Belief in an eternal soul is a casualty of science — hard to take seriously, except as a metaphor suggesting what is deepest and most lasting about us. But devotion to metaphor is not all bad. We relate metaphorically to other entities also that may not be materially real but are not mere illusions.
Neither “mind” nor “conscience,” for example, shows up on CT scans or MRIs, but it is not nonsense to say, “We changed our mind” or “followed our conscience.” So too, we speak of “soul” when we want to do justice to the profundities of life.
How interesting, then, to read this week that Abraham (still Abram) left Haran with his wife Sarah (still Sarai), his nephew Lot, and the nefesh (“soul”) they had made. Even the rabbis refused to believe that Abraham actually made a soul! “If all human beings ever born collaborated on creating just the tiniest insect, they would still be unable to give it a nefesh,” says Midrash Rabbah. So nefesh, the midrash concludes, must mean “proselytes” they made.
But the word nefesh appears in the singular — it cannot be “converts” or “servants.” At least metaphorically, then, we should consider the possibility that Abraham and Sarah, our people’s forebears, created a “Jewish soul” that has animated Jewish life at its best ever since.
By “Jewish soul,” I mean no racist endowment peculiar to Jewish DNA. Indeed, the benefit of the traditional interpretation of nefesh as “converts” is the recognition that whatever the Jewish soul is, it is “made,” not “inherited”; and its makers include anyone identifying as a Jew and intent on accessing whatever it is that most deeply makes Jews what we are.
So what, most deeply, are we? What did Abraham tell all those Haranites to convince them to join some crazy journey to a land God would show them?
What he told them was just that God was inviting them on a journey toward a better life: not wealthier or easier, but better. All they had to do was follow the divine call.
So there’s the rub, another concept no one believes in any more: a divine call.
Here too, think metaphorically. “Calling” is the word we give to the intense conviction that we have just one life to lead and we should dedicate it to the finest strivings imaginable. God is, after all, by definition the source of our finest strivings. The human side of the equation is the willingness to take ourselves with utmost seriousness: “made in the image of God” — yet another metaphor connecting our highest instinct, “to matter,” with the source of all that matters in the first place.
We have come full circle: There is indeed a Jewish “soul”: the daring assertion that human beings can choose to matter, which is akin to being like God, and that we are therefore called by God to trade in what’s easy for what’s worthy.
This timeless Jewish conviction emerged with the earliest memories of Jewish peoplehood. What makes us who we are is the insistence that every generation is called to a land that only God can show us. The minute we abandon that call, the Jewish soul dies, and so too does any Judaism worth living.