Can the Israeli Army talk about God?

This article was published on November 25th 2014 on Haaretz.  It is an attempt to consider a form of religion that might work in a modern state, and that would neither inflame internal or external passions, nor lead Israel into a religious war.  

On heading into battle during Operation Protective Edge, Colonel Ofer Winter invoked the “God of Israel” to bolster the fighting spirit among his troops. This provocative gesture, echoing something from a Biblical narrative, generated huge controversy and could become the undoing of his career.

Israel Harel defends the colonel in an opinion article for Haaretz, and my first instinct was to disagree and say that God should have nothing to do with the army, that religion should be a private matter. Harel’s history as a founder of the settler movement surely highlights the dangers of fusing religious ideals with the national project.

Harel’s presumption of moral superiority is also galling, particularly his assertion that the religious right’s teaching “the values of Judaism, Zionism, love for the Jewish people and love for the land, fill them” – a vaguely defined leftist coterie, one presumes – “with anger… and envy.”

All of that said, it’s perhaps not so simple. For Colonel Winter and many like him, one imagines that preparing for battle is one of the most challenging and difficult moments in their personal lives, as well as having a more obvious national dimension. The personal and the national cannot always be neatly kept apart.
And at moments like these people turn to God, to the personal God who dwells in their depths.

The question then becomes: is it possible for an army colonel to speak about God in a way that is non-problematic? Can a private God be called upon who is different from the nationalistic God who is invoked to justify territorial ambitions and violence?

On one level, it feels like an injustice to deny Colonel Winter the right to connect with his own framework for courage, with his own deepest roots, with his sense of his place in the world.

He makes such a case in his statement that ‘“When a person is in a life-threatening situation he connects with his deepest internal truths, and when that happens, even the biggest atheist meets God.”

The challenge is to find a less inflammatory way of doing this, to be able to speak of God without taking us down the dangerous path of a religious war. In the State of Israel, we must make room for more than just the God of the Bible. We need a God that is a universal and humanitarian force, connected with liberal tolerance and personal strength.

The philosopher Paul Tillich is famous for developing the idea of God as a personal force who provides us with courage. Writing in 1952, he speaks of an existential encounter which replaces anxiety with the courage needed to live with integrity.

But, as Europe lay in ruins, he was very conscious of the dangers of nationalism and was aware that it can provide an easier answer than that of genuine courage. The pressure of the collective makes it harder to stand firm as an individual, to resist the mentality of tribalism which gives us a clear and easy sense of purpose.

Returning the insight to our military situation, we might set up the following opposition to clarify our possibilities:

God can give courage through promising to get involved, through assuring us – in spite of Bob Dylan’s query – that He is on our side.

But God can also give us courage through enabling us to access reserves of strength we never knew we had, through helping us attain a level of moral seriousness which might otherwise escape us, through helping us remember the values that run most true and deep in us. He can help us to wrestle with our fears, and to find a better way of living side by side with them.

It may not be easy to cry out to the God who answered Abraham and Moses, David and Daniel, without calling out to a force with a vested interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without presuming that He prefers one outcome over the other. It seems hard to evoke these names as mythical legendary characters, without implying a Divinely mandated plan for history.

It feels like it would probably be safer to speak of a purely personal God, to take some quiet moments of reflection and commune with the ineffable presence, who remains wholly ungraspable, beyond the ken of mankind. Whose shadowy hints we may encounter in our depths, but whose explicit intent we affirm as inscrutable.

I suggest that we might approach God as a soothing mother, without needing Him to don His armor and intervene in our world like a violent father.

And if the two cannot be kept apart, if my personal invocation of God must necessarily lead to a mindset which values certain pieces of territory and certain sacred sites, then perhaps God is, indeed, best left out of the conversation.

If we are all – soldier and civilian alike – able to transition into thinking about the personal and non-partisan aspect of God, then we might approach the situation with courage and hope. But if we continue to be bound up with the God who gets physically involved, then we play right into the hands of those looking for a war of religion. And in doing so, we relinquish the moral and religious high ground that we might have once occupied.

The Poetry of Boundaries Shabbat 4 & 5

So I’m warming up to these discussions in Shabbat, to these musings on the boundaries.  And it makes sense, if what I said the other day is right, if rest is about being able to hold strong boundaries and protect the self, then I can understand why all of these early musings are so concerned with the boundary.

Where do we draw the line between the private and the public, and what does it mean to exist in both of these spheres.  For Rabbi Akiva, an object in flight is considered to have come to rest.  The Rabbis differ: for them a being that is forever in flight, whose feet never stop to touch the ground, who is always hovering above reality, is not considered to have come to rest.  To rest is to have roots, to be grounded, to be settled.

And how does Rabbi Akiva conceptualise movement, transition?

For him it has two aspects: removing oneself from one place, and coming to rest in another.  And he perhaps emphasises the removing, the uprooting; maybe that is bound up with his personal narrative, with change, with creativity, with yearning until his dying word.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is also concerned with roots: if something lands on the branch of a tree, we look to see where its trunk is located.  The nature of the growth is dictated by the soil it is rooted in.

Is this a natural thing for an aristocrat to say?  Is the class war flaring up again?

Or not.  Perhaps he is a fan of the first psalm:

The righteous one is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither.

Rabbi Yehuda thinks differently about movement: for him it is about entry and exit, it is about transitioning between dimensions, not about an abrupt departure, about wandering.

His life was different from Akiva’s, it was more of a series of smooth passages, less a succession of existential upheavals.

More on movement:  If one runs to catch something, do they abrogate the responsibility of the one who threw it?

People project into us all the time: their hatred, anxieties, jealousies.

How much do we run into these, do we receive them almost willingly?  Can we too easily become complicit in the dark manipulative arts that surround us, can we be too eager to absorb and accept the other’s criticism and insult, no matter how unfounded?

The more we run into it, the more we shape ourselves as a receiver, the more we are liable.

Maintain the boundary, do not allow the other to violate you inappropriately.

Encourage them to contain their own distress, to find the spirit of rest through respect for the boundaries.

Should we be protected? Sukkot 5773 Berakhot 56 and 57

As a trainee psychotherapist, the following was always going to make me chuckle:

Bar Haddaya was an interpreter of dreams. For one who gave him a fee, he would interpret the dream favourably.  And for one who did not give him a fee, he would interpret the dream unfavourably.

Is this a winning business model, a quick fix for psychoanalysts struggling to make ends meet?

Of course we all blush at the suggestion –  “We would never, we should never, we mustn’t even entertain such an idea…” – but I wonder if the matter isn’t actually a little more subtle than it seems, if maybe we don’t actually get ourselves into something of a muddle over it.

To put it bluntly, what is the role of the therapist?

On one reading, our role is perhaps to comfort, to console, to understand and to empathise.  And there is certainly some truth in this approach, there is definitely an aspect of care and concern to the profession.

That said, this is not the whole picture.  Sometimes, and this is true of all relationships, being understanding and empathetic can actually harm the person we are engaged with, it can re-enforce their sense of being a victim, it can discourage them from thinking seriously about the changes they could and should make in their lives.  If one always assures a troubled or distressed person that they are in the right, one might actually be helping them to miss an opportunity.

Many – though of course not all – forms of frustration have their source in the way a person approaches life, in the way they conduct their relationships, in the difficulty they have in genuinely connecting and relating to the other.  This is hard, sometimes we think we’re relating to the other, but we’re actually relating to the imagined version of the other that lives inside our head.  In Kleinian terms, we are relating to a ‘phantasy’ version of the other, or an ‘introjected’ other.

Frustration and anger can arise because the other is not behaving in the way we expect, they are radically deviating from our imagined sense of who they are.  And we are somehow not able to cope with that, their reality outside of us is unbearable, it unsettles and confuses us.

At this sort of juncture, it can be extremely helpful to tactfully and delicately try to get a person to see what is happening, to see what it is that is really distressing them.

It can be harmful and counterproductive to assure them that their behaviour has actually been impeccable, that they are right to be outraged.  The fury must be held, it is a valuable therapeutic commodity, and it must be unpacked and explored.

Holding onto the fury, to the rage and hurt a human being sitting opposite us is experiencing, is an extremely difficult task.  It requires one to be extremely rooted and solid, involved and attentive but not overly swayed or moved by the emotion.  And it requires insight and tact to be able to work it back into the conversation, to turn it into an object of study, to bring out what is revelatory in it.

It is much easier to move in for the comforting gesture, to try to rescue a person, to make all that horrible stuff just go away, to be the fixer.

Easier, but ultimately less productive.

Neville Symington, in his excellent book on narcissism, puts it like this:

My experience tells me that it is necessary for the analyst to be unrelenting in stripping away the false consolations with which a narcissistic person is surrounded, while holding them firmly, as it were, with care and concern.  (Narcissism: A New Theory  p.93)

It takes tremendous experience and skill to carry off this strange conjunction of gestures, to be  relentlessly stripping away whilst simultaneously holding with care and concern.  And yet, when we can manage it, we might be doing a person more good than we can possibly imagine.

I can’t help feeling that there’s something of this dialectical complexity in the relationship between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

On Yom Kippur we are stripped of our defences, we are made raw through the purity of the honest encounter with our weaknesses.

On Sukkot we are held in a protective environment, in a space which takes away our comforts and consolations whilst simultaneously offering us shade, shelter and a modicum of warmth.  It is not the ease and luxury of our sturdy homes; we are rattled, shaken, provoked by what has been stripped away.

At this point, in this difficult and jarring environment, we are instructed to turn our eyes towards heaven, to peer at the stars, to be open to the majesty of external reality, to be confronted  by the other.  We are instructed to find new resolve, to creatively re-engage with our relationships and to try to overcome the ways in which we are numbed to the world around us.

The combination of Yom Kippur and Sukkot should pierce us, it should enable us, to quote again from Symington:

To crash through this inner fortress, and bring the patient out of this turning inward and into relation with objects [people, ideas] in the outer world.

Sukkot is not easy, it does not always feel like the party it was once intended to be.  In Britain especially it can be harsh, a somewhat ascetic exercise.  And it flows from Yom Kippur in ways that were probably not intended.  And yet, it can be an extremely valuable opportunity, it can teach us something significant about the dangers of excessive comfort;  it can shake us into continued reflection on our fragility and our mortality.  It takes us outside: outside of what is homely, outside of our comfort zone.

Bar Haddaya met a gruesome and horrible end.  There is grave danger in attempting to offer false comfort, and also in acting harshly for the wrong reasons.  Harsh yet concerned, this is the challenge, both in our relations with others and also in our relations with ourselves.

May it be a chag which pierces us in all the right ways, and may the joy we attain be raw and pure in its intensity.

p.s.  This blog is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Yoni Jesner, who was killed ten years ago today in a terrorist attack in Israel.  May his memory continue to be an inspiration to all of us.

Where did those Women go? The Return of the Repressed… Berakhot 48

Yesterday we spoke of the suppression of the feminine, of the way male Talmudic society didn’t seem to give them much credit nor look to include them in religious life.

We see a further example of the low regard they were held in today, further weakening the argument that women were viewed as some kind of saintly beings.  In the context of the women’s discussions with King Saul we have the following exchange:

Why did they make such a long story of it?

Because women are fond of talking.

Shmuel, however, says that it was so that they might feast their eyes on Saul’s good looks.

It’s hardly a portrait of a lady: either they chatter too much or they swoon helplessly in front of the tall and handsome king.  These are not the sort of creatures who don’t need the help and influence of Torah, who can afford to be excluded from rituals because they are too holy.  No, this doesn’t ring true at all.

So women are spoken of poorly, I think we just need to accept this.  Indeed, accepting it actually  opens up all sorts of other interesting questions, especially if we approach the matter through a psychoanalytic lens.

Put simply, when a man treats women as if they do not exist, we have reason to be very suspicious.

This man was raised by a woman, he is probably married to one, who is usually raising his children and quite possibly he has sisters, who were his closest playmates in childhood.  How can it be that he denies the importance of women, that he could fail to see the crucial and Godly work they do in creating and maintaining civilisation?

One possibility – we are always playfully exploring possibilities, beware the man who says it isn’t so (and it will usually be a man, not a woman) – is that this denial of the significance of women is actually a defence.

A defence against what?

A defence against the dependence upon women.

Men are born to women, they feed at their breast, they form deep and powerful attachments to them, treating them in their first years as the centres of their world.  Their personality is shaped around this dependence on the mother, they crave to be locked in her embrace.

Kleinians may use a barrage of theoretical terms to describe this, but for my own part I see it quite simply in the lives of my two sons.  They love their mother, their bond to her has been one of need and dependency from the day of their conception, and for the most part, and especially in times of distress, they wish to merge with her once again, to lose themselves in her embrace, to disappear into her warmth.

At some point this will change, they will, for whatever reason, become less comfortable with this state of affairs.  Perhaps it is to do with the flowering of their male pride and ego, perhaps it is to do with their budding sexuality and a sense of the deeply inappropriate nature of their desire.  Who can be sure?  What I think we can say, however, is that dealing with this new discomfort will not be easy for them.  This love and attachment will need to be buried deeply, and even if some portion of it is allowed to remain on the surface of their personality, to remain close at hand, a significant portion of it will have to be covered up, suppressed, banished into the netherworlds.

And this is what manifests itself as denial, as the conscious personality existing in a strange tension as it asserts the non-existence of that which it has buried, as it battles to keep it locked up safe in the unconscious.

This battle can take up a lot of energy, denial can be an exhausting and chaotic business.  For this reason it is generally best to try to work through denial, to come to terms with the repressed and to re-integrate it into the more mature and accepting psyche.

This is the ideal picture.

Another mechanism for dealing with denial is displacement or projection.  In such a case, those strong and buried feelings are allowed to the surface in so much as they are directed at a new, different and legitimate object.  This process is also known as ‘transference’.

The feelings are given life once more, less energy is needed for suppression and denial, and the personality feels a lot more whole, a lot better integrated.

When men fall in love with women reminiscent of their mothers, which is hardly a rarity, this is part of the story.  One could indeed argue that any falling in love contains some element of this, of the repressed feelings for the mother being transferred onto some new object.  (And I’m not saying the feelings are in any sense ‘really’ for the mother, in their years of burial they have undergone all sorts of change, they have taken on a life of their own, they are not simply frozen in carbonite, a la Han Solo, to be later released in identical form.)

The narrative of romantic love, however, does not seem to fit the Rabbis of the Talmud, they do not seem to speak much of their wives, or acknowledge their spiritual dependence upon them.  This relationship, so far as we can tell, is not the one that vitiates and sustains them, that leads them to feeling whole and complete.

If anything, it seems to occasion an entirely new cycle of denial and suppression, the strength of their need for their wives is held at arm’s length, they cling to an image of themselves as the superior and non-dependent sex.

So, as Freud might put it, where do we see the ‘return of the repressed’?  What is the displaced object to which they turn now, what object is deemed legitimate for the outpouring of all that pent up emotion?

We had a couple of hints yesterday, on 47b we mentioned both the Ark containing the Torah and  Shabbat as being possibly able to complete a Zimun, something a women cannot do.  These objects are deemed to possibly have more reality than a woman, they may replace her and presume her role in religious practice.  They are psychological objects, their physical reality is hardly noteworthy, but the role they might play is profound and very real.  The whole thing could well have been scripted by Melanie Klein.

Today it gets richer.  We have the curious story of Shimon ben Shetach who was brought before King Alexander Yannai to say grace, after Yannai had slaughtered the rest of the sages.  There follows a most interesting exchange:

The King said to him: Do you see how much honour I am according you?

He responded: It is not you who honours me; rather, the Torah honours me, as it is written:

“Hug her to you and she will exalt you; she will bring you honour when you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:8).

Yannai said to his wife: You see that he does not accept authority.

In a moment of impudent denial, one which very might well demand our respect, he turns to Torah, and speaks of her, yes, her, in the most maternal and feminine terms imaginable.

Even Yannai can see that this is what he is doing, that he relates to the Torah in such a way that he denies all other authority, that he repudiates his possible dependencies.

Now of course he may be right to deny Yannai any role in his honour, but I am fascinated by the discussion of denial per se, it resonates so clearly with all that we have been speaking of.

Returning to this idea of Torah, he is describing nothing less than an embrace of the feminine.  I mean, this is almost too straightforward, he is both talking literally about it and also at the same time talking figuratively about it.  He and his male culture may disdain womanhood, he doesn’t show his sister much love in the story, but they are clear that the feminine is to be embraced.  But only in one guise, in the guise of Torah.

Torah is the displaced object, in Torah we have found the return of the repressed.

I have been impressed by the number of quotes throughout the Talmud from the book of Proverbs, which is not, sadly, much studied nowadays.  On today’s daf it gets further attention too.  But going back to its opening lines, we see this connection to the maternal being made quite explicit:

Listen, my son, to the ethic of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother. (1:8)

The Torah belongs with, is identified with the mother, and we are commanded not to abandon it.  Through keeping alive the connection with Torah, our bond with the mother continues, however hidden and denied it might become.

Perhaps the original intention was for a healthy identification, the two could exist together, love of the mother and love of Torah.  But it seems that in later years the identification changed, it became a problematic identification, the sort that hides and disguises something, that keeps reality at bay.  The Torah replaces the mother, it becomes her surrogate, her Oedipal successor.

I am fascinated and struck by the fact that the word Torah is feminine in gender, and cannot but help think that this is no co-incidence, no random fact, but that it reveals a source of our deep connection with it.

We later mention another verse from Proverbs:

For I have given you good instruction, do not abandon my Torah (4:2)

And knowing the liturgy as we do, this cannot but help remind of two verses which just proceed it:

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths peaceful.   (3:18,17)

The feminine lives in the Torah, and I cannot shake the feeling that the Rabbis we see in the Talmud have taken this in the wrong way, that they have adapted to their gendered culture through embracing Torah but remaining unconscious of its feminine roots.

We are to hold on to the feminine, to embrace it, for her ways are pleasant and she brings peace.  The feminine is truly the tree, the root, the foundation of life; if we do not abandon it, but embrace it, it will bring us the honour and respect that we crave.

Torah and the feminine are one, so it seems absurd that we cannot accord the same respect to the physical embodiment of the feminine, to our women, as we do to Torah   In making this clearer to our eyes, in the intellectual enlightenment that feminism has helped us with, I believe we have witnessed an act of continuous revelation, of the Divine truth gradually emerging through the ages.

Let us cling to this truth, for only through doing so will our Judaism root, flourish and live.

I say a little prayer for you… Berakhot 28b and 29

Rabbi Eliezer warns us in the Mishna:

One who makes his prayers ‘keva’ – fixed, rigid, routine – loses the sense in which they are pleas, cries for mercy. 

He is giving voice to a fundamental concern that any honest appraisal of prayer must accept – there is a tension between making prayer routine and maintaining the emotional core which gives it life.

We talked about this the other day, about the benefits of routine, but now we must adjust our focus and look at its costs.

The Gemara (I’m sorry, I just can’t keep saying Talmud all the time, it’s not quite natural! (Not sure exactly what I’m suppressing, but even less sure why I should suppress it…)), gives three insights into the meaning of ‘keva’, ‘fixed’.

R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him.

All the formulations are slightly strange here, R. Eliezer talks of ‘making’ one’s prayer fixed, and here we talk about the experience of it feeling like a burden.  There seems to be a suggestion that we somehow choose to view it as a burden, that we allow it to become nothing more than a heavy debt which weighs us down.

Is it really possible to avoid this?  Perhaps there is a hint in the next insight:

The Rabbis say: Whoever does not say it in the language of supplication.

If we assume that the text of prayer is reasonably fixed, then ‘the language’ being referred to here must be more of an emotional language, the tone and mood in which we pray.

What I hear in these words is an injunction to make oneself humble before praying, to reconnect with the part of us that is vulnerable and needy.  So much of our experience, perhaps especially nowadays, reinforces our sense of self and enhances feelings of omnipotence that we never quite grow out of.

We are so busy and distracted that we give no thought to the ways in which we are fragile and troubled.  It’s not a co-incidence, part of the interest in being busy is precisely because it distracts us from ourselves, from the uncertainty and unease we encounter when we spend time alone, when we find ourselves looking inwards.

Even the study of Torah can distract us from this.  This was a motif running through the story we read yesterday and something I myself have noticed whilst being engaged in this daf yomi project.  Torah is inspiring and elevating, it lifts us and makes as attuned to something we might genuinely call Divine.  But is also strengthens us, it satisfies us, it makes us less vulnerable.  And in doing so it can make it harder to properly pray, to experience that sense of being a vulnerable creature who needs to reach out to something bigger and stronger, to something outside the self.

There is a genuine emotional conflict between study and prayer, it is not merely an ideological difference that surfaces from time to time.

We must find the language, the music, the feel of vulnerability.  Otherwise our prayer lacks life, it loses its power.

And if we do find that vulnerability, if we remember our neediness, then perhaps we have achieved enough in prayer, perhaps this is the core of the whole exercise.

Does this make it less of a burden?  It doesn’t make it easier, but hopefully it makes it less tedious, less meaningless, less dominated by a spirit of rigid obligation.

The third insight is also interesting:

Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.

Before we go further, you just have to love the candour and humour of the next person to comment on this:

R. Zera said: I can insert something fresh, but I am afraid to do so for fear I should become confused.

Something fresh.  That’s a challenge, for sure, but again it is a suggestion, a word of advice.  As well as trying to adopt a certain emotional posture before or whilst praying, we are encouraged to bring something new to it.

On one level this can be a challenge to the imagination: the language and imagery of prayer is extremely rich, and we are being encouraged to pause and consider it, to try to understand it differently, to relate to it in a new way.

On another level, this can be taken as a more psychological challenge, as an almost therapeutic injunction to allow something from our day to surface in our prayer, to use it as an opportunity for reflection, for contemplation.  One of Freud’s most powerful insights was to emphasise the importance of free association, of encouraging the mind to just wander, to amble, to allow itself to be.

And it’s not just because things will be revealed, because we will gain deep insights from the stuff that comes out.  No, it’s more fundamental than that:  the mind needs to open up simply because it needs to be open, because that’s its natural state.  We spend so much of our lives in society needing to close down our mind; so much of our upbringing is about discouraging us from certain thoughts and self-perceptions.

We are fundamentally anxious, and often we are so anxious about ourselves that we daren’t even explore certain thoughts or ideas, for fear of where a given trail may lead, for fear of what certain thoughts might mean.

So we are told: ‘Do not be afraid, use your prayer to go to new places, to try different things.  Prayer is an encounter with Truth, if you are not prepared to grapple with difficult truths when you pray, then maybe you shouldn’t bother.’

In my experience, good prayer can have a very similar effect to good therapy.  But in praise of prayer, one is obliged to point out that it is a lot cheaper and a lot more readily available.

So this is what the Talmud offers us, do not view your prayer as a burden, use it as an emotional and psychological opportunity to try out different things, to change the pace of your day.

Still, we have the nagging sense that this is not easy, that it is a big ask to do this three times a day.  We saw yesterday that Rabbi Yehoshua felt that a twice daily obligation would be more appropriate, today we see that he goes even further:

Rabban Gamaliel says: every day a man should say the eighteen benedictions.   R. Yehoshua says: an abbreviated eighteen.

Now, as a first observation, even Rabban Gamliel seems to suggest that we need say the full eighteen blessings only once a day.  I’m not sure about the logistics of this, perhaps he had a different prayer format for Mincha and Ma’ariv.  But he doesn’t seem to say that we should say the full Shemona Esrei thrice daily.

As we know from yesterday, Rabbi Yehoshua is the great defender of the working classes, of the busy and time restricted people.  He advocates using the abridged version of the prayer, which makes the thirteen middle berachot into one short paragraph.  This makes the whole exercise much more manageable.

Perhaps more importantly, I take him to be emphasising quality over quantity.  ‘Do not pray so many words that you are unable to concentrate, to mean anything by them.  Do not spend all your time on the text, rushing through words without experiencing anything resonant at all.  Slow down and say a few words carefully, use them as a springboard to thought and feeling, this is the point of prayer.’

And, significantly, the Gemara engages in quite a detailed discussion of this prayer, as well as offering a variety of even shorter prayers that we might use.  Unlike nowadays, I get the feeling that they really did use these prayers, that it was quite common for even the leading Rabbis to pray using these shorter formulae.  And this is very heartening.  It’s quite a challenge to spend over an hour a day praying.  But the idea that we do it in three short bursts, each lasting perhaps a couple of minutes, that sounds  a lot more feasible, something that we might and, realistically, could do.

So, in sum, let’s avoid making our prayer into a burden.  Let’s keep it short and meaningful, let’s make it regular but fresh.  I’m genuinely quite excited about this, I’ve often felt that meaningful prayer involves an unfeasible time commitment.  I’m liberated by this Gemara,  I have a renewed sense that maybe less really can be more.

Free will? Not for me thanks… Berakhot 16 & 17

I remember very clearly an episode of philosophical angst triggered by studying the philosophy of free will, just weeks into my degree course.  I was walking through the humanities campus, my mind swimming in a sea of determinists of one sort or another, and the flimsy counterarguments just didn’t seem to work.  I was struggling to find room for freedom.

I supposed that if I wasn’t free, if the appearance of my making choices was just that, an appearance, then it was hard to see what possible merit could there be in any of my actions.  Following this traincrash of a thought, if there wasn’t any merit in my actions, then what was the point of acting.  And what, in dramatic conclusion, was the point of life.

I wouldn’t say I was suicidial about it, but I was deeply and seriously perturbed.

As I look back at it, I’m struck by several things.

Firstly, there’s a very serious need expressed in those thoughts for my actions to be meritorious.  Having just come out of three years in Yeshiva, maybe that doesn’t look quite as surprising.  But I’m still detecting a strong and rich narcissism in operation here, the most important thing in my world was my impression of myself.  I was deeply in love with a certain vision of myself, with, at least, the possibility my being a moral person.

There was no sense in which ‘God is dead, so everything is permitted’, no surge of liberation or excitement.  Just a puncturing of a narcisstic bubble, of a personality focussing too much of its energy on itself, requiring an unsustainable level of introversion.

Fast forwarding fourteen years, last night I had the privilege to witness the spectacle of narcissistic exhibitionism that is Puerto Banus.  At a glance it would seem that this world of flashy materialism, of conspicuous consumption par excellence, is light years away from the earnest student in his ivory tower haunted by metaphysical conundrums.

And yet, from a certain point of view, they are exactly the same.  We often need to cling to an image of ourselves, to believe in the appearance we display to the world.  It’s actually quite a theological position.  We believe that if are enough of something, whatever that something may be – rich, beautiful, moral, wise – then we will be happy, content, saved.

We invest a certain image with magical powers, and it differs from ancient idol worship only in that the image is of ourselves.  And if we get the magic spell right, then all will be well.

So what am I saying, that we shouldn’t love ourselves, that we shouldn’t try to realise an ideal image of ourselves?

No, I’m not quite saying that.  I suppose I’m saying that sometimes our inner life is impoverished, we have a weak sensation of self, a paucity of positive emotion as in our everyday experience.  And in those moments or periods we are susceptible to the allure of the image, and invest too much of our hope and energy in it.  We become dependent on achievement, on merit, and on the positive feedback that generates.  It’s important to note that this feedback can be very much internal and private, it need not be public, though of course it often is.

There is a healthy level of concern with what one is, with keeping an eye on oneself, and there is an unhealthy level of self concern, an excess of narcissism.

It’s hard (impossible) to say absolutely where one draws the line, it’s a very personal and individual thing.  One sign of the excess can be a certain fragility, the ease with which a person can be knocked or flustered by the smallest of everyday events, which are perceived, sometimes unconsciously,  as setbacks to one’s self image.

One wants to have a rich inner life, full of fulfilment, appreciation, love, compassion and peace.  (And, without going into it, I think religion, done well, helps with this.)

One wants to be experiencing one’s life, not watching it from a distance, as a spectator, needing to keep score as to how well one is doing by a given external standard.  (Perhaps this is why we so often imagine God doing this – we’re projecting our own internal dynamics onto Him.)

Allen Ginsberg once described Bob Dylan as being unique in the way he absolutely inhabited himself, his being and consciousness completely in harmony, which gave off a shaman like presence and quality.

To live with oneself, to inhabit oneself, to be present to oneself, not running away, these are the positive things we can aim at.  By the time we’re succumbing to external standards and expectations we’re already lost, our balance is gone, we’ve fallen off the bike.

Excessive narcissism is a symptom, not the problem itself.  One can only proceed by addressing the real problem, the lack of inner ease and comfort, the failure to inhabit and embrace one’s own life.  And let’s be very clear, there’s no shortcut to that.

Getting back to free will, I think I’m trying to say that the problem of free will is actually a problem of narcissism.  We have too great a need to believe in, literally, ourselves, in an image of ourselves as powerful, effective, in control.  To be free is to have power, to be less than perfectly free is to be subject to our genes, our childhood, our history, our culture, our environment.

We don’t like being subject in this way, it diminishes us, it makes us feel helpless, dependent, like an infant.  (It’s actually a doubled or compounded narcissism, we need to believe we are powerful, therefore we must believe we exist, that we are free.)

Am I saying that I’m no longer bothered by the deterministic challenge to free will?

I’m certainly a lot less bothered by it.  There are some clever things to say about it, perhaps for another time, but fundamentally I just don’t sense the problem as much.  I accept that I am very largely determined, by all manner of things, but that there also seem to be occasional moments of freedom, of decision, of spontaneity, of creativity.

But even in those moments I do sometimes feel like a spectator, like I’m watching myself do or say something, watching something happen, witnessing a thought pop into my head or words suddenly appear on the screen in front of me.  In some sense the ‘I’ is just along for the ride, but for the most part it’s a pretty good trip.

In the strange spaces of freedom I do find, I acknowledge that my will is not something particularly free or strong, and so I try not to let myself rely on it too much.  In order to build the life I want, or think I want, I fill that life with the sorts of things that build the inner mechanisms which produce good decisions.

From this perspective, I view psychotherapy and religion as fundamentally aligned.  Both exist because the flesh is weak, and because the will is not going to do much, on its own, to tame or change it.

Both aim to get inside the thoughts and feelings of a person, to constitute a person, and to make the newly constituted person a happier and richer place to be.  To render them more inhabitable.

So what does this have to do with today’s dapim (16 and 17)?

We are presented with a series of very personal prayers that the Rabbis used to say, either at the end of their routine prayer or at other special times.  And one of the many noteworthy things about them, is the frequency with which they ask God to take away our will, to remove our evil inclination, to strengthen our positive inclination.  For example:

May you establish for us a good friend and a good inclination in Your world, that we should wake and find that the aspiration of our hearts is to be in awe of You.

May it be your will, God, that we not sin or disgrace ourselves.

May you save us from our baser, uglier instincts, from a bad companion or neighbour and from our destructive demons.

May you save us from the yeast in the dough (inner ferment, excess ego) and outer subjugation such that we may return to your just ways with wholeness.

Open my heart with your Torah that my soul may pursue your righteous ways, and save me from ill fortune and from the inclination for evil.

What we see here is a group of people who were not at all interested in the freedom of their will, in the merit inherent in their actions.  For these pious individuals, they would happily give all the credit to God, and get all the help they could from a higher power.  Their only wish was to end up living along the path they desired, in a manner which they felt would be pleasing and fulfilling.

Everything is turned on its head:

We pray because we are weak, not pious.

We don’t see God as offended by sin, but as a means to help us avoid sin, for our failure is only an affront to ourselves.

And finally, in praying we seek to be relieved of the burden of freedom, we hope that by targeting something higher and better we will ultimately come to live by those same higher standards.

Belief in the will is replaced by belief in the culture, in constancy, in ongoing maintenance.  Religion and therapy aim to strengthen the goodness of our will, but the starting point for doing that is to acknowledge just how weak and unfree we really are.

I’m left wondering what would have happened if  someone had explained all of this to that earnest student all those years ago.  I’d like to think something productive would have come of it, but I suspect that some lessons can only be learnt the hard way, that some of us are just born not to be told.

What is the self? Berakhot 15

It is one of the founding principles of psychoanalysis that we are not transparent to ourselves.

The more one reflects upon this, the more surprising it becomes that we ever thought that we might be.

More than this, it becomes increasingly astonishing that most people generally still think that they know themselves, that they have unique access to the thing they call the ‘self’.

One of the insights I got from Wittgenstein, and which pushed me in the direction of psychoanalytic thinking, was that the concept of a ‘self’ is significantly more complex than it first appears.  There is not necessarily a single unifying factor manifest in our behaviour or thought, we seem, at times, to simply be a succession of unrelated actions, utterances and inner voices.

Listen to the series of thoughts that pop into your head – where are they coming from?  How consistent and uniform are they?  Is the source of those thoughts the thing we call the self?

To push it further, how would you describe the difference between the place that they come from and the person that hears them, the listening subject?  Aren’t there at least two ‘persons’ here, a mysterious narrator and a somewhat perplexed audience?

For the most part, there is a workable level of unity, of coherence, of integration, detectable in our behaviour.  And, though here it’s more private and murky, that’s probably true of our thoughts too.

In as much as there is meaning to the term sanity, one aspect of it is the extent to which we are able to see this unity in another person, to experience it in ourselves.  Schizophrenia, very roughly, is the case where that unity has been deeply fractured, where the person themselves no longer experiences their thoughts and behaviour as unified.  Bi-polar, another term I don’t especially like, is a way of describing behaviour and thought that seems to oscillate too wildly, that lacks a unifying centre, a coherent core.

So where does Judaism stand on this point?

I take it as fairly incontrovertible that it takes the personality to be deep, complex and multi layered.  That if there is unity there, it is something we must work towards, and, once achieved, requires steady maintenance.

For these reasons, Rabbinic culture offers its citizens a wide array of rituals, structures and ideas.  By making all of these part of one’s life, part of one’s personality, some profound and serious work is done on one’s unconscious, work one doesn’t need to be much aware of.  By simply swimming in the culture, one imbibes a certain type of character, and hopefully it is one that is unified and productive.

Put differently, it is often assumed that religion takes man to be strong, to be a creature of will.  It gives him challenges to test that will, and basically scores him depending on how well he does.

I take the opposing view.  Religion views man as deeply weak, and understands the ‘will’ as somewhat illusory.  It sees it as a wishful expression of how much self control we would like to have, not how much we really do have.

It meets man in his weakness, and tries, in a colourful variety of ways, to help him flourish nonetheless.

To the daf.  Today we have an extended discussion on whether a person needs to say the Shema aloud.  The alternative is that we simply recite it silently, or internally, and concentrate on it in that way.

It seems to me that the discussion may be centred around exactly the positions outlined above.  If one believes that the Shema can simply be recited internally, then one leans towards thinking that the personality is reasonably unified, and that its deeper recesses are quite easily accessible.

If one thinks we need to recite it aloud, to separate ourselves into physical performer and attentive listener, emphasising the need to hear it, then I think one is viewing the personality as more complex and fractured.  One is acknowledging that making contact with the unconscious is a mighty tricky business, and that giving parts of the personality different roles might be a very effective way to do this.  It strives to make the situation engage more energy, to seem more real.  It will also hopefully diminish some of the resistance and self consciousness that otherwise stands in the way of contact.

In the end, we follow the opinion who says we should say it aloud, the voice who tells us that we are deeply mysterious unto ourselves.

And, paradoxically, the message that we try to get across, as we saw on page 13, is unity.  We can now understand that this has psychological as well as theological implications, that the unity we strive for in ourselves is a reflection of the unity we seek out in life.

So the Shema, and prayer generally, are a profound piece of theatre, with the Rabbis are directing events from behind the scenes.

When the curtain rises we engage in soliloquy, and, in the next moment, we realise that there is an audience of one, and that that one is a different part of us.

Through deliberately splitting the personality, through opening it up like a surgeon, we hope to arrive at a more thorough and profound unity.

Listen, O Israel, for the Unity, and know that the Unity is Divine.