Jewish sources do not say much about consciousness per se. As JTS professor Dr. Alan Mittleman writes, “The Jewish sources…are concerned not with what consciousness is, but instead with how we use our consciousness as responsible beings.” If the question were how a person may use their conscious mind to learn information, skills and values, then I could speak in detail about Torah study.
If the question were how to cultivate certain states of mind such as attention, memory, humility, kindness, reverence and love, then I could speak about a life of mitzvot, and the special kavvanot or intentions that may connect them to spiritual qualities. Indeed, these two activities—studying Torah and practicing mitzvot—are most of my focus as a Jew and as a rabbi, and they are very much about the shaping of our conscious mind.
My current project of halakhic interpretation deals with the implications of artificial intelligence and autonomous machines for Jewish law. Along the way I ask whether the delegation of responsibilities to an “intelligent” machine relieves a person of moral and religious liability for subsequent actions? And if so, might you have a crime without a criminal? Or would we say that the machine assumed the moral and religious responsibilities that were relinquished by the person?
If consciousness is the key to moral and religious responsibility, is it limited to humans, and if not, could other conscious beings also share in human responsibilities?
What is consciousness from a scientific perspective?
One of the key insights of neurobiology is the physicality of cognition—different parts of the brain allow us to sense and make sense of the world, and then to construct a model within our minds of our own person, as well as of the minds of other persons and even non-persons around us. This account of consciousness describes the mind as a function of the body—one integrated self.
But there is a gap between perception and reality. Princeton University Professor Michael Graziano gives the example that we perceive “white” as pure and colorless, when as a matter of physical fact it is a muddy blend of many colors.
Despite this mismatch between internal concept and external reality, we recognize the importance of physiology—the neurons and synapses and other structures that form our nervous systems, and somehow allow them to interpret reality and command the responses of an organism such as you or me. The formation of a mind is very much a function of the brain and body of its person. In other words, there is integration between body and self, or in Jewish terms, body and soul.
What does Judaism say about the integration of body and soul?
Anyone who has opened the Torah is drawn to its opening act, the story of creation, with God shaping the primeval human as dust from the earth, עפר מן האדמה, and breathing the spirit of life into Adam.
בראשית פרק ב, ז. וייצר ה’ אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה
Our standard English translation, NJPS, renders the verse as, “The Lord God formed human from the dust of the earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and human became a living being.” Let’s focus on the final four words of the verse, ויהי האדם לנפש חיה. One of our earliest translations of the Torah, Targum Onkeles, puts this in Aramaic as “והות באדם לרוח ממללא”, “then it became within Adam a speaking spirit.” Rashi, our premiere medieval reader of the Torah, explains:
רש”י בראשית פרשת בראשית פרק ב פסוק ז. לנפש חיה – אף בהמה וחיה נקראו נפש חיה, אך זו של אדם חיה שבכולן, שנתוסף בו דעה ודבור
“All animals have an animating spirit, but Adam is more spirited than them all, for Adam has the addition of knowledge and speech.” Rashi claims that the defining qualities of humans are דעה ודבור, knowledge and speech. These capacities take shape within the body of Adam. The spirit is a special substance that apparently enters the body, but it also seems to develop within the body.
Does the Torah here endorse the idea of mind-body dualism, or rather emphasize integration? I’d say that it is ambiguous. On the one hand, Adam is a blend of body and spirit, implying an integrated model. On the other hand, there is undoubtedly a sense that the spirit comes from elsewhere, from God, and enters the body. Does this imply a dichotomy?
In fact, much of Jewish thought emphasizes integration of body and soul. Mind and body go together, and there is no way to make coherent sense of treating either alone as a responsible self. This is a normative view in Judaism. What goes on in our bodies is the real deal—this is me, right here, right now. While there may be some sort of deferred reward for the soul, Judaism is interested in what people are doing today, and making this world in these bodies matter. Our souls develop within a web of relationships, and it is through our experiences and actions that we evolve into who we are and how we think.
This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. At the Jewish Center of Princeton, NJ on May 14, 2019, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the Pearl Resnick Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, joined Michael S.A. Graziano, PhD, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, to explore the topic “How Do You Think? A Jewish & Scientific Exploration of Consciousness.” Rabbi Nevins’ presentation is excerpted in two parts.