Monday, October 29, 2012

the fear of vulnerability

I read The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine. The book didn't offer me anything particularly mind-shattering; I had heard most of the ideas she documented before now, but it was nice to see all of them in one place. In many ways, I actually found the last section of the book to be the most revolutionary.

After talking about the culture of affluence, child development and parenting styles, Madeline talks to the reader about the importance of being a serene and secure mother. Obviously, ideally both parents should be in that place, but it seems to have been proven that mothers make even more of an impact than fathers do on the family, and thus the best place to start when it comes to turning around the family culture is with the mother.

She writes a lot of really beautiful ideas in this last section of the book, but the one that spoke the most to me was the chapter entitled "The Fear of Vulnerability." An excerpt is reproduced below.


The Fear of Vulnerability

Affluent moms can be many things: bright, competitive, persistent, protective, interesting, and funny. They are not vulnerable- at least not publicly. Vulnerability is a kind of admission: an admission of hurt feelings, of neediness, of things not going well. This is not the territory affluent moms are comfortable in. We like the high ground, the places that feel secure and capable and accomplished. At PTA meetings, at the gas station, at the florist or the nail salon, even at our social events, our conversations tend to center on our children's accomplishments. There might be some passing comment, in hushed tones, about another mother's kid who was packed off to rehab or picked up for a DUI, but it's never our own kid. In public we shine, and so do our children.

Certainly, the fear of appearing vulnerable is not limited to affluent moms. Many people choose not to expose their emotionally tender spots. For many of us, being wary comes from repeated experience of not having our needs met when we were vulnerable, either as children or as adults. It makes sense to keep our guard up. It helps protect us from disappointment, anger, and sadness.

Somewhere back in our ancestral history it made perfect sense to hide our wounds from our enemies so we wouldn't be clubbed over the head and dragged off to a cave. For women who continue to fear that those around them will exhibit aggression rather than compassion, presenting a "perfect" and formidable front is the best insurance against being exploited and misunderstood. It is also an exhausting and ultimately empty performance. We are human exactly because we love and hate, because we excel and fail, because we are independent and needy. We cannot embrace only our strengths and disregard our weaknesses  Children need to see their mothers being competent, but they also need to see them struggling with challenges. How else does a child come to see that challenges, even failures, are a part of life? Moms who appropriately share some of their difficulties can help model resilience, active approaches to problem solving, and compassion for oneself.

Try to remember a time in your own childhood when you felt afraid and unprotected. Perhaps it was the first time you were left alone in your house and every noise and creak made you jump. Remember the sound of your parents' key in the door and the relief that flooded you when you knew you were safe. Or perhaps you remember your first broken heart when you were young, and how everyone made light of it, except for one dear person who took your grief and your heartache seriously and quietly stroked your hair while you sobbed into your pillow. We were all once very vulnerable, just as our children are now. Mothers who reflexively put up a "good front," who deny the hurt or sadness or depression that is so clearly seen by their children miss the opportunity to teach that while life isn't always fair, pain is always eased by love and connection.


This mother, like many of the women I see, had decided that the cost of vulnerability was too great. Not having a mother she could rely on, she came to the logical but unfortunate conclusion that she was better off not relying on anyone. Bright and capable, she developed the hardworking, organized parts of herself that allowed her to stay busy in the world, while shutting down her emotional life. Little by little, she came to see that while she did not have control over her early traumas, she did have choices as an adult, and that by choosing to be "strong" over vulnerable she had simply papered over the fragile walls of her childhood. 

~Pages 207-210


This section of the book resonated so much with me because I am coming to discover, of course, that this is one of my struggles. I'm not an affluent mom, but I am a person, and I have learned to associate vulnerability with either (verbal) aggression or rejection. And it's that last sentence that is repeating in my head- that by choosing to be "strong" over vulnerable one simply papers over one's fragility. I have valued this strength, and I am not entirely sure that I am wrong to value it, but I wonder if it should have expressed itself in a different way.

I'm intrigued by Levine's argument that when the mother takes care of herself and her marriage, that makes her do a better job of raising her children. She noted that many mothers make the time to attend their children's soccer games or other events, but can't find the time to meet up with friends. Here, these women put their children's needs first, but don't want to make time for their own needs for stimulation, relaxation, conversation, possibly because they worry these needs will be perceived as trivial. Part of what Levine argues is that in fact, when the woman puts her own needs first, she is making herself healthier, which means she is able to be a better mom to her kids.

I am curious as to whether this can be seen as analogous to teachers. Perhaps, when teachers make sure that they are doing things that are fulfilling and happy and solely for them- book clubs, seeing movies, hanging out with friends- that makes them better able to interact with their kids as well.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

I Am Forbidden: Anouk's Misleading Book

After having heard Anouk and Judy speak at the recent 'Hasidic Worlds in Fiction' event at the DC JCC, I read I Am Forbidden, Anouk's book, this past Shabbat. I was very disturbed by the book, mostly because I find it to be misleading. Just warning you now that my explanation of what is misleading will spoil the book for you, so if you want to read it, come back later.

In this book, a Satmar woman finds herself married to a Satmar man. The two of them try to have children but fail. The doctor examines the wife and doesn't seem to find anything wrong with her, so he then asks to examine the husband. In order to do this, he would need a semen sample. Alack! Shichvas Zera L'Vatala! The husband declares the Satmar Rebbe would never permit this. The woman then decides to have an affair and gets pregnant by the man she had the affair with, who was Jewish. At the same time, the man who loves her decides to give the semen sample and realizes that in fact, he is unable to sire children. He realizes that his wife's child cannot be his. Alas and alack- a mamzer!

Here are some excerpts from the book:
The fifth year of their marriage, Mila told Josef that her physician insisted on a semen sample before prescribing fertility drugs.
"But it is a grievous sin," Josef replied. "The Torah forbids it."
"Even for medical purposes? The doctor says some of his orthodox patients did do the test."
"Our Rebbe would never permit it."
"Even for couples who cannot have children?"
"Mila, how would the doctor help if the problem lies with me?"
"But if the problem doesn't lie with you, then the doctor will prescribe fertility drugs."
"The Torah itself forbids it, not just rabbinic law. No God-fearing rabbi would permit it." He hesitated. "Many women have been helped by the Rebbe's blessing."
"You ask him. I won't go to the Rebbe."
-pages 174-175 
"I'm not angry with the Rebbe for surviving; I'm angry because when it came to his life, he allowed himself to compromise, but when it comes to our lives, we cannot do the one test that would permit me to start a fertility treatment."
"It's the test you're talking about? I told you, this isn't about the Rebbe. No God-fearing rabbi would permit what is expressly forbidden in the Torah."
-page 179 
Josef reached for a Talmud treatise, searched for a clause that might permit a semen analysis, and once more failed to find it:
If his hand touches his penis, let his hand be cut off on his belly.Would not his belly be split? It is preferable that his belly be split...If a thorn stuck in his belly, should he not remove it? No...But all such, why?To emit seed in vain is akin to murder. 
-page 181
Anouk is very sneaky here. Notice that Josef never actually goes to talk to the Rebbe. He just assumes that the Rebbe would certainly forbid the semen analysis. This is very misleading. First off, the Rebbe would not forbid a semen analysis due to medical necessity. I can't speak for the Satmar Rebbe since I haven't asked him, but I know for a fact that the Bobover Rebbe permitted it and that rabbis in these communities take infertility issues extremely seriously. (True, that doesn't mean that they permit it instantly, but after one or two years of trying to have children, they do permit it.)

Secondly, Josef supposedly fails to find a clause that might permit semen analysis. There are very clear sources that permit it under certain circumstances (click here). Moreover, the fact is that this would not be shichvas zerah l'vatala. It's clearly not l'vatala since the whole point is that you are doing this for a purpose, for the purpose of analyzing the semen to see whether you can have children, thus for the mitzvah of pru u'rvu. You are not doing it to avoid pregnancy, like Onan did.

It bothers me immensely when authors mislead their (mainly secular or unaffiliated Jewish) audiences in this way. It leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth, assuming that Chasidic communities are invariably fanatical, and it's inaccurate.

Addendum: Ezra points out that this may be a historical matter, and that perhaps the situation that is recorded in the book is correct based on the time period in which it occurred. Thus, the book is only misleading if the reader applies what happened at that point in time to what would happen today, in 2012.


I haven't concluded the second chapter of Shmuel with my kids yet, but I noticed something last class that I am planning to point out to them.

In Chapter 1, we learn about Chana's nemesis, Peninah. Our text reads:

ו  וְכִעֲסַתָּה צָרָתָהּ גַּם-כַּעַס, בַּעֲבוּר הַרְּעִמָהּ:  כִּי-סָגַר יְהוָה, בְּעַד רַחְמָהּ.6 And her rival vexed her sore, to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb.

I do not think it is a coincidence that when it comes to the prophecy about what will happen to Eli's family, the same word appears:

לב  וְהִבַּטְתָּ צַר מָעוֹן, בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֵיטִיב אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה זָקֵן בְּבֵיתְךָ, כָּל-הַיָּמִים.32 And thou shalt behold a rival in My habitation, in all the good which shall be done to Israel; and there shall not be an old man in thy house for ever.

Here's what's fascinating: our conventional reading of the doom of Eli and his sons suggests that Eli is responsible for his sons wayward behavior. And indeed, that may well be true. But the similarity of language attests to another possibility- Eli is being punished for his lack of compassion for Chana. Chana was a woman of broken spirit, in part because she did not have a child, but in greater part due to the cruelty of Peninah. Eli did not recognize this and instead saw her as a drunkard. Now, Eli and his family will experience what Chana has already experienced- the pain of having a rival installed in what should be his proper place. Another Kohen will serve God; he will be replaced. Thus he will learn what the pain that Chana experienced was like.

Given this reading, Chana's prayer-poem is particularly applicable here. As she says:
  יְהוָה, מוֹרִישׁ וּמַעֲשִׁיר; מַשְׁפִּיל, אַף-מְרוֹמֵם

God has raised her up and set her above her rival; now, He shall bring Eli low and let him experience the pain there is in watching a rival serve.

The Role of the Mother

I am studying Shmuel with my students. We have almost completed learning Perek Bet, which focuses on the sins of Chafni and Pinchas. 

I pointed out to my students that in Perek Aleph, there is so much emphasis on Chana. We hear about Chana and the way that Peninah treats her, Chana in relation to Elkanah, Chana's desire for a child, Elkanah misjudging Chana and so forth. In Perek Bet, Chana speaks a beautiful prayer-poem asserting God's glory and rulership. We also hear that she would come every year and bring Shmuel a little coat that she had made for him.

I asked my students: When you contrast the story of Chofni, Pinchas and Eli as opposed to the story of Chana and Shmuel, what's missing?

The mother! my students immediately recognized. Where is Chofni and Pinchas' mother?

Where is she, indeed?

This brings to light a passage on the role of the mother as written about by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in "A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne" which was published in Tradition Magazine, and republished in Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff's book The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

People are mistaken in thinking that there is only one masorah, and only one masorah community, the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two masorot, two traditions, two communities, two shalshalot ha-kabbalah [chains of tradition]- the masorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. "Thus shalt thou say to the House of Jacob [=the women] and tell the children of Israel [=the men]" [Exodus 19:3], "Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father [mussar avikha], and forsake not the teaching of thy mother [torat imekha]" [Proverbs 1:8], counseled the old king. What is the difference between these two masorot, these two traditions? What is the distinction between mussar avikha and torat imekha? Let us explore what one learns from one's father and what one learns from one's mother. 
From one's father one learns how to read a text- the Bible or the Talmud, how to comprehend, how to analyze, how to conceptualize  how to classify, how to infer, how to apply, etc. One also learns what to do and what not to do, what is morally right and what is morally wrong. Father teaches son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action. Father's tradition is an intellectual-moral one. That is why it is identified with musar, the biblical term for discipline. 
What is torat imekha? What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of a mother. Only by circumscription may I hope to explain it. Permit me to draw upon my own experiences. I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, they were monologues rather than a dialogue. She talked and I "happened" to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use a halakhic term in order to answer this question. She spoke of inyana de-yoma [the affairs of the day]. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers. I used to watch her recite the sidra [weekly Torah portion] every Friday night; I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned much from her. 
Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in living experience. She taught me that there is flavor, a scent, and a warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life- to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.  
The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are part of musar avikha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother; it is a part of torat imekha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mother lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor. 
The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; the mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four-hour presence.  
~pages 183-184 in Volume 2
Many of the meforshim state that Chofni and Pinchas did not actually sin. In fact, they were entitled to portions of meat from the families; the problem was in their timing. They demanded these portions of meat too early, at an inappropriate time. According to this interpretation, they kept the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.

This impairment on their part relates directly back to the absence of their mother. Where was she? Who is she? Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps she was emotionally distant. What is clear is that her sons suffered due to her lack of guidance. Although they learned the language of ritual, of offering the sacrifices, they did not understand the beauty in it. They did not appreciate the great privilege that they had. They knew the law, but not the joy with which they were to approach the keeping of the law.

In contrast to these boys, Shmuel always had the influence of his mother. This is made clear in the description of him- at all times, he is described as wearing that me'il, that beautiful coat that his mother made him. When he rises from the dead, he is still wearing that cloak. What Chana gave her son was not just a physical garment, but a way of life, a way of looking at the world. She gave her son part of the deep spiritual passion with which she was blessed. What she gave him ensured that he was protected and that he would not fall prey to the behavior that Chofni and Pinchas modeled.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

i lost a friend/ somewhere along in the bitterness

I'm teaching my students about Onaat Devarim, hurtful language. Part of this topic includes a discussion on bullying and cyberbullying, which, of course, brought back a lot of memories for me.

I've been talking to some wise people, and they had some interesting insights that I've been pondering. Back when I was a kid, all I really wanted was to have the ability to openly like to read, to openly get to use my high vocabulary and to have friends (or at least a friend) with whom I could be completely myself. I wanted someone who would see my sensitivity as an asset, or at least not a flaw, someone who would understand that my penchant to cry came along with my ability to be moved.  The word I used to categorize these wants was 'understanding.' "I just want to be completely understood," is what I would say. Aside from being understood, I wanted to be liked, and I desperately wanted to fit in.

At some point, I gave up on being completely understood. I recreated myself into a fun, enthusiastic, entertaining, somewhat wild person. I decided that if I were going to be called "weird" then I would own that word, and would proudly proclaim that I was weird. I did this, and it caused my mother to cringe. I don't think it really fixed the situation I found myself in.

Luckily for me, a new person arrived at my school in 8th grade. "She doesn't know me," I thought, "and doesn't know about my outcast status." Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say 'loser,' but that was never a word I applied to myself. The way I saw it, outcasts were still very valuable members of society. In fact, it's generally the outcasts, the different ones, who were and are the heroes of the books that I read. Anyway, I figured that I would recreate myself as a more fun, exciting, participatory version of myself.

And on some level, that decision worked for me. I had friends. Even when I switched schools, I was able to find myself a group of girls to socialize with. And even if I wasn't participating in that school, I was admiring from the sidelines. I loved Kit & Mullery's antics. I found Rooney hilarious. A lot of what I saw was new and shiny to me, wrapped in tinsel. I was respected (especially in AP English class), even if I wasn't invited to the parties.

When I got to college, I felt like I was finally able to be more myself. In this forum, my love of books was respected and admired, as was my vocabulary. I fit in a lot better, but just in case I didn't, I worked hard to be very others-focused. I tried to be available to others in person, online or on chat. I tried to get others to tell me their stories, issues or woes so that I could either simply listen to them or actually aid them in resolving them. If anyone criticized me, I took it to heart and did my best to surgically remove the offending character trait or attribute. I created myself in my brother's image, and indeed, my brother was my keeper.

But now I have been let loose. And while I like who I am, I feel like pieces of me got lost along the way. I became so incredibly sensitive to social feedback and to carefully cutting, pasting and excising the (visible) pieces of me that might place me in danger of not being liked. I watch other people and their flamboyant presentation of self, and I am amazed. I'm shocked, because the thought that comes to mind is that what they are doing is not freeing, but dangerous. I would not dare to risk myself in such a way.

Maybe it's time, however, to search out what I originally wanted, and see how much of it I am better able to risk today. Maybe now's the time to wear my soul on my sleeve, to be the person who speaks her words instead of shuttering her thoughts. Maybe it's time to take the way I relate to the world in writing and shift it so that it is also the way I relate to others in person. To be the version of myself in public that I am in private.

I have to say, though, that even contemplating the possibility feels very dangerous.

The Rabbi's Daughter

There's a film going around the Internet that focuses on three different women who are the daughters of rabbis. In contrast to the majority of films that talk about the way that members of the community leave, this one is not angry, it is not filled with vitriol; in fact, it is the opposite. It shows three free-spirited women, two of whom appear to be very artistic, and the chasms that divide them from their parents. But what I loved, and what I found deeply affecting, was the love that their parents show to them. Their fathers speak and walk with them; their mothers embrace them. These are parents who love their children despite the difference in their paths. I found the film very moving. It made me cry.

The most beautiful quote, for me, was the one where Rabbi Aviner's daughter says, "I like to imagine that, after we die, and become only our souls, that I'll meet my Dad and we'll have only 'Daddyness' between us, without strain, without embarrassment and without distance, and with just the most essential feelings between us." But so much of the film was poetic that I am hard-pressed to choose only one.

Watch the film at this link (just click here).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Phoenix Philosophy: On Challenge, Judaism & How Children Succeed

I read How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough over the weekend. It was a good book, even if it occasionally strayed from the topic at hand, and I didn't find it to be as much of an instruction manual or how-to guide as I might have wished. Paul's thesis is that teaching students to have character is actually a better investment than focusing on their cognitive skills, and allows them to be more successful long-term. He gave examples of the research behind this idea, and wrote about programs at various schools that seem to be working to teach character, but didn't really give the lone teacher a great set of strategies for how to implement it on their own. Nevertheless, the book mainly resonated with me for two reasons: it spoke to me as a teacher and also as a Jew.

As a teacher who has the good fortune to work at a wealthy private school, Paul's findings based on the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx resonated with me. Before writing this book, Paul wrote an article in The New York Times called "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" The article sums up many of the salient points in the book, and the following excerpt speaks to my experience as a teacher.
“Race to Nowhere” has helped to coalesce a growing movement of psychologists and educators who argue that the systems and methods now in place to raise and educate well-off kids in the United States are in fact devastating them. One central figure in the movie is Madeline Levine, a psychologist in Marin County who is the author of a best-selling book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” In her book, Levine cites studies and surveys to back up her contention that children of affluent parents now exhibit “unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school.” This is no accident of demographics, Levine says, but instead is a direct result of the child-raising practices that prevail in well-off American homes; wealthy parents today, she argues, are more likely to be emotionally distant from their children, and at the same time to insist on high levels of achievement, a potentially toxic blend of influences that can create “intense feelings of shame and hopelessness” in affluent children. 
Cohen and Fierst told me that they also see many Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens.” 
There is no question that some of the most creative experiences anyone can have occur when they are in their phoenix dive- they rise from the ashes of their failure. Unfortunately, many students are afraid to take risks because that might lead to them getting a lesser score on grade on a paper, when of course, taking risks and embracing challenges are what learning is all about.

I was fascinated by the character traits that KIPP (learn more about KIPP by reading 'Work Hard, Be Nice') chose to focus on in their attempt at helping children grow. They came up with seven character traits, and these were:

social intelligence

What intrigued me about these choices is that, of course, all of these are key components of the Jewish tradition. What could possibly read as grittier (excuse my manipulation of the word) than leaders like Moshe and Jonah, consistently getting back on their feet and going out to serve God despite the complaints and unworthiness of their respective constituents? When it comes to self-control, is it not our sages who came up with the adage "איזהו גבור, הכובש את יצרו?" (This translates to: Who is strong? The one who conquers his inclination/desire.) Isn't zest described beautifully in the Gemara when we see how eager and excited our sages were for Shabbat, purchasing different choice items throughout the week in their love for that special day? Social intelligence appears in all the interactions between David and Shaul, gratitude is a theme embodied by Moshe when he is forbidden to strike the land or water since they saved him at birth, and the prophets are filled with optimism at the most (seemingly) inappropriate times. As for curiosity, what is the Talmud if not a demonstration in that ideal? Bizarre hypotheticals that take logical reasoning to their oddest extremes fill the Talmud; the sages were fascinated by how the law would play out, even if there were never to be an actual application for their intellectual striving. 

Of all of these, Paul wrote about self-control in the most detail. Self-control, as I have written about before, is embodied in the Orthodox Jewish approach to life. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes about it beautifully when he addresses the concept of dignity in defeat.

In one of my favorite works, 'Out of the Whirlwind,' he writes:
"I will read for you a midrash (Midrash Rabbah to Shir haShirim 7:3, "Thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies"), and I believe it speaks for itself. The midrash explains Jewish ritual law pertaining to sexuality. Judaism developed a very strange attitude towards sexual life. On the one hand, it endorsed it, completely rejecting the Aristotelian negative approach which Maimonides had somehow accepted. Sex can be a sacred performance if treated properly, if placed in a worthwhile, dignified perspective. In one's sexual life, the dignity of man is the most important factor. It determines the whole character of the sexual life, whether it is low, primitive, hypnotic and orgiastic, or dignified and sacred.

The Halakha developed a very strange, paradoxical law pertaining to the periods of withdrawal and assosciation. But the strangest of all laws pertaining to sex is one norm which borders almost on the inconsiderate. A young man meets a young woman and falls in love, marries her, and consummates the marriage- the norm is that it is then that a period of withdrawal of almost twelve days begins.

"It often happens that a man takes a wife when he is thirty or forty years old and after going to great expense"- expense not meant in terms of money, but it means he proposed a few times and she rejected him. He was in love and kept on insisting and finally he won out. After going to great expense, he wants to associate with her. His heart is overflowing with love and passion. Yet, if she says to him, 'I have seen a rose red speck,' he immediately recoils. What made him retreat and keep away from her? Was there a wall of iron between them? Did a serpent bite him? Did a scorpion sting him?....It was the words of Torah, which are soft as a lily."

The Midrash gives another example. "A dish of meat is laid before a man and he is told that some forbidden fat has fallen into it; he leaves it alone and will not take it." Hungry as he is, however stong his desire for food, he will not taste it. "Who stops him from tasting it? Did a serpent bite him?....Did a scorpion sting him?...It was the words of the Torah, which are soft as a lily..." Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other; both have patiently awaited this rendezvous, and they met and the bridegroom stepped backward. Like a knight, he gallantly exhibited superhuman heroism, not in a spectacular but in a quite humble fashion, in the privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night. And what happened? He defeated himself at the height of his triumphant conquest, when all he had to do was to reach out and take possession. The young man overcame himself, the conquerer in his orgiastic hypnotic mood retreated, performed a movement of recoil. He displayed heroism by accepting defeat. And in this act of self-defeat one finds the real dignity of man.  
Dignity in Defeat

If man knows how to take defeat at his own hands in a variety of ways as the Halakha tries to teach us, then he may preserve his dignity even when defeat was not summoned by him, when he faces adversity and disaster and is dislodged from his castles and fortresses......

[Next page]

What I have developed is more a philosophy of the Halakha. How this philosophy could be interpreted in terms of mental health is a separate problem, one that is quite complicated. But I believe that the trouble with modern man and his problems is what the existentialists keep on emphasizing: anxiety, angst. Man is attuned to success. Modern man is a conquerer, but he does not want to see himself defeated. This is the main trouble. Of course, when he encounters evil and the latter triumphs over him and he is defeated, he cannot "take it"; he does not understand it.

However, if man is trained gradually, day by day, to take defeat at his own hands in small matters, in his daily routine, in his habits of eating, in his sex life, in his public life- as a matter of fact, I have developed how this directional movement is applicable to all levels- then, I believe, when faced with evil and adversity and when he finds himself in crisis, he will manage to bear his problems with dignity."

Pages 111-115 
I do find it entertaining (in a positive way) when current psychology accords with what the Torah has said is true. The Torah trains us in the process of self-control, which is why eventually those of us who are open to its teachings become so good at it. The most interesting part is that the Torah begins with rules, but the rules are there to train us so that at the proper time, we can use willpower instead. This exact idea was described in Paul's book:
What MCII amounts to is a way to set rules for yourself. And as David Kessler, the former commissioner of the FDA, notes in his recent book The End of Overeating, there is a neurobiological reason why rules work, whether you're using them to avoid fried foods (as Kessler was) or the lure of American Idol (as our imaginary KIPP math student might have been). When you're making rules for yourself, Kessler writes, you're enlisting the prefrontal cortex as your partner against the more reflexive, appetite-driven parts of your brain. Rules, Kessler points out, are not the same as willpower. They are a metacognitive substitute for willpower. By making yourself a rule ("I never eat fried dumplings"), you can sidestep the painful internal conflict between your desire for fried foods and your willful determination to resist them. Rules, Kessler explains, "provide structure, preparing us for encounters with tempting stimuli and redirecting our attention elsewhere." Before long, the rules have become as automatic as the appetites they are deflecting.  
~Page 94
Marc and I were once talking about how halakha can be seen as similar to the ropes with which Ulysses/ Odysseus binds himself when listening to the sirens' song. Our halakha begins with rules, which (at least per Kessler) are a substitute for willpower that helps us learn what our default setting or option should be. But then, as we develop and find ourselves in trickier situations over time, we have become accustomed enough to self-control, to not eating the non-kosher item, to not having sex whenever we want with whomever we want, that we can do the right thing. We have acquired a habit that will help us in life.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Brief Update

Those of you looking for 'Hasidic Worlds in Fiction,' it will be back up in a couple of weeks but for right now, cannot be posted. Stay tuned for when it's back.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

love? + a woman without honor

My mother's favorite book is Anna Karenina. Alas, when it comes to the Russian classics, I prefer The Brothers Karamazov. This having been noted, a beautiful adaptation of Anna Karenina is coming to the silver screen and it is starring Kiera Knightley.

Kiera makes a beautiful Anna. But oddly, I was struck by Jude Law's Karenin. "You are depraved," he states, with utter finality. "A woman without honor. And this is what you want. Do you know what you want?" Somehow, the searing passion with which he imbues his words made it feel as though he spoke to me.

When I was younger, of course I loved the doomed Anna and her tragic love story. But now that I am older, I find myself fascinated by Karenin. What, after all, does Karenin want? He wants a woman who at least behaves with propriety. And indeed, in his own way, he does love her. There's a lovely passage where Karenin realizes this.
She looked at him so simply, so brightly, that anyone who did not know her as her husband knew her could not have noticed anything unnatural, either in the sound or the sense of her words. But to him, knowing her, knowing that whenever he went to bed five minutes later than usual, she noticed it, and asked him the reason; to him, knowing that every joy, every pleasure and pain that she felt she communicated to him at once; to him, now to see that she did not care to notice his state of mind, that she did not care to say a word about herself, meant a great deal. He saw that the inmost recesses of her soul, that had always hitherto lain open before him, were closed against him. More than that, he saw from her tone that she was not even perturbed at that, but as it were said straight out to him: "Yes, it's shut up, and so it must be, and will be in future." Now he experienced a feeling such as a man might have, returning home and finding his own house locked up. "But perhaps the key may yet be found," thought Alexey Alexandrovitch.
When one first reads this passage, it appears that Karenin is only upset because that which was open to him is now shut. How dare she take what is mine- that is one interpretation. But the second, simpler, gentler explanation is simply that he feels the pang of loss. She was beautiful, she lay her ideas, heart and soul before me- and now she is hidden from me. She has turned from me, and now I know what I have lost- I wish to find the key to her, to open her again.

The tagline on the Anna Karenina film posters currently reads "You Can't Ask Why About Love." Now, I am aware this is merely a tagline, there to sell tickets, but I was thinking about it and realized that I completely disagree with it. Not only can one ask why about love; one must ask why about love. What if I love the one who harms me? What if my love destroys a marriage? What if my love breaks apart a family? Is all that worth it, simply because I love?

American television says yes. American television says that one need not think about the ethics, morals or other concerns associated with a person, only with one's feelings for that person. So it's okay to love people of the same gender, okay to love murderers (see all the vampire storylines on TV, especially the one featuring Elena/ Damon/ Stefan), okay to love someone else while you are married (see adultery made exciting in the Addison/Mark relationship), okay to be stringing two people along and so on. All of this is okay because of that magic word: Love.

The assumption is that one has no control whatsoever. First, I cannot control my feelings, and second, I cannot control my actions. I can only act on my passions. Of course, Judaism denies this idea wholeheartedly. Regardless of one's feelings, one's actions are always within one's control. It's not only about me, about what makes me happiest. It is also about God. It is also about other people. It is about being noble in love, honorable in love, not only in loving.

Before Anna kills herself, her thoughts are spiraling madly within her. First, she realizes that Vronsky has grown bored with her, that indeed, his only love for her existed when she could serve as a conquest for him and flatter his vanity. Then she realizes that since their love has grown cold, he has begun to hate her. He will only act kindly to her out of a sense of duty- and she cannot bear that. Her love, at the end, is entirely selfish and entirely self-centered. Indeed, when thinking about her son, she says, "I thought, too, that I loved him, and used to be touched by my own tenderness. But I have lived without him, I gave him up for another love, and did not regret the exchange till that love was satisfied."

Indeed, when she conceives of her death, it is still about her and her power over others. "I will punish him and escape from everyone and from myself," she declares. Even her death must be about her impact- it must punish Vronsky and allow her an escape.

So is any of this love? Love as I have learned to conceive of it is a joyous, glorious act, one that empowers the lovers. The two grow together in healthy fashion, like a plant that flowers and gives forth seed. Love is open; it is nurturing; it need not be hidden. Love is not stealthy, a thief in the night, but rather a beacon, shining out from the lighthouse. What Anna experiences is pleasurable, is deep, and wildly excites her emotions, but it is passion, it is desire, it is lust- it is not love. Love occurs when the brain is complicit; Anna's actions and motives take place in her heart alone.

I think it is hard to love truly today. Our literature, magazines and films do not support this kind of love. Love if I were to learn about it from what is portrayed on TV, has everything to do with sex and wildly sparking feelings. Love and stability do not go together except in very rare occurrences, like the marriage of Coach Eric Taylor and Tami Taylor in "Friday  Night Lights." And so the words of Erich Fromm resonate once more in my mind:
In our society, emotions in general are discouraged. While there can be no doubt that any creative thinking—as well as any other creative activity—is inseparably linked with emotion, it has become an ideal to think and to live without emotions. To be “emotional” has become synonymous with being unsound or unbalanced. By the acceptance of this standard the individual has become greatly weakened; his thinking is impoverished and flattened. On the other hand, since emotions cannot be completely killed, they must have their essence totally apart from the intellectual side of the personality; the result is the cheap and insincere sentimentality with which movies and popular songs feed millions of emotion- starved customers. 
~Escape from Freedom, page 270
Sentimentality we have in rich, however, has been maligned. She has been slandered and driven out, dressed in rags and replaced with soma-pumped mimicry. With such love, of course one cannot ask would be to discover the deceit, and we must support the cheat at all costs.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

cruel laughter, that tears like nails

“Salander had no faith in herself. Blomkvist lived in a world populated by people with respectable jobs, people with orderly lives, and lots of grown-up points. His friends did things, went on TV, and shaped headlines. What do you need me for? Salander’s greatest fear, which was so huge and so black that is was of phobic proportions, was that people would laugh at her feelings. And all of a sudden all her carefully constructed self-confidence seemed to crumble.” 
~Lisbeth Salander

I read some books over Yom Tov that were extremely human in nature. The first was Tinkers by Paul Harding; the second was The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. Somehow, in the course of reading the books and thinking about myself, I came to realize that all of us share a common fear: laughter.

It is not just any laughter that we fear. It is the laughter of mockers, of scoffers, the laughter that tears us down and makes us feel small. 

When someone is righteously angry and indignant, we may disagree with them, but in the end of the day they still showed us respect. Whatever it was that we said infuriated them, but they took us seriously. Indeed, the reason they became so upset was because they feel like whatever we said or thought is so very dangerous. But when someone dismisses you out of hand and laughs at your ideas, then that person is saying they don't need to take you seriously at all.

What was interesting to me was the realization that everyone fears this. In fashion magazines, the fashion faux pas section can do a lot of damage. An actress who is otherwise respected who steps outside in an outfit that others find laughable can have her style and fashion sense destroyed. In America, someone who is seen believing in something that is understood to be outmoded, outdated or otherwise uncool is an object of scorn. When children get stage fright, at heart is the fear that they will fail to perform to standard and that everyone will laugh at them. 

In Judaism, we call this harmful laughter and scoffing ליצנות/ Leitzanus. On Yom Kippur, when we say Viddui, one of the sins we mention is this-that we have laughed in this way. This laughter is damaging, because it harms people and people's ability to try harder, to become better, to be someone who they weren't before and who they are trying to be. 

I think part of the reason that it's so hard to be actively religious in America is because there are people we respect and who we wish to respect us in return, and we can't bear the thought that they might secretly laugh at us. Whether it's our garb that they find outdated, or the mechitza in shul, the fact is that they will laugh and take us less seriously, and our fragile, exquisitely human selves find that so hard to bear. It is much easier to debate my ideals if you take them seriously than it is to defend them against someone who says, with a laugh, "But you don't really believe that, now, do you?"

I've been realizing of late that I don't share as much of myself as I did, and that the reason this is so is because I, too, don't wish to be laughed at. I feel like if I were to tell people about what moves me, what troubles me, what makes me feel and think and see the world as a more vibrant place, they would look askance at me. I know that's not the way it should be, but at least for now, that's the way it is. 

I believe this is also part of the reason that I get on so well with children, especially bright children- because they haven't learned to laugh yet. If I am excited about a book, or animated about a cause, or believe in fairy tales and magic, they have that wonder in their eyes as well. And when I see their eyes darken with that hard sheen that tells me that they too, have learned to laugh, I retreat, because I have no weapon against that. You can hurt me- I cannot hurt you- all I can do is fall back.

This is why I trust God more than I trust people. I know that God loves me and I know that He appreciates my wonder. He knows my many loves and He knows the small things that touch me and He knows my motives. I am afraid of the world because it can hurt me, but I am not afraid of God, because even when He hurts me, I know He will show me one day that it was an important step on my journey. I know He sheds tears for me. I know He never laughs.

god who lives forever in my heart

The following is a poem by Rilke that I love. It is about God. It reminds me of the way the prophets feel and think.


Put out my eyes, and I can see you still;
slam my ears to, and I can hear you yet;
and without any feet can go to you;
and tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
and grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
and if you set this brain of mine afire,
upon my blood I then will carry you.