Sunday 18 December 2016



In this essay we will look at whether or not, according to rabbinic sources, a soul can be defined by the religion it is born into.

In other words, is a Jew said to have a different type or ‘grade’ of soul than a non-Jew?


The fundamental book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, provides the premise upon which most later sources are based:

It states that since the Jewish people are “the children of the Holy One”, their souls are naturally “holy” as a result of their innate spiritual origin. According to the Bible Israel is called G-d’s “firstborn”[1].  Therefore the souls of the ‘children’ possess a G-dly quality. 

On the other hand the souls of the other nations are said to “emanate from...impure sources”.[2]

The Zohar continues that the soul of a Jew is considered to be “Divine” or ethereal - whereas other souls are regarded as “animal” and of a more earthly or material origin.[3]

This view has essentially influenced much of Jewish though throughout the subsequent generations right up to the present day. Although the Zohar is a mystical work, its departmentalization of souls based on religion is largely accepted even by non-mystical thinkers, to the extent that it may have de facto become a part of mainstream Jewish philosophy.

[For a discussion on the various views regarding the historical origins of the Zohar see here.]

R. YEHUDAH HALEVI (1075-1141):

R. Yehudah HaLevi built on this concept and wrote that even a convert to Judaism can never become a prophet because of the non-Jewish roots of his soul.[4]

R. CHAIM VITAL (1543-1620):

R. Chaim Vital, a student of the great kabbalist R. Yitzchak Luria, elaborated on the Zohar and proposed that a Jew in fact has two souls. This would hold true whether he is righteous or not. And the second soul was “a part of G-d above”. The souls of all other people were formed out of unclean elements which contained “no aspect of good.”[5]


Another well known kabbalist R. Moshe Chaim Lutzatto, known as Ramchal, wrote: “While a Jew and non-Jew appear exactly alike in terms of their human characteristics, from the Torah’s perspective, they are so greatly different as to be considered a completely different species.”[6]


The founder of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi popularised this concept for the modern era. He wrote in his Tanya about how the Jew possesses two souls, one of which is “truly a part of G-d above”.  He added the word ‘truly’ to the original statement of R. Chaim Vital to emphasize his point. Then he continued; “while the soul of a non-Jew is purely animal in nature”.[7]

It is interesting to note that because of the controversial nature of these comments, when this work was to be translated into English, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was consulted for his guidance on whether or not to include this paragraph.

He responded without mixing his words;

In our day and age, one does not have to be a... confirmed believer... to see what kind of souls the nations of the world have. For all of the nations of the world were witnesses to what took place in Germany...yet they remained indifferent. In light of this, the words of the Alter Rebbe may even be an understatement.”[8]

He further added another interesting take on the Talmudic statement; “A convert who converted (ger she’nitgayer) is like a newborn baby[9]: He explained (quoting the Chida) that technically no one can actually ‘convert’ to Judaism. They can only ‘come back’ to their Judaism after being ‘mistakenly’ placed in a non-Jewish body, because they already possess a Jewish soul!


A further example of a modern day perspective is from the Skvere Chassidim. The following is an extract from their Yalkut Sheilot u’Teshuvot, a book endorsed by the Skvere Rebbe:

Question: - Is it appropriate to not love, or to hate, a gentile?

Answer:  - A Jew is intrinsically good.  A Jew is a part of God above.  Even if at times he strays it is not because he has become evil... However... a gentile is an impure thing.  The entire essence of the gentile is evil and impure. 

(Quoting the Or HaChaim HaKadosh 1696-1743): ‘Even if he occasionally does good deeds he does not thereby become good’...

(Quoting the Shearit LePinchas): ‘To be protected from this there is only one solution; to completely despise the thoughts of gentiles and to realize that all their thoughts are only evil...Hate doesn’t mean wanting to do something (harmful) to a gentile, but it means not being able to tolerate him, not being able to stand him, because of his great impurity, especially when one realizes how harmful this (impurity) is (to Jews and to the world).’

 Understand this – loving a non-Jew is the exact opposite of all the above.”[10]

It must be pointed out that the above is not just peculiar to the Skvere worldview as it references other sources upon which it basis its approach.


R. Kook, the first Askenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, who was known for his magnanimous love of all mankind, Jew and non-Jew, religious and secular, surprisingly still found himself drawn to the classical mystical interpretation of soul differentiation. He offers what R. Hanan Balk[11] refers to as “R. Kook’s shocking statement” which “appears to go even beyond the initial view of the Zohar...

R. Kook wrote:

The difference between the Jewish soul...and that of all the greater and deeper than the difference between the human soul and the soul of an animal...”[12]

As a counter balance, R. Balk then is then quick to point out that notwithstanding that ‘shocking statement’, Rav Kook nevertheless; “...presents one of the most eloquent and poetic overtures toward the love of all men that has ever been composed...” 

R. Kook wrote:

Love of mankind...must extend to all...despite all variations of religion, opinions, and faiths, and despite all distinctions of race...It is right to get to the bottom of the views of different peoples and groups, to learn as much as possible (about) their characters and qualities...for only upon a soul rich in love...of man can...the nation raise itself up in its full nobility...The narrowness that causes us to see whatever is ugly and defiled, is a terrible darkness that brings general destruction...”[13]

R. Kook appears to be torn between a technical point of kabbalistic theology, and basic morality. Yet no matter the theory, he will not allow anything to get in the way of practical principles of human decency.[14]


According to the Tanna de’vei Eliyahu Rabbah, a Midrash redacted in the 900’s, a surprisingly 'modern' view is espoused:

Be it a Jew or a non-Jew, man or woman, manservant or maidservant – all is in accordance with the deeds of the person.”[15]

This is a clear departure from the prevalent mystical approach and places the onus upon the individual him or herself for their individual spiritual growth and for the character of their souls.

R. AVRAHAM IBN EZRA (1089-1167):

Ibn Ezra writes in his commentary on the Book of Proverbs that there is no distinction between the soul of a Jew and that of a non-Jew.

RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Rambam, considered to be the father of Jewish rationalism, also championed an idea which was a far cry from that of the mystics. He taught that a soul has nothing to do with its genetic origins, but rather has everything to do with the spiritual (or more correctly according to him, the intellectual) strivings of the individual.

Regarding the nature of the soul, Rambam makes no distinction between Jew and non-Jew - instead he refers to “every person of humankind.”[16]

He bases his philosophy of ‘neutrality of souls’ on a simple Torah principle – absolute freedom of choice.[17] This principle dictates that no one is born predisposed with a holier soul than another.

He stated this view unequivocally when he wrote:

It should not occur to you the idea – (as) the foolish of the nations and...ignorant Jews profess - that God decrees upon man from the beginning of his creation whether he will be a righteous or evil person. The matter is not such. Rather, every man can be righteous like Moses our teacher or evil like Yerabam…”[18]

Here Rambam challenged the view of the kabbalists that different people are born with different souls, and referred to those who espouse such beliefs as ‘ignorant Jews’.

He also didn’t believe, as the kabbalists did, that a Jew is born with an inherent love of G-d. Instead he maintained that the love had to manifest through a process of work and effort. The challenge of pragmatic development would therefore be the same for both Jew and non-Jew.

With regard to prophecy, unlike R. Yehudah Halevi who felt it to be the sole prerogative of the Jew, Rambam believed it to be open to all worthy people (‘benei adam’).[19] He said; “We believe in a prophet or reject him due to his prophesy, not his lineage.[20] He supported this view by quoting Job, Tzofar, Bildad, Elifaz and Elihu who were “prophets to us”, and yet (in his opinion) were non-Jewish prophets.


R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, one of the teachers of the Kotzker Rebbe, said rather tellingly:

Holiness is not found in the human being unless he sanctifies himself. According to his preparation for holiness, so the fullness comes upon him from on High. A person does not acquire holiness while inside his mother. He is not holy from the womb, but has to labor from the very day he comes into the air of the world.”[21]


As we have seen, the major sources are, to say the least, divided on the matter of soul differentiation based on birth religion.

To put this concept into a modern idiom, let us look at a question that was posed to

Why do you speak of a ‘Jewish soul’? How can you put souls in boxes...Isn't it absurd to think that a soul has attributes like Jewish or non Jewish...?” 

To which the response came: “The idea that all souls are the same is one of the biggest mistakes of modern spirituality...”

However, in truth, it is not the ‘biggest mistake of modern spirituality’ because (as attested by our source in Tanna de'vei Eliyahu) we have been debating this issue for more than a thousand years  .

This emphasizes the point that for so many today (within both the chassidic and mitnagdic world), there is only a one-sided approach. The mindset is so fixed. It’s almost as if the views of Rambam, Ibn Ezra, Tanna de’vei Eliyahu, R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa and many others never existed.

No one is suggesting that anyone subscribe to these or any other views.
But one must acknowledge that the question of soul differentiation based on birth, cannot be answered fully and truthfully, unless all Torah voices are taken into consideration.


The Soul of a Jew and the Soul of a Non-Jew. An Inconvenient Truth and the Search for an Alternative, by R. Hanan Balk.



R. Israel Lifschitz (1782-1860) author of Tifetet Yisrael

I thank Mendy Rosin for directing me to the following commentary of the Tifferet Yisrael. It was written by R. Yisrael Lifschitz whose work has been described, 'one of the clearest and most useful commentaries on the Mishna.'

The following translation is by R. David Sedley, who prefaces his translation of this passage with:  

"...I also find his examples of 'righteous gentiles' very interesting. It seems that advancing the world technologically earns [one] a place in Olam HaBa [The World to Come]."


"My whole life I have been troubled by the statement of the Sages in Yevamot (ibid) which says "you are called ‘Adam’ but non-Jews are not called ‘Adam’.”

I find this difficult – could you think that the Sages would say about an idolater who is in the image of God, as we have explained, that he is considered like an animal? 

Furthermore, if so, what does it mean when God says, “You shall be more treasured by Me than all the nations”? If all the other nations are only like animals, then this verse is only saying that “You shall be more treasured by Me than all the animals, and all the monkeys who resemble humans with their form.” 

Furthermore, if so all their actions would be like the actions of animals, who are incapable of receiving reward or punishment. This contradicts what we know that the righteous of the non-Jewish nations have a portion in the World-to-Come (based on Sanhedrin 105 and Rambam chapter 8 of ‘Laws of Kings’).

Even without the holy mouths of our Sages, who tell us this, we would already know from logic, because God is just in all His ways, and righteous in all His deeds. We see many of them are righteous. 

Not only do they recognise the Creator of Genesis, and believe in His Torah that it is Divine, and they also do kindness like Yisrael. 

Some have done extraordinary good things for the inhabitants of the world, like the righteous Jenner who invented the vaccine (for smallpox) which saves hundreds of thousand of people from illness, death or disfiguration. 

And Drake (Sir Francis Drake 1540-1596) who brought the potato to Europe, and thus prevented famine many times. 

Or Guttenberg who invented the printing press. 

Several of them were not paid at all in this world, like the righteous Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), who was prepared to lay down his life to prevent the burning of the Talmud. 

...Could we think that all these great deeds would not be repaid in the World-to-Come...

Heaven forbid! God does not withhold the reward of any creature."



In in the essay, we mentioned the dichotomy between  the two extreme and contradictory statements of Rav Kook regarding non-Jews. I suggested that perhaps, being a mystic he felt compelled to tow the mystic line on a theological level, but that he would not allow that theology to have any practical relevance whatsoever.

I subsequently saw the following teaching in his Orot, where he openly acknowledges that there are difficult statements scattered all over rabbinic literature, which do not speak positively of non-Jews. His solution is to sidestep and 'overcome' what he calls these 'stumbling blocks' which exist only because of our 'narrow' and 'literal' interpretation of those statements. He additionally mentions that one has also to overcome a natural 'national' bias. None of these make the task of loving those different from us an easy one.

He writes:

"The love for people...must not come to us as a prescribed statute. It must come as a spontaneous movement of an inner soul force.

It will have to withstand many difficult tests, to overcome many contradictions that are diffused like stumbling blocks in diverse statements of sages, in the superficial aspect of many laws, and in a multitude of views that result from the narrowing of the literal part of the Torah and the national system of morals."

Orot vol. 3, 318

[1] Shemot 4:22
[2] Zohar, Bereishit 170
[3] Ibid. 171
[4] Kuzari 1:115
[5] Eitz Chaim 5: ch.2  He based this on his reading of a verse in Amos.
[6] Derech Hashem 4:1
[7] Tanya, Likutei Amarim ch.1
[8]Letters from the Rebbe (Brooklyn, 1997) p. 106.
[9] Berachot 47a
[10] Yalkut Sheilot u’Teshuvot, Yoreh Deah, Siman 151, p. 354.
[11] See The Soul of a Jew and the Soul of a Non-Jew. An Inconvenient Truth and the Search for an Alternative.
(from which source most of this article has been derived).
[12] Orot, 156 no. 10
[13] Musar Avicha p. 58
[14] For me personally, I am fascinated by how Rav Kook appears to be torn apart by this issue. On the one hand he is more intense than the most extreme kabbalists. He is an avowed mystic and nails his colors to the mast. Yet on the other hand he is just as forceful in his unparalleled acceptance of the absolute worth of all human beings.
[15] Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabbah 9:1
[16] Moreh Nevuchim 3:51
[17] See previous post where Rambam is similarly strongly opposed to angelic intercession with regard to prayers, for the same reason - that angels do not possess freedom of choice. Freedom of choice is an exclusive characteristic of human beings alone. And apparently all humans are united having being endowed with an equal amount of this freedom.
[18] Hilchot Teshuva, 5:2
[19] Yesodei HaTorah 7:1
[20] Iggeret Teiman
[21] Kol Simcha. Miketz, p. 47 (It’s interesting to note that the Kotzker Rebbe also believed in the importance of preparation. So much so that the preparation for a mitzvah, for example, was more important that the actual deed. The mitzvah deed was usually discharged quickly and with very little fuss.)


  1. It seems you have confused two unrelated questions. The first being whether the soul of a Jew and a non-Jew are fundamentally different. The second being whether one's soul will determine how he behaves.

  2. I like your blog very much but this article in particular I find it quite slim regarding the importance of the matter.
    There is Adam (bereshit 6:26 etc) and ET ADAM. ET ADAM refers to a neshama that Adam doesnt have. Hence the difference between the homosapiens sapienz and all of them before (which ofcourse existed) and the ADAM (of Adam and Eve, etc) see there, etc

  3. Thank you for your honesty and your contribution.