Rav Wolbe’s World part II: Middos
Without harnessing Middos (inclinations, attitudes and character predispositions) to build yedidus, we tend to descend to the opposite extreme, cruelty. Free will does not go so far as to include the ability to create or destroy any of the soul’s powers, including one’s middos. Much of the battle within the soul and mind occurs without our awareness, among the physical desires and tendencies of our subconscious, and the spiritual longings of what Rav Wolbe calls our “super-conscious”. The Torah does not call on us to suppress or repress any of these powers, but to learn to use each in its appropriate time and constructively.
Alienation and Cruelty
The World of Yedidus is not an idealized world without any opposing forces. Forces of alienation stand in its way and constantly threaten to harm or even destroy it. The World of Yedidus is a unified world, built upon great closeness between a person and their Creator and between people and their peers. But there is a force within a person that does not want this closeness — estrangement that grows step by step until all connection to others is lost, and until it is the worst of all middos: akh-zariyus [pure alienation, an unpacking of the word akhzariyus, cruelty], that is to say, absolute alienation. The akh-zar person is happy to gloat over his peer, gets pleasure from his pain. The final step of alienation is that the person is a zar (a stranger) to himself and even akh-zari (cruel) to himself. (See at length in Wolbe, Bein Sheishes leAsor, Jerusalem 1976, the essay “Olam haYedidus” on p. 15 ff.)
We find in the Talmud (Shabbos 105b):
One who tears clothing in his fury, who breaks his vessels in his fury, or who scatters his money in his fury should be in your eyes like an idolator. Because such is the job of the evil inclination: today it says to him “do this” and tomorrow it says to him “do that”, until eventually it tells him “worship idols!” — and he goes and worships. Rav Avin said, “Where is the scripture (Where is this written in Tanakh)? ‘Do not have within you a zar (foreign) god’ — What is a foreign god who is within a person’s body? This says it is the evil inclination.”
This text outlines evil as a force of alienation. The Talmud here portrays the process of alienation which begins with a person’s alienation from himself through anger, and from there he reaches alienation from G-d — idolatry. It is not for naught that pagan gods are called by the term “avodah zarah” (foreign worship), to point to the source of the phenomenon in the power of zarus (alienation / foreignness).
Middos and Intellect
What is this process of alienation? There isn’t any power in the soul which is specifically evil (Naftali Wessley, Sefer haMidos part I, ch. 4). Every power has some place in the World of Yedidus. Even egotism and anger are necessary sometimes. When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary. However, in order to build the World of Yedidus, there has to be coordination of all the forces together, so that they work together in cooperation and a proper distribution of their duties.
The ruling power, which sets each of the other powers in their proper place, is the intellect, which is therefore the central power of yedidus in a person. (Cf. Kuzari, Rav Yehudah HaLeivi, 3:2 onward.) Without the rule of the intellect, there is no World of Yedidus. When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its boundaries and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control — this power alienates itself from the other powers and rebels against the intellect. This is where zarus begins, and that power thereby changes to become “evil.” This process is depicted in the Talmud quoted above with the example of anger. Elsewhere the Talmud depicts the same process of alienation with regard to sexual lust (which the Gemara describes as “[Rav said:] someone who intentionally stimulates himself [should be excommunicated. And why is it prohibited? Because he incites the evil inclination against himself.]” — Niddah 13b)
Here we reach the question of free will. We explained that there is no power in a person that is specifically evil. We are able to use our powers to build the World of Yedidus, through the coordination of those powers by the intellect. The excessive use of one power or a rebellion against the intellect cause the destruction of the World of Yedidus. This choice is in the person’s hands, whether to choose yedidus or alienation. Indeed, he can choose.1
In the Talmud we find an example of this (Shabbos 156a): “A person born under the sign of Mars will be a person who sheds blood — a blood-letter, a thief, a ritual slaughterer [for meat] or a mohel.” A person cannot change the basic attribute, in this example — the inclination to shed blood. But this attribute can be used for good, and the spectrum of possibilities is broad: he could be a doctor, a slaughterer or a mohel. Only the thief who won’t flinch from murder uses his attribute in a manner of alienation. Here we have an example of an extreme inclination, and there is still nothing that compels a person to be evil because of it. He has the choice to use it for more beneficial ends.
For the sake of completeness, we will give a historical example from our Sages on this topic (Yalkut Shimoni, Samuel I, 16:124):
When Samuel saw that David was “red”, he grew fearful. “This one will shed blood like Esau!” The Holy One said to him, “With beautiful eyes” — Esau killed by his own decision, but this one kills by the decision of the Sanhedrin!
In any case, there is a limit to choice; the basic inclination cannot be changed! In the above example, someone born with the inclination to shed blood cannot uproot this inclination. The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or to destroy it.2
Torah and Middos
Here the Torah comes to the aid of the intellect, to strengthen the person to choose good. The Torah of Israel wages an all-out war against all the forces of alienation. Therefore, first of all, “The intent of the Torah is to extend the intellect to all the desires of the soul, and to assert its power over them” (Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar Perishus, ch. 2). The intent is not to to suppress desires, but to put each force in its proper place. For that is the way of Torah in all its mitzvos. Torah has three pillars: “On three things the world stands — on Torah, on worship and on supporting kindness” — taught Shim’on haTzaddik (Avos 1:2). Learning Torah completes the person himself. Worshipping God — whether in the Beis haMikdash or with his prayer — connects us with the Holy One. Supporting through acts of kindness is yedidus toward the other. These are the parts of Torah.3
The Torah is also meticulous about subtle instances of alienation: “When you see your enemy’s donkey collapsing under its load, you refrain from removing it? You should surely remove it with him!” (Shemos 23:4-5) Ignoring damages to one’s peers is also alienation — “you may not hide!” (Devarim 22:3-4)
Subconscious and Super-Conscious
There is one last question for us to discuss: Does the Torah recognize the [existence of a] subconscious? The answer is in the affirmative. In the Tanakh we find that “Hashem [Tzevakos is a righteous judge] who examines the kidneys and heart” (Yirmiyahu 11:20). And the Talmud establishes, “the kidneys advise, the heart understands” (Berakhos 61a). The heart is the seat of the conscious, the kidneys — an idiom for the subconscious.
However, the subconscious known to Torah scholars is not that of Freud, which is created by the suppression of desires or unpleasant experiences. It is also not the unconscious of Jung, who believes in archetypes which reside in a collective unconscious. We must turn to the words of the Gra, “the Vilna Gaon”: “All of a person’s ways follow the original desire; the original desire as it initially arises is correct in his eyes.” (Commentary on Mishlei 16:1-2) As if to say, the desire is formed in such depths that our conscious has no dominion over them. The “I”4 that is known to us is only a very small part of the essence of a person. Hidden desire directs our ways — they are the “advising kidneys” in the idiom of Tanakh and our Sages, which we don’t directly feel in our activities. For the sake of brevity, we will have to refrain here from bringing examples from the Torah about how this “original desire” acts. Suffice it here to say that the hidden desire has the ability to strive for things of the body or the spirit.
From the Torah’s perspective, we would have to speak of a subconscious and also of a super-conscious. There are lofty desires which originate in the godly soul within us. They push us to ethical elevation and closeness to God, and they bring us to more lofty emotions. This spiritual original desire is appropriately called “super-conscious”, and we must leave the term “subconscious” for original desires that draw one to satisfy physical indulgences. The desires of our super-conscious are certainly no less strong than the desires of the subconscious. This understanding of super — and subconscious does not invalidate the mechanisms of repression. We already saw above that it was already known to Rabbi Yisrael Salanter 60 years before Freud. But the Torah understanding does contradict Freud in a sharp way in that he only finds the Libido in the subconscious, and in dreams which are the window into the subconscious, only sexual matters. (Cf. [Victor] Frankl’s writings, Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde, Stuttgart 1959, and Der Unbewusste Gott — Psychotherapie und Religion.)
Excursus: Jewish Mysticism
This is the right point to dwell briefly on Jewish Mysticism. Judaism does not recognize that which we call unio mystica.5 A creature could never be entirely unified with his Creator. A person can greatly purify himself through the power of his Torah and worship; he can lower and abnegate himself before his Creator until he feels God’s closeness to him, but he remains constantly aware of the great distance that is between creature and His Creator. Non-Jewish sources which speak of a unio mystica apparently refer to specific ecstatic states from within which they feel as though they are in union with God. Jewish mystical enlightenment.6 entirely negates the possibility of actual unity. However, there is a section of the Torah called “the esoteric Torah” which Kabbalah deals with. It is part of the Oral Torah like the Talmud. However, whereas there is an obligation on every Jew to learn Talmud, only “people of stature” involve themselves in “Kabbalah.” Until our generation there were Kabbalists who developed deep insights in the area of Kabbalah. We will briefly follow their means of innovation.
The Torah’s system has two axes: The horizontal axis are the practical mitzvos which obligate every Jewish individual — they create the World of Yedidus of the entire nation. The vertical axis — these are the ways of ascent of each person according to their ability. These ways of ascent are primarily built upon the service of the heart, like love for, yirah (awe-fear) of, attachment to [God], etc… The more a person delves into the depths of Torah, the more he feels the subtle nuances of holiness. These sublime powers we discussed aid a person in this. The more deeply he delves into Torah, the more these powers are strengthened within him. With this he can reach the point where in the purity of his heart and clarity of his mind he could grasp very deep knowledge of Godliness, the world, and humanity.
This is the direct opposite of ecstasy, where through the nullification of consciousness one sees visions of secret worlds. On the contrary, the conscious is in operation at the time of comprehension, and the Kabbalist feels with total certainty that he is grasping the truth. A superlative example of this is the Gra from Vilna, about whom those close to him were known to say that they sent him [angels] from heaven to reveal to him lofty secrets. He refused to accept these revelations, because his mind was only at rest with ideas that he himself established with his study (introduction by Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner to the Gra’s commentary on Sifra deTzeneiu’sa, p. 4).
Therefore the person of Torah can reach purity of thought and sacred behavior until he merits sublime understanding and truths that reach the depths of creation. But this is the exclusive realm of the Torah of Israel. Psychiatry cannot bring one to these kinds of spiritual states, and also one cannot benefit from the ideas which are revealed in them.
- I believe this is why it was so important for Rabbi Wolbe to assert in the prior installment that everything has its role in creation, buttressing it with an entire digression about even insanity serving its purpose. As he quoted, “Despise no one and disdain nothing, for there is no person who does not have his moment and there is nothing that does not have its place” (Avos 4:3). Every inclination and power of the soul has its role. Therefore the Torah does not compel us to suppress any of them, rather it teaches us how to find its purpose within the ultimate goal of a World of Yedidus. [↩]
- Maimonides famously describes the proper tuning for each inclination to be the Middle Measure (Code, Laws of Dei’os 1:2). The Orchos Tzadikim (introduction) likens it to a recipe or a meal; some ingredients, such as the meat, is desired in large quantities, others, like salt, in far smaller ones. We saw this kind of description in the previous essay, when Rabbi Wolbe writes, “When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its limits and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control…”
However, it is notable that his primary focus in both that section and the current one is not so much the quantity or intensity of each inclination, but coordinating when and how each is used. As when he writes, “When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary.” Or as we find here, “The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or destroy it.” [↩]
- Note that these are also the three forms of relationship that Rav Wolbe earlier said characterize the World of Yedidus.
There is an interesting comparison here between Rabbi Wolbe’s model and those of two earlier figures of the 20th century.
Rabbi Shimon Shkop (introduction to Shaarei Yosher) also speaks of the goal of the Torah in terms of the person who is connected to others:
The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people… And there are higher levels of this in a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and (even) all of creation.
However, Rabbi Shkop’s notion is more radical; his perspective is outright humanistic. Spirituality is only the second step in a progression towards connecting to all of humanity. He opens by telling us, that God “planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator…”
Similarly, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum’s Ha-Olim Society carried a three-part motto of “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres” to parallel Shimon haTzaddik’s three pillars. Translating, it called for “knowledge (of God), compassion (toward others), and a splendorous harmony (within).” And yet, he too gave his vision a very humanistic hue (Yavneh, year 3, issue 156-157 — Kisleiv-Teiveis 5691, published in Lemberg, p. 8-9). He describes Hashem’s Good as flowing from under the Throne of Glory and our job to aid its bestowal on ourselves and others. This requires being close to Him and thus connected to the Source, compassionate and thereby connected to others, and to form and master ourselves to become conduits through which that Good can flow.
Whereas R’ Wolbe makes each kind of relationship — God, others and self — equally primary, both of these earlier thinkers speak of the value of relating to God and being whole in ourselves as deriving (at least in part, although possibly in total) from their being necessary to properly assist others. [↩]
- Perhaps: “Ego” in the Freudian sense. [↩]
- The Latin is in the original: a mystical union between the practitioner and God. [↩]
- Behirus means mystical enlightenment, in contrast with Haskalah. [↩]