Thursday, May 27, 2010

Naso (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parshah, see the archives to this blog, at May 10 2006, as well as May 2007, June 2008, and June 2009.

Two Kinds of Balance

As I have written at great length on several subjects these past few weeks, and this Shabbat comes close on the heals of Shavuot, I will only share a brief thought on one Talmudic passage. Sotah 2a asks:

Rabbi [i.e. Judah ha-Nasi] said: Why is the chapter of the Nazirite adjacent to that of the Sotah [i.e., suspected adulteress]? To tell you, that whoever saw the Sotah in her disgrace would keep himself away from wine.

This week’s Torah portion, is a kind of potpourri of a wide variety of diverse halakhic subjects. The Talmud asks here why two of the subjects which are presented in expansive detail—the law of the wife suspected of adultery and the test to which she is subjected (Num 5:11-31), and that of the Nazirite, who takes an oath not to drink wine nor to cut his hair (Num 6:1-21)—are adjacent to one another. (Incidentally, the two subjects are also next to one another in the order of the Mishnah, and thus in the Talmud, in the tractates of Nazir and Sotah.) The answer given is a simple one: a person who saw the shameful test imposed upon the sotah—the woman whose husband was moved to jealousy and suspicion of infidelity due to her dalliance with another man, and was required to drink a cup of “bitter waters,” mixed with dust from beneath the altar and the ink dissolved from a specially written scroll containing frightening imprecations—was moved to reflect on the gravity of sexual licentiousness. One of the presumed catalysts of such behavior—then as now—was a mood of frivolity brought about by drinking alcohol. The observer is described as being moved to the opposite extreme—namely, adopting a vow of total abstention from wine for a significant period of time—a minimum of thirty days.

What interests me here is the psychological mechanism implicit in this image. Confrontation with an extreme of sensual indulgence (which is perhaps hard for us to imagine: in contemporary society, extra-marital affairs do not arouse the same sense of shock which they did in an earlier and stricter world. Indeed, already in the Mishnah we are told that “once the number of adulterers increased, the bitter waters were abolished”) triggers a reaction in the opposite direction: the move towards asceticism, abjuring even legitimate physical pleasures.

Maimonides, in the Eight Chapters, in Hilkhot De’ot, and elsewhere, speaks of the “golden mean”—that the ideal path of behavior in all things is the middle path, neither self-denying nor self-indulgent, but a life of moderation in all things, guided by a clarity and self-control. Thus, one must be neither a spendthrift nor a miser; neither a workaholic nor a layabout; neither filled with anger nor passive and indifferent to events around oneself; etc. But, he continues, if a person finds within himself a tendency to go to one or another extreme, and needs to correct himself, he should not directly seek the moderate mean, but must consciously exaggerate, leaning towards the opposite extreme from his natural inclination, until he weans himself away from his old habits—and only then ought he return to the balanced middle path.

It seems to me that the situation portrayed in this brief aggadic comment is based upon this second approach: upon seeing the sotah, and having impressed upon his consciousness in a forceful way the fact that sinking into a life of voluptuous sensual indulgence is a very real option, the sensitive observer is likely to feel that, to avoid this, one must go to the opposite extreme: abstention even from innocent pleasures (even one glass of wine) lest one end up like the sotah or her paramour.

It has been suggested that this is one of the explanations of the religious extremism that we find today, both in the world generally and in certain sectors of the Jewish world, in particular—and specifically regarding sexual matters. On the one hand, our culture is filled with explicit sexuality: novels, TV, movies, and of course the internet, portray explicitly sexual scenes in a manner unheard of in our parents’ generation. This seems to go with a widespread acceptance of more permissive mores: the Anna Kareninas and Madame Bovaries of today’s fiction and film are more likely to find lasting love with their extra-marital loves than to meet dreadful ends that, presumably, serve as a warning to others. On the other hand, within the Orthodox community, there are ever-increasing humrot (halakhic stringencies) in every area, but particularly that of separation between men and women. Haredim are demanding buses with separate seating of men and women; in certain Jerusalem neighborhoods, the Rabbis have dictated that men and women use sidewalks on opposite sides of the street (!); in many modern Orthodox circles, separate setting at weddings or at least the wheeling out of a mehitzah during the dancing, has become de rigueur—again, practices unheard of thirty or forty years ago except in Hasidic circles; many young rabbis are insisting that women not sing in public at events such as high school graduations, Army swearing-in ceremonies, etc. By contrast, when I recently attended a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan light operetta, most of the audience seemed to consist of people of the “old school” of Orthodoxy (i.e., wearing kippot, but mostly over 50), who are willing to listen to a good coloratura soloist without worrying overly about kol beishah ervah (“a woman’s voice is lewdity”).

It seems to me that this new strictness is motivated, whether consciously or not, by a reaction against the excesses of sexual frankness of the general society; by the belief that, if we build high enough barricades, we will somehow be able to protect ourselves and our children from the negative influences of “the outside.” The problem is that these extreme approaches have gradually become the new norm, rather than a temporary, curative measure—and, in matters of sexual separation, it is usually women who pay the price, in the denial of their personhood and humanity. The alternative, as I see it, is to return to the older norm of what Yehezkel Cohen once called “a mixed but modest society.” In such a society, people will be guided more by inner control and balance, by a greater awareness of their own inner life and their threshold of stimulation, and by life-long habits of moderation and balance.


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