Conversation with an Orthodox Shaliach, Persons and Souls

I had lunch today with an old friend/adversary. Let’s call him Rich. He is a businessman and a family man, but in his spare time (so-called) he runs an organization calling Jews back to Torah, and Jews away from faith in Yeshua. That makes him a shaliach (shuh-LEE-akh), a missionary of sorts to his own people.

Once, he and I clashed like fire and dynamite (sodium and water for those who had fun in chemistry lab). Those were the days when I was a zealous street evangelist, calling for Jews to come to Christ. Now I still call for Jewish people to know Christ, but with a better understanding of Jewish identity and less offensive means of dialogue.

Anyway, there was one topic among many that we talked about, persons and souls. Before I get to that, let me say that we talked about many things. We did a little personal catching up, a little friendlier than days of old. We talked about our differences. “Jesus is a false god,” said Rich, “believing in him is one of the cardinal sins.” Rich and I are certainly far apart, but in some ways closer than we were before.

But this one topic we discussed, persons and souls, I thought would make an interesting blog article. I found in it an unexpected theological connection. Maybe you will too.

Persons and Souls
“So, tell me something,” I said to Rich. “I heard an idea from Rabbi Feldman that I want to know more about. It had to do with reincarnation [the idea that souls come back in the next generation as different people, a sort of recycling view of souls]. I heard Rabbi Feldman say he believes there are only 600,000 Jewish souls and that is all there ever have been or will be.”

“I don’t know much about that,” Rich looked puzzled. “I see a rabbi here who might be able to answer your question.”

Before he could get the rabbi, I said, “After Rabbi Feldman’s talk, I asked him about it. I wondered how, with fifteen million Jewish people in the world today, there could be only 600,000 Jewish souls. Doesn’t every Jew have a complete soul?”

Rich did not know. He went to get the rabbi. I asked him the same question and whether this belief in 600,000 Jewish souls was widespread or just an isolated theory. “No, it is Torah,” he replied, “it is what we all believe.”

As he began to try and answer how 15,000,000 Jewish people could share 600,000 Jewish souls, not to mention previous generations and generations yet to come, his explanations seemed fuzzy. It took a few minutes to get even close to clarity. I said, “This concept of 600,000 Jewish souls must be part of Midrash or Talmud. Do you know where it says that?” He did not know a reference, but thought it was in the Midrash, rabbinic expansions and commentary on the Torah. These are regarded as infallible by many religious Jews.

As we tried to understand how millions of Jews could share a limited supply of souls, I asked things like, “Doesn’t my friend Rich here have a complete soul? If he has a soul that was in someone else before, is he exactly like them?”

Their best explanation was that the 600,000 souls are root souls that split up and divide into all Jews. That seemed to leave Jews with a fraction of a soul, but Rich said maybe it works like seeds. This was still somewhat unclear as this would require the same seeds to be used simultaneously in different people. Yet the interesting part, the part that made a theological connection between Yeshua-faith and Judaism, was about to come.

“Rich has one of the root souls,” the rabbi said, “but that only means he inherits tendencies of that soul. He is not identical to any other possessor of that soul. He receives the tendencies, but then he makes of them what he will. He is still unique.”

The wheels began turning in my head. “This may surprise you,” I said, “but that is like the New Testament doctrine of the Trinity.” They both said they were not surprised that Judaism and Christianity would have things in common. “You see, the concept of the Trinity is that God has one essence or being, but that one essence is expressed in three different persons.”

They didn’t get it. “Don’t you see?” I continued. “Rich has the same soul or essence as many other Jews, since he shares, as you say, one of only 600,000 souls. There are an untold number of people alive today who inherited the same essence as Rich. Who knows how many inherited it before or will in the future? Yet each one expresses that same essence as a different person. In the same way, the Father, Son, and Spirit share one essence, but they are three distinct persons.”

It is not a perfect analogy. I can see problems with it. Certainly the rabbi and Rich would not regard Rich as ONE with the others who share his soul. They would probably see this as more evidence that Christians believe in three Gods (which is untrue, of course).

I think it is definitely a problem for the concept of 600,000 Jewish souls. The idea for this doctrine probably came from some verse like Exodus 12:37 (are there any scholars out there who know the Midrash reference?). I guess an idea like that could be understood allegorically, but not literally. Still, we must be operating with radically different definitions of soul. A soul is mind, will, and emotion (to me). Yet they would not agree that Rich shares the same mind, will, and emotions with numerous other Jews.

Yet the concept is there. An essence can be expressed in multiple persons. Judaism has a precedent for that idea. For whatever it’s worth, I thought I would point out the connection.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Conversation with an Orthodox Shaliach, Persons and Souls

  1. Personally, I find the whole idea offensive. 6,000,000 Jews died in the Holocaust. They each had 1/10 OR LESS of a soul? As someone who had family members who likely died in the Holocaust, that idea is so offensive to me, I cannot quantify it.

    But here’s a question for these people: what about Messianic Jews? We were born Jewish. We obviously had one of these “partial souls.” When we accepted Yeshua as Messiah, they claim we were no longer Jewish. So, what happened? Did we lose our “partial soul”? And what happened after that? Do we no longer have a soul? Or did we get a Gentile soul… and, if that’s the case, did we get a whole soul, or is there also a limited number of Gentile souls?

  2. Carl says:

    As far as I know, the idea that a Jew has only a partial soul is not taught anywhere in Jewish tradition.

    The teaching about the 600,000 souls is actually simpler than the rabbi was able to explain. It is a mystical notion based on the 600,000 Jewish souls that stood at Sinai to receive the Torah. They comprise the “Body” of the unified Jewish People. Today, each each individual Jew has a complete soul, a soul that SHARES in one of the souls of the Jews at Sinai, from which we descend.

    (Just for the record, I don’t subscribe to this notion.)

  3. Rahel says:

    Shalom Derek and all:

    As a Jew, and atriditional one at that, the only place I’ve ever heard of a belief like this is in Kabbalah, and that can be a highly figurative area of Jewish thought. The belief in reincarnation, along with the idea that there are only 600,000 Jewish souls, isn’t a mainstream one. I would submit though that it gets tossed around and people pick it up without considering its implications. It’s a very offensive belief in my estimation, without Scriptural or sound basis within the rest of the mesorah, and so I could never hold by it.

  4. Rahel:

    Thanks for weighing in. I hope I didn’t communicate any disaparagement of Orthodox life. I certainly don’t feel anything but respect for my Orthodox friends.

    Sometimes I am not aware of how widespread a view might be. The two Orthodox rabbis I have spoken to about this take the 600,000 soul idea as a universal belief for those who accept the tradition. I specically asked if this was merely a kabbalistic notion. They said that the tradition firmly teaches it. No one could cite a reference for me. I still want to know where this is found in the tradition.


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