The Human Spiritual Composition

The Alter Rebbe states that every person possesses two spirits: (1) nefesh habehamis (literally an animal spirit), a vital force, which animates the physical body; and (2) nefesh elokis, a G-dly spirit. There is a nefesh habehamis in all living things which is specific for the particular species. An elephant has an elephant nefesh habehamis, an alligator has an alligator nefesh habehamis,and a Jew has a Jewish nefesh habehamis. The nefesh habehamis has both cognitive and affective components; i.e., intellect and emotion. Inasmuch as all animal behavior is self-centered, motivated by the urge for self-gratification, the drives of the human nefesh habehamis are primarily self-centered. However, in contrast to other living things whose animalistic drives cannot be sublimated, a human being has the capacity to redirect and channel one’s drives toward goals other than self-gratification. Thus, anger can be channeled to anger at injustice, envy can be channeled toward envy of wisdom and good deeds, etc.


It is characteristic of the nefesh habehamis that cognition is in the service of the affect. I.e., the person has a desire (affect) for something, and exercises his intellect in order to get it. This can be seen in animals as well. Chimpanzees are known to strip and prepare twigs to dig out termites in their earthen mounds, and capuchin monkeys use stones to crack open hard nuts. Although sophisticated man can prepare pizzas and develop color television, the dynamics of the nefeshhabehamis are qualitatively similar to animals in that both use the intellect to satisfy the affective drives. Human intellect has given rise to jet flights, microwaves, air-conditioning and many other self-satisfying inventions.


The Jew has a second spirit, a nefesh elokis, a Divine soul.. This, too, has cognitive and affective components. The cognitive are: chochma, which, is usually translated as “knowledge,” but in this context is better understood to be “perception,” conception, binah, which we will call “concept formation,” and daas, which we will call “bonding.”


The Alter Rebbe says that chochma can be broken down into two words, koach mah, which mean “intangible potential.” The precise definition of chochma has been somewhat elusive. Some commentaries refer to it as the initial insights of the mind. For example, one may agonize over a complex mathematical problem, and suddenly has the feeling that he sees a solution. He does not have the solution developed yet. That is the function of binah (understanding), to develop the insight into a concept.


It is significant that the Zohar refers to chochma and binah as “two inseparable companions.” What makes them inseparable? An awareness of neurology can help clarify these terms. This is a novel explanation, which, to the best of my knowledge, has never previously been offered.


There is a neurologic phenomenon of “stereognosis,” which is the ability to identify an object by tactile sensation. In the event of certain brain lesions, this ability is lost. Thus, if you have a healthy person close his eyes and you place a quarter in his hand, he will promptly say, “It’s a quarter.” If you place a key in his hand, he will promptly say, “It’s a key.” In certain brain lesions, the patient will not recognize the object as a quarter or a key. Rather, he will say, “It’s flat, hard and round,” or, “It’s flat, hard and rough,” but he is unable to put the elements together to formulate what the object is, because the pathways from awareness of the elemental components to formation of the concept “quarter” or “key” have been interrupted by the brain lesion.


In the intact brain, the elemental components are immediately combined to form the concept “quarter” or “key.” The person does not consciously reason, “flat, hard, and round, therefore it is a quarter,” but immediately identifies the object as a quarter or a key. Nevertheless, it is clear that the first information received by the healthy brain was not “quarter” or “key,” but rather “ flat, hard and round,” or, “flat, hard and rough.”  The person with a healthy brain is not even aware of this elemental information because it is immediately combined to form the concept “quarter” or “key.”  However, if he were asked, “How did you know it was a quarter or a key?” he will say, “Well, it was flat, hard and round, so I knew it was a quarter,” but he makes this analysis only in retrospect.


One understanding of chochmah is that it is the elemental information, the raw material out of which a concept can be formed, and in the healthy person, binah immediately combines the elemental information to the concept (i.e., flat, hard and round = quarter). For all intents and purposes, the elemental information is never recognized by the conscious mind. It is for this reason that the Zohar says that chochmah and binah are “two inseparable companions.” Under normal conditions, chochmah never appears independently. It is not similar to the building materials which are the raw materials of a house. These have an independent existence. The relationship of chochmah to binah might be thought of as that of the oxygen atom to the oxygen molecule, O2. Oxygen does not exist as an atom. As soon as an atom of nascent oxygen comes into being, it immediately combines with another oxygen atom to form the molecule, O2. Similarly, in the intact mind, the elements of chochmah do not exist independently and are immediately formed into a concept by binah. Of course, binah continues to process and develop simple concepts into more sophisticated concepts


Chochmah can also be understood as the initial insights that occur to a person that are not yet formulated. For example, a person may be stumped for hours by a difficult mathematical problem. Suddenly, he feels that he is in reach of a solution. He does not have the solution yet and must work to develop it, but something has occurred in his mind that he feels will allow him to solve the problem. It this sense, it is not tangible, which justifies it being broken down to coach mah, an energy of “what.”


In a sense, chochmah is of a higher level than binah, since it is the source for binah. Also, developing the insights of chochmah into concepts also limits them to the particular concept, whereas they may also be subject to other formulations.


In contrast to the nefesh habehamis, in which the intellect is in service of the emotions, the reverse is true of the nefesh elokis. In the latter, the Alter Rebbe says, the cognitive componentsproduce the affective components, and the intellect gives rise to emotion. Thus, he says, the cognitive awareness of G-d give rise to the affects ahavah, which is generally translated as “love,’” and yirah, which is generally translated as “fear,” but perhaps is better translated as “awe” and “reverence.”


The question is raised, how can cognition give rise to emotion? And similarly, how can there be a commandment to love G-d? It would seem that love cannot be ordered or legislated. Rambam dealt with this question, saying, “How does one acquire ahavah? If one contemplates G-d’s works and His wondrous creations, and sees in them His infinite wisdom he will immediately ohev(love?), praise and extol Him and have a great desire to know Him” (Yesodei Hatorah 2:2).


The commentary on Rambam states that there are two kinds of ahavah. One is love, as that of a parent to a child or a husband to a wife, and the second is admiration, where awareness of one’s greatness creates a desire to be with him. It is the latter type of ahavah that the Torah commands man to have for G-d. This kind of ahavah eventually leads to the ahavah that we generally think of as “love.”


Essentially, Rambam is giving us a second definition of ahavah, which is much different than what we refer to as “love.” This type of ahavah is adoration rather than love. We may think of it in the way a child feels about a hero, whom he “worships.” This may be a sports figure with whom the child is enthralled. He cherishes an autograph of his hero, and would be thrilled if he could have a garment of his. If the child were asked what is his most fervent wish, he might well say “to be with my hero.” He does not “love” his hero, but has an intense adoration of him.


Adoration of G-d can indeed be achieved if one has an awareness of His infinite wisdom, which, Rambam says, can be achieved by appreciating the incomparable perfection of His works. Indeed, the more one understands the intricacies of the macrocosm and the microcosm, the more one stands in awe of G-d’s wisdom. For example, the brain is comprised of 100 billion cells, all interconnected in the most marvelous fashion. Just think of this. The movements of each eye are brought about by the action of six muscles, which operate in perfect coordination to move the eye to the desired position. The six muscles of the right eye and those of the left eye must be perfectly coordinated, otherwise the person would have double vision. This coordination occurs via multiple nerve pathways in the brain.


My professor of neurophysiology said that from the time the pitcher throws the ball until the batter swings at it, many thousands of neural transmissions occur. Even all the computers in the world combined could not approach the function of the brain! The marvel of creation, both the macrocosm and microcosm testify to the grandeur of G-d.


A physician specializing in infertility said, “I was peering through the microscope at a fertilized ovum. I realized that henceforth, this single microscopic cell will be provide only with the elements carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen, and out of them it will manufacture a marvelous organism, a human being. At that moment I realized that there is a G-d.”


This is what the Alter Rebbe means that cognition can give rise to affect. The intellectual contemplation of the enormity of G-d’s wisdom gives rise to the affects of ahavah, adoration, andyirah, awe of His majesty (rather than fear). Inasmuch as a person can be told to increase his awareness of the perfection of G-d’s works, it follows that there can be a commandment forahavah and yirah.

Thus, in contrast to the nefesh habehamis, where the affects inherent in this essentially animalistic spirit are primary and utilize the intellect to satisfy affective needs, in the nefesh elokisthe intellect is primary, and gives rise to the affects.


Modern cognitive psychology contends that a person’s psychological problems are due to faulty cognition; i.e., an erroneous perception of reality. This is because the cognitive faculties in thenefesh habehamis are under the influence of the affects. The Torah says that a judge that is bribed cannot be objective and will be blinded by the bribe; i.e., unable to see the facts before him, and will see only those that favor the litigant that bribed him. Similarly, the drive to gratify the affective urges causes an error in cognition. The cognitive faculties are “blinded,” as it were.


That we see and hear only what we wish to see and here and block out whatever displeases us is stated emphatically by the prophet Isaiah (6:10). “The heart of this people is fattened, its ears are heavy, and its eyes are sealed; lest it sees with its eyes, hears with its ears and its heart understand, so that it will repent and be healed.” No clearer statement could be made. Cognating the truth would necessitate sacrificing some of the affective desires, and their resistance to this obscures their senses.


A striking example of this phenomenon is related in the Scriptures (I Kings 16:34). After Jerichowas razed, Joshua pronounced a curse on whoever would rebuild it. “His firstborn will die when he sets the foundation, and his youngest child will die when he erects the gates” (Joshua 6:26). Years later, in defiance of Joshua’s curse, Chiel beis Haeli began rebuilding Jericho, and indeed, his firstborn son died. His children continued to perish as the building proceeded, and when he erected the gates of the city, his youngest son died. Despite the undeniable fact that Joshua’s curse was being fulfilled, Chiel continued to defy it, not because he did not care for his children, but because he refused to accept the testimony of his own eyes. His ambition to rebuild Jerichoblinded him to what was clearly evident to everyone.


Daas, which is often translated as knowledge, is interpreted by the Alter Rebbe as “bonding,” based on the biblical verse, “And Adam had known his wife, Eve, and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1). Daas is the intellectual faculty that transmits cognition to affect, because action can come only from the affective traits. In order for cognitive concepts to impact the affects, they must be firmly developed, and this, too, is a function of daas.