Reprinted from the Jewish Press
Sometimes we can be most cruel to ourselves. The inner voice can be filled with condemnation and hate. There are people that are barely aware of how harsh they treat themselves on the inside. If they would take a moment of mindfulness to actually hear their inner dialogue it might be something like, “You are a bad person”, “You are lazy”, and best of all, “You don’t deserve to live or be happy.” What is so odd is that most people would never treat others in such a savage manner. Most of us, who have a degree of respect and love for our friends, neighbors and family members would not be that cruel to them, so why be that way to ourselves? Even in the heat of the moment, during a terrible fight, we might SAY things like that to children or a spouse, but afterwards we apologize and try to repair the injury in the relationship. So, when do we ever apologize to ourselves for the horrible ways we treat ourselves?
Some may argue, there is a difference. Being kind to others is important. Being kind to yourself is indulgent. It is proper to be tough on yourself, have high standards, and don’t let yourself get away with anything! However, is that not mixing the issue? Why must having high standards and personal expectations and goals be equated with internal emotional bludgeoning? After all, most parents today would agree that one can encourage, support, and even demand high performance from children without being cruel and punishing. A good parent would say to a child who is not meeting certain expectations, “You can do better, how can I help?” If so, why would a person treat him or herself differently?
The true answer is an uncomfortable one that is going to be hard to face, and if we do face it, it uncovers a frightening truth. But folks, here it is: Our religion believes in authority and punishment. It is not possible to read more than one chapter of any form of Torah without someone being stoned, smitten, plagued, lashed, excommunicated, or threatened with the fires of Hell. There is a deeper truth and meaning to all of this, and we can safely say that the ultimate end goal of Jewish morality is not to threaten or bully people into observance, but as Chazal say, ein mikrah yotzeh midey peshuto, the verse can never fully leave its plain intent. So when you watch some kiruv-oriented video or listen to some speech about chinuch from a gentle looking rabbi with an impressive beard, and he tells you to love your children unconditionally, you must be wondering, which Torah is HE reading? Certainly, he can’t be reading the one where Tamar is almost taken out to be burned for allegedly committing a sexual indiscretion? Was this rabbi sleeping during the Torah reading where every time the poor Jews in the wilderness complain to Moshe, confused and overwhelmed, and then they get a response of tens of thousands dying from a heavenly scourge? We would like to skip over those parts of the Torah, but those parts are the same truth as the Ten Commandments. So folks, you are not crazy and you are not imagining it. We come from a tradition that can, at times, be harsh. It is absolutely confusing to hear all this touchy-feely psychological stuff about how G-d loves you, and you should be more accepting of your children and of your spouse, and even of yourself, where literally, along with your mother’s milk you have been exposed to a non-stop litany of intolerance and punishment.
I will not sell you “fake news”. This harshness is an unmistakable and real part of our religion and our society. It is as true as the Ten Commandments. Yet, it surely is not the entire picture. Obviously, there is no logic to this belief that punishment and aggression is the major focus of Judaism. If G-d and the religion were all about aggression, domination and control, then He would be no more moral than any despotic ruler. We do not obey G-d because he is the biggest bully in the universe! The first chapter of the Mesilas Yesharim unequivocally states that Man was created only in order to derive pleasure from the radiance of the Shekinah. Check it out, it’s all there in black and white. Yet, how does that unambiguous statement square with the constant fire and brimstone rhetoric? Like many parts of Judaism, there is a dynamic dialectical process that is not about one single idea, but various aspects and values. Judaism, like the human psyche it was designed to shape, is multi-dimensional, and capable of various levels of motivation and actions.
The practical need of maintaining social order is far different than the deep ethical truths. There are at least two aspects to the Torah. There is the legal system, and like any society, sadly but necessarily, the law must be maintained even if force is required. This is an ugly feature of humanity: we have to threaten people with punishment, incarceration, fines, perhaps even the death penalty in order to manage people of lower morals and baser instincts (and maybe even ourselves on bad days.) In this way, the Torah is no different than any other legal system. It expects those in authority, parents, teachers, rabbis and judges to enforce its norms by any means possible. The Torah uses force and aggression because it reflects the reality of the human condition at its most base level.
Yet, humans are capable of so much more. They are capable of making enormous altruistic sacrifices out of love for others or love for G-d. This is the part of the Torah that is harder to notice because it is not emphasized as much. The reason for this is because the Torah speaks on many levels, and the more sophisticated the message, the less explicit it is. Thus, the Torah attributes to G-d body parts and human emotions, when nearly every Jewish source from the early Geonim and onward declare that to be a mere metaphor and that G-d is above all of these temporal effects. (That is not to say that there aren’t verses in Tanach as well as statements in the Gemara that can be understood in this light, but the they are not stated as explicitly as in the early and medieval philosophers such as Rav Saadia Gaon and the Rambam. (See Rambam Hilchos Yesode HaTorah 1:8 and Hilchos Teshuva 3:7, Hasagos HaRaavad.) The point is, a clear part of Jewish philosophy and theology understands that the more esoteric the idea is, the less clearly it will be stated in the Torah. The Rambam in his introduction to Perek Chelek makes it clear that the stated pleasures of heaven such as the banquet of the Leviathan and the fires of Hell are all metaphors for the deeper pleasure of the soul’s union and connection with G-d, or the anguish of the soul’s disconnection with G-d. Yet, the explicit parts of the Torah are replete with punishment and threats. Every day, we recite the Krias Shema, which does not promise the bliss of basking in the aura of the Shekinah. Instead, the Shema warns us that the rain will not fall and G-d’s wrath will be kindled, or conversely G-d will reward in abundance for obeying. Therefore, is it any wonder that we have all internalized this basic form of relating to our obligations? We have taken the lowest denominator and elevated it to the highest status of self and other relations. In other words, as necessary as enforcement of norms must be on a practical societal level, we have made this the final stop instead of the mere first step in a much deeper process. Our goal as Jews, parents, and even leaders of our own selves is not to threaten and dominate in order to achieve compliance, but to reach levels of recognition of truth, values and meaning so that we are inspired to follow the highest ideals. Still, you are not going to find the Torah giving that as much explicit “air time” because, as we have stated, the more sophisticated the idea, the less explicit it will be. Much of this is in the realm of Oral tradition. As time goes on, each successive generation must make the Oral tradition more explicit by recording and uncovering more of it, and so too with this deeper aspect of the Torah.
We confuse the bare minimum with the ultimate goal. Therefore, the real question we must ask ourselves is, are we ready to treat the people we love and even ourselves as if we are capable of doing so much better? Is it necessary to enact harsh and vicious external and internal attitudes in order to develop our virtues? Can we begin to live life on higher plane and trust ourselves and others to want good, and do good -- without emphasizing the horrors of Hell and needing to threaten and punish others and ourselves? Maybe yes, maybe no.
What would happen if parents stopped punishing and forcing children to behave? Obviously, at a young age the result would be disastrous. When a child has not internalized enough internal structure, if parents do not work to enforce it, a child will grow wild and undisciplined. But at what age is this internal structure and conscience strong enough that parents can appeal to reason and meaning instead of threats and force? And, if humanity is also growing and developing, (and we must believe it is, otherwise why in the world would G-d put up with us for this long,) at what point can -- must -- we say humanity has matured such that our first and even second nature response to dissent and disobedience no longer has to be -- and indeed, must not be -- aggression, force and punishment? Is it possible, on some level, to have a utopian existence where the people are trusted, inspired and encouraged to be their best selves without the dark threat of immediate reprisal?
This is a big question, and it is time to start answering it slowly and tentatively in our own lives. We cannot just do away with the need for law, order and punishment on a micro or macro-level. That would be way too naive. However, perhaps it is time to wean ourselves from the intoxicating belief that power and force are the primary and most important means of accomplishing moral guidance and education. It is noteworthy, though admittedly not the traditional peshat, that Moshe was told to SPEAK to the rock, and instead he HIT the rock, and was punished for something he did wrong (Numbers 20:7-11). Could it be, part of the problem was he should have modeled a more gentle, less aggressive approach?
Many of us have such a strongly rooted tendency of mistrust in our own nature and others because we have bought the narrative of force and punishment as the only manner of relating, instead of it merely being one tool, and a crude one at that. You can talk to the people you love, and most importantly, even to yourself as if you believe in Man’s inherent goodness. You can recognize your shortcomings and address your faults with self-love and respect without sacrificing integrity. Just as many children today would respond far better to loving and encouraging talk instead of condemnation, so too it is possible to treat oneself in the same manner. In fact, when you start with treating yourself more kindly, you will find it much easier to treat others that way as well.
There is a parallel and mysterious part of Tanya which may be addressing this dimension of self. Before we get into the text of the Tanya it is important to understand the Tanya’s explicitly stated focus, which as we may discover, could be different from its more subtle focus. The first part of Tanya is called the Sefer HaBenonim -- the Book of the Average Person. Actually, the Tanya’s Benoni is on a fairly high level. For the Benoni is a person who still experiences dominance of his physical side, which manifests and impinges on his soul’s yearning for spiritual union with G-d. That is, basically most of us humans who experience normal physical lusts. The Tanya’s (chs. 26-29) apparent prescription for the Benoni is total warfare with self. A brutal and bitter battle with the evil inclination, and purposeful steps of internal self-violence, by self-criticism and denial of pleasures in order to beat down and subdue the physical body of its dominance, so that the purer parts of the soul get a chance to flourish. This sounds much like the old parenting adage, “I will beat the devil out of him”. This sounds inhuman and barbarous; could there be more going on here? The Tanya leaves clues that he might be driving at something else. In chapter 26, the Tanya speaks of “specific times” for reflection with deep bitterness about one’s sins. As seems to be typical of human nature, we often hear the harsh parts and miss the subtleties. The Tanya actually mentions the destructiveness of purposeless sadness and bitterness in this same chapter. Taking specific moments and times to focus on regret and humility also implies that THE REST OF THE TIME we should NOT be doing this. Even more interesting, in chapter 28 the Tanya very briefly goes on a tangent, that may not be a tangent at all. While discussing this overall strategy of fighting against one’s nature, and engaging in all forms of self-deprivation and internal demands, he mentions as if on the side: “One should not be foolish to think that he can sublimate his lustful thoughts...for such things are meant only for the righteous.” Tanya then goes on to describe how instead of sublimating the thoughts, one must obliterate them. On the surface, Tanya is warning a person that the only way to deal with the evil inclination is to basically obliterate it and fight it to the death. However, there may be more to this than meets the eye. First of all, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 107b) actually advises that as with a child, and a spouse, one must deal with his evil inclination in a gentle manner, “Pushing away with the left hand, and drawing near with the right”. This is precisely the issue we have been bringing to light in this series: The way one relates to family is a reflection of the way one ought relate to self, and it would seem that there is support for the notion that it should be with a degree of love and respect, not just aggression and punishment. As we have taken some pains to point out, the more nuanced and subtle beliefs of the Torah are less explicit and in the realm of Torah Shebaal Peh. Tanya will not state explicitly that the superior way is for a person to learn how to co-opt and work with his internal desires, needs and emotional states, because it is far too dangerous. One can easily use that as a rationale to allow for moral laziness and sloth. However, Tanya does not want the right person to miss the crypto-message, which is that theoretically the right kind of person (e.g. the tzaddik) can work with his needs and desires and develop aspects of them that are important and useful without engaging in self-violence and condemnation. A person may notice he is lusting after something or dislikes a particular mitzvah. On one level, it’s a plain old yezer hara thing, and he should simply overcome it and force himself to “do the right thing”. But, on another level, can he listen to himself more? What is his desire or feeling really telling him? What part of his soul needs more nurture, and how can he channel this feeling more appropriately? Is he lusting after other women? Well then, what is missing in his marriage and what needs to be done to fix it? Does he hate davening? Does she find Shabbos tedious without watching Netflix? What is missing here that needs to be brought into the picture. Must one just fight with himself and scare himself with the fires of Hell or is there a more mature, enlightened option. You decide. After all, who else should?
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation .)