Neurological experimentation has confirmed the presence of the soul - also known as the mind.1 It is this incredible substructure that gives us purpose, meaning, transcendence and spiritual connection. It is this human software wherein the driving forces of life originate and from whence come the impulses for our thought, speech, and action.2

According to tradition, every Jew is operated by two general souls.3 The first is the animal soul or life force that drives the base aspect of the person, including all bodily functions and desires ranging from hedonism, arrogance, ego, anger, laziness, depression to natural kindness and goodness.

The second is the G‑dly and pure soul from which all transcendent, selfless, and spiritually motivated manifestations originate.4 The soul is further subdivided into five segments, each serving as the power source for the various aspects and functions of the person.5

Generally the two souls function through the mechanism of thought, speech, and action

The Nefesh is the basic life force that vivifies physical existence. It is related to the blood. (The bridge between the non-corporeality of this life force and the tangible blood plasma is the very light vapor emanating from the heat of the blood).6

The Ruach is the operating system of our emotions.

The Neshama drives our intellect.

Chaya is the foundation of our wills and desires.

Yechida is the connection to the essence of all life and being - the Creator Blessed is He.

Generally the two souls function through the mechanism of thought, speech, and action.7 Some human actions seem self regulating, such as the heartbeat, breathing, and hearing, while others are specifically directed and caused, such as speaking and walking. The chain of command to a directed action originates in the person's desire, which activates the will, which manifests in the mind, which stimulates the emotion, which gives birth to the thought, which then can become words or deeds.8

It is the nature of homo sapiens for the mind to dominate the emotions and all the resulting behavior.9 Consequently, when we want to modify our behavior (thought, speech, and action) we can do so either by addressing the act itself or by focusing on the primary origin of the act. For example when you feel the onset of rage and anger, you can clench your teeth or bury your head in a pillow to stifle the potential outburst; or you can make contact with the inner software where the anger was conceived and given life and switch it off at its root. The benefits in the latter approach are obvious and manifold as you thus avoid contaminating the various aforementioned links by anger. Physiologically, as well, this way your inner personality remains free of the ravages of anger. In the former method, while the anger does not express itself externally, it has erupted internally.

The Torah Method of Behavior Modification

How do we identify the internal switches that operate the source of all actions, and do we have the mechanism to manipulate and control them?

It can be argued that while the mind certainly can dominate the person, nurture and habit have the power to effectively neutralize the mind's independence. Proof for this is the ease with which we make good, sound resolutions and the difficulty in keeping them. Behavior patterns, whether intrinsic or learned (nature or nurture), can be otherwise described as addictions. While some addictions are chemically or psychologically motivated, others are a result of regularity and repetition.10

One of the reasons postulated why successful dieting can be a greater challenge than rehabilitation from drug or alcohol addiction is the fact that you can completely eliminate drugs and alcohol from your regimen, but you cannot stop eating. Instead, you must modify and transform your attitude towards eating. It requires a lifestyle change. Many credible studies and much experience show that it would be futile to heal addiction to drugs or alcohol by modifying their consumption. In life most of the traits or actions that we want or need to change cannot be completely eliminated. For instance, if you want to stop gossiping, you must modify your communication pattern. You do not stop speaking entirely.

Hence we need to address the intended behavior that we want to change by knowing and activating the source of that particular behavior. Let us consider the two human software components, namely the animal soul and the divine soul, and analyze how they affect extremely different results in the hardware or body.

Spiritual acts habituate a person to behave in a G‑dly directed manner.

The way we modify our bodies is analogous to how we can modify our souls. If we wish to develop certain muscles, we repeat a specific exercise frequently. If we wish to reduce part of our anatomy, we repeat different specific exercises regularly. So, too, our internal operating systems (souls) respond to different stimuli to achieve different results.

Each of our two souls seeks to control the functions of the body according to its own agenda. The animal soul, seeking to express its brute animalism, becomes more emboldened and dominant by the very behavior it activates.11 The divine soul likewise becomes stronger and more dominant when the behavior it motivates is performed.12

From the moment we are born, the animal soul is closer to our consciousness and sensations - eating, sleeping, enjoying, playing. The exercise that nurtures it and makes it grow derives from the natural instinctive aspects of existence. Thus when the human animal wants something, it employs all of its faculties, including intellect and emotion, to achieve the desire. (Though the mind is the domain of the divine soul, it can be overcome by a more powerful animal instinct and used for its hedonistic fulfillment. It is this level of intellect that Chasidism infers to as "immature intellect" that can be manipulated.)

The divine soul in its holy distinction also evokes behavior that when carried out strengthens its influence on the personality. Its exercises are the spiritual acts of G‑d's directives - mitzvot (Torah commandments). Performing mitzvot utilizes the animal soul to perform its necessary function but subordinates its will to the divine soul.

When the divine soul dominates a person, his/her behavior pattern operates in purity for good purposes. Spiritual acts habituate a person to behave in a G‑dly directed manner.

Since the revelation at Mount Sinai, G‑d has been commanding us to behave in a way that reverses the natural internal chain of command.13 (See Figure 1.) Generations before Sinai, our forefather Abraham began his process of spiritual growth the "natural" way, starting with his intellect. Maimonides states that Abraham began to wonder about the universe - contemplating about it for more than fifty years - and concluded that there must be a Creator. He then promulgated his findings and conclusions by teaching and propagating G‑dliness to the world. Only at the age of 99 was the Divine command of an action conveyed to him, when he was directed to circumcise.

The way we modify our bodies is analogous to how we can modify our souls

Action (mitzvot) ==> Speech (emotion) ==> Thought (intellect)

Figure 1. The Torah system of behavior modification reverses the "natural" hierarchy of the chain of command within the human personality.

The seemingly natural chain of command in human behavior is reversed in the Torah-directed system of how to live. Instead of thought (intellect) leading to speech (emotion) that ignites action, the Torah way requires action (mitzvot) first, which then opens the doors for speech (emotion) and thought (intellect). This is most fundamentally demonstrated by the commitment of the Jewish people at Sinai to "do before we understand." In the Jewish life cycle, we start with action. At the age of eight days a boy must be circumcised. Then from the time a child learns to say Daddy or Mommy, s/he begins to learn the words of the Torah. Only at a more mature stage does the child decipher true understanding and feeling from these words14 The meaningful continuity of the Jewish people as a unique nation is proof of the success of this method. The act of performing commandments is the critical element that touches and affects our inner being, which in turn affects behavior.

See also: Prisoners, Families and Torah (originally published as The Torah Method of Behavior Modification for the Benefit of Prisoners and Their Families)

Condensed from the original article and reprinted with kind permission from B'Or HaTorah vol. XII (2000), pp.121-124.