Is There Such a Thing as a “Jewish Soul”? (Revised)

As of late, I have taken an interest in reading British Jewish news. After browsing several articles, I came across a fascinating new story. Not every day a synagogue bans a classical Jewish book, but in one of Britain’s most prominent synagogues, that’s what happened.  Several students at an adult education class took offense to a mystical tract on self-improvement, better known as the “Tanya,” because of “racist” comments in its early chapters.  For newcomers, the Tanya is the Bible of the Lubavitcher movement. This book was composed toward the last half of the 18th century when Russian Jews struggled mightily against the czarist governments who showed little love or tolerance regarding the Jews. Despite the questionable passages we are about to read, it was one of the 18th century’s first self-help books, and most of its teachings are, for the most part fairly appealing.

Here are the controversial passages that created controversy this past October. In the Tanya,  the author attempts to explain why the souls of Jews are different from the gentiles:

  • “The explanation of this matter is according to what the Rabbi Chaim Vital OBM wrote …Every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, has two souls, as it says, ‘And the souls I have made’ — that is, two souls: one soul deriving from the side of the kelipa and the side that is antithetical to holiness… also naturally good character traits that are found in every Jew, such as mercifulness and charitable deeds, stem from it, for in a Jew, the soul of this kelipa derives from kelipat noga which also contains good…But it is not the case concerning Gentile souls, for they stem from other impure kelipot which contain no good…and the second soul of the Jew is surely part of G-d on high…” [1]

And shortly afterward, the author adds,

  • The kelipotare divided into two levels. The lower level consists of three impure and completely evil kelipot which contain no good whatsoever … From there the souls of the Gentiles are influenced and drawn, as are the bodies and the souls of all impure animals which are forbidden to eat…However, the vital animalistic soul in the Jews, which stems from the kelipa…and the souls of pure animals, beasts, birds, and fish which are permitted to eat…are influenced and drawn from the second level of the klipot…which is called kelipat noga…and the majority of it is evil, combined with a slight amount of good.[2]

Let me state I do not believe in “Jewish,” Muslim, Christian, or Hindu souls, etc.   Every human being’s religious beliefs come from one’s family of origin, upbringing, and faith community. Any person can choose the faith community they wish to belong. Every soul is a unique expression of the Divine breath God has infused in us since the beginning of time. God did not make Adam a Jew, Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. To use a Hindu metaphor, our soul is a like a droplet of water that returns to the ocean when we die. We all share a unitary consciousness that transcends religion in the world beyond.

Now, let us to return to the substance of this article:

As I have pointed out in earlier posts, it is the nature of oppressed people to bolster their self-esteem and image by putting down the Other. While this is certainly not the kind of behavior any moral person should endorse, it helps to see this passage from the writer’s perspective. Often, tragic circumstances distort the way one spiritually looks at the world. Jews in Russia often experienced pogroms and anti-Semitic violence daily. Those of us living in a happy and well-adjusted society need to understand the mentality that the Other is someone one should fear.

The Tanya’s Myopia Is Not Unique

Now in fairness to the Tanya’s theological opinion, the author’s s perspective is by no means unique. Many other Kabbalists historically followed this line of reasoning for the reasons mentioned above. In the writings of Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, he writes similarly:

  • Concerning what is explained in Yevamot, “You are called men,” but not the other nations.“ The Gentiles were deprived of the title ‘men’ only where Israel were called “men,” because in comparison to Israel, who are the primary form of man in the Divine Chariot, it is irrelevant to call any of the Gentiles “men”; at most, they are like animals in the form of men. Taken as themselves, however, all the children of Noah are considered men. And when the Messiah comes, they too will recognize and admit that there are none called ‘man’ except Israel…anyway, in comparison to Israel, even now they are in the category of animals…”[3]Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote: “The dissimilarity between the Jewish soul, in all its independence, inner desires, longings, character and standing vis-à-vis the soul of all the Gentiles–on all of their levels–is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal, for the difference in the latter case is one of quantity, while the difference in the first case is one of essential quality.”[4]

Or take for example, the writings of the famous Maharal of Prague (ca. 16th century):

  • Even though it says ‘Beloved is man,’ this does not include all human beings, for the Sages explain ‘You are called men and the nations are not called men’— The completeness of the Creation, which is given to man in particular, is given to the Jews and not to the other nations… . . . The principal form of man does not appear in the nations. In any case, this image does exist amongst the rest of the nations, but it is worthless, and therefore he did not say ‘beloved are Israel who were created in G-d’s image.’ [5]
  • Wisdom of the Delphic Oracle: Know thyself!

So, how do we get past the problems and trauma of the past?  Always consider the source and the circumstances that influenced the writer’s spiritual shortsightedness regarding the outsider. Every faith in the history of religion has formulated similar attitudes toward people(s) who were not “members of the tribe.” It is not just a “Jewish” problem, as anti-Semites love to argue; it is a human problem transcending individual faiths. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and even Buddhism have struggled with its treatment of the Other at one time or another. There will probably always be atavistic forces within a faith because human evolution is morally challenging.  Even Judaism has its shadow aspects that require purging. Oppressed people often get back at their tormentors through sarcasm and displays of contempt.

Even the Psalms contain such examples, as seen in Psalm 109:

109 For the leader: for David: a psalm

God to whom I offer praise, do not be silent,

for the wicked have heaped calumnies upon me.

They have lied to my face

and encompassed me on every side with words of hatred.

They have assailed me without cause;

in return for my love they denounced me,

though I have done nothing wrong.*

They have repaid me evil for good,

hatred in return for my love.

They say, ‘Put up some rogue to denounce him,

an accuser to confront him.’*

But when judgement is given that rogue will be exposed

and his wrongdoing accounted a sin.

May his days be few;

may his hoarded wealth* be seized by another!

May his children be fatherless,

his wife a widow!

10 May his children be vagrants and beggars,

driven from their ruined homes!

11 May the creditor distrain on all his goods

and strangers run off with his earnings!

12 May none remain loyal to him,

and none pity his fatherless children!

13 May his line be doomed to extinction,

may his name be wiped out within a generation!

14 May the sins of his forefathers be remembered*

and his own mother’s wickedness never be wiped out!

15 May they remain on record before the Lord,

but may he cut off all memory of them from the earth!

16 For that man never set himself

to be loyal to his friend,

but persecuted the downtrodden and the poor

and hounded the broken-hearted to their death.

17 He loved to curse: may the curse recoil on him!

He took no pleasure in blessing: may no blessing be his!

18 He clothed himself in cursing like a garment:

may it seep into his body like water

and into his bones like oil!

19 May it wrap him round like the clothes he puts on,

like the belt which he wears every day!

20 May the Lord so repay my accusers,

those who speak evil against me![1]

Healthy and happy people do not feel the need to lambast other people’s religions and values. Psychologist Carl G. Jung offers an important insight into our “shadow” nature that always requires conscious management. He writes:

  • It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances, go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and a raging monster emerges. Each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse, he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow side of human nature. Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict he painfully aware of.” [4]

Jung’s comments apply not just to the individual, but it could apply to society’s group psychology as well. To eradicate anti-Semitism, we must understand its psychological origins. Only then can a collective take the necessary steps to cleanse its soul. But this insight is not limited only to anti-Semitism, it also applies to any ideology that artificially distinguishes between groups of people based on an inflated view of the self.

The British synagogue would be wise to understand that persecuted peoples don’t always develop the most refined type of theology.

Fortunately, in nearly all denominations of Judaism (with the notable exceptions of the Haredi, Hassidic, and Lubavitch movements), the spirit of universalism continues to affirm the finest teachings of the prophets and the Sages. Unfortunately, it behooves us to recognize that the great medieval rabbis were men of their age–and European society at that time was anything but tolerant toward people who did not subscribe to their belief system.

If I could offer some practical advice to the British synagogue, I think it is essential to be truthful about the texts of our tradition. No rabbi has ever been infallible in his theology; and this is reality is probably never going to change. Despite the hype and fascination with Jewish mysticism, modern Jewish ethics demands that we view Kabbalistic texts with a critical eye.


Concerning inspiration, we must take the embers of the past–and not perpetuate its ashes.


[1] Tanya, chapter 1 (page 5b).

[2] Tanya, end of chapter 6.

[3] “Poked Akarim” page 19, column 3, he wrote: ”

[4] “Orot,” Orot Yisrael chapter 5, article 10 (p. 156).

[5] Derech Hayim on Avot, chapter 3, mishnah 17.

[6] “On the Psychology of the Unconscious” (1912). In Collected Writings,  Vol. 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, p. 35.


* though … wrong: prob. rdg; Heb. obscure.

* to confront him: Heb. to stand at his right hand.

* hoarded wealth: or charge, cp. Acts 1:20.

* remembered: so Syriac; Heb. adds before the Lord.

[1] The Revised English Bible (Ps 109:title–20). (1996). Cambridge University Press.

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