Q: Christian orthodoxy (small “o”) leaves one to assume that the human soul somehow comes into being at either conception or birth, depending on one’s viewpoint, and doesn’t seem to have much to say about the how, when and where of the soul’s origin. What else might Jewish tradition be able to tell me about the origins and manifestations of the human soul?
— From J in Pennsylvania
A: The single greatest misunderstanding about the Hebrew Bible is that it teaches that we have souls. It does not. Humans are created by God with what in Hebrew is called a nefesh, which is what God breathed into Adam that made him alive when he was just a lump of red earth. It is not a soul because it does not live beyond the death of the body. When the body dies, the nefesh dies. In the Hebrew Bible, when we die our nefesh dies as well, and our nefesh-less body returns to the earth. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
Having no idea of a separate and distinct soul caused many problems for biblical theology. Our rewards for obedience to God and our punishments for disobedience all had to happen in our lifetime. As the Book of Job shows, this is often untrue. Here in this life innocent people do suffer, and if God is powerful, just and good, that should not happen.
If you want definitive proof that the Hebrew Bible has no idea of souls, reread Job. When Job is suffering for no good reason, some friends visit him. Each offers an explanation of why Job, an innocent man, was suffering. Not one single visitor offers Job the explanation he needs. No one tells him that his soul will be rewarded for his righteousness in heaven. That explanation did not happen and could not happen until the year 333 BCE, when Aristotle taught a bunch of early rabbis about his ideas concerning matter and form.
Matter is the principle of potentiality and form is the principle of actuality. In the case of a sculpture of a horse, matter is like the clay and form is like the idea of a horse that a sculptor imposes on the clay. Matter is obviously material, but form is immaterial. Form is of the same essence as God, who is pure thought.
The rabbis of postbiblical Judaism in the Talmud immediately codified this Aristotelian dualism into the Jewish idea of guf (Hebrew for body) and neshama (Hebrew for soul). Matter and form became body and soul, and this new Aristotelian/rabbinic teaching entered Christianity — and later Islam — and is a central part of the theology of all three Abrahamic faiths.
With the new doctrine that our souls survive the grave, new explanations for theodicy could be formulated. Innocent people suffer on Earth because they are just clearing their accounts so that God can reward them completely in heaven. Wicked people who escape punishment for their sins in their lives are punished forever in hell after death. Body and soul put the goodness and justice of God back in order.
Now, as to your question about when the body is animated by the insertion of the soul into it: There is a dispute. The dominant theory is that the soul enters at conception. Some teach that the soul does not enter the fetus until 40 days after conception. All Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachings affirm that the fetus has a soul long before birth.
There is also an interesting and unresolved debate about reincarnation of the soul. This is the idea that souls are recycled; souls of dead people are freshened up and inserted into the bodies of fetuses and they live again. Other theories hold that our souls only get one trip through life and when the body dies, the soul returns to God and is either absorbed by God or lives with God.
Hinduism believes in reincarnation as a way for the law of karma to be worked out over many generations of a soul’s journey to spiritual release (moksha). In order for the baby not to be burdened or bewildered by knowledge of its previous life, there is a legend that just before birth an angel taps the baby on the upper lip and leaves an indentation that causes the child to forget his or her previous life. Who knows? I like the idea of forgetting previous lives. Having a baby emerge from the birth canal, look around and say, “How y’all doin’?” would be just too odd for me.
In sum, we are clay and we are pieces of God. On days you are depressed, remember you are a piece of God. On days you think you are God’s gift to the world, remember that you are basically just mud with fingernails.