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I don’t think
that people need to believe that a soul exists.
The currently-used Hebrew word for soul is nefesh. Nefesh is in the Torah, but it does not mean
soul in Scripture. It means “a person” or “life force.” Thus when Leviticus 2:1
speaks of a nefesh bringing an offering, it does not infer that a
sacrifice is magically conveyed by the inner non-body part of a person. The
sacrifice is offered by a person. The Torah also does not speak about life
The popular concept of the existence of a “soul” that survives the death of a person’s body
and lives on for eternity, was taken from ancient pagan cultures and the Greek
philosopher Plato (428 or 427-348 or 347 BCE).
In his Apology, Plato describes his teacher Socrates discussing
death just before he died. Socrates said that there are two possibilities:
either there is nothingness after death or “as people say, a change and
migration of the soul from this to another place.” Plato seems to believe the
second because he has Socrates say that people “must bear in mind this one
truth, that no evil can come to a good man either in life or after death, and
God does not neglect him.”
Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Plato’s student, rejected this notion. Aristotle defined “soul” as the
life force that makes it possible for something to live. In humans, the soul is
comprised of five systems: the nutritive, the appetitive (desires and
passions), senses, locomotion, and thinking. Since they are alive, plants and
animals also have souls, but not all five parts. Plants only have the nutritive
part of the soul. Animals have four of the five, and lack thinking. Aristotle
stated that the “mind” or “intellect,” like all matter, cannot be destroyed and
it continues to exist after the body dies, but he is unclear what happens to it.
Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) rejected Plato’s notion and accepted Aristotle’s view. In his
introduction to Mishnah Pirkei Avot, Maimonides uses the word “soul,”
but like the Hebrew Bible and Aristotle, he defines the human “soul” as the
life force comprised of five elements.
In his introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin,
called Chelek, Maimonides wrote, like Aristotle, that only the intellect
survives death. He wrote that a person’s intellect joins the “active
intellect,” a force that many philosophers of his time believed existed near
the moon. Since today’s science rejects the notion of an active intellect, we
have no idea what Maimonides would think happens to the intellect after death,
and it is unclear whether the intellect recalls its prior existence.