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I've always thought that our true essence, who we actually are, our personalities are our souls. To me, bodies are just temporary "homes" for the soul. My body can perish, but my soul will continue with its path. And I've always thought this is what Judaism teaches us. But I recently noted that in the Elokai Neshama, which we say every morning, the soul and the body are described in a completely opposite way:

אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ, אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי, וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי, וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִטְּלָהּ מִמֶּֽנִּי, וּלְהַחֲזִירָהּ בִּי לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא. כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה בְקִרְבִּי, מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי, רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים, אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּחֲזִיר נְשָׁמוֹת לִפְגָרִים מֵתִים.
My G-d, the soul that You have placed into me is pure. You created it; You formed it; You breathed it into me; and You preserve it within me. You will eventually take it from me, and restore it within me in Time to Come. As long as the soul is within me, I give thanks before you, Lord my G-d and G-d of my fathers, Master of all works, Lord of all souls. Blessed are You, G-d, Who restores souls to dead bodies.

Here, when I say me, I'm referring to my body. And I'm thanking G-d for giving me back my soul. But why is the body "me"? Shouldn't the soul be the real "me"? Am I the soul or the body?

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Am I the soul or the body?

The answer is yes.

The mashal is given of a blind man and a lame man in the king's orchard. The blind man put the lame man on his shoulders. The lame man steered the blind man to the fruit and they were able to collect a harvest.

Emperor Antoninus asked Rabbi how there could be punishment in the life beyond, for, since body and soul after their separation could not have committed sin, they could blame each other for the sins committed upon earth, and Rabbi answered him by the following parable: "A certain king had a beautiful garden in which was excellent fruit; and over it he appointed two watchmen, one blind and the other lame. The lame man said to the blind one, 'I see exquisite fruit in the garden. Carry me thither that I may get it; and we will eat it together.' The blind man consented and both ate of the fruit. After some days the lord of the garden came and asked the watchmen concerning the fruit. Then the lame man said, 'As I have no legs I could not go to take it'; and the blind man said, 'I could not even see it.' What did the lord of the garden do? He made the blind man carry the lame, and thus passed judgment on them both. So God will replace the souls in their bodies, and will punish both together for their sins" (Sanh. 91a, b)

The soul and the body are individual parts of the human being. In Olam Hazeh, we are only able to exist as a combination. We are thanking Hashem for putting the soul in the body so that we can continue to exist in this world as the combination that we are.

The Art Scroll siddur explains that we are thanking Hashem for returning our faculties to us so that we can get up and continue to exist in this world. Without the soul in the body we would be unable to function.

There are those who say that when the time comes for the judgement Hashem will merge the body and the soul so that judgement can be made on the two together. In the meantime, this is what is going on during Olam hazeh. Once we go to Olam Haba, circumstances change and we do not really know what will happen and what existence is like.

The Modeh Ani is strictly for Olam Hazeh and how we exist here and now.

During Olam Hazeh, the combination sets up the circumstances in which we will exist in Olam Habo.

  • This answer post could do with supporting citations. – msh210 Dec 31 '15 at 21:18
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    I added the reference to the explanation in the Art Scroll Siddur as well as the mashal from Sanhedrin. – sabbahillel Dec 31 '15 at 23:41
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I asked R' Tzvi Berkowitz this question. He said that when one sleeps, 4 parts of the soul leave, while the lowest part of the soul remains with the body. The "me" in this prayer is that lowest level of soul, but not the body.

I once heard R' Avrohom Schorr speak, and he quoted a Zohar which I did not manage to find afterwards, which said על בשר אדם - מלמד שהנשמה היא האדם ואין הגוף האדם - "on the flesh of a man" (Shemos 30:32) this teaches that the soul is the man and the body is not the man. (Major hat tip to Fred for all of the following) While we do not find the Zohar explicitly make this point on this verse, the Chida in Chomas Anach on Yechezkel 19:3 refers to such a reference on this verse - "דהנפש נקראת אדם כמ"ש בזהר הקדוש על פ' על בשר אדם לא ייסך". The Zohar does make this point in Zohar Bereishis 20b

ובכל אתר כתיב בשר אדם אדם לגו בשר לבושא דאדם גופא דיליה - and in every place it is writtin "the flesh of man" - man is inside the flesh, and the garment of man is the body.

So from here and from several other places in the Zohar, it seems that you are a soul with a body.

  • Also see Zohar Chadash on Rus here and a relevant passage from the Tikkunei Zohar here. – Fred Dec 31 '15 at 4:23
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As for E-lokai Netzor and Hashem putting a soul within me, my own intent when saying these words is based on the Vilna Gaon's taxonomy of prayer:

Prayers that express an ideal to be repeated and internalized are what we call "tefillah" in Hebrew. Tefillos are consistently written in the plural, as our connection to the community is part of that ideal. Prayers written in the singular are therefore of a different sort, "tachanunim", expressions of what already exists in our hearts.

This is how the Gaon explains the line in Qaddish, "tisqabel tzelosehon uva'usehon -- accept the tefillos and requests (tachanunim) of all of the House of Israel..." We say this when closing the Amidah -- which is such a paragon of tefillah our Sages called it simply "Tefillah", E-lokai Netzor -- tachanunim, (note that it's written about "I" and "mine", not "we" and "our"), and Tachanun.

"Elokai, neshamah -- My G-d, the soul which you placed in me" is similarly tachanunim. Therefore, it's not a place to look for how we ought to see our self-definition, but how things feel to most of us first thing in the morning. The prayer reflects the fact that most people do in practice identify with our body most consistently, and only at times with their soul.

But to answer the philosophical question...

There is a machlokes, a dispute among the rabbis, as to how to view man. One side, found often among books of Mussar, views a person as a soul who inhabits a body, or perhaps controls it as a rider upon a donkey. As Elifaz describes humanity in the book of Iyov (4:10), “shochnei batei chomer – dwellers in homes of matter.” When Rav Yitzchak Isaac Scher (Cheshbon haNefesh, Slaboka Alumni ed., intro.) speaks of man’s physical side being an animal, we mean that literally, not merely like an animal. Since much of our yeitzer hara comes from our living in a mammalian body, R’ Scher recommends the very same strategies one uses for taming and being able to use the eyesight of a bird, the strength of an ox, the load bearing abilities of a donkey or the speed of a horse are applicable to gaining mastery over our bodies. Like any other animal, a person’s animal soul has no ability to plan toward a goal, it simply responds to whatever urge is most triggered in the moment. The animal soul must be saddled by the godly soul and guided. And Rabbi Sherr points out with the example of a trained elephant, “next to whom a person like his trainer seems little more than an ant”, to maximize its utility it must neither be overburdened or neglected, nor underused and let remind wild – and this is how we are to treat our body and our animal souls. Last and most importantly, neither an animal nor the animal within can be educated, but trained through habit and acclimation.

This notion is a key symbol in the Gra’s interpretation system — when one finds a chamor / donkey in a narrative, it is generally a symbol for the person’s chomer / physicality. Avraham at the Akeidah or the mashiach come in riding on a donkey as a way to indicate to us their mastery over their own physicality. In contrast, we speak of Bil’am’s donkey, but the Torah consistently calls it a different kind of animal; he does not harness a chamor, showing self-control over the animal’s urges of the moment, Bil’am rides an ason (Bamidbar 22:23,25,27,28,29,33).

In this viewpoint, a person is a rider of an animal, or to use a metaphor that may resonate better with our more modern lifestyles – the soul who is wearing a body.

Another stream of thought includes the body in the definition of person. Rather than a person’s more human side that rides his body as a master over an animal, in this model man is seen as a fusion of body and soul. For example when the gemara (Sanhedrin 91a) explains one purpose of the eventual resurrection of the dead by comparing a sinner to a blind man and a lame man who conspire to steal fruit from an orchard. They are caught and brought to court, but each of the accused claims innocence. The blind man says he must be innocent, for he was incapable of even finding the fruit, never mind stealing them. The lame man also claims innocence; after all, he had no way to reach it. Neither alone could commit the theft, so each of the accused points to the other as the critical element for the sin, the guilty party. The judge responds by putting one atop the other, recreating the unit that was capable of sin, and judges the pair. So too, the gemara explains, the soul could claim it couldn’t have sinned without the body giving it the opportunity for action, and the body could claim that the planning and execution of the sin are the fault of the soul. In order to judge us for our sins, Hashem will bodily resurrect the sinner to reconstruct the person as they were then.

As the Ramchal writes, “Man is different from any other creature. He is a combination of two completely diverse and dissimilar elements, namely, the body and soul.” (Derech Hashem 3:1:1)

The dispute is not necessarily about which is true, it could well be that both definitions of “person” are equally valid. The dispute is more prescriptive: When is it more productive to think of my physical aspect as an outsider, which would weaken the relative weight I would give the call of physical drives? And when am I better off not thinking of myself as purely soul, because then I’m not fully blaming myself for “stealing the fruit”?

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I believe the answer is a machlokes rishonim.

Rambam holds that the body is temporary, and that even after the coming of Mashiach and resurrection of the dead, the souls will stay in the purified body for a finite amount of time, eventually getting rid of it for good. (I think this is similar to what you were initially thinking.)

Ramchal in Daas Tevunos talks about the final stage of the world, where the body will be like another mode of expression for the soul, and that they will be together forever.

  • This answer post could do with supporting citations. – msh210 Dec 31 '15 at 21:14
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I am neither a body nor a soul. The unique combination of body and soul is "ME". A pure soul is simply an angel. A plain body is just an animal. To be concurrently 100% body and 100% soul is to be human. Because humans are a combination of body and soul, that is why they - alone of all creations - have free choice.

  • So that means when my body dies, I am a pure soul and therefore an angel. Or, my soul never survives the death of my body, in which case there doesn't seem to be a distinction worth making. – bignose Dec 29 '15 at 22:50
  • @bignose That is not correct. – sabbahillel Dec 29 '15 at 23:55
  • @bignose This means that when my body dies, "I" cease to exist until resurrection reunites body and soul. My soul survives, but it is not "me". It is also not human, and has no special status above that of an angel. My soul (not "me") ceases to have an impact on the world that "I" do as a living human being. – LN6595 Dec 30 '15 at 0:14
  • This answer post could do with supporting citations. – msh210 Dec 31 '15 at 21:14
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    This answer is what I heard from R' Yaakov Weinberg. However I don't like citing people by name in an answer unless I saw their opinion in writing. – LN6595 Jan 3 '16 at 4:37
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The Tefillah you reference talks about the "neshama" which is generally translated as soul. This translation is a great source of confusion. The issue arrises because Lashon HaKodesh (Hebrew) has 5 words to describe the non-physical part of a person. In English, there is only one word, soul. Therefore, all 5 parts get lumped into the same translation, creating great confusion.

The five parts of the soul are generally accepted to be: Yechida, Chaya, Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama. Of those, Nefesh, Ruach and Neshama are considered to be primary.

The Rambam holds the body's identity to be contained within the Nefesh, which is why his Techiyas Hameisim (resurrection) focuses on the Nefesh. According to him, you are not your body, nor your Neshama. You are a composite of several non-physical components, primarily Neshama and Nefesh. (Although Nefesh and Neshama both translate as "soul", their are critical differences. For one, the Neshama is indestructibly eternal while the Nefesh can live or perish.)

Some of the Kabalists say differently that the physical part of a person has greater expression. They say that in addition to being a nefesh and neshama, you are also a guf. In which case, you are a composite of physical and non-physical components.

  • I think you have some of the Rambam's terminology mixed up. See for example hilchos teshuva 8:3 – Y     e     z Dec 30 '15 at 4:49
  • @yEz The Rambam uses a different set of terminology than the Kabbalists. I heard that what the Rambam says is to be understood in Kabbalistic terms as I wrote. It's hard to say exactly, when the Rambam doesn't use Kabbalah. – LN6595 Dec 30 '15 at 15:34
  • I'm aware that he uses different ones, but you used a set of terminology different than his own in describing his own opinion. Also, I don't know if the Rambam would say Neshama is a component of "you" - see, for example, yesodei hatorah 4:9, that the neshama is only there to interface with the guf. – Y     e     z Dec 31 '15 at 2:58
  • This answer post could do with supporting citations. – msh210 Dec 31 '15 at 21:16
  • I heard part of this from from my teacher, a student of R' Moshe Shapiro, and the rest from a young Talmud Chacham who knows all of Shas. – LN6595 Jan 1 '16 at 17:08
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once heard from Rabbi Uziel Milevsky who asked the same question as you, that we are neither. He says we are the power of free will. this thing whatever it is which makes moral decisions. that's you.

  • I don't see how this answers the question, which was about the prayer "Elokay...". You're saying it means that God put a soul into my will and will take it from my will? – msh210 Dec 31 '15 at 21:18
  • @msh210 you are not a soul not a body but some kind of power to choose. that's what he said – ray Jan 7 '16 at 19:16

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