Narcissistic Spirituality

I was at a Mussar conference once, and Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin asked me about the programming. He asked, roughly, “When did Mussar shift from being about giving to others to being about working on my own middos?” In general, this kind of self-focus is an error that is all too easy in many spiritual paths.

Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov (Spain, appx. 1390-1440) in his derashos on parashas Devarim, compares three statements by tannaim who each consider a different pasuq of the Torah as conveying the Torah’s central theme. (Quoted in Yedei Moshe in the Vilna edition Midrash Rabbah, and by R’ MM Kasher in Torah Sheleimah.)

The Sifra (a/k/a Toras Kohanim) par’ Qedoshim 4:12 writes:

Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha” — Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a great principle of the Torah.”

Ben Azzai says, “‘Zeh sefer toledos adam’ — this is an even greater principle.”

Ben Azzai’s “great principle” is Bereishis 5:1-2:

This is the book of the generations of man.  On the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him.  Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and he named them “Adam” on the day they were created.

The Yerushalmi describes the same dispute, albeit in the opposite order, in Nedarim 9:4 (vilna ed. 30b). But the version of the medrash R’ Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov comments upon is a third quote. Ben Zoma cites “Shema Yisrael“, which I doubt would surprise any of us.

According to Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, each are emphasizing a different ideal.

  • Ben Zoma – Shema Yisrael: One’s relationship with the Almighty
  • Rabbi Aqiva – Ve’ahavta lerei’akha: One relationship with other people
  • Ben Azzai – Toledos Adam: Self-refinement, self-perfection — one’s relationship with oneself. Understanding one’s “image” of the Divine and thereby refraining from all sin.

(I should tangentially point out that this is not the only way to understand the contrast between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai. There is a large literature on the subject. E.g. see this shiur by R’ Binyamin Zimmerman, distributed by Yeshivat Har Etzion, “Gush”. While you’re there, you may notice he extensively quotes from my translation of the introduction to Shaarei Yosher.)

This is akin to a recurring theme on this blog, the triad the Maharal identifies with “Torah, Avodah uGemillus Chassadim” and Dr Nathan Birnbaum, with “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres”. My own description: Hashem places us in three worlds, and each world has the opportunity of enabling a class of relationships, and each has its challenges of becoming an end in itself.

We live in the physical world, where we can interact with other people. In the ideal, this is dominated by empathy (rachamim) and expressed in lovingkindness (gemillus chassadim. However, we can fall into the traps of hedonism, epicureanism, and turning other desires of the flesh into life goals.

Hashem also placed us in heaven, where we can relate to Him through service (avodah) coming from a personal knowledge (da’as) of the Creator. But dreams of heaven also lead us to idolatry and paganism — using spirituality and metaphysics in “magickal” ways, trying to make our lives better without making ourselves any better.

Last, because of the tension between the two, we are forced to make conscious decisions. A world emerges within our own minds, containing our experiences — including the experience of thinking (metacognizance). The role of Torah is to perfect that world into a place of harmonious splendor (tif’eres). But having dreams and aspirations also opens the door to frustration and anger when they are thwarted, and overassessment of their importance — egotism.

Among the baalei mussar, this idea is expressed in a tripartite division of the mitzvos: bein adam lachaveiro (between a person and his peers), bein adam laMaqom (between man and the Omnipresent), and bein adam le’azamo (between man and himself). However, this addition of a third category is novel; usually bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam laMaqom, are described as being the sum of all the Torah. Five commandments of one (including honoring one’s parents as Hashem’s partners in one’s personal creation), five commandments of the other.

Although, related to the theme of this post, bein adam le’atzmo isn’t an end in itself. Healing oneself, perfecting oneself, is not meaningful as an end in itself. So, now someone is more perfect — a more perfect what? He is closer to the Image of the Divine, but what it is G-d does or Is that we are supposed to be an image of? I can live with the idea that since all of bein adam le’atzmo is a means to bein adam laMaqom and bein adam lachaveiro, one can equally choose to look at those mitzvos separately or not, depending on one’s purpose. But still, it’s nice to find sources that predate Rav Yisrael Salanter for the three-way-division perspective.

Returning to R’ Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, he is saying that each side of this triad was made a “kelal gadol” by one of these tannaim. Someone can follow the Torah by viewing the central mission it lays out for us in one of these terms.

Chassidus sets out man’s goal in life as deveiqus, cleaving to G-d. Their “kelal gadol” is Shema. The yeshiva world obviously revolves around Torah, and as the Nefesh haChaim (cheileq 4) puts it, Torah is immersed into like a miqvah leaving an indelible change on the person. “Zeh seifer toledos ha’adam — this is the book of the origins of man.”

Mussar is more complicated… It shares the yeshiva world’s notion of self-refinement. But it defines self-refinement in terms of one’s yir’as Shamayim (which in Novhardok becomes about bitachon, trusting in Him) and in terms of generosity to others. That is the ideal person, what one is refining oneself to become. With that background, we can rephrase R/Dr Levin’s question as asking why we stopped looking at what kind of outward connections to G-d and to other people the person of perfect middos is capable of making, and focused only on the middos themselves.

It’s a kind of spiritual narcissism; religion becomes all about me.

Related is R’ Wolbe’s conceptualization of frumkeit in Alei Shur II pp 152-155. To quote part of my analysis in an earlier blog entry:

Rav Wolbe notes a different alternative to thoughtfulness — instinct. To Rav Wolbe, frumkeit is an instinctive drive to be close to the Creator. It is not even specific to humans; the frumkeit instinct is what King David refers to when he writes, “כְּפִירִים שֹׁאֲגִים לַטָּרֶף, וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מֵאֵ-ל אָכְלָם — lion cubs roar at their prey, and request from G-d their food.” (Tehillim 104:21) And, “נוֹתֵן לִבְהֵמָה לַחְמָהּ, לִבְנֵי עֹרֵב אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאוּ — He gives the animal its food, to the ravens’ offspring who cry.” (147:9)

What can go wrong with something that draws us to the Almighty, even if it is instinctive? Instincts are inherently about survival, self-preservation. As we see in the pesuqim cited in Alei Shur, the lion cub and the raven calls out to Hashem to get their food. Rather than being motivated by thoughtfulness, frumkeit is the use of religion to serve my ends.

Frumkeit is a narcissistic version of pursuing deveiqus. It’s not that G-d is One, it’s that I have to be the holy person who declares that unity. It’s not even really being driven to do the mitvah for the sake of the mitzvah, it’s for the sake of me having the mitzvah under my belt.

So, it is possible working from any of these Great Principles to end up with a self-focus religiosity. One overwhelmed by anokhius (literally: Me-ness). I could become more interested in my being holy than in Hashem’s Will being done, and be upset that someone else played the role I dreamed of for myself in the revival of Mussar. Or one can turn one’s Shabbos guest into a lulav or tefillin — an object for doing a mitzvah, rather than a friend to be loved the way I love myself.

But in contrast, the path of bein adam le’atzmo, is accutely prone to this problem. Ben Azzai’s “book of the generations of man” requires constant reminders that the perfect man must be perfect for some function. Too much talk of middah work without enough Qunterus haChesed (the translation in Strive for Truth calls it “Discourse on Lovingkindness”) leads to self-absorbtion.

It’s a danger of the Western zeitgeist that it’s too easy to make a religion out of independence and autonomy. And I fear the same decay into such “narcissism” has taken hold in the typical Beis Yaakov education in the past decade.

As recently as ten years ago, girls in these schools were being taught in very clear terms that their central mitzvah is chessed. In fact, the Beis Yaakov school system was the only active contemporary movement that followed R’ Aqiva’a (as understood by RSTiST) kelal gadol of ve’ahavta lerei’akha. (Or for that matter, Hillel’s.) High School girls are routinely expected to dedicate a number of hours per semester performing acts of chessed. Chesed then underpins their future lives as wives and mothers — roles that require much giving to people who too often take them for granted.

However, increasingly, the Beis Yaakov system is making tzeni’us, modesty in behavior and clothing, an expression of self-respect, their central message for the girls in their school. Emphasizing an admittedly critical middah, particularly in a world where we “worship” whomever has the spotlight. Where we seek self-validation through the accolades of others. Tzeni’us means giving with no expectation of receiving, even receiving attention or “ego-stroking”, in return. But we have gone from teaching a life of chessed, giving to others, to focusing on a middah, and we’re attenuating the message of what that middah is for, what is it the tzenu’ah woman is more capable of accomplishing that gives tzeni’us its value.






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  1. Ken Bloom says:

    What was Rabbi Levin’s original question exactly? The way you’ve summarized it, it sounds like an overly simplistic conception of mussar to begin with. After all, Sefer Cheshbon HaNefesh was never all about giving to other people, nor were some of the well-known self-perception exercises of the Novardok yeshiva. So the history of mussar being focused on midot rather than giving is quite long. The question that you explain in the end is pretty good, but was that Rabbi Levin’s original intent, or your own interpretation of his intent?

  2. Neil Harris says:

    I think the underlining theme of Novardok’s yesod of bitachon was that all Avodah rests upon it. Without bitachon you can never maximize relationships with others. From reading the above mentioned book, it seems to me that the Alter took RYS’s emphasis on Yiras Shamayim and used bitachon as the means to that end. Just as the Alter of Kelm used Chessed towards that end.

  3. Leonard Goff says:

    I’ve been reading your posts as a contrast to Rabbi Alan Yuter’s in order to answer the “he is a Korach”(e.g.”all Israel is holy”) charge put on him by some.
    How do you see him?
    Anyway, I just felt I needed to chime in about “Love your fellow as yourself”.
    I recently read in R. Moshe Shamah’s new Chumash commentary about how love meant loyalty back then(c.f. love/loyalty at index there).
    This immediately relieved me of a great burden.
    The lowering of the emotional tone(i.e. love/luv/LOVE! as an emotion) allowed me to see through the crimson haze/heat I was stewing in.
    This ‘quiet'(moving this word out of the emotional realm) allowed me to fit easily/quickly all three named principals of the verse into a working team.
    For instance, I quickly saw that the verse is telling me(in so many words-khamokha) that I cannot be loyal to others unless I am loyal to myself.
    The importance of loyalty in relation to myself struck so deep a chord in me because I am(WAS!) suicidal. This ‘new’ definition enabled me to find and detach the loyal ‘parent'(image of God?) part of myself that can come in to sooth the suicidal(i.e. disloyal to life) part of myself.
    I now fully expect that my ability to love others will improve.
    It’s an unbreakable trinity that keeps reinforcing itself: I can be loyal to Hashem because the verse enables me to give(ahav-from yhv-bring) loyalty to ‘myself’, which is so important to the suicidal who find it hard to be loyal to anything, because they find it hard to be loyal to living.
    Anyway, I recall that you approved of mussar leatsmo when it is about giving.
    This verse for me is a ‘klal gadol’ [for me] because it trinitizes(allows all three principals to go to work on building me up into a loyalty machine).
    Of course, this verse is so great because of other verses such as “…Hashem is our God- Hashem alone.”- a statement of loyalty indeed(R. Shamah likes to translate it this way- so much depends on a translation! Life and death!

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