The notion that the universe is comprised of four "worlds," or levels of reality, first occurs in 13th century Kabbalistic texts, but became more popular in 19th century Hasidism, and is especially resonant today. For contemporary seekers, it reflects the understanding that existence is multi-layered, and in a state of dynamic flux.
Classically, these "worlds" represent stages between undifferentiation and differentiation, not unlike the neoplatonic levels of emanation. In Hasidism, however, they came to be described more from the human point of view, as reflecting the experience of spirit, mind, heart, and body. In this model, the four worlds are associated with the "lower" four of the five souls, which derive from the midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 14:9, and are explicated in the Raya Mehemna portion of the Zoharic corpus. Following the Hasidic paradigm, the four worlds are here presented as they are known experientially, from the human point of view.
In Jewish Renewal and Neo-Hasidism, various elements from the Lurianic, Hasidic, and neo-Hasidic versions of the four worlds model have been reformulated for a contemporary audience. While not necessarily reliable for historical scholarship, the presentation below can be of personal, spiritual use.
Experientially each of the worlds has a nest of symbolic associations and experiential elements, but perhaps their most important feature for the contemporary seeker is that, because each world is important, the familiar hierarchies of spirit over body, and mind over heart, suddenly make no sense. The worlds of asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), briyah (creation), and atzilut (emanation) and four souls of nefesh (fleshly, 'earth' soul), ruach (emotional, 'water' soul), neshamah (intellectual, 'air' soul) and chayah (spiritual, 'fire' soul) roughly map onto the familiar matrix of body, heart, mind and spirit. The ideal is not transcendence alone, but transcendence with inclusion of the "lower" in the "higher." Forgetting the body in favor of the soul is like forgetting the foundation of a house in favor of the living room; it will not hold.
The World of Emanation
Soul: Chayah/ Life-soul
In the Body: “Crown” (i.e., no-body)
Human expression: Devekut (merging embrace of the One)
World expression: This moment in its truth; timeless
Prayer: The Amidah, meditation
The World of Creation
World of science: field of matter/energy, shaped by wisdom
Soul: Neshamah/ Breath-soul
In the Body: Brain, breath
Self: Faculties of Mind (reasoning, doubting, wisdom, understanding)
Human Expression: Science, contemplation, reasoning
World Expression: Laws of physics, four basic forces, laws of nature
Separation: Hyper-rationalism, separation from heart and body, “living in the head”
Prayer: The Shema, the acknowledgement of unity
Torah: Drash, discursive midrash/tales, as well as philosophy and theory.
The World of Formation
The energetic world of emotions, sensations, feelings
Soul: Ruach/ wind-water-soul
Self: “Soul” colloquially, Faculties of Heart (compassion, fear & desire)
In the Body: Heart center, lungs, circulation/oxygenation
Human expression: Art, poetry, awe, love
World expression: Eros, forces of love and passion, nature in the Romantic sense
Separation: Sex & Violence, hatred, craving-desire
Prayer: Psalms, cultivating the heart
Torah: Remez, allusion, poetry.
The World of Action
The material, dualistic-seeming world of matter and energy
Soul: Nefesh, the ‘animal soul’, life-force
Self: The physical, moving, tasting, pulsing, sexual body
In the Body: The "body of the body," especially legs and midsection
Human expression: Eating, sleeping, sports, sex, bodily functions
World expression: The material world as it appears
Separation: ‘Flatland’ materialism, alienated carnality, greed
Prayer: Birchot hashachar.
Torah: Pshat, the surface level, and halacha: What should we do?
One final note about hierarchy. As we said above, it's helpful to view these kinds of diagrams not to favor the "higher" over the "lower" but to join all four together, to experience life fully, richly, and deeply. Consider: Why obey the dietary laws, if one could contemplate them instead? Why perform a physical circumcision if a "spiritual" one were good enough? Because the "lower" does not merely serve the "higher." The body, independent of the heart's stirring and the misgivings of the intellect, is the site of holiness; even if there is no apparent change in the mind, and no softening of the heart, transformation takes place within the field of the body. This is not consolation; it is liberation. By no longer evaluating experience according to "how it makes me feel," the grip of an important illusion is loosened: the illusion that you are your mind, and that reality only matters when the ego is affected. Thus the body is simultaneously the ground of traditional Jewish law, and the deepest of its esoteric truths. In the Hasidic view, it is in the material plane that the "extension of the light of the Ein Sof" is most expressed. In the nondualistic view, ultimately the highest truth is the "lowest," as essence is manifestation. This is the esoteric reading of the Shema: that the transcendent is the immanent.