Theories of Soul in Medieval Jewish Thought


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading
  7. Useful web resources

1. Historical context of the source

Philosophical questions are a perennial human concern. The oldest Jewish  texts attest to the fact that Jews and their ancestors have, naturally, shared these concerns. Nevertheless, Jews began writing what would now be recognized as philosophical works only when they lived in theIslamicate, under influence from Muslim writers. Arabic was the lingua franca of the time, and the first ‘Jewish philosophers’ wrote in what has now become known as Judaeo-Arabic, which is a form of Arabic written in Hebrew characters. Both of the authors in the present unit wrote their main philosophical works in this language. The first is Judah Halevi (d. 1141), author of The Kuzari, often known by the acronym Riyhal (from [R]abbi [Y]ehuda [ha-L]evi), and the second is Moses Maimonides (1137/8–1204), often known as Rambam ([R]abbi [M]oses [b]en [M]aimon). Both Halevi and Maimonides are still revered today.

Halevi’s book is titled The Book of Refutation in Defense of the Despised Religion. It is usually known as The Book of the Kuzari because it is written in the form of a dialogue between a Jewish sage and a king, the king of the Khazars. It takes its cue from the story that a nation known as the Khazars converted to Judaism en masse. Halevi’s story begins with a report of a pious Khazar king, who dreams that an angelic voice tells him ‘your intentions are pleasing to God, but your actions are not.’ The rest of the book reports the king’s search for correct actions to please the Lord. After quickly dismissing the arguments of a philosopher, a Muslim, and a Christian, the king turns to a Jew. The book tells the story of the king’s progression toward understanding the truth of Judaism through his protracted dialogue with the ḥaver, the Jewish sage, who convinces the king that Judaism is a credible faith. The Book of the Kuzari has been a major influence on Jewish thought at various times since it was penned (Shear, 2008), although Halevi himself referred to it in a letter as ‘nonsensical’ (Friedman 2011, 162). Quotations from Halevi in the sources below are from this book.

Maimonides’ clearest explanation of the soul’s nature appears in the first of eight parts in his introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirqe Avot), which is a peculiar mishnaic tractate in that, unlike others, it addresses ethical themes exclusively, and contains no halakhic discourse at all. Maimonides takes the advice it contains to be aimed at refining character traits. It is worth noting that Maimonides played many roles besides those of philosopher and jurist. He was also a physician, and served the famous Saladin for several years in that capacity. At the time it was thought that the best doctors were also philosophers, and one of the ways in which this is reflected is in works on character traits. The best doctors would treat ailments of the body and also act as doctors of the soul. The introduction to Pirqe Avot as a whole is usually known as Eight Chapters. In this section, Maimonides describes the human soul, a subject to which we now turn here.

One of the basic questions that philosophers often want to ask is ‘what is a human being?’ It is a question that can be approached in a variety of different ways, and one of those is to think about what is the human soul. When approaching for the first time what certain mediaeval philosophers had to say about the soul, the first thing to remember is that many of them did not think of a soul as a kind of spectral body. When they spoke about souls they were not speaking of things that continue to exist as ghosts of material things that have passed away. What people like Maimonides and Halevi meant, when they said that something has a soul, is that the thing is alive. The Latin word for soul captures the idea well: anima. Everything that is animated has an anima, which is to say that everything that is alive has a soul. All living things are animated. (Aristotle’s book on the soul is usually referred to today as De Anima!)

So Maimonides and Halevi, and others of the time, were able to say that plants have souls because plants are living things, not because plant spirits might exist after the demise of a physical plant. It was uncontroversial, too, for them to say that animals have souls; animals are growing, sensitive, moving beings, and so possess life. Humans also have souls, and a human soul can do all of the things that souls of plants and animals can do, i.e., cause the body to grow, perceive sensations, move, but it can also do more than that. As well as all of the capacities that animals have, humans have reason. This, it was thought, is what sets human beings apart from other animals, so the standard definition of a human was ‘rational animal’. Reason is the specific difference that defines the species ‘human’. According to this view, then, there is a qualitative difference between humans and other animals. It is not necessary to say that one is better than the other, although many would probably have thought just that, but they are different, and they have different purposes and potentialities.

Halevi is working with very similar ideas to those that Maimonides introduces here. He also accepts that the human soul possesses all of the faculties that plant and animal souls possess, and that it is distinguished from them by virtue of possessing reason. So far as the definition of a human soul goes, Halevi would have been in total agreement with Maimonides. However, he also argues that there is more to the story. If the soul is that which makes a person a human, we can still ask whether there are differences between different humans, and whether there are different kinds of humans. Following the question of what is a person, then, is the question of what is a Jewish person. These two thinkers represent two very different approaches to the question ‘what is a Jew?’ Whereas Maimonides thought that this definition holds true for all humans, Halevi says that there are some who possess an extra faculty, namely, those who are descended from Jacob. On top of ‘rational animals’, then, there are some people who can be distinguished further, Jews. What does this extra property consist of? Halevi argues that only Jews have the potential to prophesy. Although he admits that in the time of exile, and outside of the holy land, that potential cannot be activated.

The profound differences in the two thinkers’ views of the soul come into play in wider epistemological notions. How do people learn the deepest, divine truths, and who has access to these truths? There was a very common theme among medieval thinkers generally, and one that was common also in the renaissance, which taught that the truth we understand today was something known to the ancients. Both Maimonides and Halevi mention a connected notion, that the ancient Israelites were aware of philosophical truth long before the Greek philosophers whom we usually identify as the first ‘philosophers’ existed. They both made great use of Greek thought, following the strong tradition of Greek philosophy in Arabic. Their statements may therefore have an apologetic aspect inasmuch as they teach that ideas and sciences deriving from outside Judaism are not alien to Judaism at all, and that they can therefore be used appropriately to expound Judaism’s true message. What is important for our purposes, however, is the difference between the ways in which they express the idea. Specifically, Halevi includes a detail that Maimonides does not. Halevi not only states that the ancient Israelites knew scientific truths. He also says that the Israelites taught that truth to other peoples, and that there is an unbroken line of tradition, which explains how the Greeks came to learn science. Maimonides is able to say that the Greeks learned science independently of the Israelites, because any truth that is accessible to one person’s intellect is, in principle, accessible to that of any other person, regardless of their religion.

Since the two thinkers hold different opinions about what constitutes a specifically Jewish soul, they will also differ over the nature of a soul possessed by someone who converts to Judaism. In this case, Maimonides’ text is taken from a letter he wrote to a proselyte who was concerned about some phrases in the liturgy.

2. Source

2a. Halevi: Kuzari Part 1

The essence of Abraham passed over to Isaac, to the exclusion of the other sons who were all removed from the land, the special inheritance of Isaac. The prerogative of Isaac descended on Jacob, whilst Esau was sent from the land which belonged to Jacob. The sons of the latter were all worthy of the divine influence, as well as of the country distinguished by the divine spirit. This is the first instance of the divine influence descending on a number of people, whereas it had previously only been vouchsafed to isolated individuals. … Then they became worthy of having the divine light and providence made visible to them. If disobedient men existed among them, they were hated, but remained, without doubt, of the essence, inasmuch as they were part of it on account of their descent and nature, and begat children who were of the same stamp. An ungodly man received consideration in proportion to the minuteness of the essence with which he was endowed, for it reappeared in his children and grandchildren according to the purity of their lineage. This is how we regard Terah and others in whom the divine afflatus was not visible, though, to a certain extent, it underlay his natural disposition, so that he begat a descendant filled with the essence, which was not the case with all the posterity of Ham and Japheth. We perceive a similar phenomenon in nature at large. Many people do not resemble their father, but take after their grandfathers.

114. The king: This might be so, if your humility were voluntary; but it is involuntary, and if you had power you would slay.

115. The ḥaver: You have touched our weak spot, O King of the Khazars. If the majority of us, as you say, would learn humility towards God and His law from our low station, providence would not have forced us to bear it for such a long period. Only the smallest portion thinks so. Yet the majority may expect a reward, because they bear their degradation partly from necessity, partly of their own free will. For whoever wishes to do so can become the friend and equal of his oppressor by uttering one word, and without any difficulty. Such conduct does not escape the just Judge. If we bear our exile and degradation for God’s sake, as is needed, we shall be the pride of the generation which will come with the Messiah, and accelerate the day of the deliverance we hope for. Now we do not allow any one who embraces our religion theoretically by means of a word alone to take equal rank with ourselves, but demand actual self-sacrifice, purity, knowledge, circumcision, and numerous religious ceremonies. The convert must adopt our mode of life entirely. We must bear in mind that the rite of circumcision is a divine symbol, ordained by God to indicate that our desires should be curbed, and discretion used, so that what we engender may be fitted to receive the divine Influence. God allows him who treads this path, as well as his progeny, to approach Him very closely. Those, however, who become Jews do not take equal rank with born Israelites, who are specially privileged to attain to prophecy, whilst the former can only achieve something by learning from them, and can only become pious and learned, but never prophets.

2b. Maimonides: Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte

So says Moses, son of Rabbi Maimon, one of the exiles from Jerusalem, who lived in Spain:
I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte, may the Lord reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the Lord of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.

You ask me if you too are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer, alone or in the congregation, ‘our God and God of our fathers’, ‘you who have sanctified us through your commandments’, ‘you who have separated us’, ‘you who have chosen us’, ‘you who have inherited us’, ‘you who have brought us out of the land of Egypt’, ‘you who have worked miracles to our fathers’, and more of this kind.

Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer you too shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is that Abraham our father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the divine presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord forever, as it is written, ‘for I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice’ (Gen. 18:19). Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the divine name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our father, peace be with him. These men are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness.

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.

Therefore you shall pray ‘our God’ and ‘God of our fathers’, because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray ‘you who have taken for his own our fathers’, for the land has been given to Abraham, as it is said, ‘arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it, for I will give it to you’ (Gen. 13:17). As to the words ‘you who have brought us out of the land of Egypt’ or ‘you who have done miracles to our fathers’, these you may change, if you will, and say ‘you who have brought Israel out of the land of Egypt’ and ‘you who have done miracles to Israel’. If, however, you do not change them, it is no transgression, because since you have come under the wings of the divine presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. So it is said in the book of Isaiah, ‘neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, the Lord has utterly separated me from his people’ (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing ‘who has chosen us’, ‘who has given us’, ‘who has taken us for your own’, and ‘who has separated us’. For the creator, may he be exalted, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Torah. For the Torah has been given to us and to the proselytes, as it is said, ‘one ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation and also for the stranger that lives with you, and ordinance for ever in your generations. As you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord’ (Num. 15:15). Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolators; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the holy one, may he be blessed, sent Moses our teacher, the master of all the prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the divine presence, us and all proselytism and gave to all of us one law.
Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you derive from him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah, ‘one shall say I am the Lord’s and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob’ (Is. 44:5).

3. Discussion of the source

Given that Maimonides and Halevi have two different understandings of the difference between Jews and non-Jews, it is unsurprising that they also understand the difference between converts to Judaism differently. If there is a difference between the souls of non-Jews and those of Jews, it is not obvious how converts to Judaism can really become Jewish. Halevi is left with the question how to integrate non-Jews, who do not have inherently Jewish souls, into the Jewish people. If converts were not born to Jewish parents, and are therefore not part of the chain reaching back to Jacob, they do not have the specific faculty inherent only to the Jews. Nevertheless, they are part of the Jewish people. Furthermore, he must face the problem that there might be an inherent difference between the offspring of converts and those who do not descend from converts. But how can such a distinction be drawn? Not all Jews can trace their ancestry back very far in any case. Perhaps Halevi never satisfactorily came to grips with this question. He seemed to argue simply that the descendants of converts would eventually be assimilated into Jewish stock.

Maimonides’ approach is totally different, and this is evident in his letter to Ovadiah the Proselyte. The letter was a reply to a practical question about praying. The fixed Jewish liturgy includes sections blessing God, referring to the God of ‘our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’. Ovadiah was unsure whether he ought to say this phrase because, as a convert, he was not a biological descendent of these patriarchs. Maimonides’ answer is forceful.  Since he sees no essential difference between Jews and non-Jews, he has no problem saying that a convert to Judaism is of exactly the same status as someone born a Jew. He even goes further, and, in the final sentence of the letter, emphasizes that Obadiah’s origin is not ‘inferior’, but that his credentials could even be considered more exalted, since Maimonides states that Obadiah ‘derives from him through whose word the world was created.’

To say a little more about this I turn to the Guide for the Perplexed, which is Maimonides’ major philosophical work. Maimonides’ aim in the Guide is to write a new kind of commentary on scripture. One of the ways in which he does this is by explaining a variety of things that a word might mean when it is used in the Tanakh. He then leaves the reader to work out which meaning to prefer in particular cases when reading the bible. The word for ‘to give birth’ is a salient example here. Maimonides explains that as well as its literal meaning, the word ‘son’ can be applied to those pupils who learn a teacher’s ideas perfectly (Maimonides 1963, 32). They could be considered ‘intellectual offspring’ of a teacher. In this context, ‘children of Abraham’ could refer to all those who follow Abrahamic teaching, a position that Maimonides develops in the letter.

While there is an ontological basis for Halevi to assert that the Jews are the chosen people, Maimonides must take a different approach to that important Jewish doctrine. If there is no essential difference between Jews and non-Jews, and it is possible for non-Jews to understand just as much as Jews can, the Jews cannot be ‘a people apart’ through any characteristic that they have in their own right. Instead, the concept of ‘chosen people’ may have to be rearticulated. Maimonides relocates the difference between Jews and non-Jews to the difference in the laws that they follow. He argues that the halakha is the best of all systems by which a human can live, so the Jews’ special connection to the divine occurs solely through their keeping the law. Perhaps Maimonides could therefore be seen as a forerunner to modern Jewish theologians who interpret the chosen people concept as ‘the choosing people’.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. What are the theological implications of belief that there is an inherent difference between souls of Jews and non-Jews?
  2. Does a disagreement between authors writing almost a thousand years ago still matter now, however great the authors were? If so, why?
  3. If Maimonides’ understanding of the soul is accepted, what sense can be made of the idea that the Jews are a ‘chosen people’?
  4. Aside from those mentioned here, are there other reasons that Maimonides might have considered converts to have an advantage over people born Jews? Are there ways in which a convert might be at a disadvantage?

5. Selected bibliography

Key Titles

  • Twersky, Isadore. (1972) A Maimonides Reader. New Jersey: Behrman House Inc.
  • Kellner, Menachem. (1991) Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Maimonides, Moses. (1963) The Guide of the Perplexed translated by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Other referenced works

  • Friedman, Mordechai. (2011) ‘Judah Halevi on Writing the Kuzari: Responding to a Heretic’, in From a Sacred Source: Genizah Studies in Honour of Professor Stefan C. ReifEd. Ben Outhwaite and Siam Bhayro. Leiden: Brill, pp. 157–170.
  • Shear, Adam. (2008) The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6. Further Reading

  • Burrell, David. (1993) ‘Aquinas and Islamic and Jewish Thinkers,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas Ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleanor Stump, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This discusses Maimonides’ influence on Christian thought.
  • Diamond, James Arthur. (2007) Converts, Heretics and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, pp. 11–32.
  • Hartman, David. (2011) Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: an ancient people debating its future. New Haven: Yale University Press. This is an account of how the debate relates to important issues today.
  • Kellner, Menachem. (2006) Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

7. Useful web resources

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great many entries on relevant matters and is well worth browsing if you want to look into any of the issues here in greater depth. Particularly noteworthy are entries on Halevi, Maimonides, and on the soul.

For those who would like to know more about mediaeval philosophy generally, see Paul Vincent Spade’s site. Check the downloads page, right at the bottom, for a really helpful survey.


Mediaeval Hebrew translation, with an English translation. English is also here.


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