1. Nefesh (NEH-fesh) the physical life force of the body. All animals certainly have this, or they would not be alive. For that matter, so do plants have nefesh. This is also the word used by King David in Psalm 25:20: "O guard my soul and rescue me." Some modern versions of the Bible translate this as "guard my life." In Jewish thought, to "guard your soul" means to take care of your health and safety. We are also commanded to take care of our animals in the same way, giving them proper food, water and shelter: "A good man takes care of his animals, but wicked men are cruel to theirs." (Proverbs 12:10) So before we go any further, let's be very clear that whether or not animals have souls in the theological sense is irrelevant in terms of our responsibility to care for them. One cannot argue that animals are "things" and then go abuse them, heaven forbid. (In fact, even "things" have a netzotz -- a divine spark of holiness - within them, but that's a whole other blog.)
2. Ruach (ROO-akh) literally means "wind" or "spirit" and is the emotional level of the soul. In Hebrew/Yiddish idiom, to do something "with ruach" means to do it with feeling -- such as singing a song or playing an instrument with "soul." Biologically, I would associate ruach with the limbic system, the "mammalian" part of the brain that controls emotions. Maimonides, an important 12th-century Jewish philosopher, clearly states in his Guide for the Perplexed that when it comes to the love between a mother animal and a mother human, there is no difference, because love comes from the emotional level. This is the reason the Torah forbids slaughtering a baby animal on the same day as its mother (Leviticus 22:28) because the mother might see this and feel emotional pain. By extension, Jewish law forbids slaughtering any animal in front of another. (Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 34:14)
Maimonides also argues that the commandment to send away a mother bird before you take eggs or young from a nest (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) is meant to teach us compassion for the feelings of the mother bird. I have chickens and believe me, they do indeed get upset if they see you taking their eggs. So clearly, from a Jewish perspective, birds and mammals have ruach. Whether or not insects, fish, reptiles, etc. have this level is up for debate. Certainly they experience fear; otherwise, they would not run or swim away. But does a snake feel love?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, 18th century) wrote in the Tanya that humans actually have two souls: an "animal" soul that they are naturally born with (which seems to correspond to the nefesh-ruach levels described above) and a "divine soul" which is "a part of God above" and must be developed and consciously focused on spiritual things. These two souls have been compared to a rider and a horse; when they work together, all is well, but if the horse throws the rider, the lower body desires take over and a person acts only on animal instincts. From Rabbi Schneur Zalman's perspective, only humans have the higher soul level, although his is NOT the last word in the subject. This brings us to:
3. Neshamah (neh-SHAH-mah) is the word most commonly used in colloquial speech for "soul" in the usual sense, that is, an immortal soul that survives death. But it is also the word used in Psalm 150 for "let everything that has a soul praise God." Some translations render this as "everything that has breath," because neshamah is etymologically related to the word neshimah, meaning "breath." Now, if everything that has breath is to praise God, wouldn't that suggest that animals, too, have a neshamah? In Psalm 148, everything in the universe is praising God, even inanimate objects such as the sun, moon and stars. So "praising God" can't really be used as a criteria for whether or not something has an immortal soul.
However, we should note that there are many anecdotal stories of people encountering "ghosts" or spirits of animals. So it does appear quite possible that something in an animal survives death.
In kabbalah, neshamah is associated with the higher levels of the mind and, interestingly, some Jewish philosophers felt that we are not automatically born with a neshamah, that we must develop it. This is supported by modern brain research. The more we use our brains, the more synapses we develop among the neurons, and the more intelligent we can become. Conversely, a brain that is not stimulated will lose synapses and, in some cases, fail to learn even basic language and reasoning skills. "Use it or lose it" apparently applies in both biology and theology.
Jewish philosophy has long regarded knowledge as the only thing we take with us to the Next World, which may be why developing the intellectual neshamah is associated with immortality. But does this mean we are developing a "soul," or simply improving the physical brain? Hard to say. The fact is, we can't really prove there is an immortal human soul, anymore than we can prove -- or disprove -- the existence of an immortal soul in animals. What we can say is that humans do possess a level of intelligence that is greater than even the higher primates, and that we humans can develop a conscious sense of right and wrong that animals lack. (A lion may kill prey, but he does not murder.) Most Jewish thinkers also maintain that humans are the only beings with free will, who can consciously choose to know their Creator.
Neshamah is generally connected not only with intellectual pursuits, but also with moral responsibility. In Yiddish, to have a "Jewish soul" (yiddische neshamah) means to have a sense of proper humanity and compassion. In other words, to be a mensch -- an upright person of true integrity and honor -- the highest compliment one can give in the Yiddish language.
4. Chayah (KHAI-yah) literally means "living." It is used in the Torah in Genesis 2:7 , where God breathed the breath of life into Adam and then Adam "became a living soul (nefesh chayah)." Note that this term combines nefesh, the life force of the body, with chayah, "living." But isn't a body with nefesh already living? In the biological sense, yes. So chayah must add another dimension to human existence.
In kabbalah, chayah refers to a higher spiritual level, something like a collective consciousness, where all members of humanity are connected together. The word adam literally means "human being" -- homo sapiens -- in Hebrew, and only later in the story does it become the name of a specific man. Adam Kadmon -- the Primal Adam -- is often pictured as a hermaphrodite cosmic being who contains all the souls of all the humans who ever were or will be born. He/she is the chayah level of the human species. (In Jungian terms, the species archetype.)
(This section was updated on 12/31/15, incorporating some feedback from readers.) Do other species also have a chayah level? Not in the human sense. But if we regard chayah as the species archetype, then each pair of animals in Eden would be the species' chayah. Nefesh chayah is used in one other place, namely Genesis 1:20, which seems to support this. The full phrase is is "yishr'tzu hamayim sheretz nefesh chayah" which is translated variously as "let the waters swarm (teem) with swarms of living creatures," or with "moving creatures that have life," etc. So the focus is on them being alive, which is what I said the nefesh level was, i.e., the life force of the body. They are all created by direct command, not by having the "breath of life" breathed in separately.
Thjis is a main difference between animals and humans. Everything else in the Eden story is created by God simply speaking it into existence: "Let there be light -- and there was light." Only in the case of humans does God "breath the breath of life" into them directly. Again I stress: This does not mean that other creatures don't have life. And we have already demonstrated that many creatures have feelings. But Judaism does take the direct "breathing in" of Adam's nefesh chayah to mean that there is something different about humans as compared to the rest of creation. Rabbi Natan Slifkin, known as the "zoo rabbi" and author of Man and Beast, clearly states that humans are the only beings that have a "divine soul" in this sense. But on the other hand, he also devotes many pages to our responsibility toward animals as stewards of the earth. So do numerous other Jewish commentators.
4. Yechidah (yeh-KHEE-dah) means "unity" and comes from the same Hebrew root as echad, "one" as in "God is One." Yechidah does not appear in the Bible as such, but is a kabbalistic term developed in later Jewish mysticism. Yechidah is the level of the soul where we can "touch God."
Judaism does not teach that we can become God or merge entirely with God as some mystical systems do (although some Hasidic thinkers came pretty close to that.) We Jews are not pantheists. But there is a level where we can experience oneness with God's Creation and, through this experience, get a "taste" of the oneness of God. Humans all over the world have reported this type of experience.
Do animals also experience oneness with God? It is impossible to say, because they cannot tell us. Some Jewish thinkers (as well as others) maintain that animals -- and, in fact, all created beings except humans -- automatically do the will of God because they were created that way, with no free will to do otherwise. In that sense, they may be more in tune with God than we are. At the same time, they do not seem to have the same level of creativity that comes with our free will.
In conclusion: There is no clear yes-or-no answer to this question. Whether or not you believe animals have souls depends on how you define "soul," and Judaism does not speak with one voice on the subject. One thing Judaism does clearly say, however, is that animals are living beings with feelings, that they were created by God, and that we are commanded to care for them properly. (That's three things, actually, but you know what I mean.)
This being the case, why is it that Western civilization -- much of which is based on the Bible -- has become so callous toward animals and the environment? The fault lies not with Judaism, but with a non-Jewish philosopher named Rene Descartes -- "the father of modern philosophy" -- who lived in the 1600s and believed that animals are nothing but automatons, unfeeling machines that cannot feel pain. This is not in accord with Jewish thought but, unfortunately, a lot of Jews, as well as many Christians and others, have adopted Cartesian attitudes over the centuries -- a topic we explore in Part 2 of this series.