Three Ways to Cure the Jewish Soul

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According to Maimonides, if you fix your ill soul, you fix your whole self.

by Rabbi Dr. David S. Weiss

Although many speak of the soul, few understand what the soul is. What are the characteristics of the soul? What are diseases of the soul? How can we cure the soul? The great 12th-century Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, believed that “the improvement of moral qualities is brought about by the healing of the soul and its activities.” He viewed the work of curing souls as a natural extension of his work as a physician of the body and as a rabbi for his community.

The Five Characteristics of the Soul

Many think about the soul in spiritual terms—as an inner spark, as a life force. The soul that Maimonides intends to cure is not a spiritual soul, but rather, it refers to human potential. He explains that the soul has five characteristics or human potentialities, and each of these characteristics can have illnesses, which need cures. The five characteristics are:

1. The growth faculty, which is common to vegetable and animal life. This faculty has the power of attracting and retaining nourishment, digestion, repulsion, growth, and procreation.

2. The senses faculty, which distinguishes animal life. This faculty accomplishes seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touch.

3. The desire faculty, which is responsible for desiring and loathing people, ideas, and situations, leading to such responses as pursuit or flight, inclination or avoidance, anger or affection, fear or courage, cruelty or compassion, love or hate.

4. The imaginative faculty accomplishes two things. The first is the retention of what one perceives by the senses. The second activity is the construction of ideas or emotions not directly perceived by the senses. This construction is achieved by separating and recombining the retained impressions.

5. The rational faculty is uniquely human. Unlike the souls of vegetation and animals, the human soul is unique in being able to conceptualize forms.

As human beings, we are born with potential in each of these five characteristics of the soul. Our life journey is to maximize our souls’ potential and cure our souls when they become ill.

Diseases and Cures of the Soul

Each one of the five faculties of the soul can become diseased and require cure. Maimonides’ work as a physician of the body focuses on the illnesses that can occur to the growth and senses—faculties that are primarily physical potentialities of the soul. His work as a psychologist focuses on the illnesses and cures associated with the other three faculties of the soul (desire, imaginative, and rational). Three illnesses are of great concern to Maimonides. A brief description of each illness and its cure follows. The book Maimonides’ Cure of Souls (Bakan, Merkur, Weiss, SUNY Press, 2009) explores these illnesses and other related matters in much greater depth.

1. Illness of the Desire Faculty

Moral virtues exist within the desire faculty and are very numerous, including honesty, meekness, humility, and courage. An illness of the desire faculty is referred to as a moral vice. Maimonides explains that “moral excellences or defects cannot be acquired, or implanted in the soul, except by means of the frequent repetition of acts resulting from these qualities, which, practised during a long period of time, accustoms us to them. If these acts performed are good ones, then we shall have gained a virtue; but if they are bad, we shall have acquired a vice.” (Maimonides, Eight Chapters iv).

Moral vices consist of a deficiency or of an exaggeration of these qualities in either direction. For example, illnesses of the desire faculty include extremes such as miserly behavior or throwing away money; starving oneself or eating excessively; self-deprecation or anger.

The cure: The cure for these illnesses is the “golden mean,” which refers to attaining moderation. In order for an individual to eventually rebalance to the middle area of moderation, Maimonides’ treatment for moral vices often includes shifting behavior to the extreme opposite polarity. For example, if you are a miser, the treatment would be for you to give away money freely. Maimonides gives an intriguing example from the biblical narrative around Moses. Maimonides attributes the death of Moses to his anger that caused him to defy God’s will. Moses sought God’s help in the wilderness of Zin when the people had no water to drink. God’s instruction was for Moses to speak to the rock, and the water would gush forth. Instead, in his anger, Moses hit the rock with his staff. A leader and prophet at his level must always be able to function at the “golden mean” and not let anger get the best of him. For this reason, Moses was not deemed worthy to enter the Promised Land.

2. Illness of the Rational Faculty

Rational virtues exist within this faculty of the soul, including wisdom, reason, and cleverness. These rational virtues are based upon free will to choose. An illness of this faculty involves the loss of free will.

Maimonides argues that humans have the capability to repeat hateful acts frequently. If they do so, they can lose their free will to change, and the physician of the soul has no capability to apply a cure. Maimonides’ example is the biblical narrative of the exodus from Egypt. God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” in such a way that Pharaoh is unable to let the Jewish people leave slavery. Maimonides explains that God did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart, but rather, Pharaoh repeatedly had hateful thoughts towards the Jews. This repetition of hateful thinking resulted in the miracle of Pharaoh losing his free will to believe differently. The ultimate punishment for evil is the loss of free will to make choices and to think differently.

The Cure: Maimonides argues that when people seek a cure for distorted beliefs and the loss of free choice, they must have at least a sliver of free will left or else they will not be treatable. The cure for the illness of the rational faculty requires that individuals maximize their free choice. Maimonides believes that the most perfect way to do this is through studying the sciences, philosophy, and by contemplating Godly matters through the study of Torah.

3. Illness of the Imaginative Faculty

The highest level of fulfillment of all the potentialities of the soul is embodied in the prophet. Maimonides believes the prophet excels in moral virtues (desire faculty) through repetitive acts of moderation and in rational virtues (rational faculty) through the study of the sciences, philosophy, and the Torah. The prophet adds to those capabilities a soul perfect in the imaginative faculty of the soul. Maimonides believes that fulfilled potential in the imaginative faculty is anchored in the rational faculty. Illness in the imaginative faculty is “ecstatic” imagination that is not built on a rational faculty base. In this situation, the imaginative faculty can be unleashed uncontrollably and lead to thought disorder and psychological illness. The treatment is a kind of cognitive therapy that re-anchors imagination within the rational faculty.

The Cure: The journey of fulfilling the potential of the soul’s psyche takes a lifetime. Humans are given the gift of the potentialities of the soul with the challenge to make the most of the gifts they have received. With the balance of the golden mean, a relentless focus on exercising free choice, and anchoring imagination in rational thought, individuals can fulfill the potentialities of the soul.

About the Author

Rabbi Dr. David S. Weiss
Rabbi Dr. David S. Weiss is the co-author of Maimonides’ Cure of Souls (SUNY Press, 2009). He is also the founder and past president of the National Havurah Community (NHC) of Canada, a past vice president on the NHC board, and officiates at numerous weddings and serves as rabbi for the High Holy Days for the First Narayever Egalitarian Congregation in Toronto, Canada. David’s ordination as a rabbi is from Yeshiva University. He has a PhD in psychology from the University of Toronto and master’s degrees in Jewish philosophy from Yeshiva University and in counseling psychology from Columbia University.

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