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Hava Tirosh-Samuelson
Jewish Notions of Personhood: Rabbinic, Philosophical, and Kabbalistic


The ancient Israelite tradition made no distinction between “body” and “soul.” Instead, biblical sources referred to a person, living or dead, as a nefesh (Lev. 5:17; Num 6:6). In the Greco-Roman period, the rabbis gradually shifted from biblical monism toward a moderate dualistic position. This shift took place in the middle of the second century CE and became most pronounced in the Talmudic literature of the third and fourth centuries as rabbinic sages speculated about the pre-existence of the soul, on the one hand, and the afterlife of the soul, on the other hand. The rabbis, however, did not articulate systematic philosophical anthropology even though their views were informed by Platonic and Stoic notions. Instead, the rabbis were concerned about the cultivation of the moral personality through observance of law and the sanctification of all aspects of life. Systematic reflections about the human self emerged in the medieval period as a result of Jewish interaction with Islamic philosophy, theology, and mysticism. This paper discusses conceptions of the human self in rationalist philosophy and kabbalah, the two main forms of Jewish self-expression in medieval Spain, by comparing Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) and Sefer ha-Zohar, composed in the late 13th century. The paper explains how Jewish thinkers understood the nature of the human soul, the relationship between soul and body, the meaning of human perfection, and the nature of the afterlife. The paper argues that while Maimonides’ Aristotelian philosophy and Zoharic kabbalah differed in their approaches to human personhood, they also shared the belief that observance of Jewish law constitutes (albeit interpreted differently) the exclusive path toward individual salvation. In this regard, both rationalist philosophy and kabbalah offered polemical Jewish responses to both Islam and Christianity, even though Maimonides was deeply indebted to Islamic philosophy and the Zohar attests to Christian influences.

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Arizona State University) is professor of history and project director of “Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Religion, Science and Technology.” She specializes in premodern Jewish intellectual history, Judaism and science, Judaism and ecology, and feminist philosophy. She holds a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1978) and a B.A. from SUNY-Stony Brook (1974). Prior to joining ASU in 1999, she taught at Indiana University, Emory University, Columbia University, and Hebrew Union College (New York). In addition to articles and book chapters, she is the author of Between Worlds: The Life and Work of Rabbi David ben Judah Messer Leon (1991), Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge and Well-Being in Pre-modern Judaism (2003) and Nature and Judaism (forthcoming). She is also the editor of Judaism and Ecology: Created World and Revealed World (2002), Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy (2004), and most recently The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life (2008). She sits on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and is on the academic advisory board of the Metanexus Institute.


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