The Inclination towards Fantasy Berakhot 61

The daf today is concerned with the evil inclination, tracing its origins to the moment of creation, reflecting on the myriad ways it perpetually haunts us.  It is compared to a fly that lies in wait between the entrances of the heart, waiting for its chance to enter.  It is also compared to a grain of wheat, which also looks for an opening, ready to expand and leaven when an opportunity arises.

They’re definitely onto something these Rabbis, we all have a little grain of mischief and selfishness inside us, which can lie dormant for extended periods but which will blossom and come to life when given half an opportunity.  It will often start with the smallest thing, a very mild slackening of our attention and caution, perhaps when we accede to one drink too many of an evening, or when we first stick our nose into business where it doesn’t really belong.

Before we know it we’re immersed in something, and it can be an almighty struggle to extricate ourselves from it.  We might be watching ourselves with a modicum of disbelief – ‘is this really me?  How did I fall from grace so quickly?’  And if the mischievous impulse is particularly sly it might turn the questioning to its own ends – ‘doesn’t this show that all my righteousness and goodness until now was just a sham, that this is the real me, this craven depraved creature appearing before my eyes?’

I’ve heard it compared to a little monster, our capacity for darkness: once he’s fired up and let out of the cage he just doesn’t want to be put back in.

And it is with this keen psychological awareness that the Rabbis offer the following advice:

A man should not walk behind a woman on a path [as he will look at her constantly]…And anyone who walks behind a woman in a river has no portion in the World-to-Come.

Tosafot, who don’t say much in these last pages of Berakhot,  are quick to offer the following explanation:

This applies if he does this regularly, for he will eventually fall prey to the temptations of adultery and he will end up in hell.

If a man spends his days admiring the feminine shape, no matter how pure and noble his intentions may be at the start, he is opening the door to temptation, to the pesky fly which is just waiting for a sniff of opportunity.  The flesh is weak, sin is always waiting, and if we want to escape the personal hell into which it can lead us into then we would do well to keep an eye on our eyes.

There is a recognition here of the huge effort that goes into sustaining the civilised and virtuous state of mind, and of how little it takes to undermine that effort.  In this sense the Rabbis are deeply Freudian, their take on man shares his realistic and sober assessment of our nature.  They do not share the enlightenment or liberalist optimism, pervasive to this day, wherein man is basically good, where he is born in purity, and it is only the poisons of society which corrupt him.  They are all too conscious of how corruptible he really is.

This consciousness informs their next insight:

One who counts money for a woman from his hand to her hand in order to look upon her, even if he has accumulated Torah and good deeds like Moses our teacher, he will not be absolved from the punishment of Gehenna.

At a first glance this sounds absurd – who does that, who makes such a roundabout effort to catch a glimpse of a woman’s hand and finds it a turn on?

But it happens.  The Rabbis are not saying that it always happens, that every man who sees a woman’s hand is wildly turned on.  For the most part, for most people, it can be a deeply insignificant moment.

But when a man is in a frenzy of obsession, when an imbalance in his libido causes him to invest parts of a woman’s anatomy with near magical powers, when she becomes the locus of his fetish; at that point anything is possible.

And the Rabbis did not say that at that point a man is ill, he is disturbed, he is somehow sub-normal.  No, they did not use the clinical terms of the DSM IV to distance themselves from the phenomenon in front of them, from phenomena they knew intimately from personal experience.  They make it clear that it can happen to a man who is full of Torah and good deeds, who in every other way and to all outer appearances is thoroughly upstanding.

The Rabbis knew the heart of man, they knew the craven spirit that was always hovering in its environment, and they issued their warnings accordingly:

‘Do not think that you have no such inclination, and do not think that you will forever be immune to its charms.  Treat it with respect, for otherwise it will lead you to personal ruin and destruction, to a hell of your own making, it will pervert your imagination and give you no rest until you have acted its bidding.’

Indeed, in this spirit Rav Shimon ben Pazi was known to say:

Woe unto me for my Creator  and woe unto me for my inclination.

We have a great many inclinations for the positive, but we also have powerful inclinations for the worse, particularly when the fires of sexuality come to life.  There is no sense in protesting it, for we were created this way, but when we try to disavow or deny it, when we delude ourselves that it holds no sway over us, that is when we are worthy of woe, for that is when we are at our most painfully vulnerable.

Where Angels daren’t tread… Berakhot 25

Generally I manage to learn the daf in the morning and let it play around in my mind for a while before writing something.  I didn’t manage to do that this morning, and I felt it.  My imagination missed its muse, its plaything, and its lack of activity sat heavily with me throughout the day.

I’d always taken the idea of ‘vehigita bo yomam valaylah’ – you shall meditate on it day and night – as something of an unrealistic imperative, I can now see that it’s actually the description of a blessing, a possibility.  Let it be on your mind constantly, and you will feel better for it; try to live without it, and you will miss it.

The daf today contains some extremely detailed discussions about urine and faeces.  And if I’m honest, I found it tough going, it wasn’t obviously inspiring.  Again, it may be that I came to it too late in the day, maybe the inspiration comes from encountering ideas in the morning, but either way, it didn’t leave me rhapsodic.

There was one gem, about halfway through we are in the midst of yet another discussion about the environment in which one may recite the Shema.  I’ll leave the details for now, but Rava turns round and justifies his position with the following statement:

The Torah wasn’t given to the ministering angels. 

On one level, he sounds a bit fed up with the discussion.  Like Rav Pappa yesterday, I hear him as saying,”let’s be reasonable, let’s use a bit of common sense and not get too carried away with these detailed discussions…”.

On another level, I think it’s a fantastic principle.  The Torah is given to human beings, in all their fleshy and bodily reality.  We need not deny the body in order to utter or learn the Torah –  we may make attempts to elevate it, but these are always going to be limited, both in terms of scope and success.

Indeed, part of why we engage with Torah is to achieve some element of transcendence, to lift our spirit from the weight of the body, to bring the taste of something beyond into the everyday.

To engage with Torah, with Divine Law, is to open ourselves to improving, refining, finessing our behaviour, our personality.  We give more material to consciousness, we are taking part in Freud’s famous mission: ‘Where id (unstructured drives) was, ego (personality, consciousness) shall be’.

To be human is to be, hopefully, growing, reaching for the light, creating a character that we both trust and love.  To be an angel is to have no need for this, it is to be born and created perfect, pure, without the possibility of either growth or regression.

We may not discuss Torah in the presence of faeces or urine which are giving off a repugnant smell.  But at a certain point, we must accept them as part of the human condition.

We may still be left with an environment where Angels dare not tread, but for us, it’s the perfect point at which to be opened by Torah.