Q&A : Living An Integrated Life – August 2009 – “Jewish Life” magazine
This edition looks at mind, body and soul – what does Judaism have to say?
Judaism looks at a human being as an integrated whole, made up of different components. The Maharal of Prague says that this is what makes us unique. Angels are purely spiritual, animals are purely physical, and humans are made up of all of these elements. He talks about three major components that make up a person.
What are they?
The physical; emotional; and the intellectual/spiritual.
Why are intellectual and spiritual together?
The mind and soul are two sides of the same coin. The brain is a very spiritual organ – just look at how small it is relative to how much information it contains! The spiritual part of a person is the neshoma, the soul, but the Maharal speaks about the interconnectedness between the soul and the brain. There are of course different approaches even within Judaism, but the common denominator is this: the human is a single being made up of different elements.
Does Judaism give us the tools to integrate these into our living?
Yes, this definitely has practical implications, and is not just about a philosophical understanding of who we are. We need to look at ourselves holistically. Through the Torah and its mitzvot, G-d gives us a way of life that is the masterplan for living in context of all the different aspects of a human being. For giving expression to and developing every element of our self, and elevating each component to the highest possible level.
How do we elevate ourselves? Let’s start with the physical…
So many of the mitzvot that we have are performed physically – tefillin, matza, lulav, mikveh etc. Judaism’s view is very clear – Hashem does not want us to be separated from the physical world, and indeed, integrated living means that you have to embrace it. But within a framework of values. Like eating – food must be kosher, and we say brachot. We show gratitude, express spirituality – we are serving G-d, whilst nourishing and giving energy to the body.
So is this an example of integrated living?
This brings in the concept of ‘Leshem Shamaim’, everything for the sake of Heaven – which yes, in a sense holds all of these parts together. The gateway to G-d and a life well lived is through every part of ourselves. The point to understand is that this is not to the exclusion of the physical – it too should be uplifted, as should emotions, intellect, and our neshoma.
But how can we elevate the emotional?
By working on character traits. The Rambam says that with all character traits we should follow the middle path, and not be extreme in any – except for arrogance and anger, which we should eradicate. The Rambam talks about the importance of having good character traits that are integrated into the emotions, both positive and negative – all of which affect a person’s emotional wellbeing.
But the conventional wisdom is that one cannot control ones emotions…
Judaism teaches that we have to work on this, albeit a lifetime’s work. The goal is to become a highly developed person. One who has reached a level of emotional maturity, with a sense of proportion and balance.
And the spiritual?
We are talking about something above the spiritual – and that is G-d’s plan – the spiritual is just another one of the forces within a human being, which has to be directed.
How does Judaism then define the spiritual?
The key is to define the goals of Judaism first. A key goal is to live in accordance with G-d’s will as revealed to us in the Torah. Judaism is a system created by G-d, which guides us towards transcending ourselves, as opposed to self-involvement. Spirituality has to be guided toward the service of G-d, in the same way the physical and emotional does.
In other words, we need direction…
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe ztl explains that human beings have natural instincts, similar to animals. All of these things are raw instincts, which if left unguided, can cause havoc – specifically physical pleasure, emotional turbulence, and even spirituality! Rav Wolbe explains that the common denominator of these raw instincts is that they are all self-centred; that is they are about self gratification. He says that this even applies to the spiritual drive and certainly to the physical and emotional needs of a person. The aim of the Torah is to elevate, guide, and direct these instincts to positive and holy outcomes. The Torah is an instruction manual on how to live by harnessing, channelling, and integrating all our components and to become great people through that.
How do we channel these?
There is an important teaching in Pirkei Avot, which says that ‘Jealousy, desire, and the pursuit of honour remove a person from this world’. Maharal explains that this relates to the three components of a person – emotion, jealousy; desire, physical; honour, spiritual. We have the potential for both good and bad, with all our different parts are pulling us in opposite directions. This is our challenge. But we are fortunate to have the Torah as our guidebook on how to navigate all of this and to lead an integrated life.
Why is an integrated life so important?
This ultimately leads to inner peace. The word shalom comes from ‘shalem’, complete. One can never have inner peace without holistic integration of everything with G-d’s guidance through the Torah.