The Scale of the Soul
Introduction to a New Cosmic Model for Kabbalistic Soul Psychology
Throughout the history of the Jewish esoteric tradition that culminates in the Kabbalah, humanity has been understood to play a pivotal role in the perfection of the cosmos, transforming its original emanations of ever more materialized individuality into such purification of identity as can finally unite the finite with the infinite in the perfection of divine personality. To explicate how humankind can be so centrally involved in the cosmic process, this tradition has developed complex theories of the multidimensional nature both of the human soul and of the cosmos, but it has not been as successful in integrating these two inseparable aspects of experienced reality. This chapter will attempt to synthesize the main traditions of Jewish esoteric cosmology as a framework for the following studies of the human soul and of the mechanisms of transformative spiritual work that, at each of its psycho-cosmological levels, can enable it to reach ever higher dimensions of consciousness.
Before turning to the complex subject of kabbalistic cosmology, we should briefly review the understanding of the soul appearing in the Zohar, the most important work of the Kabbalah, which surfaced in thirteenth-century Spain. This seminal work presents a theory of three soul levels based on the three words used in the Bible to signify the soul: nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. In a discussion of the afterlife, they are hierarchically arranged, “one within the other,” on the two levels of the lower and higher selves:
Three names has the soul of man: nefesh, ruah, neshamah. They are all comprised one within the other, yet they have three distinct abodes. Nefesh remains in the grave until the body is decomposed and turned into dust, during which time it flits about in this world. . . . Ruah enters the earthly Garden (of Eden) and there dons a likeness which is in the semblance of the body it tenanted in this world. . . . Neshamah ascends at once to her place, the region from whence she emanated, and for her sake the light is kindled to shine above. She never again descends to earth. In her is consummated the One who combines all sides, the upper and the lower. And as long as she has not ascended to be united with the Throne, the ruah cannot crown itself in the lower Garden, nor can the nefesh be at ease in its place. . . . Once this is accomplished, however, both the others are united each with its sphere; for all three are one, forming one whole, united in a mystical bond, according to the prototype above, in which nefesh, ruah, and neshamah constitute together one totality.1
The Nefesh is the lowest level and represents the birthright animal or vital soul that cannot by itself survive the decomposition of the body. The higher two levels are personal achievements of soul growth that can survive the disintegration of the vital soul after death, the Ruach apparently subject to the process of reincarnation, which the Kabbalah calls gilgul, while the Neshamah can retain its identity in the divine realm of spirit from which it emanated and, unlike the Ruach, “never again descends to earth.” Where the Neshamah is the divine element in the human soul, the Ruach represents the fully realized human level on which mankind is supposed to be functioning. Isaac Luria, who developed the most influential reformulation of the Zoharic Kabbalah in sixteenth-century Safed, then in Palestine, was later to stress this point. In the words of his foremost interpreter, Chayyim Vital: “for, as we know, it is the ruach that is called ‘human.’ Understand this well!”2 Not only is the Neshamah deemed necessary to complete the human soul and fulfill the potential of its lower levels, but it is also essential for the illumination of the higher realms from which it emanated, and, as we shall later see, its final unification with the Throne of Glory illuminates the very purpose of the cosmos.
To understand the important distinction here made between the Neshamah and the lower levels of the soul as well as the different structure of these Nefesh and Ruach levels, we should turn to the treatment of the soul in the Midrash ha-Ne’lam to Ruth, thought to be in the earliest stratum of the Zohar:3
The Holy One, blessed be He, gave two fine crowns to man, for him to use in this world, namely, nefesh and ruah . . . . the nefesh cannot survive in the body without being stimulated by the ruah, which rests above it.
When man begins to serve and worship his Creator with these two, he is stimulated by a holy stimulus from above, which rests upon man and surrounds him on every side. . . . And what is its name? Neshamah. The neshamah is a higher power than that which is called ruah, because the ruah was provided by the Holy One, blessed be He, for service in this world, while the neshamah always acts as a stimulus for service in the upper realms. . . .
Just as there is a ruah and a nefesh on the right-hand side, on the side of the good inclination, so there is a ruah and a nefesh on the left-hand side, on the side of the evil inclination.4