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.

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