Saturday, July 30, 2005

Responses To Tanya, Sefer Shel Benonim, chs. 1-5

Do people have souls?

The problems posed by the concept of a transcendent soul that interacts with the physical body are similar to those posed by the concept of a transcendent deity who interacts with the physical universe. Neuroscience has a long way to go, but we do seem to be making strides in the direction of understanding -- and, to an extent, being able to control -- many aspects of emotion and cognition, including matters as fundamental as decision-making, empathy, and impulse control. The better these matters are understood, the less room there seems to be for a non-physical human "spirit."

Most religious people seem convinced that we do have souls independent of our bodies, but I wonder whether this doctrine is truly vital to religious belief. It is undeniable that people have the capacity for thought and emotion. We can contemplate God, choose ethical conduct, and find joy in religious activity. If these are the elements necessary for religious devotion, and if we believe that these traits are, in one way or another, given to us by God, what difference does it make whether they are ultimately physical or not?

I raise this question now because it relates to the nature of the truth that may be embodied in such mystical works as Tanya. The author of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, divides the transcendental aspect of human beings into various parts. We have two souls (neshamot), as well as spirit (ruach) and life (nefesh). In addition, our souls (the sum of the three) have ten manifestations, corresponding to the ten Sefirot, or Divine spheres. For the Ba'al Ha-Tanya (the author), this is all quite literal. The base, wicked soul resides in the blood, and the evil inclinations within it emanate from the four elements (Fire, Water, Air, and Earth). The second soul, meanwhile, resides in human breath. The external nefesh, surrounding the internal neshamot, ruach, and nefesh, is comprised of the essences of the individual's mother and father, and so on.

But are these physical connections necessary? In a very different context, Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into Ego, Superego, and Id. Freud never claimed that these were directly related to the physical brain, or that they existed on some transcendental plane separate from it; they simply described the various human inclinations as they seemed to manifest themselves in his observations. Presumably, he could have divided the psyche into four parts, or ten (if he were a kabbalist), and the analysis would be no less accurate, provided that it corresponded to human nature as we experience it.

Is Tanya less valuable because it claims more for its assertions than this? Because, frankly, the Aristotelian science doesn't do it for me. . .

6 comments:

fleurdelis28 said...

I have no idea, but I suspect if we do it's not in nearly that sort of literal and diagrammable way.

Dovid said...

I replied to your concerns on your DH's blog. Let me know what you think.

elf said...

Thank you for your response. It is enlightening on a number of levels. Among other things, you addressed my question about the Lubavitch perspective on mashal (parable) before I even asked it.

I have begun to look at the online portions of "Lessons in Tanya." Like DH, I prefer to read the text on its own first and then move on to the commentary, but because Tanya is so esoteric, I've decided to do so in portions rather than all together.

I should probably add that, unlike DH's post, mine is not really a direct response to the beginning of Tanya. It is simply an articulation of thoughts that I've had for some time, which my reading of Tanya triggered. Perhaps I should have given it a different title.

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