Man's soul is G-d's candle
Man's soul is G-d's candle iStock

It is a cornerstone of Jewish (kabbalistic and Hasidic) thought that Jews are endowed with a soul that is essentially different from that of Gentiles. As a non-Jew I find this belief hurtful, since it suggests that I was born with a spiritual blemish.

At the same time, and in all honesty, I must say that there is truth to the concept of the “Jewish soul”. After having spent decades around both Jews and non-Jews I must acknowledge that there is a “Jewishness” in Jews that makes them different from non-Jews - even (and especially) when they try to conceal or run away from their Jewish roots.

Is this the “Jewish soul”? I think it is. Nevertheless, I think it is important to define and describe what a soul could be. The Rambam teaches that “Each person is fit to be righteous like Moses, our teacher, or wicked, like Jeroboam.” This is important, because it highlights that souls are not a destiny, but a calling. They are the soil upon which what we sow either prospers or spoils.

Human souls are therefore both malleable and improvable. They absorb what they appreciate (or learn to appreciate) and reject what is not in tune with their nature. The fact that so many non-Jews are responsive to the beauty and depth of Judaism, while too many Jews are not, suggests that any crass dichotomy between human souls is probably wishful thinking.

What is true is that since even secular Jews are the sons and daughters of mothers whose ancestors for dozens of generations loved and kept the Torah, most of them absorbed its values even though they may lack a formal Jewish education. Indeed, many if not most of our thoughts and actions are influenced by those of ancestors we never met. Thus, just like descendants of army officers or nobles inadvertently absorb values important in military or aristocratic life, the descendants of rabbis and rebbetzins will mimetically absorb the values of Torah.

Personal biographies can be deeply influenced by the Torah. There are stories of vicious neo-Nazis who became virtues upon discovering they were less Aryan than they assumed and embracing Jewish observance. In addition, many Gentiles who learn to love the Torah and convert eventually acquire the quintessence of “Jewishness”. I don’t believe this miraculously happens upon immersion in a ritual bath, mandated prior to conversion. I think it happens because Torah study and Torah observance activate the faculties of the soul which Jews colloquially label as “Jewish”: compassion, kindness and holiness.

In other words, I hold that a Jewish soul does exist, and that it in essence consists of the qualities of the human soul that a life with Torah awakens and empowers. That is the reason, that in this regard I can agree both with the Kabbalists who exalt the Jewish soul and with Maimonides who argues that Jews and Gentiles share a universal human soul.

Rafael Castrois a Noahide Italian-Colombian with degrees from Yale and Hebrew University. Rafael can be reached at rafaelcastro78@gmail.com