Can a Person be a Soul? - Neil N. Gillman | Closer to Truth

Can a Person be a Soul? - Neil N.Gillman

Neil N. Gillman - Theology and Religion

Neil N. Gillman

Neil Gillman is an American rabbi and philosopher, affiliated with Conservative Judaism.

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Neil N.
Gillman

Rabbi and Philosopher, Jewish Theological Seminary

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Neil, the common perception of Judaism, like Christianity, is that the teaching is that we are souls that have been united with our body, but the real me is an immortal soul. You teach that that's not true.

Neil Gillman:

That's Plato. That's great Greek philosophy, and Plato believed that we are made up of two different, you know...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Stuffs.

Neil Gillman:

Stuffs. There is the physical body, and there is, within the physical body, an imprisoned spiritual substance that was eternal from the beginning and is immortal, and that at death, that spiritual entity departs from the body, the body disintegrates, and the spiritual substance, the soul, the psyche, goes up to be with the world of Forms, the Platonic Forms.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Common perception of most Western religions today.

Neil Gillman:

Common perception, right. Yep. Well, one of my professors of philosophy at Columbia said that all of philosophy – I don't know if he said it or maybe I think... somebody said it – all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. So, Plato, you know, asked all of the important questions. That certainly is not the Jewish, or the biblical, certainly not the biblical point of view. Although everybody wants to read it back into Hebrew scriptures. The words nephesh, neshamah, ruach in the Bible...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Those are three Hebrew words...

Neil Gillman:

Three Hebrew words. Right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

...that are used to translate spirit or soul, or people have used that.

Neil Gillman:

They ended up meaning that, but largely post-biblically. In the Bible itself, they mean the living person. There's no sense in the Bible that I'm made up of these two different stuffs, I am one. And at creation, God, in the second chapter of Genesis, God breathed into this clod of earth, nishmat chayyim, the breath of life, and out of that, this first person became a living human being. Now and at death, that... what God did then was vivified the clod of earth. He didn't put anything into it, he vivified it, much like I guess – since I live in Manhattan, I don't drive a car, but I would imagine that when your battery dies out, you spark the battery into life by connecting it to some other battery. That's, but when the battery dies, nothing leaves the battery, right? There's no spiritual soul substance in the battery that leaves the body. The material dies, and I think that's the... that's the biblical view. And that the words neshamah, nephesh, in the Bible itself, means living people. Seventy people went into Egypt, right? [speaks Hebrew] doesn't mean 70 souls, it means 70 living people. And, and, and the last verse of the last psalm, [speaks Hebrew] does not mean all souls praise God. It means all living things praise God. So neshamah, nephesh signify a living, breathing entity. It also incidentally means the blood, [speaks Hebrew], which is what conveys life, which gives life. So, it's only in post-biblical times, when Jews began to read Greek literature, that this dualistic view of the human person developed, so that at death, they just bought Plato, right? The neshamah leaves the body and goes to be with God, and the body itself goes into the earth and is, deteriorates, disintegrates, and at the end of days, God will raise the body from the dust, reunite it with that person's soul, and the individual human being, reconstituted as he or she was on Earth, will come before God in judgment. But that's Talmudic, that's post-biblical.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, if we stick with the Bible...

Neil Gillman:

Stick with the Bible...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

What do we have? What do we have...

Neil Gillman:

What do we have? Death is final.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Death is final.

Neil Gillman:

Sorry.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, I'm coming to you to...

Neil Gillman:

Death is final.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I'd rather know the truth than to be happy.

Neil Gillman:

Only two biblical characters survive death. That's...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Enoch?

Neil Gillman:

Enoch and Elijah. And they...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

[crosstalk] enigmatic stories and brief stories, it's [crosstalk].

Neil Gillman:

Right. But each has legs, because Elijah then, in post-biblical Judaism, is all over the place. He comes back into our homes at the Passover Seder, he comes to every circumcision, he comes at the Shabbat.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

He's sitting here right now.

Neil Gillman:

He's sitting, right, and he's portrayed in the Bible as having conversations with the rabbis, he appears in the gates of Rome, and he goes back and forth. He talks to God, comes back and tells the rabbis what God is thinking, and then he goes back and tells God what people are thinking. You know, and Enoch, of course, has a whole [unintelligible] of literature around and around the personality of Enoch. So, these two, these are the only two people who survived, who just didn't die. It's not that they survived death, they just didn't die.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

They seemed to, yeah.

Neil Gillman:

They seemed not to have died. And of all the people who died, only Samuel is the one who is brought up from the pit for one brief moment...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Wasn't happy about it either.

Neil Gillman:

Wasn't happy and went, quickly went back down. But once you're dead, you're dead. And there is this notion of the fact that when you're dead you go to Sheol, which is not a very happy place, and there you don't really... there's no connection between people in the pit and God, or people in the pit with one another. They are there and it's not a happy place, and that's the end and that's death.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And that's an unconscious... seems to be an unconscious situation, or is that ambiguous? It's not a happy place, it's Sheol, but the human being is dead, and it's final, and it's not conscious.

Neil Gillman:

Yes, except... except that, you know, these are not clearly developed categories. If in fact people who are Sheol, in Sheol are dead-dead-dead, why does Samuel come back up for that brief shining moment and then goes back down again? So, it's not clear, but it's not a very happy place. There's only one other reference to what happens when you're dead, and that is you're gathered unto your kin, the patriarchs, for example. Now, that may be a reference to burial in a family plot. It's a more gentle kind. It's people who died a, you know, a better death. But almost everybody else goes to Sheol, and you're dead. And, so there's no real consistent theology of an afterlife throughout scripture, except in the book of Daniel, the 12th chapter of the book of Daniel, which is probably the latest stratum of literature to be canonized in the Hebrew scriptures, and which everybody dates clearly from the time of the Maccabees, which is about 155 BCE. And, and--

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Everybody other than the Orthodox tradition in...

Neil Gillman:

Sorry, yes.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

...in both Judaism and Christianity.

Neil Gillman:

Of course. There is... there is of course, in, then in Talmudic literature, an impulse to retroject the idea back into Hebrew scriptures, and there is all kinds of imagine-proof texts from Hebrew scripture to prove that in fact, the notion of resurrection was Torah-itic from the very beginning. But that's... that's the work of people who don't accept historical development. If you accept the fact that there is historical development in, in biblical religion, then you know, not everything was there at the beginning. But in Daniel, somewhere around the time of the Maccabees, you have this very, one very powerful verse, that many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awaken, some for eternal blessing and some for eternal damnation. And that's Daniel 12, verse 2. And there, the... the general, the conventional interpretation of that, and it's pretty unanimous – it's not completely unanimous, but it's just about unanimous – that there, this is a document written to attract people to the Maccabean cause. And people who were potentially volunteers to join the Maccabean cause in opposition to the Syrians said, why become martyrs if our death is final? And with what I've called incredible theological chutzpah, the author of Daniel sort of subverts the entire tradition and says not so. Many of those, not everybody, but many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awaken. That's clearly a reference to bodily resurrection. It can only... it's got nothing to do with souls, he doesn't care about souls. He cares about bodies, bodily resurrection. And they will... and the good guys will be blessed for eternity, the bad guys – namely those guys that joined the Greeks – they're going to be, they too will be resurrected for eternal damnation, okay? And that's where you stand somewhere around the middle of the 2nd century BC. That's the first hint of an afterlife in the Jewish tradition.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But in the Bible then there is no clear afterlife, and indeed there is the notion that death is death and death is final.

Neil Gillman:

Right, except in Daniel, and there the need to establish God's justice trumped the notion that there can be no afterlife. God's power over my destiny ends with my death. And if that is the case, then there's no way of establishing God's justice. And so, the need to establish God's justice trumped that, and suddenly you have a flowering of afterlife theologies, including souls.

Transcript

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Neil, the common perception of Judaism, like Christianity, is that the teaching is that we are souls that have been united with our body, but the real me is an immortal soul. You teach that that's not true.

Neil Gillman:

That's Plato. That's great Greek philosophy, and Plato believed that we are made up of two different, you know....

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Stuffs.

Neil Gillman:

Stuffs. There is the physical body, and there is, within the physical body, an imprisoned spiritual substance that was eternal from the beginning and is immortal, and at death, that spiritual entity departs from the body, the body disintegrates, and the spiritual substance, the soul, the psyche, goes up to be with the world of Forms, the Platonic Forms.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Common perception of most Western religions today.

Neil Gillman:

Common perception, right. Yep. That certainly is not the Jewish, or the biblical, certainly not the biblical point of view. Although everybody wants to read it back into Hebrew scriptures. The words nephesh, neshamah, ruach in the Bible...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Those are three Hebrew words that are used to...

Neil Gillman:

Three Hebrew words. Right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That are used to translate spirit or soul, or people have used that.

Neil Gillman:

They ended up meaning that, but largely post-biblically. In the Bible itself, they mean the living person. There's no sense in the Bible that I'm made up of these two different stuffs, I am one. And at creation, in the second chapter of Genesis, God breathed into this clod of earth, nishmat chayyim, the breath of life, and out of that, this first person became a living human being. What God did then was, was vivified the clod of earth. He didn't put anything into it, he vivified it. So, it's only in post-biblical times, when Jews began to read Greek literature, that this dualistic view of the human person developed so that at death, they just bought Plato, right? Then neshamah leaves the body and goes to be with God, and the body itself goes into the earth, deteriorates, disintegrates, and at the end of days, God will raise the body from the dust, reunite it with that person's soul, and the individual human being, reconstituted as he or she was on Earth, will come before God in judgment. But that's Talmudic, that's post-biblical.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So if we stick with the Bible...

Neil Gillman:

Stick with the Bible...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

What do we have? What is the human being?

Neil Gillman:

What do we have? Death is final.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Death is final.

Neil Gillman:

Sorry.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, I'm coming to you to...

Neil Gillman:

Death is final. Only two--

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I'd rather know the truth than to be happy.