Laughing With Dead Poets

This article was originally published in Ha’aretz, in its ‘Jewish Thinker’ section, shortly after the news of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide.  

Toward the end of Dead Poets’ Society, as John Keating is being ushered out of the school following the suicide of one of his pupils, his disciples make a defiant statement of allegiance and respect, of honour and recognition, by standing on their desks and shouting, “Oh Captain, My Captain.” They do this one by one, hesitantly, nervously, and in that moment they enact the poetic passion, the courageous individuality, that he had worked so hard to awaken in them.

He looks back at them admiringly, appreciatively, but there is a tinge of sadness in his face. He has been rocked by the death of his pupil, he has been reminded that the embrace of passion will sometimes lead to destruction. The light may burn brightly, but it may also be prematurely extinguished.

I want to stand on my desk and shout, “Oh Captain My Captain.” Through this role and his therapist role in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams conveyed to many in my generation a profound sense of the possibilities in being human, of overcoming fears, of the need for “Carpe Diem,” seizing the day. And he always did it without coming across as trite or shallow, it was spoken from the depths of strength, from an awareness of the obstacles that would get in one’s way.

He gave flesh and spirit to a character who had battled demons, who had held his friend’s corpse in Vietnam, who had watched his wife slowly die of cancer, and who was still willing to play a hand, to give life a go.

Robin Williams could seamlessly merge the comic with the tragic, finding the light amidst the darkness, the redemptive laugh in the face of despair.

And yet, it seems, in the end his own darkness was too much to bear, the pain could not be evaded, the abyss pulled him in with a force he could not counter.

I’ve heard people being surprised by this – “but he knew so much,” “why did he not seek help?,” “but he seemed so jovial” – and my feeling is that people misunderstand what it means to suffer in this way. Perhaps this misunderstanding is deliberate, and rational, for to contemplate the abyss too deeply is to start to feel its grip, to awaken oneself to its horror.

It would be trite and disingenuous to suggest that Judaism has solutions or answers to such problems. My own work as a therapist – perhaps part inspired by Good Will Hunting – has taught me that the paralysing blackness of depression needs to be respected, that it can’t be argued with or cajoled into relenting.

It is a space in which words and sense lose all meaning, wherein connections to the future feel frail, like a bridge that cannot be crossed. Sitting with the pain and trauma can help, but there are no guarantees or formulaic fixes.

Severe depression ravages our most basic levels of motivation, decoupling us from the engine that unconsciously propels us through life. And sometimes, when the engine can’t be restarted, even the will to live cannot be found.

What the Talmud may offer us is a sense that we’re not alone in our suffering; that the dead poets of previous generations have been there too.

I am not speaking of finding comfort in God, for as Julia Kristeva notes in “Black Sun,” to be depressed is to be a most proper atheist, to find salvation utterly blocked, to be wholly enclosed within one’s suffering.

The Talmudic sages lived amidst loss, and their approaches carry the weight of that experience.

A particularly thoughtful approach is offered by Rava (Berakhot 5b). He suggested that in the face of tragedy we might use our acute vulnerability as a source of soul searching, as a call to improve ourselves. This wouldn’t alter our external circumstances, but it might enrich our internal circumstances, and be of tremendous benefit in the long run. It would also keep the aggressive energies from turning depressive, sublimating them into more constructive pursuits.

It is Rava’s position that we adopt at this time in the Jewish year, as we transition from the depressive mourning of Tisha B’Av to the creative self-regeneration of Elul and the High Holy Days.

Rava’s emotional flexibility was in part shaped by his own master Rabbah.

Rabbah was famous for opening his discourses with a joke, with a touch of comic lightness. Once his audience had been opened up by this, once their defences were down and their emotions were receptive, he shifted into a mood of awe and reverence, and then began to teach.

Occupying different emotional registers, transitioning from tragedy to construction, these are Jewish values we are much in need of, this Av more than most.

As we remember Robin Williams, a contemporary master of this dynamic, may we find the strength in ourselves to remain fluid rather than rigid, open rather than closed, and instead of fear may we find the courage required for peace.

Toilet Humour. For real. Berakhot 8

Toilet Humour

I have the idea that sometimes we just misread the Talmud, we take it too seriously.  We don’t see that sometimes they’re just having fun, they’re talking tongue in cheek, they’re making a joke.

And this isn’t new to our generation, often I’ve seen something codified as Law in Maimondes or the Shulkhan Arukh and I’ve thought ‘come on, they were just messing around, you can’t make that into a law!’.

Today the Redactors – I’m growing more conscious of their role, partially from reading Jeffrey Rubenstein, partially because it just begs to be noticed – bring varied explanations for a verse:

‘For this let every pious man pray to you in the time of finding, that the overflowing waters may not reach him.’ (Psalms 32:6)

Seemingly unconcerned with the ‘overflowing waters’ and how they might affect him, they question the meaning of ‘the time of finding’.

At first it seems we are headed into romantic territory – the first explanation is that it means the time of finding a wife.  This is supported by the verse:

‘He who finds a wife finds goodness and obtains favour from the Lord’ (Proverbs 18:22).

It’s a lovely thought, and this would perhaps be the point for the Talmud to launch into the virtues of the ideal wife – the rock of the family, the strength and inspiration behind everything, the model of love and compassion.

But no, it doesn’t go that way.

It goes instead with this gem:

In the land of Israel they used to ask a man who married a wife thus: ‘Matzah’ or ‘Motzeh’?

What did they mean?

‘Matzah’ refers to the verse above – finding a wife is finding goodness.

‘Motzeh’ is less flattering – the reference is to the verse  ‘And I find – motzeh – the woman more bitter than death’.

Charming.  ‘What say you of your wife, does the thought fill you with warmth or with bitterness?’. Ouch.

The suggestion is that they would ask this at the time of the wedding, though one might also understand it as ‘when meeting a married man’.  The latter, though still pretty harsh, isn’t quite as cynical and hopeless as the first.

Rubenstein suggests there is a tension between the life of the academy and marital life in the Redactors worldview.  Perhaps that’s motivating this little bit of acerbic wit.

Moving on, we stumble into more earnest territory.  The ‘time of finding’ is variously understood as referring to Torah, Death and Burial.  The ‘overflowing waters’ of seriousness are strong here, perhaps they are what we should be watching out for?

Mar Zutra is having none of this seriousness, he is quite firm on ‘the time of finding’.

Mar Zutra said: The time of finding refers to finding a toilet. 

This may be to do with the lack of sewage facilities in place in his vicinity.  Or maybe he was just acknowledging the sheer joy and relief of being able to go when you really really need to.  I prefer the latter understanding.

In case we thought that he was a lone joker, a solo voice in a choir of gravity, the Redactors let us know:

In the West – the land of Israel – they say ‘This explanation is the best of them all.’

Nevermind your romantic sentiments, spare us your morbid thoughts of death and burial, and, from time to time, let’s have a break from the Torah.  Keep it real, when you gotta go, you just gotta to go – do not underestimate the simple pleasures of the body.

Maybe you don’t believe my claim that people miss the humorous note here, not just in Mar Zutra’s quip but in the way the whole passage builds up to it, the natural sense of joketelling on exhibit.  If so, check out the explanation of Rabbi Abraham Moshe Horovitz quoted in the Steinsaltz.

For him, this explanation is best because the term ‘motza’ – finding – is associated in Kings II 10:27 with the toilet.  And for his superior knowledge of the Bible, Mar Zutra wins the prize.

It can’t possibly be about the body, about toilet humour.  It has to be about study, knowledge, the move towards omniscience.

Or maybe Rabbi Horovitz is joking too, maybe – with tongue firmly in cheek – he’s the one having the last laugh.