Reason and the Tripartite Soul

This post will draw from ideas found in two earlier ones. So, I’ll open with a repetition of some points.

Reason (from Ru’ach Memalela):

By my own experience, conscious thought happens two ways: the internal monologue we call a “stream of consciousness”, and by setting up thought-experiments to run through. For example, there are two ways to think through the question “Does an elephant have hair?”

Streams of consciousness, hereafter seikhel (for reasons that will become evident later), are a common tool of an author’s trade because it’s thought in the form of words. A solution based on this mode of thought might run something like this: Elephants are mammals, all mammals have hair, and so unless elephants are the exception to the rule, they must have hair. Elephants are well known and discussed animals. Could they be an exception to the rule and I don’t know it? Nah, they must have hair.

On the other hand, when I someone, and realize he has red hair, I don’t simply pick up another fact about the person, I have the experience of seeing red hair. I can remember and reproduce the image of him and his red hair in my mind. The knowledge isn’t reducable to words, it involves qualia, attributes of internal experience. And when I imagine what he would look like with black hair, I manipulate an image, not simply reason with concepts reducible into the words of my seikhel. There is a shared feature to seeing and hearing something when it happened, remembering the event, and imagining what the event would be like. When I remember my son’s face, I do not simply remember facts about it translatable into my seikhel, the flow of words in my head. I actually recreate the experience of seeing it. When I remember last Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidrei, I reproduce the experience of hearing the Chazan sing it, the congregation singing along.

This is the “koach hadimyon“, “the ability to make likenesses”. It is usually translated as “imagination”, but this translation is anachronistic — the word “imagination” changed meaning since first coined by Aristotilians (such as the Rambam). Dimyon is the laboratory of my thought experiments.

Solving the elephant problem through dimyon, you can remember elephants you saw, or saw pictures of. The detail may be blurry, so you may have to manipulate the picture a bit. Finally, a version of the picture which has a tuft of hair at the tail, maybe (if your memory is good) some downy hair around the eyes and ears, strikes you as the most familiar, the most real. And again you could reach the conclusion that elephants have hair.

Note that both require being aware of one’s thoughts: there is no stream of consciousness without a “listener” hearing the thoughts. There is no dimyon without an observer (and listener) watching the theater. This is a kind of self-awareness essential for the idea of “free will” to be meaningful. Free will is the ability to choose one’s actions and reactions, which is impossible if one can not perceive which thoughts to choose among.

And therefore, the ru’ach, the seat of will, must be self-aware. Conscious thought comes from the awareness of our thoughts, including our awareness of that awareness itself, and so on in an infinite regress. Free will comes from being able to monitor one’s thoughts and edit them based on judging what one monitors.

Notice what we are saying. Since free will and thought are inseperable concepts. The fact that we can think consciously is the key to free will. And therefore intelligence is something the soul does. (A conclusion taken for granted in the Rambam’s “Shemoneh Peraqim”, among many other examples.) There is no mind-soul duality. The mind is something the ru’ach does.

The Tripartite Soul:

The concept that the ru’ach is the seat of will, thought, conscious self-awareness, in other words, mind, takes on far greater significance when we look at the definition of “ru’ach” that we established in the “Bilvavi” (part 1, part 2) and “Castle in the Air” posts.

[T]he Maharal (Derekh haChaim, Avos 1:2) gives broad significance to this mishnah. The three pillars upon which the world stands as being are three classes of relationship that a person is capable of: with Hashem (avodah – service [of G-d]), with other people (gemilus chassadim – supporting others through kindnesses) and with oneself (Torah). In Mussar, these are described as the three categories of mitzvos: bein adam laMaqom, bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam lenafsho, respectively.

Each relationship is enabled by a different world in which a person lives. As the Maharal writes:

Therefore, the g-dly Tanna writes that one pillar that the universe stands upon is the Torah, for the pillar completes man so that he can be a finished creation with respect to himself.

After that he says “on avodah“…. For from this man can be thought complete and good toward He Who created him – by serving Him…. With regard to the third, it is necessary for man to be complete and good with others, and that is through gemillus chassadim.

You also must understand that these three pillars parallel three things in each man: the mind, the living soul, and the body. None of them have existence without G-d. The existence of the soul is when it comes close to Hashem by serving Him…. From the perspective of the mind, the man gets his existence through Torah, for it is through the Torah that man attaches himself to G-d. To the body, man gets his existence through gemillus chassadim for the body has no closeness or attachment to Hashem, just that Hashem is kind to all. When man performs kindness G-d is kind to him, and so gives him existence.

Combining that with the Vilna Gaon in his Peirush al Kama agados, we found that he places the world of the mind, ego and its consequentent desire for autonomy and power in the ru’ach.

“There are three watches each night. In the first, the donkey brays. During the second, the dogs bark “hav, hav“. At the third, the infant nurses from his mother’s breast, and a woman converses with her husband.” (Bava Metzi’a 83b)

The commentators explain that this [text] is about three souls of a person: Nara”n. Nefesh has in it the lust for things of the body, which is why these things are called [by the expression] “a wide nefesh“. The ruach contains honor and jealousy, as it says “a tall ruach”, “an overpowering ruach”. Apparently, ruach is the jealousy that dries one out, as it says (Mishlei 14), “The dryness of bones is jealousy, and all honor and its traits are suspended by the vanities of the world.”

The first watch is the beginning of childhood. Man is drawn to desire because of childhood and freedom. As it is said, “Things done in his youth are much vanity in his old age.” As Rashi wrote about sexual desire, and so it is for all desires. This is the braying donkey [chamor] it is a creature of its flesh’s desires, in all things physical [chomer].”

In the middle: Man goes and chases honor and wealth, like dogs that bark “hav hav” [which in Aramaic means: “Give me, give me”].

In the third watch, when he sees that his demise approaches, he returns in teshuvah, and that is when the neshamah sparks up. That is when the baby nurses from his mother’s breasts, as it says (Mishlei 5) “Her breasts will nurse you at any time that you love her.” And a woman talks with her husband as it says (Hoshea 2), “And I will return to my first husband”, for he returns to Hashem. Because Torah brings one to action, as it says in the prayer Hashiveinu [in the Amidah], “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us close to Your worship.”

First Principles from Our Senses

Intellect takes ideas and builds, interpolates and extrapolates from them. At some point though, there is an initial set of ideas, what Aristotle called the problem of first principles.

Some information reaches us indirectly. A source of information provides information that proved to be correct in the past, and I learn to rely on it. Hopefully I make that decision accurately and without bias. But all such information has to reach humanity before it is communicated.

Some comes directly from our senses. (When I drop something, it falls.) In other words, they reach me via the nefesh.

The Is-Ought Problem

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

– David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature III part I, sec 1

There is no way to get from the universe of “is” to the universe of “ought”. Science can say nothing about values, meaning, and anything else in the domain of religion.

First Principles from Shamayim

However, there is a third aspect to the self, the neshamah — its presence in heaven, its connection to a Higher Ideal. It’s another source of first principles of a different sort than those discussed by science. The nefesh, then reasons using data collected from both the nefesh and the neshamah, as well as by watching itself.

Without acknowledging that data the intellect can’t get anywhere in religious discussion. It has no grist for its mill, no source for postulates related to ethics, morality or meaning. There is nothing to build conclusions from.

Related to Ought is purpose. Without being able to measure an act in relation to a desired end, there is no “ought”. Thus, the while the laws one will perceive looking with one’s nefeshare those of cause, chaining the event to prior ones, the laws of the neshamah of those of purpose and thus pointing into the future.

Science and religion do not and can not collide because they are discussions on different sides of the Is-Ought / Cause-Purpose divides, involving data reaching us from different worlds.


And yet, they both reach the same ru’ach and go into building a single world there. Facts are “cold” and “dry”. It is experience, including dimyon, which is most tied to emotion. Thus, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached.” If the koach hadimyon exclusively embraces the sensory input of the nefesh, then this becomes the dominant theme in that world. Fortunately, the same is true if someone spends their life speculating on the neshamah‘s impressions of purpose and values, higher planes of reality and moral laws.

This notion relates directly to the Maharal’s notion of miracles. (In particular, as explained by R’ Dessler.) From my essay in Mesukim MiDevash  (parshas Beshalach, pp 1-2):

The Maharal … writes that rather than being an exception to the rule, nissim follow their own rules. Indeed, miracles occur all the time, but on their own plane of reality. This is why Yehoshua requests “shemesh beGiv’on dom – the sun should stand still in Giv’on.” (Yehoshua 10:13) The sun stopped for the Jews in Giv’on, who were on a plane where miracles operate, but not for anyone else. Literally two different realities were simultaneously experienced. Not two different perceptions of the same event, but two conflicting things were real, depending upon which world one occupied.

Most of us live within a world in which the laws we call “teva” apply. R’ Chanina ben Dosa, however, lived in a world where the laws of neis applied. In this world, oil and vinegar are equally flammable…. Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates on this principle. Mekubalim speak of four olamos, each of a higher level than the previous: asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), beri’ah (creation) and atzilus (emanation)….

People have two sources of information that they consider absolute. The first is their senses – sight, sound, and so on. The senses bring us information about the physical world. [The soul] brings us concepts like truth, freedom and oppression. Someone mired in the desires of the senses lives in the physical world. He focuses his attention on it, just as everyone focuses on that which is important to them. “Every tailor notices and looks at the clothing of the people in the street; and similarly every shoemaker, shoes…” The man of the senses therefore perceives it as more objective and more absolute than the world of the self…. This is olam ha’asiyah.

However, one can rise above that to the olam ha’yetzirah. This is not merely another level, but another world with its own laws, laws that do not conflict with free will. Those who focus on this world have no question that free will exists. To them, it is the ideals of this world that are more objective and absolute, and the senses, more subjective. Rav Dessler explains that this is how nissim can impact one person’s senses and not another’s. Yetzirah is the Maharal’s plane of nissim, and as the Maharal noted different people will perceive the miraculous differently, or not at all. And so the sea split in olam hayetzirah, but not in olam ha’asiyah.

According to Rav Dessler, someone who truly sees the world in terms of justice and kindness, freedom or oppression, to the extent that those laws are more objective and more absolute than gravity, conservation of energy, or electromagnetic force, then those laws actually do drive their reality. Such a person would live in a world of neis rather than teva.

Consciousness is self-awareness. Not just an awareness of oneself, including one’s spiritual nature, but awareness of one’s awareness — the ru’ach. Even how we perceive the other worlds is a product of the ru’ach. We therefore aren’t really judging the world as it objectively exists as much as the world as reflected in the koach hadimyon, within the circle of an awareness that watches itself. And thus different people can experience different realities depending upon which postulates they internalize.

Someone who lives in the neshamah‘s world of Ought will experience miracles — things happen as they Ought to satisfy Hashem’s goals of Justice and Mercy. Someone who can only see the laws of physics will only experience nature. Most of us lie somewhere in between — unfortunately tending to the more physical side. We can see miracles when we are inclined to look for them, but they the exception.


A basic difference between man and angels is that “angels only have one foot”, as described by the prophets and the classical rabbis. “Angels stand, people walk.”It’s a very existential thought. In the case of a table, the essence precedes its existence. If you know enough about the wood, the blueprint, the construction, etc… the table can be fully known before it even exists. In contrast, with people existence precedes essence. Who and what I am now is a newer evolution than the fact that I exist at all.

This is a key part of free will, the power to choose in which direction to evolve. As Rav Dessler writes about the flow of time, every moment is the realization of light or occlusion in one’s soul. Human change, in fact time as we know it, is a product of having bechirah.

Angels, for all their holiness, are static. An angel can be “Refa’el” (G-d’s healing), or “Gavriel” (G-d’s Might). A word, a static thought, can capture who they are and who they will be. At the end of their all night battle, Jacob asks the angel, “What is your name?” Until then, the angel is called in the Torah “the man”. Jacob thought it was a person he encountered on his trip. When he realized it could an angel, and therefore fully apprehended by a word, he asked “What is your name?”

Angels serve G-d, but not from free will. The have service of the neshamah, presence in heaven, but not creative beings in the image of G-d. Without the tension of both body and soul and choices to be made, one is ironically further from G-dliness. Both nefesh and neshamah are creatures; they are source of impressions about which we reason. The ru’ach selects which impressions we accept as important, and it creates. It builds s world, a Temple Within, from those first principles. After all, it is the ru’ach memalela which is in the image of the Creator. We praise Hashem every morning that “the neshamah that You have placed within me, it is pure”. However, we have the ability to rise above the purity of angels, those other denizens of the heavens. We can apply the moral callings to make our own synthesis of the nefesh‘s Is with the neshamah‘s Ought.

Last, this explains why in each triad of utentsils of the mishkan, it is the one corresponding to the ru’ach that is placed in a position one step above the others. (See this earlier post for an explanation of the correspondence. It, in turn is a part II, so you may need to start with part I.)

Among the uncrowned utensils, denoting the three universes in which we live, the kiyor (washing vessel) and mizbei’ach (altar) are outside in the courtyard, but the menorah (representing the 7 wisdoms) is within the Mishkan itself. And while the shulchan (table of showbread) and mizbei’ach hazahav (golden incense altar) were in the Mishkan, representing interpersonal relationships and our relationship with Hashem, respectively, it is the aron (ark) with its embodiment of tif’eres (harmony), of perfection of the relationship within our selves, that is in the Qodesh haQadashim (Holy of Holies).

A quick cheat sheet (which I expect will move to future entries as it grows; new row in bold):

Nefesh Ru’ach Neshamah
Pillar: chessed Torah avodah
Middah: rachamim tif’eres da’as
Relationship: other people oneself Hashem
Ultimate Denial: murder sexual immorality idolatry
Crown: kingship Torah priesthood
Crowned utensil: shulchan mizbei’ach hazahav aron
World: physical mental heaven / meaning
Thought: is creativity ought
Life stage: braying donkey –
begging dog nursing infant /
conversing with husband
Plain utensil: kiyor mizbei’ach menorah



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