Born again Jews? Really? Berakhot 32

We open today with a great verse:

 “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will place within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

This is cited as one of the Divine gestures which saved Israel from being destroyed, from being lost to the annals of history.

This ties in very closely with what we were saying yesterday:  in some of our profoundest emotional moments, we have the sense that something deep and mysterious is happening to us, that it is not simply a random series of feelings, but that it is significant in ways we struggle to describe.

God here is the source of a ‘new heart’, a new emotional vista and space.  He is also the source of a ‘new spirit’, a renewed appreciation for life, a fresh vigour and sense of purpose about us.

And we do not mean that God is a being or agent who decides to act in this way, to grant us something.  We mean, rather, that these events have a deep reality, that they alert us to a dynamic in the structure of existence that we had not previously been aware of.  We have, very literally, a new sense of possibility, our ‘being-in-the-world’ looks very different.

Of course, we are not obliged to use theological language to describe these events.  But we do struggle to find the right language – it is very unsatisfying from a psychoanalytic or existential perspective to simply speak of them as random events, as lacking any structure or meaningful framework.  The idea that we one day feel reborn, that we have a new heart, it is simply not enough to say that ‘things happen’; we want to try to understand the whys and hows of that, so that the event has some sense and to give ourselves some theoretical orientation.

And, from the other direction, if we find ourselves enmeshed in this theological language, in a religious culture, then surely we want to find the most meaningful and profound ways of understanding the words and images, surely we want to push them to their limits and see what work they might do for us.

In a similar vein, we encounter the following verse, as another foundation of Judaism:

“And I will place My spirit within you and I will cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will observe My decrees and do them” (Ezekiel 36:27).

Again, something beyond us brings about significant internal change, our behaviour is radically altered by it.

These epiphanies, these sudden shifts or changes of heart, I think we tend to trivialise them much more than previous generations did.  Has our learning made us coarse?

And all of this also chimes with what we said about freedom, that our lack of real freedom might make us more receptive to external assistance.   (Just reading that phrase ‘external assistance’, it’s so clunky, one can see ‘Divine support’ would be the more poetic choice.  The fate of the philosopher, destined to shun poetry in the name of clarity…)

In this vein, we have a memorable parable for just how dangerous it is to rely on our will to suddenly show unprecedented and unfounded strength:

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: This is comparable to a person who had a son; he bathed him and anointed him with oil, fed him and gave him drink, and hung a purse of money around his neck. Then, he brought his son to the entrance of a brothel. What could the son do to avoid sinning?

What, indeed, could he do?  The flesh is weak, and it’s all too easy to make it weaker.

Further exploring the link between satiety and corruption, we encounter the verse:

And your heart will expand, become raised, and you will forget God. (Deut. 8:14)

I read ‘heart’ here as ego, when the ego becomes excessively present, dominant, rich, at that point it is hard for a person to retain a sense of what lies beyond himself.  And from that point, one’s awareness of others and sensitivity to their needs tends to go downhill.

From a purely individualistic point of view too, as one becomes cocky and overconfident, one tends to lose sight of one’s real needs, to fall prey once more to that ever seductive sense of omnipotence.

Let us end with a classic piece of Talmud from the daf, which it would be wrong not to mention:

Rabbi Elazar also said: Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked, as it is said in lamentation of the Temple’s destruction: “Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8)  Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked with the destruction of the Temple, the gates of tears were not locked as it is stated: “Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears” (Ps. 39:13).

We may be sceptical about the efficacy of prayer, but we harbour no reservations about the impact of our tears.  When we are truly moved by our need, when we connect with the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, at that point all gates are unlocked for us, at that point we might just become complete again.

Is Prayer Sacrifice? Berakhot 26

We begin chapter four today, leaving behind the Shema and starting to focus on the Amida, the silent prayer at the core of our service.  The Talmud is trying to understand the framework for saying the Amida, and it leads into a reflection on the fundamental roots of prayer:

It has been stated: R. Jose son of R. Hanina said: The Tefillot (the Amida) were instituted by the Patriarchs. R. Joshua b. Levi says: The Tefillot were instituted  to replace the daily sacrifices.

Ultimately we arrive at a compromise: there is some sense in which they were instituted by Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, but the Rabbis used the framework of the Temple sacrifices to flesh out their structure and timing.

From our point of view, they have two sets of ancient roots, one in our forefathers, the founders of our nation, the other in the history of our ritual, in the primordial structure where our religious impulse first found its expression.

Sacrifice is a tricky concept, without even touching on the ethics of animal offerings.  (We’ll get there, I’m sure.)  In at least two posts recently, I’ve highlighted the sense in which religion is not just about sacrifice, on dapim 14 and 23.  And yet, the key word here is ‘just’.  Religion is not solely about sacrifice, it is not a competition to see who can punish themselves more, who can endure more suffering.  But it would be wrong to suggest that sacrifice has no role to play at all.

Perhaps we can soften the idea of sacrifice by connecting it with the word ‘commitment’.  To commit to something is ultimately to sacrifice something else, whether it is a clearly defined alternative or simply the possibility of some unexplored freedom.

I think the concept of ‘commitment’ carries reasonably positive associations nowadays; it is taken as a given that commitment is indispensable if one wishes to be in a relationship, to build a community or to excel in one’s vocation.  It is less clear why one would commit to religious practices which stretch back thousands of years.

In response to this challenge, people sometimes cite the ideals of ‘discipline’ or ‘routine’, but to the free spirited being who is feeling a little penned in and restrained by the vast web of halakha, these values only beg the question.  How can discipline be a value in itself?  Isn’t ‘routine’ simply a word grown ups use to plaster over the monotony of their lives?

There is some truth in these counter-claims – I retain the right to be suspicious of people who assume those terms to constitute a decisive argument in favour of commitment.  If we are to make sense of commitment, we need to think about what we are committing to, and of what we might gain from that commitment.

As we touched on in discussing freedom and the self, it is less than clear cut exactly how we come to have a personality, how we develop character and exhibit freedom.  Experimental psychological research has shown recently that our will power under difficult conditions is actually a lot weaker than we would imagine.  David Brooks talks about this in his book The Social Animal, and he concludes that one of the biggest factors in our decision making is the way we perceive the challenge, the manner in which we frame our dilemma.  To change our behaviour requires changing our perception.  He says:

This learning-to-see model emphasizes that it is not once crucial moment that shapes a character.  Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences.  This model emphasizes the power of community to shape character…It also empahsizes the power of small and repetitive action to rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain.  Small habits and proper etiquette reinforce certain positive ways of seeing the world.  Good behaviour strengthens certain networks.  Aristotle was right when he observed, ‘We acquire virtues by first having put them into action’. (p128)

Aristotle was indeed wise to see that we are in the business of trying to acquire virtues.  It is often  in those very moments where we see that we wish to live a certain kind of life, a life which exemplifies our most cherished values, that we are paralysed by the failings of our personality as it is.  We sense that there is something missing, but it is deeply unfashionable to suggest that must set to out to fix it.

There is, however, no easy path.  The only way to get to the personality we desire is to work at it, to commit to it.  If we wish to embody a certain sort of Divine light in the world, then we must build a temple which might house and contain it.  And, as our tradition teaches, the core of that temple must be sacrifice, a voluntary spirit which curbs the excesses of the ego.

To commit to regular prayer is to make a sacrifice.  But, it is not only to make a sacrifice.  It would not be enough, whatever Yeshayahu Leibowitz may contend, to recite the phone book.  We make a sacrifice, but in that moment, in those minutes of the day when we relinquish our other projects and deisres, we focus on our highest values, on our deepest needs, on the ways in which we might be genuinely true to ourselves.  We connect to various streams within our tradition, and we try to draw strength from those roots.

We make a sacrifice in establishing a routine, we commit to a discipline, but we do so because we desperately desire the ends that they promise.  We want to experience our better selves more of the time, we want our being to be graceful and light, we want to feel the joy and cheer in the most everyday situations, in the places we too often miss them.

These are the benefits of a developed personality. There may be a contemporary myth which suggests that some people simply live their whole lives in a state of easy happiness, of effortless harmony.  And perhaps it is true of the odd person here and there.  But for most of us, it doesn’t come easily, the labours and responsibilities of life drain our spirits and dampen our enthusiasm.

We opt for routine over freedom, not because we fundamentally value routine, but because we believe that the routine may give us a sort of freedom that we would never have if we embraced a life without structure, if we abandoned our personality to its whims.  Beauty is often built out of the most painstaking detail, and that is nowhere more true than in the human soul.

And we commit to that routine, because we know that we are more likely to be inspired regularly if we are committed to turning up, because we concede that we are rarely going to jump out of bed at 6.45 in the morning and spontaneously praise the source of our Life.

In prayer, the deepest commitment creates the highest and most inspired form of freedom, a place where our spirit can truly soar, an event which can change our entire day.  We must be careful with sacrifice, it must not become an idol worship of its own.  But we must not think that we can live without it, to do so would be to starve our soul of some essential nutrients.

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.