The Candle Within

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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.”

© 2009 Rabbi Avi Shafran