As in all systems of mysticism, the soul plays a towering part in the theology of the Zohar. Mysticism's centre of gravity is the close kinship between the human and the Divine; and the only avenue through which this kinship can become real to us is the soul. The soul, as a spiritual entity playing the highest of high parts in man's relation with the Unseen, is not a conspicuous element of either the Old Testament or the Talmudic-Midrashic writings; and the critics of Judaism have a way of saying harsh things about that religion on the grounds of its deficiency in this respect. But the shortcoming is amply atoned for by the large part assigned to the function of the soul in all branches of the mediæval Kabbalah.
That the Zohar is a debtor to a double source--the Talmudic teachings and the teachings of the Neoplatonists--is very apparent from its treatment of the soul. A passage from the former reads as follows: "Just as the soul fills the body, so God
fills the world. Just as the soul bears the body, so God endures the world. Just as the soul sees but is not seen, so God sees but is not seen. Just as the soul feeds the body [i.e. spiritually, intellectually], so God gives food to the world" (T.B. Berachoth, 10a). The predominant influence of the soul over the body, the body as overflown in all its parts by the soul and dependent upon it for the source of its life--these are the implications of the passage just quoted; and they are the substratum of the Zoharic ideas of the soul.
Neoplatonism gave to the Zohar the idea of the soul as an emanation from the 'Overmind' of the universe. There was originally one 'Universal Soul,' or 'Over-soul,' which, as it were, broke itself up and encased itself in individual bodies. All individual souls are, hence, fragments of the 'Oversoul,' so that although they are distinct from one another they are, in reality, all one. Thus, to quote the Zohar:
"At the time when God desired to create the universe, it came up in His will before Him, and He formed all the souls which were destined to be allotted to the children of men. The souls were all before Him in the forms which they were afterwards destined to bear inside the human body. God looked at each one of them, and He saw that many of them would act corruptly
in the world. When the time of each arrived, it was summoned before God, who said to it: 'Go to such and such a part of the universe, enclose thyself in such and such a body.' But the soul replied: 'O sovereign of the universe, I am happy in my present world, and I desire not to leave it for some other place where I shall be enslaved and become soiled.' Then the Holy One (blessed be He) replied: 'From the day of thy creation thou hast had no other destiny than to go into the universe whither I send thee.' The soul, seeing that it must obey, sorrowfully took the way to earth and came down to dwell in our midst" (ii. 96).
There is more than one echo of Plotinus--the master-mind of Neoplatonism--in this Zoharic extract. 'The world coming up in His will before Him' is Plotinus’ teaching about God thinking out the original patterns of all things, the first manifestation of God being Thought. 'The souls were all before Him in the forms which they were after-wards destined to bear' is clearly an allusion to the splitting-up of the Oversoul, so that its fragments might get embodied in individuals--as Plotinus taught. But although the Zohar, like Plotinus, draws a distinction between lower souls ('they who would act corruptly in the world') and higher souls, it, unlike Plotinus, makes every soul descend
into some body. Plotinus has quite a different teaching.
"The lower soul desires a body and lives in the stage of sense. . . . The higher soul, on the other hand, transcends the body, 'rides upon it,' as the fish is in the sea or as the plant is in the air. This higher soul never absolutely leaves its home, its being is not here but 'yonder,' or, in the language of Plotinus, 'The soul always leaves something of itself above'" (Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, p. 74).
According to the Zohar, while there are distinctions there, too, between superior and inferior souls--as is shown by their belonging to a higher or lower Sefirah--they must all descend to earth and unite with the body, returning, all of them, at death to their fountain-head, God.
The Zohar is, after all, but a commentary on the Hebrew Bible, and however much it may, at times, forsake the traditional Jewish pathways in favour of alien philosophies, it is always strictly conservative where the fundamental axioms of the Jewish faith are concerned. That every body possesses a soul which in its pristine form is 'pure,' that recompense in an after-life awaits it on a scale commensurate with its deserts, is an impregnable tenet of Judaism. The Zohar, wherever it may wander, must come back to this central point.
The soul is a trinity. It comprises three elements, viz.: (a) Neshāmāh, the rational element which is the highest phase of existence; (b) Ruaḥ, the moral element, the seat of good and evil, the ethical qualities; (c) Nefesh, the gross side of spirit, the vital element which is en rapport with the body, and the mainspring of all the movements, instincts, and cravings of the physical life.
There is a strong reflection of Platonic psychology in these three divisions or powers of the soul. More than one mediæval Jewish theologian was a Platonist, and in all probability the Zohar is a debtor to these. The three divisions of the soul are emanations from the Sefirot. The Neshāmāh, which, as has been said, is the soul in its most elevated and sublimest sense, emanates from the Sefirah of Wisdom. The Ruaḥ, which denotes the soul in its ethical aspect, emanates from the Sefirah of Beauty. The Nefesh, which is the animal side of the soul, is an emanation from the Sefirah of Foundation, that element of divinity which comes, most of all, into contact with the material forces of earth.
To sum up the matter in general and untechnical language, the three divisions or aspects of the human soul enable man to fit himself into the plan and framework of the cosmos, give him the power to do his
multifarious duties towards the multifarious portions of the world,--the world which is a manifestation of God's thought, a copy of the celestial universe, an emanation of the Divine. The Zohar puts it poetically thus:
"In these three [i.e. Neshāmāh, Ruaḥ, Nefesh] we find an exact image (diyūkna) of what is above in the celestial world. For all three form only one soul, one being, where all is one. The Nefesh [i.e. the lowest side of soul] does not in itself possess any light. This is why it is so tightly joined to the body, acquiring for it the pleasures and the foods which it needs. It is of it that the sage says, 'She giveth meat to her household and their task to her maidens' (Proverbs, xxxi. 15). 'Her household' means the body which is fed. 'Her maidens' are the limbs which obey the dictates of the body. Above the Nefesh is the Ruaḥ [the ethical soul] which dominates the Nefesh, imposes laws upon it and enlightens it as much as its nature requires. And then high above the Ruaḥ is the Neshāmāh, which in its turn rules the Ruaḥ and sheds upon it the light of life. The Ruaḥ is lit up by this light, and depends entirely upon it. After death, the Ruaḥ has no rest. The gates of Paradise (Eden) are not opened to it until the time when Neshāmāh has reascended to its source, to the Ancient of the ancients, in order to become filled with Him throughout eternity.
[paragraph continues] For the Neshāmāh is always climbing back again towards its source" (ii. 142).
It can be gathered from this passage, as from many similar ones which might have been usefully quoted had space allowed, that Neshāmāh is only realised, that man only becomes conscious of Neshāmāh, after death. A whole lifetime is necessary (and in some cases more than one lifetime, as we shall see) in order that Neshāmāh should be able to mount up again to the Infinite source from which it emanated. And it is the inevitable destiny of Neshāmāh to climb back and become one with the 'Ancient of ancients.'
But if Neshāmāh is so exalted, so sacrosanct, why should it have emanated from its immaculate source at all, to become tainted with earth? The Zohar anticipates our question and gives its answer as follows:
"If thou inquirest why it [i.e.. the soul] cometh down into the world from so exalted a place and putteth itself at such a distance from its source, I reply thus: It may be likened to an earthly monarch to whom a son is born. The monarch takes the son to the countryside, there to be nourished and trained until such a time as he is old enough to accustom himself to the palace of his father. When the father is told that the education of his son is completed, what does he do out of his love for him? In order
to celebrate his home-coming, he sends for the queen, the mother of the lad. He brings her into the palace and rejoices with her the whole day long.
"It is thus with the Holy One (blessed be He). He, too, has a son by the queen. This son is the high and holy soul. He conducts it to the countryside, i.e. to the world, in order to grow up there and gain an acquaintance with the customs appertaining to the royal palace. When the Divine King perceives that the soul has completed its growth, and the time is ripe for recalling it to Himself, what does He do out of His love for it? He sends for the queen, brings her into the palace, and brings the soul in too. The soul, forsooth, does not bid adieu to its earthly tenement before the queen has come to unite herself with it, and to lead it into the royal apartment where it is to live for ever.
"And the people of the world are wont to weep when the son [i.e. the soul] takes its leave of them. But if there be a wise man amongst them, he says to them, Why weep ye? Is he not the son of the King? Is it not meet that he should take leave of you to live in the palace of his father? It was for this reason that Moses, who knew the Truth, on seeing the inhabitants of earth mourning for the dead, exclaimed, 'Ye are the children of the Lord your God; ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any
baldness between your eyes for the dead' (Deut. xiv. 1). If all good men knew this, they would hail with delight the day when it behoves them to bid adieu to the world. Is it not the height of glory for them when the queen [i.e. the Shechinah, the Divine Presence] comes down into the midst of them to lead them into the palace of the king to enjoy the delights thereof for ever-more?" (i. 245).
It should be noted, by the way, that there are many instances in Talmudic literature, of men seeing the Shechinah at the hour of death. It is the signal of the return of Neshāmāh to its home, the Oversoul, of which it is but a loosened fragment; and the return can only begin after it has completed its education within the life-limits of an earthly body.
It seems to follow, as a necessary corollary from the foregoing doctrine, that the Zohar must give countenance to some theory of the transmigration of souls. If it is imperative upon Neshāmāh to climb back again to the Oversoul and obtain union with it; and if, in order to effect this end, it must previously have reached the summit of purity and perfection, then it stands to reason that its sojourn within the confines of one body may, on occasions, be inadequate to enable it to reach this high and exacting condition. Hence it must 'experience' other bodies,
and it must repeat the 'experience' until such a time as it shall have elevated and refined itself to the pitch at which it will be able to become one again with the fountain from which it emanated. The Zohar does contain some such tenet as this, although for the full and systematic treatment of the subject one has to look to the Kabbalistic writers who built upon the Zohar. The Zohar states as follows:
"All souls must undergo transmigration; and men do not understand the ways of the Holy One (blessed be He). They know not that they are brought before the tribunal both before they enter into this world and after they leave it. They know not the many transmigrations and hidden trials which they have to undergo, nor do they know the number of souls and spirits (Ruaḥ and Nefesh) which enter into the world, and which do not return to the Palace of the Heavenly King. Men do not know how the souls revolve like a stone which is thrown from a sling. But the time is drawing nigh when these hidden things will be revealed" (ii. 99).
To the minds of the Kabbalists, transmigration is a necessity not alone on the grounds of their particular theology--the soul must reach the highest stage of its evolution before it can be received again into its eternal home--but on moral grounds as well. It is a vindication of Divine justice to
mankind. It settles the harassing query which all ages have propounded: Why does God permit the wicked to flourish as the green bay tree, whereas the righteous man is allowed to reap nothing but sorrow and failure? And the only way for reconciling the dismal fact of child-suffering with the belief in a good God, is by saying that the pain is a retribution to the soul for sin committed in some one or more of its previous states. As has been already mentioned, the Jewish literature of this subject of transmigration is an exceedingly rich one. But it lies outside the scope of the present book.
Not only does the Zohar, as we have seen, teach the emanation of a threefold soul, but it also propounds a curious theory about the emanation of a pre-existent form or type of body, which, in the case of each one of us, unites the soul with the body. It is one of the strangest pieces of Zoharic psychology extant; and the object is probably that of accounting, on one and the same ground, for the varying physical and psychical characteristics embedded in each of us from birth. The passage runs as follows:
"At the moment when the earthly union [i.e. marriage] takes place, the Holy One (blessed be He) sends to earth a form [or image] resembling a man, and bearing upon itself the divine seal. This image is present at the moment just mentioned, and if the eye
could see what goes on then, it would detect above the heads [of man and wife] an image like a human face, and this image is the model after which we are fashioned. . . . It is this image which receives us first on our arrival into this world. It grows in us as we grow, and leaves us when we leave the world. This image is from above. When the souls are about to quit their heavenly abode each soul appears before the Holy One (blessed be He) clothed with an exalted pattern [or image or form] on which are engraven the features which it will bear here below" (iii. 107).
But of far greater consequence in the history of Jewish mysticism is the commanding place assigned by the Zohar to the idea of Love. Indeed, Jewish mysticism is here but a reflection of the nature of the mysticism inherent in all other creeds. The soul's most visible, most tangible, most perceivable quality is love. The soul is the root of love. Love is the symbol of the soul. "Mystic Love," says Miss Underhill, "is the offspring of the Celestial Venus; the deep-seated desire and tendency of the soul towards its source." The soul, says the mystic of all ages, seeks to enter consciously into the Presence of God. It can do so only under the spur of an overpowering ecstatic emotion called love. Although, according to the Zohar, the soul in its most exalted state as Neshāmāh can only enjoy the love inherent
in its union with its source after it has freed itself from the contamination of earthly bodies, it is nevertheless possible, under certain conditions, to realise this ecstatic love while the soul is in the living body of an individual. One of these conditions is the act of serving God, the chief outward concomitant of which is prayer.
"Whosoever serves God out of love," says the Zohar, "comes into union (itdaḅak) with the place of the Highest of the High, and comes into union, too, with the holiness of the world which is to be" (ii. 216). This is to say that the service of God, when effected with love, leads the soul into union with the place of its origin, and it gives it, as it were, a foretaste of the ineffable felicity which awaits it in its highest condition as Neshāmāh.
The verse "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One" (Deut. vi. 4) hints, says the Zohar, at this blending of the soul into a Unity. For this branch of its teaching the Zohar is certainly not indebted to Neoplatonism or any other alien system. It got it from its Jewish predecessors--the Midrashic homilists who enriched the Jewish literature of the opening centuries of the Christian era with their mystic interpretations of the Song of Songs. Verses like "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine" (vi. 3) served them as a starting-point for their sermons on the nearness of man and God to
one another, brought about by the instrumentality of love.
When the soul has completed the cycle of its earthly career and hurries back to become blended with the Oversoul, it revels in ecstasies of love, which the Zohar describes with a wealth of poetic phraseology. The soul is received in what is termed a 'treasury of life,' or sometimes a 'temple of love,' and one of its crowning joys is to contemplate the Divine Presence through a 'shining mirror.' The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrashim used the same phrase. Thus a passage in Leviticus Rabba, i. 14, reads thus: "All the other prophets saw God through nine shining mirrors, but Moses saw Him through only one. All the other prophets saw God through a blurred mirror, but Moses saw Him through a clear one." The meaning is that Moses had a clearer and nearer apprehension of the Deity than all other prophets.
Thus we read: "Come and see! When the souls have reached the treasury of life they enjoy the shining of the brilliant mirror whose focus is in the heavens. And such is the brightness which emanates therefrom that the souls would be unable to withstand it, were they not covered with a coat of light. Even Moses could not approach it until he had stripped off his earthly integument" (i. 66). Again: "In one of the most mysterious and exalted parts of heaven, there is a
palace called the Palace of Love. Deep mysteries are enacted there; there are gathered together all the most well-beloved souls of the Heavenly King; it is there that the Heavenly King, the Holy One (blessed be He), lives together with these holy souls and unites Himself to them by kisses of love" (ii. 97).
The Talmudic Rabbis described the way in which death comes to the righteous as 'death by a kiss.' The Zohar defines this 'kiss' as 'the union of the soul with its root' (i. 168). There is, in fine, an exceptionally high degree of optimism encircling the Zohar's treatment of the soul.
If the theology of the early Rabbinic schools of Palestine and Babylon errs, as its critics say, in the direction of making Judaism too much of a rigid discipline, too much of a law-compelling, outward obedience rather than inward feeling, the balance is redressed by the theology of the Zohar which, by making the soul, on the completion of its earthly work, so great a partaker in the Divine love, emphasises the deep spirituality inherent in Judaism, the emotional element which it calls forth in those who rightfully and adequately put its teachings into practice. It thus imports an added brightness into Jewish life. It inspires the Jew with the conviction that a high destiny awaits him in the hereafter. It makes him
put a premium upon virtue, and encourages him to raise himself to the sublimest pitch of moral and religious worth. Judaism for the Jew can never be a mere soulless formalism so long as the Zohar's doctrine of Divine love is an integral part of Judaism. Such a consummation is well attested by such a passage from the Zohar as the following .
"When Adam our first father dwelt in the garden of Eden he was clothed, as men are in heaven, with the Divine light. When he was driven forth from Eden to do the ordinary work of earth, then Holy Writ tells us that 'the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin and clothed them.' For, ere this, they wore coats of light, of that light which belongs to Eden. 1 Man's good deeds upon earth bring down on him a portion of the higher light which lights up heaven. It is that light which covers him like a coat when he enters into the future world and appears before his Maker, the Holy One (blessed be He). It is by means of such a covering that he can taste of the enjoyments of the elect and look upon the face of the 'shining mirror.' And thus, the soul, in order to become perfect in all respects, must have a different covering for each of the two
worlds which it has to inhabit, one for the terrestrial world and the other for the higher world" (ii. 229).
And this cheerful view of the soul is an incitement to nobler effort, not only for the Jew as an individual, but also for the Jew as a unit of a race which, according to Scriptural prescription, looks forward to its highest evolution in the arrival of a Messiah. The Zohar, truly enough, is comparatively silent upon this theme. But the famous Kabbalist and mystic Isaac Luria, who is the chief expounder of the Zohar, and who carried many of its undeveloped dogmas to their logical conclusions, has elaborated this point in a strikingly ingenious and original way. Luria held a peculiar theory of the transmigration of the soul; and conjoined with this there went, what might appear to some, an approach to Christian teaching about the truth of original sin. With the Zohar, Luria maintained that man, by means of his soul, unites the upper and the lower world. But he maintained further that with the creation of Adam there were created at the same time all the souls of all races of mankind. Just as there are variations in the physical qualities of men, so there are corresponding variations in their souls. Hence there are souls which are good and souls which are bad and souls of all the shades of value which lie between these two extremes.
[paragraph continues] When Adam sinned there was confusion in all these classes of souls. The good souls became tainted with some of the evil inherent in the bad souls, and, on the contrary, the bad souls received many an admixture of goodness from the superior souls.
But who emanated from the inferior sets of soul? According to Luria, the pagan world. Israel, however, issued from the superior souls. But, again, seeing that the good souls are not wholly good nor the bad souls wholly bad by reason of the confusion ensuing upon Adam's fall, it follows that there can be no real unalloyed good in the world. Evil infests some spot or other everywhere. A perfect condition of things will only come with the coming of the Messiah. Until that time, therefore, all souls, tainted as they all inevitably are with sin, must, by means of a chain of transmigrations from one body to another, shake off more and more of the dross clinging to them, until they reach that summit of purity and perfection when, as Neshāmāh, they can find their way back to unite with the Infinite Source, the Oversoul. Hence the individual Jew in promoting the growth of his own soul is really promoting the collective welfare of his race. Upon the weal or woe of his own soul hangs the weal or woe of his people.
Luria's arguments, when fully stated, have a decided air of the fantastic about them. But that his conclusion is sound and valuable, no one will doubt. He encourages the Jew to the pursuit of a lofty communal or national ideal. He reminds him, too, of the imperative necessity of Israel's solidarity. For the Jew, taking his stand upon many a text in the Old Testament, has always felt that his thought and his work must not be for himself alone. His prayer has ever been for the well-being of Israel rather than for the well-being of individual Israelites. What he counts, in God's sight, as a separate entity is small in comparison with what he counts as an inseparable unit in the compact body of Israel. In this voluntary, self-forgetful merging of the smaller interests of the part in the greater interests of the whole lies much of the secret of the long roll of Israel's saints and heroes, his martyrs and his mystics.
170:1 In Hebrew there is a great similarity in sound between the word for 'skin' and the word for 'light.'