Any rational discussion of the soul must begin by examining the soul's function rather than its nature. The belief that people have souls is inextricably tied to the existence of a Creator. As far as I know, no one has yet come forward and said that the soul evolved from lower species. If we have souls, then God clearly created us.
In a world that simply evolved, we have no reason to search for the purpose of life forms. Life exists not for a purpose, but merely because it managed to fight its way out of the primeval slime. But if we posit the existence of an Intelligent Creator, we must also assume that everything in creation has a purpose. The problem of purpose is the first difficulty we must face when we start thinking about the soul.
Function without awareness?
We human beings are not conscious of our souls in the way we are conscious of our bodies. The reason that there is a heated controversy over whether human beings have a soul at all is due to the fact that no one has ever seen or met a soul. No one can point to their soul as they can to their body and declare, "You see, or feel, there it is!" No doubt the soul can exist even if we are unconscious of it, but it is legitimate to ask, of what use is a soul that you are not conscious of? What can it do for you? What is its purpose?
Perhaps the believers among you will protest, "The purpose of the soul is obvious! The body is mortal. When we die it returns to the dust. We need to have souls so that we can survive death. After we die, it is our souls that enter Gan Eden, the World to Come; our bodies rot in the earth."
But is this really a satisfactory answer? How can a faculty of which you are entirely unconscious in life possibly represent you in death? Your soul plays no obvious part in your earthly life. There is something profoundly unsatisfying in basing your eternal existence on this totally unknown part of yourself. Isn't the whole idea of reward based on the survival of what we call the self? In what sense is your soul really you? How could it have your memories, share your relationships, and have your personality when it didn't participate in your conscious life at all and simply lay there dormant? It would seem that your identity disappears when you die even if your soul survives.
To sum up the difficulty: The soul is the only part of us that survives death; our eternity is experienced through our souls. Yet our souls do not seem to have any relationship with our personality, as they are not part of our living consciousness.
As is often the case in Torah study, properly stating the question takes you at least half way to the answer. Jewish tradition teaches that this lack of consciousness about our souls is precisely the reason that God needed to give us the Torah! Because we have no direct experience of our souls, there is no way for us to practically discover the soul's needs -- what sorts of activities make the soul sickly and weak, the inputs it requires to be healthy and strong, what sort of things will injure it or even destroy parts of it.
The soul's instruction manual
The Torah was given to teach us how to conduct our lives properly and wisely as souls, rather than bodies.
In short, the Torah was given to teach us how to conduct our lives properly and wisely as souls, rather than bodies. When it comes to our bodies, we are able to discover all the phenomena that pertain to physical well being through experimentation and experience. Most people know an enormous amount about the things that affect their bodies without having to glean this information from books or learn it in school. The knowledge of our bodies feels like a natural part of our consciousness.
The Supreme Designer, who is aware of our limitations, and knows that we cannot possibly learn the ways of the soul through our earthly experience, was forced to inform us about our souls in a book. He was forced to give us the Torah to instruct us how to behave as spiritual beings.
But how can we comprehend the application of the physical states of health and sickness to the soul, which is a spiritual entity?
Rewards and punishments -- pleasure and pain
The Torah is based on the idea of free will and the consequences of reward and punishment that attach to freely chosen actions. It is the soul that survives death, not the body. The body dies and disintegrates, and it cannot serve as the recipient of reward or punishment. [We shall see in future lessons that this is only partially true, but we need a lot more information before we can appreciate why not.] Consequently, as the Torah teaches that reward and punishment are what life after death is all about, it has to be the soul that will be rewarded and punished. If so, the soul must be capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.
Physical pain and pleasure are always related to states of the body; vigor and health produce sensations of pleasure, whereas sickness and injury are accompanied by pain. In the same way, spiritual pain and pleasure must be related to the well being or sickness of the soul. The soul that is vigorous and healthy will experience spiritual pleasure, while the soul that is ill or injured will experience spiritual pain. If the afterlife is about reward and punishment as the Torah claims, and it is the soul that will be rewarded and/or punished, the quality of one's after life turns out to depend on the state of health of one's soul.
Health + positive stimulation = pleasure
Following this line of thought to its logical conclusion leads us to a remarkable insight. Spiritual pleasure and pain operate under the same principles as physical pleasure and pain. In order for the body to experience pleasure it must be healthy, but you also need to supply it with external stimulation. To feel good or to feel pain, the body must undergo a sensory experience. This is true of the soul as well, except that we have to substitute spiritual experience for physical.
Many people imagine that life after death involves moving to a different world where we will be given a choice piece of real estate in return for our good deeds in this life. This concept of reward is based on a property model. The soul will be given things that are the spiritual equivalents of worldly wealth. But this cannot be all there is to the next world.
Wealth in our world is sought after because money can always be exchanged for pleasure-related experiences. Even the success and prestige of having money is related to the ability to translate the money into pleasure experiences. Money that cannot be exchanged for anything is an entirely worthless commodity. Wealth in the next world cannot be very different. If it cannot be exchanged for pleasurable spiritual experience, it won't do us much good.
Our souls are very much an integral part of our lives here in this world.
The mystery surrounding the role that our souls occupy in our lives is beginning to clear. Indeed, we need our souls in order to survive death. But our souls are not just foreign bodies that play no role in our earthly existence. Our souls are very much an integral part of our lives here in this world. If we dedicate ourselves to observing the 613 commandments of the Torah, which the Supreme Designer has defined as requirements for spiritual health, we will have invested a considerable amount of our life force into our souls. In fact we will have lived our earthly lives as if we were souls rather than bodies.
Affecting our souls
Our souls reflect the work we have put into them in the same manner as our bodies. They are definitely not the same at our deaths as they were at birth. They are either full of spiritual health and vigor, positively radiant from the enormous spiritual light cast by our good deeds, or they are sickly and injured, their light dimmed by the spiritual darkness generated by our transgressions.
Change in the spiritual state of our souls is constant throughout our lives, just as the physical state of our bodies is constantly changing. Spiritual experiences affect and alter our souls, just as physical experience changes our bodies. We are unconscious of the spiritual changes that take place within us while we are alive, because our physical bodies were designed to shelter us from sensitivity to the spiritual impact of our actions. This insensitivity to spiritual change was programmed into us to preserve our free will.
The World to Come
When we leave our bodies, we re-experience everything we have done in our lives, this time around spiritually, as souls. The quality of our eternity is very much a direct result of the alterations we ourselves have produced in our souls. Our entire eternity consists of experiencing what we have done spiritually instead of physically. There is no question that our sense of identity is fully retained. After all, we are only re-experiencing our own choices.
Life after death consists of nothing more than reliving our earthly experiences spiritually.
Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin (in his work Nefesh Hachaim, Gate 1,12) explains that this is the meaning of the Mishna in Pirke Avot (Ch.4,2) "the reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself, whereas the punishment of a transgression is the transgression itself." Life after death consists of nothing more than reliving our earthly experiences spiritually. If we have devoted ourselves to doing mitzvoth, we will experience the spiritual joy generated by our mitzvoth throughout eternity, whereas the pain of our transgressions will envelop us in a spiritual Hell full of pain and misery, the spiritual effects of our transgressions.
The Mishna (Sanhedrin 10,1) says all Jews have a portion to the World to Come, instead of in the World to Come. In Hebrew the word 'In' conveys the idea of being located within a place. Had the Mishna used 'In', this would imply that the World to Come is an actual place where all Jews will be transported after death. 'To' is used because the Mishna wants to teach us that we should regard the World To Come as a transformation of where we already are. We are already in the right place, so we had better get busy and turn it into a decent habitat for eternity. The World to Come is nothing more than the world we are in, except that it is experienced spiritually.
The spiritual aspects of Torah penalties
The Torah is a book that instructs us how to live as souls rather than bodies. Not only are its commandments to be viewed in this light, the consequences of transgressions recorded in the Torah should also be understood in a spiritual sense. Remember that we have no idea what can hurt or injure the soul. Tradition teaches that the Torah is attempting to convey the impact of our worldly deeds on the health and integrity of our souls through its list of penalties.
This helps to explain the Torah's inclusion of capital punishment for certain transgressions -- which can be difficult for the modern mind to relate to. If you do an act the Torah describes as a capital offence, you inflict a fatal illness on your soul. When a part of your soul dies, this means that there are aspects of spiritual experience that your soul will never be able to enjoy. The fatal spiritual illness caused by your transgression destroyed the spiritual sensitivity of a part of your soul. Without such sensitivity the taste of the spiritual experiences offered by the World to Come bring mental anguish in place of the intense joy experienced by healthy souls. Through the Torah's punishments, the Torah is attempting to point out the spiritual dangers of existence, just as we do our best to teach our children to avoid what is physically harmful and dangerous.
Fitting into reality
We must learn how to fit into spiritual reality just as we learn to fit into physical reality. In fact, fitting into spiritual reality is even more important as that is the reality in which we will spend our eternity. The Torah provides us with crucial information about our spiritual vulnerabilities.
The answer to our original question is now clear. Our souls play an enormous part in our physical lives even though we are not conscious of them. They experience everything that we experience. We can work directly on changing them, improving them, just as we change and improve our bodies.
Now that we have explained the point of having souls we must explain how our souls operate. For example, how can physical actions have an effect on spiritual entities? The subject of the next essay will concern the nature of the soul and attempt to answer these questions.
Next in the series: What do our souls look like?
See: The Soul - Part 2 The Soul - What Do Souls Look Like?