We are continuing to get to grips with the definitions of boundaries in Shabbat, and following from our attempt to understand movement and transition, we are now focussing on understanding the difference between the public realm and the private realm.
The Talmud sees fit to spend quite a few pages on this, as opposed to a few lines, and it seems to take it pretty seriously. These are not pages filled with humour and wit, they are Rabbinic Legalism at its purest.
As ever in these situations, I find myself wondering what it was that was underlying these discussions, what themes and ideas were in play which made it feel like establishing these boundaries was so critical.
I think that in this case there is actually quite a lot to be thinking about.
Being able to navigate the difference between what is public and what is private is a central issue in religious life.
At the simplest level, Judaism is a religion which emphasises and exists by virtue of community. For a community to exist, there must be a sense of something shared amongst people, a feeling that there are ideals, values and practices which bind them together.
In a perfect world, a community might naturally emerge, people might simply discover that they have a lot in common and that they fare better by inhabiting a more interactive space, a public realm that has a richer texture. And to some extent this is what happens.
But it is not always this simple, sometimes individuals will feel frustrated and disillusioned, and will find it harder to exist in the public communal space whilst still expressing fidelity to its ideals. Things may be going on for them, or they may just be experiencing a period of doubt or exhaustion. At these points public life can just seem a lot harder.
This is a part of life, and as far as Judaism is concerned it is to be understood and appreciated. One of the categories of person who was historically excluded from the community was one who ‘violated the Sabbath in public’. Struggling to maintain observance of Shabbat in one’s private space is one thing, it is a much more serious problem for the community when someone makes a public demonstration of their rejection of Shabbat.
Putting it differently, we might say that a large part of what makes Shabbat is the communal commitment to it, the creation of a public space that is free of work and worldly concerns, that is dedicated to the restoration of the spirit and the recollection of values. If people are not able to respect this, then they have misunderstood the essence of community, they have automatically excluded themselves from its workings.
What we are therefore advocating is a strong sensitivity to the public space, and an awareness of how it differs from one’s private space. We respect the private space, the haven wherein one might have more flexibility and room to express one’s dissent and ambivalence.
This is not to say that we wish to encourage a community based on hypocrisy, a lifestyle fuelled solely by people ‘keeping up appearances’. It is simply to register that the communal space is somewhat sacrosanct, and that maintaining this is challenging. When one isn’t up for the challenge, one should make use of the breathing space that the private realm offers, wherein one can act out one’s different feelings to less destructive effect.
Continuing deeper into the exploration of the public and private, what applies at the level of community also applies at the level of the relational or interpersonal. Whilst honesty and frankness are important, it is not always the case that everything which is felt or thought should be acted upon. We are sometimes overcome with anger or hatred, and it can seem like the most natural thing in the world to act on these impulses. And that may sometimes be the right thing to do. But sometimes it will not be, sometimes the person in front of us will not be the one who is really making us angry, they will not be the root of our hatred, and we risk doing irreparable damage to the relationship by acting out our fury.
Similarly, and perhaps more obviously, we may sometimes find ourselves inclined towards inappropriate intimacies, be they sexual or otherwise. Here too we are asked to distinguish between the private realm, wherein we may consider and reflect upon these desires, and the public realm, wherein the deed reigns supreme, and is rarely easily undone.
Therapy occupies an interesting space on this continuum, something like the ‘karmelit’ that the Talmud speaks of, which is neither public nor private, yet has something in common with both. It is private enough such that everything can be safely expressed and explored within its boundaries. On the other hand it is more public than being left alone with one’s torments, with the ravages of one’s potentially punitive conscience. By shedding a little of the public light on one’s problems, they can begin to be unpicked, one can start to understand them with better perspective.
And at this point we arrive at the most important of the distinctions between public and private, the one which we spend the whole of our lives trying to untangle, which we may never truly overcome.
Put simply, and it is a devilishly hard thing to grasp, it is the difference between what we think we are feeling, perceiving and experiencing and the true reality of those feelings, perceptions and experiences.
At this point, confusingly, it is important to note that the ‘reality’ of those feelings is actually deeply buried in the private realm and the way we perceive them is actually more reminiscent of the public realm. ‘Public’ in this sense is what we are conscious of, ‘private’ is what is unconscious.
An example will help us to get a handle on this. Imagine a child brought up by parents he could never quite manage to please, who were angry and hostile with him almost indiscriminately, certainly not in any measured sense. This child will never have been given the confidence to act naturally in the world, he will forever be trying to figure out what might make the people around him happy, and using that as the basis for action. When he does not succeed in pleasing these people, or even thinks he perceives that this is the case, he will experience this as a grave and serious failing, even if it was in fact nothing of the sort.
In the public realm of his conscious mind, he is trying to please his boss, or perhaps his wife, and he is pretty sure that their demands are reasonable. But in the private realm of his unconscious he is reliving the torment of his young childhood, he is trying to please a hostile or disinterested father, trying to win over an angry or depressed mother.
This is why he feels so unduly invested in the outcomes of these ‘real-world’ events, why the approval of his boss feels so weighty and significant to him, why his wife’s fury over something trivial cuts him to the core.
For he is still trying to redeem the child inside that was never adequately welcomed into the world. He engaged in an ongoing battle with the forces of hostility that gave him his earliest orientation in life, which forever tarnished his perceptions of human interaction.
It is not that there is an easy fix for this confusion, overcoming this difficult start in life is a mammoth task. But one of the ways to begin is by trying to understand the difference between what is private here and what is public, what is being enacted or lived unconsciously and what appears to be happening to the conscious mind.
And I would like to emphasise that this situation is not unique to people with a difficult childhood (everyone?) or to those who suffered other traumas or setbacks in life. We are all made up of the history of our experiences, our patterns of behaviour and feeling are built up like the layers we might find in an archaeological dig. It will be rare that anything we do or think has no connection with the deeper strata of our mind’s formation; acknowledging this is an early step in moving towards an easing of the tension that eats away at us.
People sometimes protest that this is a reductive way of looking at people, that it is crude and deterministic in its assessment of personality. And I get this, I can see that it is hard to accept that we neither know nor control ourselves nearly as well as we think.
But ultimately I find this outlook really quite liberating, a source of tremendous optimism. If at least some of the troubles we face in life have their source within us, if we partially create them as a result of unrecognised or unresolved needs or patterns in our psyche, then we have reason to believe that we can change.
And this change is not necessarily moral, it may sometimes actually involve giving up what was perceived as a profound moral challenge. Nonetheless, it may well be a change which enables us to experience greater harmony and unity, which can overcome some of the discord and alienation dividing our psyche.
Going back to the daf, Rav Chiyya bar Rav and Rav Ashi are debating whether a pile of excrement in the street is considered to a public or a private domain.
This may sound grotesque or absurd, but my experience of therapy tells me that this is actually the biggest question we face in life. The shit in our lives: is it part of the outer world or is it part of our inner world? Is it the external reality of a situation which is genuinely unbearable or is it something in us which is interpreting it negatively; is a fairly benign person or event triggering a strange overreaction in us, tapping into something primal and infantile which were heretofore unaware of?
We are concerned with what is within and what is without. And in the case where they cannot be so easily disentangled, we try to learn from weighing up the public and private contributions to the whole.
The Talmud was right to spend a long time on this distinction; there is ultimately no deeper nor more rewarding question for us to live by.