This is the fourth installment in the series of essays on the nature of the soul. The first three installments can be found here:

What Is a Soul? I. The Spiritual vs. the Materia

What Is a Soul? II. Anatomy of the Soul

What is a Soul? III. The Many Souls of Man

At the dawn of classical philosophy, there were two leading schools of thought: holism and atomism. Holism holds that a system (e.g., physical, chemical, biological, social) should be viewed as a whole rather than a collection of parts. Atomism, by contrast, holds the reductionist view that every system is a collection of parts, and the system can only be known by studying its parts.

Holism[1] essentially stands for the proposition that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As a philosophical doctrine, holism originated in ancient Greece. The first known philosopher to espouse holism was Parmenides,[2] who maintained that the world is a changeless unity.

Atomism[3] takes the diametrically opposed view. Conceived by Leucippus[4] and Democritus[5] in response and opposition to the holism of Parmenides, atomism holds that the universe is made of indivisible and indestructible atoms and all change is a mere rearrangement of such atoms. Atomists divide things into their constituent elements and study those elements. Those elements, in turn, are divided into even smaller elements and so on. Essentially, the reductionist approach pursues the knowledge of the whole through studying its parts.

Unlike in Ancient Greek philosophy, in which they are at odds, holism and atomism harmoniously coexist in Jewish tradition in the form of klal u’prat (“general and particular”) duality. Jewish thought takes the view that whole and part are two sides of the same coin.

In fact, one of the principal methods of Biblical hermeneutics is the dichotomy of klal (“general”) and prat (“particular”). Everything is analyzed on the level of minute detail, as well as how these details fit into the bigger picture. The dichotomy between the klal and the prat presents two modes of Torah interpretation. The ideal way to learn Torah is to start with the klal, to absorb the sense of unity and G‑dliness of the Torah, then to proceed to the prat, whereby over time, one can develop Torah study skills, such as the hairsplitting style of Talmudic argumentation and the ability to derive details from first principles. Only then can one return to appreciate the klal (general) on a completely different level―integrating the details into a cohesive whole and rediscovering the underlying unity in all its intricacies and specifics. This dichotomy was symbolized by the two trees planted in the Garden of Eden—the Tree of Life (representing the principle of klal) and the Tree of Knowledge (representing prat).[6]

In modern times, science took on the reductionist approach to studying nature—and with great success. On the other hand, holism was resurrected by Spinoza, who held that all variety we observe in the world is but a manifestation of the underlying unity of G‑d, which he identified with Nature.[7] Hegel likewise espoused a holistic view of reality.

While atomism triumphed over holism due to the incredible success of science with its reductionist approach, holists may still have the last laugh. Quantum theory with its wave-particle duality and quantum field theory, which regards subatomic particles as excitations of quantum fields, is the ultimate triumph of holism.

In biology, the soul-body duality is a particular case of the klal-prat duality. The body comprises many parts—limbs, organs, tissues, systems, and cells. Even individual cells are made of parts. What keeps them all together? What is the organizing principle? Classical philosophers and theologians saw the soul as the answer. The soul, in this view, is the whole keeping together all working parts of the live organism—the organizing principle of every living organism.

In the philosophy of holism, a “holon” is something that is a whole in and of itself and, at the same time, a part of a greater whole. For example, a person is a holon because, on the one hand, he is a whole person, an individual, and, on the other hand, as a citizen, she is but a part of society, a group of individuals. In other words, a holon is a subsystem within a larger hierarchical system. From this point of view, each of the five souls we discussed earlier is a holon, as it is a complete soul and, at the same time, a part of a person having a body and five souls. Similarly, every level of the soul—nefesh, ru’ach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah—is a holon. Each of these levels is a complete unit of the soul, which may or may not reveal itself in a person or reincarnate into another body. Yet, it remains a level—a part—of one whole soul (whichever of the five souls) within one whole person.

Today’s scientists are quick to dismiss the soul as a superfluous and outdated idea. The almost unanimous rejection of the soul concept in contemporary science is motivated by several factors. Chief among them is the nexus between the notion of the soul and religion. Cosmologists would rather believe in a fantastical multiverse, just to avoid the fine-tuning problem that may lead to the admission of a Creator. So too, biologists deny the existence of the soul, so as not to open the door to religious beliefs. This attitude is highly lamentable and, at its core, unscientific—should not science seek truth wherever it may lead us?[8]

By dismissing the soul, science leaves important questions unanswered. One such question is the continuity of self-identity. We know that individual cells usually live a shorter span than an organism’s life. Individual cells die; they are replaced by new cells, while the organism continues, oblivious to this cell turnover. Let us take a human organism, for example. People are born, grow into adulthood, and age, while maintaining the continuity of their selfhood. In the meantime, most cells die and are replaced by new cells. The human body is made up of  200 known cell types, organized into four primary tissue types: epithelia, connective tissue, muscle, and nervous tissue. The lifespan of each tissue type varies considerably. Individual cells of skin tissue live an average of twenty-four hours—the whole epidermis changes during each ten- to thirty-day period. Five to ten percent of the heart is replaced each year.[9] Only brain neurons and eye lens cells last a lifetime.

If the individual cells in the body change so rapidly, what maintains the continuity of selfhood? How does one maintain that one is the same person as, say, thirty or sixty years ago, when the vast majority of cells in one’s body have died and been replaced many times over? One approach is to say that memories reside in the brain and, since brain neurons last a lifetime, memories of our prior selves (autobiographical memory) maintain a perception of continuity. The counter-argument is that a person cannot be identified solely with brain cells or memories. Even when memory fades away in older adults with dementia, they may no longer recognize people around them, but they never question their personal identity. In any event, everyone else still perceives such an individual as the same person he or she was decades previously. Similarly, a pet that is not endowed with consciousness or a sense of self is nevertheless perceived by its owner as the same animal over a period of time, despite most cells in the animal’s body having been replaced.  

What is that identity factor that remains the same, despite the changing body? Many philosophers and theologians believed that the soul is the unifying factor endowing an organism with its identity. I would take it a step further and propose to define the soul (in this installment, by the soul, we mean the Animal Soul or the Natural Soul) as the time-invariant of the living organism as a whole.[10] In other words, it is the timeless identity of each living organism. Perhaps this is why Kabbalah maintains that there is a strong connection between a person’s name and his or her soul because we tend to identify people by their names—a name, like a soul, is the timeless identity of the person.

The soul not only gives a timeless identity—selfhood—to every living organism, it is also the organizing principle that keeps various organs and systems of the body—all of the cells within the organism—working together. This is no trivial task. We can ask this question regarding any multicellular organism—what keeps all cells in a multicellular organism together? Shouldn’t cells compete with each other for resources—oxygen, energy, nutrients? Instead, cells share resources and cooperate. Some cells manifest the ultimate altruism and, if damaged (say, by oxidative stress), commit suicide—cellular apoptosis—for the sake of the whole organism’s health. What makes cells cooperate instead of competing with each other? Classical philosophers saw the soul as the ultimate organizing principle keeping the live organism together. This is the philosophy of holism—the whole is greater than the sum of part, and the wholeness aspect of a living organism is called the soul.

Furthermore, as soon as a cell is fertilized, it possesses a complete genome of the future organism. The first few divisions of the zygote produce identical cells with no differentiation. But then, something happens, and, in subsequent divisions, cells begin to differentiate. Some cells develop into bones, others into nerves, and yet others into muscles. Organs begive to form. We have little understanding of how or why this happens. We have no clue why particular cells develop into specific organs, which take a specific shape and specific size. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, morphogenesis is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It seems as if cells multiply until they fill the “space” allotted for that specific organ—and then they stop multiplying once the organ is formed. Perhaps, the soul provides the template for how the organism is supposed to be formed or the “mold” filled by the physical cells. The cells divide as much as necessary to fill the mold, and then they stop. Granted, this is not a scientific description but a metaphor.[11] Is there any truth in it? The Kabbalists certainly thought so.

From the point of view of Kabbalah, the physical body indeed fills the “mold”[12] provided for it by the soul and its sefirotic skeleton. This tradition is not surprising in view of the biblical account of the first humans created in G‑d’s image—Tzelem Elokim (Imago Dei). This notion is repeated several times at the beginning of the Torah:

And G‑d said: “Let us make man in our image (b’tsalmeinu), after our likeness (kidmuteinu); and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ And G‑d created man in His image, in the image of G‑d (b’tzelem Elokim) He created him, male and female created He them.

Genesis 1:26-27

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that G‑d created man, in the likeness of G‑d (bidmut Elokim) made He him.

Genesis 5:1

Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of G‑d (b’tzelem Elokim) made He man.

Genesis 9:6

Jewish sages, including Sa’adia Gaon[13] and Maimonides, stressed time and again that G‑d has no image or likeness and that such expressions as “in the image of G‑d” or “in G‑d’s likeness” must be understood allegorically. Some saw these expressions in the sense of glorifying humanity as the crown of creation, as no other creatures were said to have been created in the image of G‑d. Others saw in these verses a statement that humans are the only ones endowed with sapience.[14] Yet others saw in these words the statement that humans are the only beings who, like G‑d, possess freedom of choice. The sages of Kabbalah, however, insisted that the expression Tzelem Elokim “(“Image of G‑d”) means that the morphology of the human body follows the structure of divine emanations—the sefirot.

Thus, according to Kabbalah, the human body is a physical representation of the sefirotic tree:

ChokhmahWisdomThe right hemisphere of the brainBrain
BinahUnderstandingThe left hemisphere of the brainHeart
Da’at (quasi-sefirah)KnowledgeMidbrain/brainstemEmotions
ChesedKindnessThe right arm/five fingers of the right handRight lung
GevurahSeverity/discipline/mightThe left arm/five fingers of the left handLeft lung
TiferetHarmony/beautyThe upper TorsoHeart
NetzachVictory/eternity/enduranceThe right legRight kidney
HodSplendor/humilityThe left legLeft kidney
YesodFoundation/connectionMale reproductive organMale reproductive organ
Table 1. Sefirot Reflected in the Human Body

Ancient books of Kabbalah use the anthropomorphic depiction of the sefirot in a configuration called ish (“man”):

Sefirotic Configuration Ish—“Man” from Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia (in Russian)

This sefirotic structure of the soul is believed to provide the “mold” for the physical body. How such a spiritual (that is, not-material) mold can shape the morphology of the material body remains a mystery.[15] We shall address this mystery below.

The soul has another function—that of a master conductor. Every living cell, every organ, every system,  has its biological clock. All systems—all physiological and metabolic processes—have a rhythm. If each of these cells, organs, and systems were marching to its own beat, the result would be the opposite of life. In reality, every living organism is akin to a symphony orchestra, in which each player plays to the same rhythm, set by the orchestra’s conductor.

A good example of this is the brain. Made of almost a hundred billion neurons, the brain remains remarkably synchronized. Each neuron fires periodically at its own frequency. Groupings of neurons communicating with each other oscillate at a common frequency. These groups of neurons oscillating at a certain frequency produce brain waves that we can detect with an electroencephalograph. While some think that brainwaves are mere byproducts of neuronal oscillations, others (myself included) believe that brainwaves play an important role in synchronizing distant areas of the brain with each other. We know that certain processes, such as the wake-sleep cycle, are driven by the circadian rhythm of twenty-four hours. Other processes have shorter or longer cycles. We don’t understand what keeps all these cells working in unison. It is not unreasonable to assume that the soul serves as a master conductor of every living organism. Recall that the soul itself has an intrinsic rhythm—the rhythm of ratzo v’shov (running and returning).

To summarize, the soul is an overarching organizing principle of every living organism Specifically:

  • The soul keeps individual cells together in every multicellular organism;
  • The soul provides the spiritual “mold”—Tzelem Elokim—that the body fills as it develops;
  • The soul synchronizes all cells in a living organism to a master rhythm; and
  • The soul is the timeless identity—the self—of a living organism.

These ideas, while sounding good on a metaphysical level, beg the question: yes, but how? How exactly does the soul keep individual cells together? How exactly does the soul affect the morphology of the body? How exactly does the soul synchronize all biological clocks in the organism? And what is the significance of the soul as the time-invariant of the living organism? The inability of philosophers and theologians to provide rational and defensible answers to these questions led to the wholesale dismissal of the soul idea by the scientific community.

I do not presume to have the answers to these questions. However, I would like to sketch out an outline of a principle that may ultimately lead to answers.

Beneath the questions we asked above, one fundamental question is at the core of the issue: How can the non-material soul couple (that is, interact) with the material body? Indeed, the body and the soul are two distinct ontological entities. Moreover, they are two opposites—if the body is material, the soul is not material! Earlier, we defined spiritual as “not material.” Thus, one is the negation of the other. The non-material soul negates its material counterpart—the body. How then can the non-material soul interact with the material body?

The Talmudic analogy between the soul-body relationship and the relationship between G‑d and the world may point the way towards the answer. While G‑d’s essence is unknowable, we know G‑d as the Creator. However, Creator and creations are opposites. Moreover, referring to the Creator, the Torah says:

Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the Eternal, He is G‑d; there is none else beside Him.

Deuteronomy 4:35

The simple meaning of the Hebrew phrase Ein od milvado (“there is none else besides Him!”) is that there is no other deity besides Him. However, the deeper meaning, emphasized by the philosophy of Chabad, is that there is nothing else besides Him whatsoever—only G‑d exists, and thus, the Creator negates all else, including His creations.

On the other hand, any creation senses[16] its own self (without which, existence is impossible), which by definition appears to deny G‑d, at least in some small measure. Thus, creations, by virtue of their very existence, seem to deny their Creator. If G‑d and creation are two opposites, where one is the negation of the other, how can G‑d interact with the world? How can He affect His providence on His creations?

The Chasidic philosophy of Chabad,[17] based on the earlier teachings of Kabbalah, gives the following answer. G‑d relates to His creation via a paradoxical process—mati velo mati—that is, “it reaches, but it does not reach.” This expression, mati velo mati, is used by Rashi to explain the verse in Deuteronomy where the mother eagle is hovering over her chicks:

As an eagle that stirreth up her nest, hovereth over her young…”

Deuteronomy 32:11

The Hebrew word for “hovering” used in this verse is yirachef. Rashi explains it as “touching and not touching”—mati velo mati. The mother eagle is hovering close enough to her chicks to feed and protect them but not so close as to crush them. This is an expression of parental love. A similar word appears at the very beginning of the Torah describing the creation of the word:

Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G‑d hovered over the face of the waters”.

Genesis 1:2

The word for “hovered” used in this verse is merachefet, which shares the same root as yirachef used in Deuteronomy. We see from this juxtaposition that the notion of mati velo mati played a key role in creating the world. As the mother-eagle, our Creator is “hovering,” as it were, over the world He created, touching and not touching it—mati velo mati. [18]

A similar expression found in Kabbalistic and Chasidic sources is hispashtut v’histalkut—spreading and withdrawing or expansion and contraction.[19]

It may be hard to imagine how Creator can affect the physical world by “reaching but not reaching it.” To aid our understanding, two examples from physics may be helpful. The first example involves the phenomenon of resonance. Imagine standing in front of an organ in a concert hall, wondering which organ pipe corresponds to which note. All you need to do is sing that note, and the pipe corresponding to that note will sing back. This is the result of acoustic resonance. You don’t need to touch the pipe to make it sing—you can do it at a distance. The second example is electric induction. One can bring a charged object near a neutral object and remotely induce an electrostatic charge of the opposite sign. Granted, in both of these examples, there is a medium allowing for the exchange of energy—air that conducts sound waves in the first example and the electromagnetic field in the second. These examples cannot serve as models but only as didactic metaphors.

There is no “medium” of any kind between the material and not-material. This presents a challenge in constructing a model of interaction in the mode of mati velo mati. However, there is no energy (in the physical sense) exchange between the spiritual and the material—energy is a physical quantity not present in the spiritual (non-physical) domain. Thus, what can be transmitted or exchanged is only information, because information is the only thing we know of that exists in both physical and non-physical domains. If only we could find an example of two objects not connected physically that can share information!

Wait, there is just such an example—the quantum entanglement, of course. Two entangled particles disconnected physically are described by the same wave function; they constitute one system and share information. We, therefore, can discover information about one particle by interrogating the other particle, no matter how far away the other particle is. It is easy to see that G‑d and the world He created must be “entangled” and therefore share information.

Soul-body duality is a microcosm reflecting the dynamic of G‑d’s interaction with the created world. Usually, when it comes to the soul, we speak of ratzo v’shov—running and returning. The soul’s ratzo v’shov is the soul’s reaction to Creator’s mati velo mati—reaching and not reaching. However, ratzo v’shov is the soul’s movement to and from its Creator. Vis-à-vis the body, it appears to me that the soul acts in the mode of mati velo mati and hispashtut v’histalkut. I believe that the soul and the body are entangled and interact by sharing information via their wave function. It is possible to define such a wave function in the Hilbert space defined by Sefer Yetzirah. But more on this in future installments.

The mati velo mati “oscillation” is the ultimate source of time.[20] Time is synonymous with “existence,” as nothing exists outside time. For a biological organism, existence is life, and therefore time is synonymous with life. Thus, it is not surprising that the soul infuses life into the body with which it is entangled. The soul, with its never-ending oscillations of reaching and not reaching, orchestrates the countless rhythms of the symphony of life.


[1] From the Greek word holos (“whole”).

[2] Parmenides of Elea (b. c. 515 and flourished c. 475 BCE)—one of the most significant pre-Socratic philosophers, who is considered the founder of ontology and metaphysics. In his poem On Truth, Parmenides wrote, “All is One. Nor is it divisible, wherefore it is wholly continuous” (B 8.5).

[3] From Greek atomon (“uncuttable, indivisible”).

[4] Leucippus (5th century BCE), a pre-Socratic philosopher who was the founder of atomism and the teacher of Democritus.

[5] Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BC)—a significant pre-Socratic philosopher who formulated the atomic theory of the universe based on the ideas of his teacher, Leucippus.

[6] See my essay, “Abel and Cain Conflict—Wave-Particle Duality.”

[7] This is the credo of the philosophy of pantheism. Despite a popular opinion to the contrary, Spinoza did not contradict Judaism in identifying G‑d with nature. Indeed, teva (“nature”) is seen in Kabbalah as the manifestation of the divine name Elokim, whose numerical value (86) is the same as ha-teva (“the nature”). Where Spinoza diverges from Judaism is in his denial of the transcendental nature of G‑d, as expressed in the divine name Havayah (Tetragrammaton).

[8] Nevertheless, two other motivating factors for scientists ignoring the soul are legitimate: (1) science studies nature, whereas the soul is not material but rather supernatural, which is not the domain of science; and (2) the soul is ill-defined and unmeasurable and therefore not amenable to scientific investigation.

[9] Here are some more examples: The small intestine epithelium is turned over every two to four days. Blood neutrophils are turned over from one to five days. White blood cells are turned over from two to five days. Lung alveoli are changed every eight days, blood platelets and tongue taste buds are turned over every ten days. Osteoclast cells live on average ten days. Red blood cells are turned over every four months. Every year, ten percent of our skeleton in replaced with new cells. Cells lining the stomach live for two to nine days. Liver cells completely turn over every six months to a year. Fat tissue is replaced over an eight-year period.

[10] The time invariance of the soul is a manifestation of time symmetry that, according to Noether’s Theorem, leans to energy conservation laws. However, this is not the familiar physical energy but a spiritual energy of the soul, which must be defined in abstract conceptual space.

[11] Morphogenic field theories were popular in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The best known such theory was proposed by Russian-Jewish biologist Alexander G. Gurwitsch (Gurvich) (1874-1954), who developed a vector field theory ostensibly regulating ontogeny in a holistic way (see, A. G. Gurvich, Teoriya biologicheskogo polya (“Biological Field Theory”), (Sov. Nauka, Moscow 1944). While these ideas still linger on the fringes of biology, they never gained wide acceptance. I do not claim here that the soul is some physical field regulating morphogenesis. The soul is not material and cannot be represented as a physical field.

[12] This “mold” is, of course, not material. The Kabbalah teaches that the soul interacts with the body. However, the details of this interaction—how exactly it happens—remain a mystery. Thus, the idea of the body filling the mold outlined for it by the soul remains a metaphysical idea, not a scientific one.

[13] Rav Sa’adia ben Yosef Gaon (882/892 – 942), one of the most important post-Talmudic rabbinic authorities (G’onim), prominent philosopher, and theologian. He lived in the Abbasid Caliphate, and served as the Gaon (abbreviated from of the title Rosh Yeshivat G’on Ya’akov, Head of the Academy [that is the] Pride of Jacob), or head, of the Academy of Sura. R. Sa’adia was an important biblical commentator, who translated Pentateuch and several other books of Tanach into Judeo-Arabic. He wrote on linguistics, halacha (Jewish ritual law), philosophy, and theology. The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Sefer Emunot v’Deot) was the first systematic attempt to integrate Jewish theology with some elements of ancient Greek philosophy. He was also a mystic who translated, and wrote a commentary on, Sefer Yetzirah.

[14] While some animals are believed to possess consciousness, none are suspected of having any notion of metacognition—an ability to ponder one’s own thoughts.

[15] The blessing one recited after relieving oneself concludes with the words, “Blessed art thou Lord who heals all flesh and performs wonders.” What wonders are referenced in this benediction? Rabbi Moses Isserles (known as the RaM”A) states that the wonders referenced in this blessing reference the miracle of connecting body and soul (Mapa (gloss) on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 6:1.

[16] Although, panpsychism is a feature of Kabbalah and Chasidic philosophy, here, there word “senses” does not necessarily assume some level of cognition in inanimate objects. It is axiomatic in Kabbalah that, as we go down the ontological chain of creation, Seder Hishtalshelut, the divine presence is gradually concealed to allow for creations to emerge. That is why the Hebrew word for “world”—olam—is cognate with the word helem (to “conceal”). Thus, as created worlds emerge, the Infinite light is concealed, allowing room for creation to exist without being subsumed within its source, thereby allowing for the illusion of independence from the Creator. The less a created being feels its dependence on the Creator, the more it “feels” its own self. This is not a conscious feeling but a state of the concealment of G‑dliness and the projection of self-independence.

[17] Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch (the Rebbe Rashab), Hemshech Yom Tov Shel Rosh HaShanah 5666 [CITE ma’amar or page number].

[18] See my essay “Cosmic Symphony,”, October 30th, 2019,

[19] Etz Chaim, Shaar Ha’Akudim (the Gate of Constraints). See also my essay, “On the Nature of Time and the Age of the Universe,” presented at the International Torah and Science Conference in Miami International University on December 18, 2005; published on on August 15th, 2012, retrieved December 14, 2021.

[20] This idea originates from the Zohar. In the Lurianic Kabbalah and philosophy of Chabad, it refers to the process of creation of kelim (vessels) with the divine light reaching to the reshimu (the “imprint” of the primordial light Ein Sof left after the first Tzimtzum—the initial contraction) and immediately retrieving from reshimu—”reaching and not reaching”—mati velo mati. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek, Derech Mitzvatekhah, v. II, ch. 12. See online, retrieved December 13, 2021.)

Printer Friendly