“Nefesh” and Spiritual Materialism

When we talk about the word “soul,” we usually think about something immaterial, ethereal, and divine. But that framing is actually much more of a Greek idea, which became much more integrated into later Jewish (and even moreso Christian) thinking. Most often in the Torah, the word that’s translated as “soul” is the word nefesh, but in the context of Leviticus, nefesh actually means something physical. In 5:2, for example: 

Or when a person touches any impure thing (be it the carcass of an impure beast or the carcass of impure cattle or the carcass of an impure creeping thing) and the fact has escaped notice, and then, being impure, that person realizes guilt…

There are few things more physical than touching a carcass or “creeping thing,” and it’s the nefesh that does that! Later chapters in Leviticus also talk about the nefesh eating (Lev. 7:18), and as linguist Joel Hoffman explains,

[N]efesh was the tangible aspects of life, that is, everything that could be touched: the blood, the flesh, and the physical breath. This is why “soul” is such a disastrous translation for nefesh. “Soul” in English is precisely that which is intangible, while nefesh is the opposite.

Leviticus reminds us that spirituality is deeply embodied and physical. It focuses on everything from grains and animals for sacrifices, expected (and unexpected) bodily emissions, and how to contain the spread of a communicable disease. And even the prayer services that later replaced the sacrificial system entail moving our body – standing, sitting, bowing, carrying and kissing a Torah, and sometimes dancing or crying. Leviticus reminds us that our “soul” is not separate from our body – our physicality is what allows us to express our spirituality.

We might even call this portion, Leviticus, and Judaism as a whole, as a way to teach “spiritual materialism.” Rather than seeing the “soul” as something ethereal and undefinable, we can see it as connected to our body. It’s an idea most recently espoused by author Alan Lightman in his new book, The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science. He describes it like this in the excerpt in The Atlantic:

Many people associate spirituality with an all-powerful, intentional, and supernatural God. I respect such beliefs. But my concept of spirituality does not require them. It is my view that all human experiences, including spirituality, are compatible with a fully scientific view of the world, even while some are not reducible to zeros and ones. I believe not only that these experiences are rooted in material atoms and molecules but also that they can be explained in terms of the forces of Darwinian evolution.

To truly live a religious life, we need to live in, celebrate and honor the natural world, its processes, and its challenges. Leviticus is not always a pleasant book to read and may not immediately inspire awe and wonder. But its grounding in the mundane, the real, and the physical, it reminds us that our spirituality needs to manifest itself in the world.

And as Judaism reminds us constantly about our obligations to others, perhaps the real message of Leviticus echoes these words from Rabbi Israel Salanter: “Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility.” That’s how we can truly bring our body and soul together.

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