Exploring the concept of spirituality II: Roots in Judaism

Moses & the burning bush – 1920 Painting by Gebhard Fugel [Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
As we saw previously, understanding the concept of spirituality requires a journey into exploring how the idea of the spirit developed historically, as Margaret Chatterjee suggests in her book, The Concept of Spirituality.


If we consider the starting point of what we call today “spirit”, (early) Judaism talks about the term Nephesh in the Hebrew Bible. Nephesh is considered the source of human vitality; it is nephesh which concretely defines the human as a being possessing life, which is a gift of God. Since Jews (and Christians among others) believe that it was God who gave them life (nephesh) and it was God who created the world, the Jews did not see any need to question the sanctity of the materialistic world or to withdraw from a problematic world (as opposed to what prominent gurus suggest today).

The most direct implication of this worldview was that the Jews saw no difference between moral accountability or community life or relating to God, since their daily life was dictated by God’s commandments (given to them via Moses). In other words, Jewish daily life was governed by “godliness” or righteousness and not so much spirituality.

When Judaism came under the influence of Greek culture (Hellenism), Jewish terminology borrowed the term pneuma, which carried a whole new set of meanings beyond nephesh. Pneuma did not only mean a gift of God to humans, but also signified a divine order of life in the larger universe (cosmos). Pneuma also began to be understand from the level of God (the spirit of God) and at the level of humans (say, the inspired wisdom of the prophets). The implications for Jewish life can now be imagined – the award of divine gifts (like wisdom) depended on a “spiritual” channel of communication (pneuma?) which seemed to exist from God to human.

This oversimplified account does not mean that the Hellenistic Jews immediately embraced the notion of the spirit or an other-worldly mysticism as we understand today. The roots of that contribution could be attributed to arguable the most famous Christian Jew, St. Paul, whom we shall explore next.


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