The Non-Jewish Soul
Traditional Jewish doctrine teaches that there are substantial differences between the Jewish people and the other nations of the world. There is no doubt that God created both the Jew and the non-Jew in His image. However, the question arises when examining the spiritual makeup of human beings: is the soul of a Jew different than that of a non-Jew? To be more specific, do Jews and non-Jews have the same ability to reach the “World to Come?” The answers to these questions have been subject to debate amongst rabbinic scholars dating back to the time of the Tannaim. Answering each of these questions with either a “yes” or “no” represents either of the two extreme approaches to this topic. These two very different positions are commonly found in the texts of the Kabbalah and in the works of rationalists, respectively. The overarching question is much more complex than “are Jews better than non-Jews?” Rather, the question is searching for what the souls of both Jews and non-Jews “look like.” While Kabbalistic teachings show that the soul of a Jew is on a higher level than the non-Jew, the rationalist opinion may say that there is a level playing field between Jews and non-Jews. Through analysis of different sources on the matter, we will find that Maimonides disagrees with the Kabbalistic approach and creates a new way of thinking about the soul of the non-Jew.
The Talmudic source for this discussion is found in Bava Batra. The Gemara begins with Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai asking his students to explain the verse in Mishlei 14:34, “Charity will elevate a nation, but the kindness of the kingdoms is sin.” This verse is troubling: why would the kindness of the kingdoms be considered “sin?” One would think the opposite, that their kindness is praiseworthy!
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students explain that the “nation” in the beginning of the verse refers to the Jewish people. According to this interpretation, charity elevates specifically the Jewish people. The cause of debate amongst the students is the end of the verse: “The kindness of the kingdoms is sin.” Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus explains this part of the verse as meaning that all the acts of charity and kindness that the nations of the world perform is counted as sins for them, since they perform these deeds only to elevate themselves. Rabbi Eliezer cites a verse that shows that when the nations of the world bring sacrifices, they only do so for their king and for their own benefit. Rabban Gamliel similarly explains that the nations of the world will act with kindness only in order to act haughtily through their deeds. Finally, the Talmudic passage concludes with Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakkana explaining that both “charity” and “kindness” refer to the Jewish people, while “sin” refers to other nations.
The Gemara then asks a question regarding ulterior motives with regards to giving charity. There is a beraita that states that if a Jew gives charity so that his son will be healthy, or so that he himself will merit a spot in the World to Come, then he is considered a “fully righteous person.” So, one wonders, why are ulterior motives acceptable for a Jew, yet unacceptable for a non-Jew? Rashi answers that a Jew’s mindset is focused on Hashem; whether or not his request is fulfilled, the Jew will still be focused on Hashem. However, Rashi says that with a non-Jew, if his request is not fulfilled, he will regret having given charity in the first place.
Whichever way one learns the Gemara cited above, the outcome is the same: non-Jews do not perform acts of kindness for the “right,” or altruistic reasons. It seems clear from the Gemara that when it comes to charity and kindness, Jews and non-Jews are different. Yet, the Gemara does not make any distinction between the souls or the spiritual makeup between the Jew and non-Jew. Those who learn towards the Kabbalistic approach interpret this Gemara to mean that there is an inherent difference between a Jew and non-Jew, beyond charity and kindness.
Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri, in his commentary on Mishlei, gives another reason for the ending of this verse. The Meiri states that this verse comes to warn the Jews against stealing money. The Meiri goes on to state that the non-Jewish way is “to take from him, and give to another.” He says that the reason why the charity and kindness done by non-Jews is considered sin is because they are using stolen money. The Meiri calls their charity “a mitzvah that only comes about because of a sin.”
Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Ramchal), in his work Derekh Hashem, writes, “While a Jew and a 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.” The Ramchal also comments regarding the World to Come that “only Israel will be found there, while the righteous of the nations will be given their reality only by virtue of their attachment to them. They will be subordinate to Israel as clothes are subordinate to the body.” Notably, the approach of the Ramchal seems to go against the Gemara in Sanhedrin which states that “the righteous of all nations have a place in the World to Come.”
The above sources deal with mainstream rabbinic sources addressing the topic of non-Jews. For a deeper understanding, one must look to Kabbalistic teachings where the non-Jewish soul is addressed. Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Baal HaTanya, addresses the topic of the non-Jewish soul by quoting the famed student of Rabbi Isaac Luria, Rabbi Chaim Vital. In Vital’s work, Etz Chaim, he writes that every Jew has two souls. “There is one soul which originates in the kelipah and sitra achra and which is clothed in the blood of a human being, giving life to the body…From this soul stem also the good characteristics which are to be the innate nature of all of Israel…The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipot which contain no good whatsoever…all good that the nations do is done from selfish motives.” The Baal HaTanya then quotes the opinion of Rabban Gamaliel, found in the above Gemara in Bava Batra, who says that the phrase “the kindness of the kingdoms is sin” means that all charity and kindness done by the nations is only for their own self-glorification.
Rabbi Chaim Vital, later in the Etz Chaim passage quoted, explains that the shevirat hakeilim of the Arizal pertains to this subject, for when the shevirat hakeilim took place, there were parts of the vessel that were imbued with kedusha and those that were not. Vital writes that Jews are made from the parts that have kedusha, while non-Jews are from the excess parts of the vessel which do not contain kedusha.
The Kabbalists read the Gemara in Bava Batra to say that the difference between the Jew and non-Jew is not simply how they perform acts of kindness and charity: the Jew is a different type of being. This is akin to the Meiri above who said, “They (Jew and non-Jew) are so greatly different as to be considered a completely different species.”
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, a twentieth century Torah scholar and student of Kabbalah, writes in his book, Orot, regarding the distinction between the Jew and non-Jew: “The difference between the Jewish soul…and that of all the nations, at all their levels, is greater and deeper than the difference between the human soul and the soul of an animal.” This is the most blatant and extreme expression of distinction thus far expressed between the Jewish and non-Jewish soul.
As demonstrated by the numerous aforementioned sources, the approach of most rabbinic scholars to this topic is similar to the Kabbalistic view: Jews are different from non-Jews. However, the Kabbalistic approach brings this distinction to a more extreme level, claiming that the non-Jew is born and created with a different soul than a Jew. Rabbi Kook emphasizes that not only are Jews different in their actions, but rather they are inherently different in their souls.
The approach of the Kabbalists is difficult for many reasons. First, the source in Bava Batra which they draw from seems to judge the actions and moral culture of non-Jews, rather than their spiritual make-up. Furthermore, even if the reading and assumption of the Kabbalists is correct, does this apply to all non-Jews? Are there no truly good-hearted non-Jews, as Rabbi Chaim Vital writes? Does everyone agree with this morally troubling approach? The answer to this last question is that almost everyone, except for Rambam and the tradition that followed him, seem to accept the notion that non-Jews have a different spiritual makeup than Jews.
Rambam holds an alternative view and, by contrasting Rambam’s view to the views of those mentioned above, it will be shown that Rambam’s view was indeed unique with regards to the non-Jewish soul. Rambam emphasizes many times in his writings that all human beings can come close to Hashem. Rambam says that, essentially, there is no difference between the Jewish soul and the non-Jewish soul.
In Rambam’s famous “palace parable,” he describes the different levels at which a person can stand in relation to Hashem. He writes:
“A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the country, and partly abroad. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king’s palace, and their faces in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace, seeking “to inquire in his temple,” and to minister before him, but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the house. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the ante-chamber; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king–at a distance, or close by–hear his words, or speak to him.”
Throughout the parable and his subsequent explanation, Rambam speaks in general terms regarding “all of his subjects.” He makes no distinction between Jews and non-Jews in terms of their ability to come close to the King. Rambam specifically mentions that the people who are far away from the king “are all those that have no religion,” and the ones “who are in the country, but have their backs turned towards the king’s palace, are those who possess religion, belief, and thought, but happen to hold false doctrines.” The only distinction that Rambam makes is between those who have the intelligence to speak with the king and those who do not. It seems that Rambam is saying that if one possesses the intellect to speak with the king, the religion or background of that person is irrelevant. This parable of Rambam’s seems to be in-line with a well-known Mishna in Pirkei Avot. In this Mishna, Rabbi Akiva praises man for being created in God’s image. He then praises Israel for being called “sons” to God. Finally, he praises Israel because God gave them the Torah. At first glance, the Mishnah makes a very obvious distinction between Jews and non-Jews, for Rabbi Akiva begins by praising “Man,” and then in the next two praises he specifies “Israel.”
The Tosfot Yom Tov clarifies this. He states that the beginning of this Mishnah, where man is praised for being created in God’s image, refers to all of mankind. He explains that Rabbi Akiva wanted to praise not only Jews, as other commentaries suggest, but rather both Jews and non-Jews for this specific trait. The Tosfot Yom Tov is perplexed by the other commentaries who say that even the first part of the Mishnah is only referring to Jews. His confusion is valid, for the Mishna is clear in differentiating its language between the different praises, making it obvious that the initial praise is speaking about all of mankind.
Contrary to the opinion of the Kabbalists, Rambam, in Hilkhot Melakhim quotes a similar idea regarding the ability of non-Jews to reach great spiritual heights. There, Rambam speaks about a category called “the righteous amongst the nations.” This category appears impossible according to the view expressed in the writings of Kabbalah. The Kabbalists and the rabbinic figures who agreed with them in previous sources express the view that, inherently, a non-Jew does not possess the trait of pure, or altruistic goodness. The Gemara in Bava Batra explicitly states that the non-Jew who expresses kindness is doing so either for his own self-elevation or so that he can then act prideful. The thought that there could be a non-Jew who falls into the category of “righteous among the nations” is completely different from the words of Rabbi Chaim Vital. How could there be a non-Jew in the category of “righteous among the nations” if the non-Jew has “no good within him,” a la Rabbi Vital?
Rambam, in Hilkhot Teshuva describes the ability of every man to decide his own fate. He insists that free will is given to every person, giving every individual the ability to decide between leading a virtuous life or a sinful one. In this celebrated passage, Rambam does not differentiate between Jews and non-Jews. Strikingly, he says twice that every person has the ability to make him or herself as virtuous as the biblical Moses.
This view of Rambam is impossible to reconcile within the teachings of Kabbalah. How could a non-Jew, who is incapable of having pure motives and who possesses no good at all–according to the Kabbalistic sources, that is–be able to reach the lofty spiritual level which Rambam deems a possibility for non-Jews? The Kabbalists believed that the souls of the non-Jews are inferior to the souls of the Jews. This assumption would never allow non-Jews to reach the high spiritual levels that Rambam describes.
The last and most noteworthy quote of Rambam that is worth examining appears in Hilkhot Shemitah v’Yovel. In this passage, Rambam expresses the equality of the souls of Jews and non-Jews. Rambam insists that “every single person, from all of inhabitants of the world” who wants to come close to God and is willing to separate him or herself from the bad ways of the world can be sanctified at the highest levels of holiness. Regarding this person, Rambam says, “God will be his portion and inheritance forever and ever.” Clearly, the Baal HaTanya and Rabbi Chaim Vital would categorically reject this view. Rambam is saying that even a non-Jew can possess a portion of God, as it were, within himself. This explanation differs from that of the Baal HaTanya, which claimed that the soul of a Jew is literally a part of God and the Divine essence, whereas the soul of a non-Jew is purely animal.
Rambam here uses the words “holy of holies” to describe this person. The “holy of holies” was the innermost, hidden part of the Temple. Only the High Priest, on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, was allowed to enter it. Thus, Rambam, in this dramatic line, expresses that as long as someone dedicates himself to the service of God and continuously improves his intellect to search for the truth about God, he may reach the highest levels of holiness attainable.
As seen through the various sources cited above, the Kabbalists believe that the soul of a non-Jew is inherently different and inferior to that of a Jew, while Rambam opposes this distinction. Kabbalistic teachings use the Gemara in Bava Batra to support their claim that there can be no true good found in a non-Jew. Rambam most likely reads this Gemara to only apply to the non-Jews who are far away from the truth. Rambam believes that as long as one searches for a path of truth and righteousness in the service of Hashem, he may reach the “holy of holies” of spirituality, regardless of whether or not he is a Jew.
 Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 10b.
 Rashi on Talmud Bavli Batra Basra 10b.
 Meiri Commentary on Proverbs, Mossad Harav Kook, 1969, 146.
 Derekh Hashem 4:1.
 Derekh Hashem 4:7.
 Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 105a.
 Etz Chaim, Portal 50, chapter 2.
 Derekh Hashem 4:1.
 Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, (Friedländer tr., 1904),Part III, Chapter 51, 384.
Found on sacred-texts.com
 Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, (Friedländer tr. 1904), Part 3, Chapter 51, 384.
 Referring to Rav Chaim Vital in the Etz Chaim.
 Likutei Amrim-Tanya, Rav Shneur Zalman Liadi, “Kehot, ”(Publication Society, Brooklyn, NY 1984),4.