Understanding the human condition, the essential qualities that make us who we are, shapes how we think about our purpose as men and women created in the image of God. Searching for distinctive characteristics that separate the human animal from all others, philosophers have proposed that man is an acquisitive animal, a social animal, a moral animal, a cognizing animal, an animal that tells stories, and an animal that remembers. How does the Hebrew Bible present the essence of man?
Most scholarship on the biblical qualities of the human soul assumes the body/soul dualism that undergirds the theological anthropology of the New Testament. But, as the Israeli essayist Ethan Dor-Shav explains in Azure in 2005, “the Hebrew canon does not uphold the dualist body-soul doctrine, submitting instead three soul terms: Nefesh, ruah, and neshama.” Beginning with a bracing interpretation of the biblical text of Job, and encompassing the entirety of Hebrew Scripture, Dor-Shav locates the divine spark in mankind by carefully analyzing the Bible’s three key terms for the human soul.
Ultimately man is the crown of creation because only man incorporates each of the four elements in his being. In the Bible, therefore, every human being mirrors God’s cosmos at large. Being a microcosm, “the destruction of any person’s life is tantamount to destroying a whole world and the preservation of a single life is tantamount to preserving a whole world.” . . .
Only when we appreciate that the essence of man’s neshama lies precisely in the idea of an eternal “name” can the death of our beloved—or rather his or her posthumous existence—contribute to the completion of God’s name. What makes the kadish so poignant is that a man’s name is carved out of the divine throne, and when it itself reaches a state of fulfillment it reunites with its source, the great name of God. By doing so, it adds a unique spark towards the latter’s ultimate completeness. Man’s acquired name, then, completes God’s name. In praying for the completion and enlargement of God’s name, the mourner relates the name of the deceased—the realized essence of his or her neshama—to the divine, as a purified identity. In Jewish philosophy, this is true, and eternal, salvation.
More about: • Jewish Education • Jewish Political Thought • Theology
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