surrounding the self.
Further, our soul serves as a reminder that this life is fleeting. “Do not rely on the mighty to save you, or on any human being. His breath gives out, then back to earth he goes—on that every day, his projects are all for naught” (Psalm 146). The soul is our reminder that our soul is on loan in order that we return it even more beautiful than how we received it. The sages of the Talmud refer to the soul as a pikadon (a deposit), since G-d has entrusted us with this divine light to use and guard during our days. Maimonides taught that if we cultivated something very beautiful with our lives, when the body ceases to operate, the soul will continue to flourish. If we neglect the soul, nothing will continue to exist after our body is buried. The afterlife is not, G-d forbid, only for those with a particular religious affiliation. The rabbis teach that “The righteous of the nations have a share in the world to come” (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:1). The soul, the foundation of human existence, is universal.
Our souls also give us accountability, serving as reminders that not only are all our actions watched, but all our motives and desires are known: “A man may do whatever he wishes, but his soul reports it back to G-d” (Pesikta Rabbati 8). From cognitive perception in this world, we live with moral ambiguity; all of us do good and evil. But the soul is more black and white. Based upon our true motives, it is known if we lived committed to good or evil, self-worship or other-serving. The options are to “choose life or death” (Deuteronomy 30:19). When it comes to the soul, there is no in-between. In our activism, the soul, the home of the conscience, can help as a guide through the morass of gray. The deepest inner voice only knows truth.
The soul is our inner light. If we can tap into our spiritual channel and access that light, we can share it with the world. This is the work we are called to.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.