Here I was … singing about the purity of souls with a room full of Reconstructionists: queers, gender outlaws, patrilineal Jews, and so many of us who are so used to being reminded that our souls are anything but.
I knew I wanted to study at RRC when I came for the prospective student weekend. I found my recently graduated from undergraduate self sitting in the Hadar Kehilah (community room), surrounded by rabbinical students, and teachers and scholars whose books I’d poured over. We were praying words of the morning liturgy, אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא, my Source, the soul you gave me was pure.
Here I was, sitting five minutes away from my childhood home, singing about the purity of souls with a room full of Reconstructionists: queers, gender outlaws (b’shem Auntie Kate Bornstein), patrilineal Jews, and so many of us who are so used to being reminded that our souls are anything but.
My Source, the soul you gave me is pure.
Four years later, I am still exploring the nature of that soul. Entering into my penultimate year of rabbinic training, I have created a podcast exploring themes of death and dying, called The Aramaic memorial prayer for the dead. Mourners recite this prayer at every service, every day, in the presence of a minyan (prayer quorum) over the course of a year (for a parent) or thirty days (for a sibling or offspring). The prayer actually makes no mention of the dead, but rather prays for the sanctification and magnification of God's name.. September’s episode of Kaddish explores questions of soul, of advance directives, and hospice. I am now pulling apart Soul, a clear, pure gift from God that we sang about in my first moments at RRC.
Megan Andelloux, around whom the episode centers, tells her story of health and sickness, and her journey to hospice work. Megan tells us that her soul is in her brain, that one’s soul and personality are the same thing. The other thing to know about Megan, that she explores in this episode, is that she has dementia, and her dementia progresses, she tells us, she is watching her soul disappear.
If the soul is the personality, then the soul grows and evolves as a person matures through life. The soul that returns to the Divine—at the end of life, or even nightly, returns just a bit changed by the human that housed it. The learning that a soul has on this earth contributes something of substance to its own growth, and perhaps collective growth.
What a fear, that what we do on this earth doesn’t really matter, or that the change we make in our lifetimes is for nothing. So if soul is the personality, when it disappears, everything it was must disappear with it for good. But if the soul undergoes a growth and transformation that fundamentally changes it, we can always have an impact on the world, far past when we’re gone. This is where my theology and Megan’s atheism connect—when we leave, we leave something behind us that matters.
Ariana Katz is the host of Kaddish, a podcast about death, mourning, and the people who do it. Ariana is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. She is a member of the Philadelphia Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha, a volunteer chaplain and board member at Planned Parenthood of South East Pennsylvania, and a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. Ariana is in training to become a soferet, a scribe of sacred Jewish text.