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Jewish Review 3:2 November-December, 1989, Cheshvan ---Kislev, 5750



Antinomies of the Soul


By Sanford L. Drob


Over the years I have had occasion to consult with a variety of individuals who entered psychotherapy because of what they described as unbearable ambivalences or contradictions in their mental life.  A man who had been completely devoted to his aging father was distressed by daydreams in which he took pleasure in anticipating his father’s death.  A young woman, a baalat teshuvah, who had recently discovered the beauties of Yiddishkeit, was tormented by her won homosexuality and her inability to lead a traditional Jewish home life.  A man who had devoted his life to civil right causes was distressed by a burgeoning fear of racial minorities whenever he entered a public place.  Finally, a young mother of three, overwhelmed by her parenting responsibilities experienced unbearable guilt over her impulse to abandon her husband and children and run off with a fantasized “lover” who would bring romance and excitement back into her life.  The list, of course, could go on, for more often than not the very essence of psychotherapy involves aiding individuals in coming to terms with the contradictions within their own souls, in assisting them in their confrontation with what Adin Steinsaltz has called “the Strife of the Spirit”.


As a psychotherapist I am continually engaged in helping individuals acknowledge their ambivalent feelings, and assisting them in altering their cognitions, behavior or environment in order that they may achieve a greater sense of harmony and peace in their personal lives.  Most of my effort, however is engaged in fostering a therapeutic environment in which the individual can fully experience the contradictions within his should and then work to resolve them in a spirit of self-compassion or rachamim as opposed to self-judgment or din.  The goal, of course, is not simply for the individual to accept his contradictions and ambivalences, and certainly not for the therapist to “kosher” them, but I have found that a certain degree of acceptance, and a greater degree of self-compassions, is a precondition for psychological change.  If one cannot show mercy on one’s soul, with all of its presumed faults and conflicting impulses, there is little chance that one will be capable of the effort necessary to surmount any of life’s great hurdles.  I am reminded of the tragic story, related to me by one of our contemporary Gadolim, of the young, brilliant student of Talmud who killed himself because he could not bear the burden of his own homosexual impulses.  Only the hardest-hearted of us cannot fail to be stirred by such a story and not wish that someone could have assisted this individual in showing some mercy on his own soul.


Showing Pity for Others


A story is told of a pupil who asked Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg (a rebbe of their generation after the Baal Shem Tov) how it was possible to fulfill the commandment “love they neighbor as thyself” with respect to an evil neighbor.  Rabbi Shmelke answered, “If a man strikes himself by mistake, should he then take a rod and thrash himself as punishment?  The soul of every man must likewise show pity on others, for in so doing he is showing pity on G-d when one of His Holy Sparks ahs has been trapped in an evil shell.”


There are those who, as difficult as such a task may be, are able to follow Rabbi Shmelke’s conclusion in showing mercy t others, but nonetheless fail to comply with his supposedly obvious first premise, psychologically thrashing themselves as punishment for inclinations, desires, and conflicts within their own souls, conflicts which are not of their own (conscious) choosing, and which when seen form the viewpoint of anyone other than themselves would certainly call out for compassion rather than judgment.  Following Rabbi Schmelke’s reasoning, in severely judging ourselves, we are as much as when we are judging others, actually condemning an aspect of G-d Himself.


All of this, of course, is not to say that there is no room for self-examination and judgment in psychotherapy.  Indeed, the Jewish tradition recognizes what psychotherapists sometimes forget, that a man will go to almost any length to avoid feeling shame or guilt for a negative thought or deed, and as such there are periods of self-reflections built into the Jewish calendar (the most notable being the Yomim Noraim culminating in Yom Kippur) which are designed to bring out and as it were, increase our experience of moral and psychological conflict in the service of our ultimate betterment and salvation.  The point I wish to make here, however, is that once we experience such conflicts, we need to look at them less as a curse and cause for self-condemnation and more as a blessing and a reason for self-compassion.  Psychological conflicts are a blessing inasmuch as they are an opportunity for spiritual growth and change.  They are also, as we are about to see, a blessing because according to Jewish tradition, even the darkest sides of the human personality have been placed in this world for a G-dly end.


There is probably not one of us (like my patient who felt so guilty about thinking of “other women” that he prayed to eliminate sex from his life altogether) who has not, at one time or another, harbored the wish that some secret and distressing impulse or desire be eliminated from his world.  However, according to up to sages, the fulfillment of such as wish would be neither possible, nor, in the final analysis, desirable.


Erasing the Yetzer Hara?


The Talmud (Yoma 69b) relates the story of how, after the return from exile in Babylonia, Ezra and the other leaders of the day, fearful of another national disaster, prayed that G-d should erase the “yetzer hara” the evil inclination, from the hearts of Israel.  After three days of fasting, their prayers were answered; the “Evil Inclination” charged out of the Holy of Holies like the fiercest of lions.  They tried unsuccessfully to seize the beast which cried so loudly that it could be heard a thousand miles away.  Finally the prophet Zechariah advised them to put it in a lead pot, but not destroy it lest the entire world be destroyed along with it.  For three days they held it captive, but for three days all chickens stopped laying eggs, for sexual desire had disappeared from the world.  Not a single egg could be found for the sick in Eretz Yisrael.  In the end they were forced to lift the lid of the pot and set it free, but not before blinding it and thereby robbing it of some of its power.

This is certainly a vivid and fascinating tale, one that can serve as a proof-text for many philosophical and psychological insights.  The point I wish to emphasize here, however, is that even what we regard as our most evil or forbidden impulses have, according to Jewish tradition, an important place in our world.  If a more explicit reference is required the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 9:7) tells us that without the so-called “evil inclination” a man would never marry, beget children, build homes or engage in commerce.”


Psychological conflict is an inevitable consequence of being human.  The poet Goethe once wrote that there were barely a few days in an entire life-time when he was not in the throes of strife within his own soul, a sentiment which is echoed in the Chasidic view that it is only the tzaddik gemar, the rate perfect saint, who is free from conflict between his “animal” and “G-dly” souls.  The inevitability of man’s conflicts follows from a fundamental principle in Jewish thought, i.e. that only G-d is One, His creation being permeated with duality:


God said to Israel, “My children,

Have created everything in the

Universe in pairs: Heaven and earth

are a pair’ this work and the world

to come are a pair. (Only) my glory

is one and unique in the world.              Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:31


The contradictions and ambivalences that baffle the human mind are not, of course, limited to the psychic sphere alone,.  Indeed there are antinomies that are built into the very structure of haolam hazeh, our world, and) as Emanuel Rackman pointed out many years ago) into the halakha, Jewish law, itself.  Amongst the former we might single out the antinomy between freedom and necessity (“Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted.” R. Akiva, Avot 3:9) and amongst the latter, we might cite the law of capital punishment for the rebellious son and the rabbinic dictum that such a law never was nor ever would be invoked, for such a son does not exist.


The upshot of all of this is that the created world, is in a profound sense, imperfect.  Neither our concepts, our laws, nor our feelings, fit into neat, non-contradictory compartments, and the (and we) cannot be expected to function without contradiction, ambivalence, paradox, and conflict.  This idea is uniquely expressed in the kabbalistic concept of shevirat hakelim, the “breaking of the vessels”, the notion that our imperfect, paradoxical world is created from the shattered pieces of a more perfect work within which ideas and emotions (represented by the sefirot) were ordered and whole.


There are, to be sure, many tears to be shed over these “broken vessels” for (unlike the proverbial spilled milk) that was contained within them was and is of vital importance; for it is this very shattering of G-d’s vessels which has brought conflict and evil into our world.  Yet, somehow, the kabbalists assure us, our tears are not in vain, and are indeed a part of G-d’s very plan for the world.  The world’s (and man’s)  imperfection is for the purpose of man’s and G-d’s tikun (repair or restoration) and each of us, in the contradictions and conflicts we experience within ourselves is vouchsafed the opportunity to “raise a spark”, to repair some aspect of the fault which lies at the heart of human existence.  According to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, it is as if “the creator spoiled reality so that mortals might set it right”. (Halakhic Man p148).  We are indeed to utilize the process of resolving our inner turmoil as a means towards elevating ourselves and our fellowman, and of serving G-d Himself. For some, this process may lead to a resolved to have compassion on others similarly distressed.  For others, the apparent impossibility of resolution may lead to the humility that, for the first time, enables them to reach out and understand another in his or her pain.


Isn’t one may ask, all of this talk of self-compassion with respect to one’s foibles, limitations, and even one’s sinful thoughts (and perhaps deeds!) a very dangerous thing?  After all, isn’t it possible even likely that knowledge of the possibility of forgiveness may encourage one to perform illicit acts in the first place? Indeed there is a danger in a philosophy which has itself become so permeated with the spirit of compassion and understanding that it no longer holds anything to be illicit.  This is why the Jewish tradition, with all of its compassion for those who are overcome by human weakness, prefers to exhibit its “contradictions” rather than eradicate them.  One might think for example, that if compassion or rachamim, implies that we should never apply the law of the rebellious son, or rarely, if ever, inflict capital punishment or never seek to apply the harsh laws of mamzerut, (illegitimate children), that perhaps we should abandon these laws altogether both in the interest of a more consistent and compassionate legal system, and a more harmonious Jewish psyche.  This we know, is not the Torah’s way/ The Torah prefers to be strict l’hatkhilla (prospectively) like a parent who strictly warns a child against violating a particular rule, yet who shows compassion on the occasional (inevitable) transgression (In this regard we should note that G-D’s own prayer as described in the Talmud (Berakhot 7a) is that He might deal mercifully with His children on earth).  This is why, as I have said, there must be room both for judgment and compassion, if there is to be genuine psychological change.  For some (like many of those whom I see in my role as psychologist on the prison wards of New York’s Bellevue Hospital), the therapeutic task involves getting the individual to recognize and experience the conflicts over thoughts and behavior which seem to come so naturally to others.  It is only after an individual can experience genuine guilt and/or regret for his transgressions that therapeutic understanding and compassion can have its proper effect.  Those who experience such conflict, who in Rabbi Schmelke’s terms are beating themselves with a stick, have not thought to beat themselves even once.


It is a process of self-examination and judgment, followed by self-compassion and a subsequent change in one’s thinking behavior or environment which, in my experience, frequently leads to psychological and spiritual growth.  It is a never-ending process, for we cannot hope in this life time to resolve any but a portion of the contradictions within our souls. There are indeed certain conflicts and contradictions which seem to plague our entire generation (the plight of the agunah and the plight of the Orthodox homosexual come to mind) and others (the question of free will versus causal necessity and divine providence) which have plagued man since nearly the dawn of time.  While we must do whatever is in our power to resolve the antinomies in our own lives and era, we must not allow our failures at resolution to throw us into a state of despair, where we abandon our faith in the Jewish people, our family, or (G-d forbid) ourselves.  It is our destiny that some of our conflicts may only be resolved with our death, or as Jewish tradition allows, with the coming of Messiah.  The Messiah, we are told, will resolve all outstanding disputes in Torah law, and we might presume (since he is to usher in an era of universal peace) that he will resolve all outstanding conflicts in human life as well.  It is, perhaps, the faith that our inner conflicts will eventually be resolved, if not in this world then in the next that enables those with a true and abiding faith to endure them.  Meanwhile, we need to acknowledge, along with Rabbi Soloveitchik (Gesher, vol.2, no.1) that in spite of all our efforts at resolution, in this life even religion “reveals itself to man not in solutions but in problems, not in harmony, but in the constant conflict of diversified forces and trends.”


Sanford Drob's recent publications are Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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All material on New Kabbalah website (c) Sanford L. Drob, 2001.

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