I – Ru’ach Memalela
Here’s the creation of man, as described in the Torah.
וַיִּיצֶר יְ-הוָה אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
Hashem G-d formed man, dust of the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils a living spiritual-soul; and man became a living life-soul.
– Bereishis 2:7
וּבְרָא יְ-יָ אֱ-לֹהִים יָת אָדָם, עַפְרָא מִן אַרְעָא, וּנְפַח בְּאַפּוֹהִי, נִשְׁמְתָא דְּחַיֵּי; וַהֲוָת בְּאָדָם, לְרוּחַ מְמַלְּלָא.
Hashem G-d created man, dust of the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils a living spirtual-soul; and it became in man a speaking will-soul.
– Targum Unqelus, ibid
Nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah are defined as the ideas are developed in Qabbalah. There are many posts in this blog that touch on the subject. The distinction between them must be addressed here, as all three words are used.
The Torah’s version of the pasuq uses the root “yatzar“, to gives shape or form to something that already exists. Hashem shapes man, breathes into him a neshamah, a spiritual soul, an existence in heavenly realms. This transforms man into a living nefesh. Being a nefesh alone does not make man unique. The prohibition against eating blood is “for the blood is of the nefesh.” Animals have a nefesh, which lends significance to their blood as well. The relavent term here would seem to be that the nefesh of man is chayah, living.
Unqelus uses terms that stess what is new and unique about a person. He opens the pasuq with the word “uvera“. Unlike yetzirah, beri’ah is creation of something toally new, yeish mei’ayin — ex nihilo. And while the Torah speaks of how the breath transforms man into a living nefesh, Unqelus speaks of it as a new thing — a speaking ru’ach that is within him. Ru’ach (lit: Wind) is the flow from the neshamah, the “breath” before it fully leaves the Breather, and the nefesh, the breath at rest. (See Nefesh haChaim 1:5 or the translation and discussion here.) The soul as wind, the unseen will which can change the universe.
The Torah writes of the being of dust becoming living, a changing, growing, dynamic nefesh. Nefashos existed before, in animals, as did the body. The fact that it’s living is a change, not a creation. Unqelus writes of man now having a will that speaks. As his work is a Targum, not a commentary, presumably these are two sides of the same coin: being endowed with a speaking ru’ach is key to giving chiyus (life and dynamicity) to a nefesh.
II – Two Ways of Thinking
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.
Rav Yisrael Salanter opens his Igeres haMussar (The Mussar Letter, Ohr Yisrael ch. 10; heb & eng, smoother English trans.) with the following (tr. mine, but it and the comments are based on a combination of the above):
A person is free in his dimyon and bound by his reason.
The phrase here is “assur bemuskalo“. Assur literally means bound or imprisoned (beis ha’asurim = jail), but to anyone familiar with halakhah, the meaning of “prohibited” will certainly also leap to mind.
Muskal is a conjugation of the same root as seikhel (mind) using the passive mode the Haskalah chose for their name and carried echoes of that meaning to contemporary readers. It is used elsewhere in Or Yisrael to connote thought about one’s middos.
His dimyon walks him unfettered in the direction of his heart’s desire, without fear of the certain future, the time when Hashem will call to account for all he caused to happen.
Is Rav Yisrael’s dichotomy between muskal and dimyon the same as the one we laid about above between seikhel and dimyon? Can we really take a mixture of Aristotelian thought and my own observation of what goes on in my mind and assume it is Rav Yisrael’s intent? And if that is the distinction he is drawing, why is dimyon being demonized?
After all, nevu’ah (prophecy) also uses dimyon.
The information that is made known to a prophet in a prophetic vision is made known through a parable whose meaning is immediately engraved [understood] in his heart in such a manner that he knows what it is.
– Rambam, Yesodei haTorah 7:3
I think therefore we must conclude key of Rav Yisrael’s thought is more in the contrast between free and confined than in dimyon vs. muskal. Dimyon is far more readily uncontrolled. Emotions are more readily fired by events rather than ideas, and so of our thoughts, our ability to create and recreate events has a strong ability to shape our desires.
As Rav Dessler writes (Michtav meiEliyahu IV pp 251-255) in the name of the Alter of Slabodka, this very same ability, when controlled, gives us the leverage to shape ourselves, to climb the Mesilas Yesharim’s ladder to prophecy and beyond. Dimyon as a mussar tool warrants its own post, be”H.
Rav Aryeh Kaplan comments on the following story in the gemara (Yuma 69b). The members of the Anshei Kenesses haGedolah fasted for three days, trying to destroy the yeitzer hara for idolatry. A lion of fire came out of the Qodesh haQedashim and the navi tells the Jewish people that it is the yeitzer hara that they have been seeking. They trap it in a cauldron of lead, and ever since then the call for idolatry is muted.
Note the desire to worship idolatry is recognized only by the navi. It appears in a dimyon, a lion that exists in perception, but isn’t a physical thing they see. This desire isn’t purely evil, it stems from the heart of the Beis haMiqdash itself! And, as Rabbi Kaplan adds, this story is about the last of the prophets. After Anshei Keneses haGedolah, the people who trapped this inclination, prophecy ceases.
Without the challenge there is no growth; without fighting a desire for idolatry, one doesn’t develop the skills for prophecy. As it is put in Mishlei “zeh le’umas zeh — this [is created] in opposition to that” everything in this world is created to balance our opportunities for good and for evil. That quality of dimyon needed for nevu’ah that was also the main call of the idol was placed in a cauldron.
IV- The Turing Test and the Limits of Free Will
Alan Turing, one of the fathers of computing theory, decided that the question of whether machines will ever be able to think is meaningless. He instead proposed this question: Can a machine be made whose output is indistinguishable from that of a person? To that end, he designed the Turing Test. A tester is given access to two teletypes. At the other end of one connection is a human being, the other is controlled by a computer. The tester needs to decide which is which solely on the basis of the text on it. Both the human and the program must try to be identified as a human being. The program passes the test if the tester is unable to make the determination.
If you think about it, this is how we judge other people as well. We can’t know what’s going on inside their own minds. Rather, we assume they’re aware based on judging their behavior.
But I find this shift of the problem dissatisfying. It may be outside the purvey of science to discuss my subjective experience, but that does not mean it exists. I know what it’s like to be me, to see a red ball and have within my mind a mental image of the scene which I can replay by memory and modify — or even construct on my own — through dimyon.
We know from computer programming that very complex output is possible without this awareness of my thoughts, including that awareness itself as a thought of which I’m aware. Perhaps even behavior complex enough to pass the Turing Test without having “anyone home” aware of the thoughts. No “I” experiencing them.
As we saw in the previous entry, angels are credited with complex activity and yet we do not assume that it’s the product of free will.
Not all human decisions involve free will to the same extent. Rav Dessler gradiates decisions based on their distance from the bechirah point. (See this post.) Consciousness is more involved the closer a decision is to the battle-front between one’s desires. One person might have to consciously choose not to cheat a cashier at a restaurant. For others, the idea would never cross their minds — the decision is unconscious.
Psychoanalysis speaks of things happening in our unconscious, preconscious, and subconscious.
And people can be trained to have Pavlovian responses. I recall a high school science teacher make this point. He had us write an “X” in our notebook every time he said “X”. The first so many times, he said “X” while banging a ruler on his desk. He went at a rapid clip, not giving us time to think, and the ruler was much louder than he was. At some point, he stopped saying anything, and just hit the desk. Most of us kept on going for quite a while before realizing, writing “X” when we heard the slap of the ruler rather than follow instructions.
So people can act without full self-awareness. Not every decision involves seikhel that the ru’ach both produces and “listens” in on, or a dimyon that has an audience. As Rav Dessler writes, who we are is defined by where our bechirah point is, which decisions require conscious attention, what issues get address with conscious thought. And it is on the distance we moved that bechirah point, and against what odds, that we are judged.
V- A Living Soul
Perhaps we can use all of the above to address our opening question.
What does it mean to be a nefesh chayah? Sartre summarized Existentialism with the enigmatic words “Existence precedes essence.” When it comes to a table, one can know something about the plan for building the table, the kind of wood the table will be made from, etc… and thereby know much about the table before it even exists. Human beings, however, exist before their essence is defined. We are changing, dynamic beings (as also discussed in the last entry, in contrast to angels).
In terms of the bechirah point, we mean that the topic which grab our awareness and therefore more fully enter conscious decision making changes during the course of our lives. Hopefully for the better, sometimes not so. In many different directions: we can be moved to be more compassionate or at another time, to be more spiritual. There are many different values about which we can be challenged at different levels.
“For a man is a tree in the field”. This pasuq refers to the prohibition against waste; do not chop down a fruit tree when attacking the city, because that tree represents future lives. However, it is also often used homiletically. I would point out that a tree only grows on the outer edge, constantly moving the bark further out and further up. The majority of the tree is static, rigid. We too only grow under that spotlight of our bechirah point. The rest of our territory is rather rigid. We change as we move that area, changing where and how we grow.
Seikhel takes ideas and develops them into new ideas. It is a rigid system guided by logic. If it is functioning properly, the only time it would reach wrong conclusions is when working from false premises. It is therefore an ideal tool for channeling our growth. Dimyon is a more effective tool for maximizing that growth. The two combine to make a vector: one provides direction, the other, quantity.
How was our nefesh given chiyus? The Targum tells us that it was our getting something new, a ruach memalela. A will that communicates, that is both a “speaker” and a “listener”. It’s to be capable of engaging in conscious seikhel and dimyon, to be able to watch our thoughts, judge them, and adapt them, in one seamless loop. That is the engine that moves our bechirah point ever forward.