Coming from a scientific materialist past, I have always had a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of G-D and the Soul (נשמה ,רוח ,נפש). Due to some personal experiences, I have come to believe in G-d, his primacy and power, and the authority of the Torah. Still, I am unable to act continuously in a manner consistent with the fact that G-d exists and is watching me. Perhaps it is my Moral failure.

Q1) Why is it so hard to follow God's word and believe in him, continuously in time such that my thoughts/actions are always, CONTINUOUSLY in accordance with the moral law of the Torah and the Talmud?

Q2) How would you explain the concept of the soul to a scientific materialist?

  • The amount of reward is dependent on how hard it is, how much strength you use
    – hazoriz
    Dec 23, 2019 at 14:42
  • It gets easier when you think about Him and understanding that He really exists (until Moshiach comes these things take energy to do, and one gets rewarded/replayed for this energy)
    – hazoriz
    Dec 23, 2019 at 14:44
  • youtube.com/watch?v=S7SQoQj9868
    – hazoriz
    Dec 23, 2019 at 14:45
  • A soul has different aspects, but the most essential core of it is called pleasure/will , and it is the pleasure/will/thirst to increase (or at least maintain) it's worth, (and is the cause of the will to reproduce, eat, aquire property, how does a scientific materialist explain the above wills)
    – hazoriz
    Dec 23, 2019 at 14:50
  • @hazoriz A Scientific materialist explains pleasure/will/thirst to increase in terms of Evolution, in terms of the Pan-historical development of Pleasure, evolutionarily in harmony with other evolutionary processes, including Pain's development, and how that happened Evolutionarily.
    – user20479
    Dec 23, 2019 at 15:09

4 Answers 4


Start with the brain... Okay, the brain, the pituitary gland... Okay, we have to bring in a lot more bio than just the brain in order to get brain chemistry just down. For example, behavior changes with the level of activity of one's adrenal glands... Or the amount of alcohol that made it through the gut and into the bloodstream. So, let me try again.

Start with the body. There is some organizational pattern to your body that shapes how thinking happens in your brain and central nervous system. The wiring in your neurons is a big part of it, as is chemistry. All of those patterns encode information; the thinking happens with the patterns more than the substance of the neurons and brain chemistry.

And with that life-ness comes intellectual demands -- drives for sex, food, rest and physical comfort, etc...

Those are a little harder to map to the physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy and neuroscience, but it still seems doable. One level more abstract than just talking about the design of the parts rather than the parts themselves.

It is this level of abstraction that Qabbalists start talking about the nefesh. It's the bit that deals with the emotions that our chemistry sweeps past us, the physical drives and wants.... Basically, everything that is animal or specifically mammalian about our thoughts.

Notice that in this worldview, there is no line between the physical and the metaphysical. It's gradual, more of a spectrum than a dichotomy.

In Qabbalah's model, the Or Ein Sof (the Light of the Infinite One / the Infinite Light) "descends" from world to world, getting implemented in ever more coarse forms. In the Rambam's model (Yesodei haTorah ch. 2) Hashem had a Thought, which had a thought, etc... A chain of intellects that runs down the various classes of angel through the spheres, and eventually down to us. In his Kelalim, the Leshem argues that the similarities are there because these are indeed two different models of same Truth.

And it's a gradualist metaphysics. If we were to continue this train of going up one more level of abstraction after another, we would get to a "world" in which Liberty, Justice, Truth, are more relevant categories for describing why a decision was made than if we tried explaning a person's actions by describing the sodium ion levels and whatnot at various neurons.

It's like answering the question about why a pixel on your monitor went red. You could discuss the gate that flipped in your display in response to a voltage level on the cable, in response to various logic gates flipping inside your computer's video card, etc... Or, you could discuss the notion of trying to balance your checkbook in Excel, and unfortunately, you're overdrawn. Neither are wrong. Neither is more real. However, if you want to solve the real underlying problem in your life, talking about budgeting is more useful.

On the top of the chain of abstraction is Good (as we say in the Shemoneh Esrei "הטוב שמך -- Your name / reputation is 'the Good One'), the Cause of All Existence (to literally translate the tetragrammaton). The Giver of everything, including our very being.

And our connection "10 tefachim below the Throne", is where the neshamah begins.

People are uniquely in the Image of the Divine because we operate on all these different planes at once. We can think about the nefesh's desire for a lava cake and the neshamah's desire to live a meaningful life that advances Good in this world.

And so in the levels between them we have the ruach. Where these desires meet and conflict, we have to think things out. As R Dessler puts it, the nequdas habechirah -- the free-will point -- is at the battle-front between physical desire and Truth. We have conscious thought. If the ruach is in the physical world, and the neshamah is in heaven, the ruach is in the world between our ears.

All of which is gradualist. It's not instead of believing in the brain. It's thinking of the brain as the slide-show on the wall, where the soul is the beam of light that casts the image. (And in this mashal, tzimtzum is the film which blocks the parts of the Or Ein Sof that don't belong in the world, but now I'm going even further afield.)

So, to try to answer your first question:

What is most tzelem E-lokim, Image of the Divine about us is our ability to self-define who we are. It's not the neshamah, it's the tension between the neshamah and the nefesh from which the ruach emerges. No matter how high up the ladder of existence we would go, we would still be infintesimally above zero compare to an Infinite Deity. We balance physical and spiritual, bad and good, and even different goods -- for example the discipline of tact and knowing how to balance Peace and Truth. Our most transcendent aspect is our very ability to transcend. The fact that we can climb, and don't just exist in a single olam, at a single plane of abstraction.

Which means G-d doesn't want it to be easy. The whole thing requires that tension between different ways of looking at the world.

In short: why is it so hard? Because the greatest good is growth, not level.

  • R Micha what's that Greek word for why people do bad things if they know God said not to? It's something between anisakis and anorexia. I'm blanking.
    – Double AA
    Dec 23, 2019 at 20:48
  • Saying the soul is hidden doesn’t explain it scientifically. Scientists have not been able to locate the soul probably because it doesn’t exist or they’re looking in the wrong direction, including the layperson. Additionally, I agree with the rationalist Aristotle who said that the soul is the “life force.” A common misconception is that Jews accept the Christian pagan notion of the soul. They often miss the fact that the Hebrew Bible discredits their definition.
    – Jonathan
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:00
  • Also, G-d does not need to see us studying Torah or doing mitzvot. The Mitzvah do not benefit HaShem. Rambam writes that the Torah/mitzvot purposes is threefold: improve the self and society and teach some truths.
    – Jonathan
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:15
  • @DoubleAA Akrasia?
    – Joel K
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:48
  • @JoelK ברוך אתה לשמים שהחזרת לי אבידתי
    – Double AA
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:55

To answer Question 2:

Imagine you are trying to see how many chipmunks you can fit into your refrigerator. You are able to make some room between the orange juice and the milk on the top shelf to fit one there. There is also a bit of room in the cheese drawer to fit one snugly in there. You can fit two in the vegetable crisper. You wonder if you could fit one on the bottom shelf if you utilize a more efficient yogurt stacking pattern. Meanwhile, you realize that you haven't had lunch and all this looking in the refrigerator is making you hungry. You think about what kind of sandwich you might want to have for lunch, maybe some avocado toast with jam. Your mouth begins to water.

-- Until now, your stream of consciousness was what we would call the "Ruach" participating in an abstract mental challenge that is totally disjoint from your physical body. However, the part of you that chimed in to let your consciousness know that you were hungry was your "Nefesh", the part of the soul that is intimitely connected to the physical body and advocates for it. The Nefesh pulls your consciousness (Ruach) to be concerned with the desires of your physical body, in this case, eating. --

You continue looking for a space to place an additional chipmunk, perhaps in the door, while in the meantime one of the chipmunks in the vegetable crisper runs out. You look around to follow where it has gone off to, when the thought pops in your head: "Maybe there is something better that I can be doing with my time other than putting chipmunks in a refrigerator."

-- This last interruption is a result of the Neshama, that interacts with your consciousness to pull it to think about the more important things of purpose and meaning. --

Chazal refers a person's consciousness as "Ruach", which means wind, because just as wind seems to easily change directions from one direction to another, so too our consciousness is easily pulled back and forth between dealing with lofty questions of timeless meaning, to dealing with ephemeral pleasures. The Neshama pulls one's Ruach in one direction, the Nefesh pulls it in the other. Over the course of a life one may choose to silence their Neshama and let their Nefesh pull their Ruach lower and lower, or alternatively to listen to their Neshama and try to keep their mind primarily occupied with things of high importance like God and Torah thereby pulling their Ruach higher and higher.

  • Using this logic, Doesn't the Ruach also contribute/"drop down" into the spatio-temporal physical reality? Because in order to do these complicated computations regarding the position of the chipmunks, one need's to abstractly manipulate physical reality, as seen through ones "minds eye"
    – user20479
    Dec 23, 2019 at 16:41
  • Thank you for this answer! This is very helpful!!! :))
    – user20479
    Dec 23, 2019 at 16:42
  • @pkwssis Glad you appreciate the answer. Certainly, the Ruach deals with and is aware of the spatio-temporal physical reality, but this isn't necessarily considered "dropping down". In Judaism, we believe we can accomplish lofty important things by manipulating the physical world, i.e. doing mitzvos. It is only considered "dropping down" if it is motivated by one's personal pleasure seeking.
    – Silver
    Dec 23, 2019 at 16:55
  • Ohh I agree, but i'm sure pleasure seeking is not entirely mutually exclusive from doing mitzvahs. So if some action falls under the category of doing mitsvahs while also falling under the category of personal pleasure seeking, is that considered as "dropping down"?
    – user20479
    Dec 23, 2019 at 16:59
  • @pkwssis Agreed, there is a more complicated relationship there that warrants its own investigation
    – Silver
    Dec 23, 2019 at 17:02

I think you answered your own question. Coming from a scientific perspective is not the issue per se, but it is often quite antithetical to the idea of God. (Surely you know that many scientists are atheist.)

I wouldn’t worry though because as long as your mind knows what the truth is and you’re putting in the effort to truly try to follow Hashem’s mitzvos your heart will follow.

As for a scientific explanation of the soul, I don’t know if there is one. Science deals with empirical evidence whereas the soul is of a spiritual and undetectable nature. You won’t see it under a microscope.

  • I say that coming from scientific materialism is an issue, because G-d and the Soul are explained to be essentially of a non-physical nature, in a lot of places in the Holy Books, and scientific materialism is axiomatised upon physicalism.
    – user20479
    Dec 23, 2019 at 17:26
  • Is your question perhaps about the interface between the spiritual soul and the physical body?
    – user9806
    Dec 23, 2019 at 18:21
  • @user9806 i believe its more about what non-physical/spiritual means.
    – user20479
    Dec 23, 2019 at 18:40
  • @pkwssis : that's an interesting question in itself. How about, Physical = observable, subject to hypothesized regularities (i.e. laws of physics). Spiritual = anything other. [Yes, this would classify even concepts, such as numbers, as spiritual, so perhaps out would also include something about independent ontological existence in the definition as well].
    – user9806
    Dec 23, 2019 at 20:03

This answer may not be satisfactory to everyone but I tried to make it as scientific as possible. Additionally, these views are a minority opinion, but it is certainly a valid Jewish opinion.


The popular belief of “soul” Which survives death is prevalent in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam today, but it is not in the Hebrew Bible. Actually, the biblical word for “soul” is nefesh, in Hebrew which means “a person” or a “life force.”

The soul

The popular idea of a soul separated from the body which survives death is problematical. No one is able to explain how the soul controls the body if it is separate and not material. Even Descartes, famous for his statement: “I think; therefore I am,” was unable to explain the existence of the soul.

In his Apology the Greek philosopher Plato felt that the soul is the 'real me and the body is my clothing.' However, this may not be true. For in his Republic Plato writes that it is necessary to teach the masses “essential truths,” or “Nobel lies,” in order to control them.

In his De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle contended, like the Hebrew Bible, that the “soul” is the life force and is comprised of five systems found in the body, such as the nutritive and digestive systems, senses, and thinking. Plants and animals also have souls, but lack thinking. Additionally, he felt that the “mind” or “intellect” cannot be destroyed and that it survive death. Elderly people have trouble thinking not because the mind has deteriorated but the body.

This will come as a shock to many people, but Maimonides seems to suggest in his essay Chelek that upon the death of a person their intellect joins (or is absorbed to) the “active intellect,” or greater intellect. Thus, souls dose not survive death, only intellects.

Does G-d know us?

They are some philosophers who feel that G-d knows the generalities – meaning the laws of nature that G-d created or formed – but not the particular, meaning that G-d knows the celestial makeup of a person but not the man. This was the view of some wise Jews such as Abraham ibn Ezra. For example, Ralbag writes that G-d does not know everything that occurs in the world. Some scholars even feel that Maimonides was of the same opinion. Thus, G-d does not knows people as individuals.

My own opinion is that the popular notions that G-d created people so that they can commune with G-d, and the idea that G-d did so because G-d loves people, is pure nonsense. I think of G-d as being all-powerful, and I think that an all powerful being does not need to commune or be loved or need to see people doing mitzvot.

Furthermore, if G-d needed these things and if G-d existed long before creation, why did G-d wait to create? Thus, G-d is transcendental, meaning that G-d is separate, created the world out of preexisting matter and no longer interferes with human affairs.


The popular notion of a soul being separate from the body was not a Jewish belief until the Greeks introduced it. It is also possible that G-d does not know humans, inherently.

[1] Commentary on the Chelek chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin

  • Thanks for the answer! This -- outorah.org/p/25236 -- seems to contradict some of what you're saying, im not sure though.
    – user20479
    Dec 23, 2019 at 18:54
  • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz certainly has an interesting take on Rambam. Like I said, this answer may not please everyone but I think it is more realistic. Additionally, Rambam writes that G-d only does good and that G-d does not cause evil. Evil is the result of three things: (1) people harm themselves, (2) people harm others, and (3) natural law, although good for the world at a whole, for example a hurricane cleans the atmosphere, may nevertheless harm individuals residing near the proximity.
    – Jonathan
    Dec 23, 2019 at 19:20
  • Also, one who accepts that G-d is involved in the world and protects individuals must account for why bad things happen to good people.
    – Jonathan
    Dec 23, 2019 at 19:22
  • Orthodox Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits wrote that G-d’s silence allows people to play an active role in the unfolding of history, for “history is man’s responsibility,” not G-d’s
    – Jonathan
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:11
  • So are you saying that G-d doesn't interfere in the workings of the world, but designed the laws that run it? Perhaps you mean He can causally create effects in our world when he wishes but usually doesn't, because The Torah is full of G-d's revelations and such injunctions, so clearly G-d may do it if he wishes.
    – user20479
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:37