The Candle Within

It would make a good Chelm story. The resident philosopher sagely announces that since he can’t perceive his own face directly he must not have one. Besides, as anyone can plainly see, what seems to be his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The thought is inspired by “materialist” psychologists, who lament the persistence of the idea of “dualism,” the belief that human beings possess both physical and spiritual components. “The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls are purely corporeal,” asserts Professor Paul Bloom of Yale, for example. “They emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

Another would-be re-educator of the backward masses is Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who advises us to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.”

Or, as they might say back at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the latter must define the former.

Sometimes, though, deep intuitions are right and interpretations of evidence (or the lack of it) wrong. And scientists, as the noted British psychologist H. J. Eyesenck famously observed, can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”

Were the contemporary dualism debate merely academic, we might just ignore it. Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness – the ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of formidable import.

Negating the concept of a soul – what makes human beings special and requires us to take responsibility for our choices – yields deep repercussions in broader society. It bears impact on a slew of contemporary social issues, from animal rights to abortion; from marriage’s meaning to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human soul, there is nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from casually terminating a yet-unborn life or a life no longer “useful”; no reason to consider any way of life less proper than any other. Neither would we be justified to consider any insect our inferior, nor bound to any ethical or moral system. Put succinctly, a society that denies the soul-idea is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.

The game’s zero-sum: Either we humans are qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, sublimated by our souls and the responsibilities that attend them; or we are not. A soul-denying world might craft a utilitarian social contract. But right and wrong there could have no true meaning at all.

The materialist notion is not novel. De-spiritualizers of humanity’s essence served as the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

But the first “materialists” may have been the ancient Greeks, who placed capricious gods on the pedestal where, today, professors lay gray matter.

Hellas celebrated the physical world. The ancient Greeks developed geometry, calculated the earth’s circumference, proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system and focused attention on the human being, too, but only as a physical specimen.

Accordingly, much of Hellenist thought revolved around the idea that the enjoyment of life was the most worthwhile goal of man. The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

And so it followed almost logically that the culture that was Greece saw the Jewish fixation on the divine as an affront. The Sabbath denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; circumcision implied that the body is imperfect; the Jewish calendar imparted holiness where there is only mundane periodicity; and modesty or any sort of limits on indulgence in physical pleasure were unnatural.

The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings, evidencing the basest of inclinations. And when Hellenist philosophers spoke of the “soul,” they referred only to what we would call the personality or intellect. The idea of a self that can make meaningful choices and merit eternal reward was indigestible to the Greek world-view.

As indispensable as it is to the Jewish one, which insists that humans are unique within creation, and that we are charged with living special lives; that our souls are eternal and that what we do makes a difference.

Chanukah celebrates the crucial difference between the ideals that embodied Hellenism and those that animate the Jewish people.

In recent years it has become fashionable among the ignorant to dismiss Chanukah as a “minor” festival on the Jewish calendar. Anyone familiar with the centuries-old and voluminous mystical, conceptual and halachic Chanukah literature knows better

The Hellenism/Judaism philosophical battle continues to this day and its stakes are high. Gazing at the Chanukah candles this year, we might want to recall the words (Proverbs, 20:27) of King Solomon, the wisest of all men: “A flame of G-d is the soul of man.”


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended. A longer version of this essay was distributed in 2004.

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10 Responses

  1. Nathan says:

    Science does not deal with spiritual matters such as:
    the soul, the afterlife, good versus evil or G_d.

    Since these matters are beyond the scope of Science, there is no logic in attempting to explain them scientifically.

  2. dr. bill says:

    I do not invest too much in criticizing Pinker; if he is proven more insightful over time I would not really be disturbed. We are created betzelem elokim; what that might mean precisely as long as i have effective free will and stand in relation to God is of secondary consequence. I know it would force major parts of our literature to be read more allegorically, but frankly some of the literalism that people assume is equally troubling.

    Many aspects of Greek philosophy, particularly their non-linear and mechanistic view of history were an anathema to chazal. But some aspects had redeeming value then and certainly in medieval times. There are many medrashei chazal that are less categorical and in fact quite complimentary.

    We tend to equate Greek values with those of the Syrian Greeks who were the protagonists in the Chanukah story. They were to Greece somewhat like Reform Jews are to the Orthodox; same general family but different values and behavior. Remember Rambam addresses Aristotle reverentially.

  3. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    There is nothing so inconceivable as that matter should be conscious of itself – Blaise Pascal

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Dr. Bill,

    Do we have evidence that the typical Syrian Greek held views different from those of the typical Greek back in Greece? Possibly, Aristotle and his circle were an exception to the rule in some respects.

  5. Phil says:

    Concerning the comment by Nathan, above:
    True, these matters are beyond the scope of science, but they are not beyond the scope of science to determine how these matters came to be believed. Then again, I think science is at its weakest in trying to do so.

  6. dr. bill says:

    Bob Miller, I cannot answer your question directly; it suffices to say that Aristotle was hardly an exception. Greece was the source for much of civilization’s mathematics, astronomy, etc. as well as multiple philosophic and literary schools; the Seleucids were not.

  7. Jonathan Mayer says:

    This should be of particular interest to former editor of the Jewish Observer, Rabbi Rosenblum.

    Mishpacha Magazine got an exclusive interview with the YU rosh yeshiva Rav Herschel Schachter’s and is running a cover feature on his views on Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik of Boston.

    The fact that a charedi magazine is running this has caused great excitement in the Modern Orthodox community. They see it as bridging the rift between them and the charedim. Since the Jewish Observer ran a very negative obituary on RJB Soloveitchik after his passing in 1993, there existed a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the two Orthodox camps.

    The Mishpacha article is truly groundbreaking and sensational.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Dr. Bill,

    What about my main question about your assertion that Syrian Greeks had different values: “Do we have evidence that the typical Syrian Greek held views different from those of the typical Greek back in Greece?”

    The Seleucids did not need to innovate in philosophy, etc.; the heavy lifting had been done before Alexander and his men set off to build his empire.

  9. dr. bill says:

    Bob Miller, Sorry, i know nothing of the man in the street or the political leaders in either greece or syria. I only want to make sure Yavan is not completely characterized by their seleucid tribe. chazal, our intellectual elite, interacted more with their chochmah ( filtering, rejecting and accepting) than their people or midot.

  10. Ori says:

    It’s really hard to generalize about the Greeks. In many ways they were the most culturally creative people of the ancient world, and therefore the most diverse.

    However, it is definitely not true that they only thought about the physical world. Geometry existed before them as a practical discipline, to measure fields(1). They abstracted it and, AFAIK, invented the concept of a mathematical proof. Plato believed that the physical world is just the shadow of a realer world of what we now call “platonic forms”. Plato and Euclid’s books were acquired by a lot of people, evidence that there were many Greeks who thought them relevant.

    Of course they thought Judaism was crazy. Try to imagine hearing about it for the first time as an adult, having grown up with no divine revelation beyond fairly horrific fairy tales. Wouldn’t you think the same?

    (1) That’s what the term literally means. “Geo” is earth, “metr” means to measure, as in the common length unit.

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