Yevamos 63 and Embracing the Normal

letter-447577_1280

Most weary Daf Yomi travelers will admit that an interlude of aggada is a welcome respite from the rigors of Yevamos . Parts of Daf 63A, however, were personally jarring. They took me back to Leningrad, in the declining years of the Evil Empire.

We sat in a small, unremarkable flat in one of those tall buildings whose ugly and cheap construction was a monument to the suppression of the human spirit by the Soviet juggernaut. He was a gifted and somewhat eccentric young refusenik, who shared the apartment with his aging aunt.

“Do you know that no one here – no one – is completely sane? This realization is crucial to understanding us. What they ask of us is to get up each morning, look in the mirror and recite, ‘You are fully normal,’ while what we see is clearly not.” What he meant is that people lived a life-style that was unsatisfying and stultifying, yet were asked to believe that they inhabited a secular Garden of Eden. Living the lie was too much to bear.

Why did I think of him precisely on Daf 63, after almost twenty years had passed since our meeting? If you had the Meiri at your side while learning the Daf, you might have noticed a number of instantiations of the “normal” and its value. Several phrases spoke of a life far removed from the ascetic simplicity that some people today champion, in which everyone is perfectly satisfied with nothing more than meeting the most basic physical needs while freeing up time to serve Hashem through learning and prayer. To be sure, this is a formula which worked and continues to work for some remarkable souls who border on the angelic. But its not for everyone.

On Daf 63, we find references to other needs and realities. We are told that eking out a subsistence living through some vocation is not satisfactory, because it does not provide a person a chance to enrich himself, to go beyond subsistence. The Gemara praises business investment as the opportunity that we should avail ourselves of to become more successful. (Successful? Wealth beyond subsistence? Is that kosher?)

We are reminded that homes that have parnasah/livelihood problems are excellent candidates for shalom bayis/ domestic tranquility problems. (Shalom bayis? Shouldn’t the mutual dedication to the Torah life-style cement the relationship so that nothing will disturb it?)

We are told that despite the difficulties and uncertainties in cultivating land, even those with a vocation are not complete people without a small amount of land with which they can assure themselves of a food supply, without having to depend on others. Self-sufficiency is a virtue. (Self-sufficiency? Independence? Wouldn’t bitachon/ trust in G-d be far better?)

We are reminded not to spend more than we have. Presumably, the Gemara is talking about expenses that might seem important and justified, not an extra chandelier for the guest bathroom. (Again, wouldn’t others argue that one should spend what he really needs, and leave the rest to HKBH?)

None of these passages might seem completely surprising by itself; several have parallels elsewhere. Finding them all residing together at one address, however, leaves an impression: These are needs and components of life that we sometimes give inadequate attention to, while pursuing more ethereal planes of spiritual accomplishment.

But why should all of this be upsetting?

A frum psychologist once drew the line for me between Leningrad and the present. (Don’t even try to guess. No, it is not Dr Twerski; besides, he’s a psychiatrist, not a psychologist.) He was dismayed by what he saw as a trend in certain parts of the community – belief in what should not be believed by rational people. He was disappointed that so many could accept notions like facilitated communication (reports that autistic children when given keyboards would break their silence to write long documents in Yinglish exhorting people to repent) and over-reliance on alternative medicine to the exclusion of conventional medical intervention. He argued that too many people were pressured into a life style that really was not meant for everyone, and which suppressed ordinary and basic human needs that HKBH programmed into us, like self-reliance, and providing for one’s family. Sensing that their lives were not in synch with what much of humanity (and, on some level, they themselves) regard as “normal,” they had to turn their backs on the value of the normal and embrace the paranormal.

I’ve mentioned Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l’s frequent byword before in these pages: Man darf zein normal – a person ought to be normal. Surely one of the most exhilarating parts of Torah Judaism is giving people the opportunity to transcend the ordinary and normal. The Mussar literature, however, cautions us to avoid taking leaps too large for where we are. When we fool ourselves into thinking that we are ready for levels that are still beyond us, we pay dearly. HKBH knew what He was doing when he created certain psychological realities within us. Denying those realities turns us into warped beings.

Rav Yaakov’s advice never looked so good.

You may also like...

27 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    David,

    Actually, I was quoting from memory regarding the Einstein for Dummies quote, and had second thoughts about posting it, after it was already submitted and posted. But from what I recall now, the RY was not saying that a layman can’t discuss Torah, only that there is more to being a Torah authority whom others can rely on, than just quoting the research of others. I think he was referring to something specific, but especially since I do not recall the details of the speech clearly, I prefer not to speculate on what he meant.

  2. David Farkas says:

    Baruch, this comment intruiged me: “Also interesting, at a recent Agudah convention, a Lakewood-originated Rosh Yeshiva mentioned that he reads “Einstien for Dummies” in the bathroom, and admitted that it doesn’t make him a competent scientist(he was using this as an analogy for a layman speaking about Torah).”

    Was this Rosh Yeshivah trying to say that laymen should not speak about Torah, just as he does not speak about Phyics? I hope he realizes the massive distinction between the two. Most Laymen have been studying Torah since they were children. Many spent years studying it in yeshivah as well. And many continue to study every day for life. To compare this, to one’s reading a few pages from a (probably outdated) popular scinece book, is palpably wrong. It smacks of the error others have noted, whereby one judges the “talmid chacham” stature of a person based on his professional job, rather than on the individual himself. Thus, the fact this Rosh Yeshivah rightly refrains from speaking about physics, in no way implies a layman should likewsie refrain from speaking about Torah. ( Of course, each layman must honestly assess his true capabilities.)

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Also, by the way, I take stories about the Chazon Ish’s miraculous medical knowledge in a nuanced way, and don’t over-emphasize them in discussing the positives or negatives of insularity versus integration, etc. It is one thing to bring a story of a “Litvshe Mofeis” as an theoretical example of the Torah’s transcendence(e.g., the idea in the Ramban’s preface to Bereshis, based on kabbalah), but it is quite another to de-emphasize the “normalcy” of what olam hazeh requires.

    In fact, there was an article in a recent Jewish Observer issue by Mrs. Miriam Koseman(daughter of Rabbi Moshe Eiseman), which admitted in theory, the negatives of being forced to reject good in secular society along with the bad(significantly, it was a translation of an article written for Israeli Baalei Teshuva). That was a very different emphasis than “everything is in Torah, as a proof, here are stories of the Chazon Ish”(not that the basic idea is not a true statement of the manifestation of the Torah’s transcendence, but I’m speaking in terms of using it to de-emphasize the good in “chochma b’goyim”).

    Most people of any ideology will tell you that if you want to be a doctor, go to medical school!

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    David,

    I think RSZA would acknowledge that he is not a competent physicist. The point, as I understood it, is simply that RSZA was remarkably open to the outside world, as I quoted from R. Lau, not that RSZA mastered physics, as it were, combining a text-based knowledge with omniscient ruach hakodesh. Studying on one’s own and trying to be an autodidact, shows a value for wisdom, in a sense, more than getting a degree, with all the practical benefits which come along with it.

    I had a rebbe, who said that if one develops an appreciation for knowledge, on one’s own, a person can know more than what a college graduate knows in his non-major areas(i.e., an accounting major may just gain a superficial knowledge of history, versus someone with a life-long interest on the topic). I agree that such is limited by not being able to attend laboratory session, give and take with professors, etc, but the point is that appreciation of wisdom need not be associated with college, unless one wants to develop the skill on a practical level–an autodidact’s appreciation for physics will not enable him to send a rocket to space.

    Also interesting, at a recent Agudah convention, a Lakewood-originated Rosh Yeshiva mentioned that he reads “Einstien for Dummies” in the bathroom, and admitted that it doesn’t make him a competent scientist(he was using this as an analogy for a layman speaking about Torah).

    Although, Rabbi Nosson Kametesky might have benefited from formal university and historical training(as pointed out in a review of Making of a Gadol which appeared in the Edah Journal–he apparently gets criticism from both ends), one can not help but be impressed with Rabbi Rakeffet’s statement in the Jewish Action that,

    “Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky has proven that formal education is a detriment
    to attaining knowledge. If I am correct, Reb Noson, as he is affectionately known, is not a high school graduate. With the four university degrees that I possess, I had to keep Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary nearby as I pored over his two-volume book, Making of a Godol (Jerusalem, 2002). Even more impressive than his vocabulary is his extensive and far-ranging knowledge. He is a master of rabbinic, cognate and general literature, and the range of the sources he cites is extraordinary”.

  5. David Farkas says:

    One cannot self-teach himself physics, or even “the fundamentals of physics” as Rabbi Adlerstein claims above with regard to RSZA ( my former rosh yeshivah). Likewise, one cannot teach himself medicince by a few minutes here and there, as we are told the Chazon Ish did. We are frequntly told one needs to study years, and with a rebbi, in order to master Gemara – yet in the same breath we are told of rabbis who mastered extremely difficult fields of learning by themselves, with only a few minutes a day.

    I know Rabbi A. himself is not quie going that far here, but many others make precsiely such claims. This is an example, in fact, of the dangerous articles of belief mentioned by your pyschologist friend. Certainly some of the more curious Gedolim had some curiosity of the world around them, and would have read about or shmoozed with knowedlgeable people. But they are hardly special in this regard. Many people have such inerests, and to be honest, it should be a bare minimum expectation of anyone who is called a “sage”.

  6. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Joel,

    I meant that last point tounge-in-cheek and rhetorically, that it would be anachronistic to call a certain statement of the Rambam by a label one uses today; this was related to my point that “normalcy” is not in the domain of any particular ideology.

    One can examine the last question seriously, as a separate subject, whether and to what extent the statement of “accept the truth from whomever says it”, and similarly, to what extent broadness(or “breidkeit”), are valued today in different segments of Orthodoxy(obviously the question is what one calls “broad”).

  7. joel rich says:

    Baruch,
    Please expand on your last question.
    KT

  8. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “One of today’s other challenges is figuring out which wise advisor to go to. Not every place has one.”

    I think that the challenge is finding someone that one can relate to well, rather than there not existing wise people at all in most locations.

    Joel,

    Worse things have happened :)

    The fact is that the theme of this post(“normalcy”) is not limited to pro-Kollel or anti-Kollel, or RW vs. MO. It is interesting how certain ideas are associated with partisan concerns. For example, people associate “kabeil ha’emes mmi sh’omro” with Modern Orthodoxy, who are the one’s who champion that idea(of course, it could also include accepting the truth when the Right mentions it). I always wondered, is there such a thing as a “Modern-Orthodox” Rambam?

  9. RAM says:

    We should be happy that the Jewish people is diverse enough to have people filling all necessary roles.

  10. joel rich says:

    Bob,
    Remember there are 2 versions of that story, the one everyone knows and you quoted, and the one where the argument was who should have the honor of going first. Also don’t forget that for each “visionary activist” there were several pashut yiddin who provided the sweat equity and financing by living “normal” lives out of the spotlight.

    Baruch,
    If you keep this up I may have to award you an honorary MO membership card :-)
    KT
    Joel Rich

  11. Bob Miller says:

    Baruch Horowitz said (July 9, 2007 @ 11:21 pm),
    “…a person should go to the wise ‘chachamim, rofie hanefashos’, who can show a person how to again reach the point of equipoise.”

    One of today’s other challenges is figuring out which wise advisor to go to. Not every place has one.

  12. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Far be it from me to suggest that normality and practicality have no place, but……there is also a necessary element of faith in all our plans and actions.”

    How does one determine if one needs to be more “normal”, or to have more faith ? Different people might be erring on different ends of the spectrum. One might apply to the “normalcy vs. visionary/faith” question the Rambam’s perfect balance in the 1st perek of Hilchos Deios, and assume that there is a point of balance that varies for everyone’s situation. If one is not at one’s own specific point of balance, then as in the second chapter, a person should go to the wise “chachamim, rofie hanefashos”, who can show a person how to again reach the point of equipoise.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    Far be it from me to suggest that normality and practicality have no place, but…

    …there is also a necessary element of faith in all our plans and actions. Today’s Orthodox Jewish infrastructure—schools, shuls, entire communities—is here in large part because visionary activists once went out on a limb to make their dreams real.

    Let’s flash back to a more prudent Nachshon ben Aminadav. The enemy closes in behind him. The waves rage in front of him. He pulls out a yardstick and sticks it into the mighty waters. “Uh-oh, way too deep for me!” So he turns and sits to wait for low tide or maybe a charioteer to surrender to.

    Some times call for some actions that defy the odds.

  14. Rael Levinsohn says:

    Why can’t anyone just call a spade a spade…. The reason we have this situation is that the “masses” are fed these fantastical ideas throughout there lives by the certain segments of the rabbinic leadership and educational faculty. It is the “Shepard’ that is to blame, not the sheep that follow.

  15. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “The challenge is not where to find such a community, but how to have the persistence to create such a virtual community through networking with like-minded individuals. Email has made that a lot easier.”

    Everything could be used for good in moderation, and this would be a positive use of e-mail. In real life(non-online), I have some acquaintances in my community who don’t always appreciate my ideas, and I therefore express myself with caution when I am with them, and use electronic communication to find people who are more tolerant(this is not to say that I don’t find any non-online people with whom to discuss things with).

    Years before e-mail and internet, someone told me in the name of his Rav, that a man complained to this Rav about his marriage, because his wife was not intellectually “deep”. The Rav advised him to get a chavrusa, if he needs someone “deep” ! I would say that electronic communication serves as a support group for those in any type of related situations.

  16. Ori Pomerantz says:

    May I offer a theory as an outsider? Orthodox communities, and especially Orthodox education, are controlled to a large extent by Rabbis. Rabbis, by definition, are Torah scholars who absorbed many of the personal development lessons the Torah has to offer. These Rabbis are more likely to be satisfied by the Torah (and accept poverty and the need for Bitachon) than the average Jew.

    When making educational decisions, they have two choices:

    1. Believe the best of everybody, and assume that all the students have the potential to be Issachar Bney Torah like them. Rabbis are human, and suffer the human tendency to believe everybody else is like we are.

    2. Assume that they are in some way special, and that most of the students are Zevuluns who will never absorb most of the Torah lessons – so they might as well steer them towards a more normal life style. This would tie in to another human tendency, pride.

    Which of the two is more likely? #1 requires that you judge people favorably, as the Torah says. #2 has the appearance of pride, which the Torah condemns. Rabbis are a lot more likely to err on the side the Torah favors (or appears to favor, since the Torah itself doesn’t err).

    BTW, this issue isn’t unique to the Orthodox community. It seems to crop out, in one variant or another, whenever education becomes a separate specialty, performed by people whose experiences are different from those the students are expected to achieve.

  17. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    S.-

    Unfortunately you can’t simultaneously immerse children into an environment in which they will be told rebbeshe mayselach (or Aggadah) and allow them to believe it to be true and historical and then expect fully rational people to emerge

    The Rambam (Hakdamah to Mishnah) disagrees with you. Champion of an allegorical approach to Chazal though he was, he nonetheless asks the question of why the Rabbis didn’t just come out and say what they meant, rather than speak in code. One of his answers is that they employed the best approach for children. I believe that what he means is that it is quite healthy for children to grow up with a simple understanding of some of the more dramatic stories in Chazal. They can change over to the more “sophisticated” adult understanding later in life. Failure to convey the power of the message of Chazal (in the final analysis, the core message is a true one, whether understood simply or allegorically) to children would be a mistake. Depending on the needs of the individual, transitioning to “normal” adulthood would only require exposing him/her to the possibility of an allegorical intent later in life.

    MB-

    You, for one, are not off the hook. I know what you are capable of :-)

    RAM-

    I can and I can’t.

    I cannot point to neighborhoods or institutions that do or provide everything you are asking for. Ner Israel, especially in the days of Rabbi Herman Neuberger zt”l, came closest. I believe that there are far more people out there that personify what you are looking for, from just about every yeshiva and sub-group within mainstream Orthodoxy. The challenge is not where to find such a community, but how to have the persistence to create such a virtual community through networking with like-minded individuals.

    Email has made that a lot easier.

    Baruch Horowitz –

    RSZA’s interest in physics goes back to this early years. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, shlit”a, the talmid-chaver of RSZA and current Rav of the Rova, presents a biography of RSZA in one volume of his set of sichos mussar. In it, he reproduces a photo of the physics text that RSZA used to self-teach himself the fundamentals of modern physics.

  18. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Also regarding “dismissing science”, one can point to trends in weekly magazines such as Mishpacha or Hamodia, that have scientfic and practical, medical information, for both adults and children. I think that it’s a matter(going backwards from Yevamos to Mesechta Chagiga) of “eating the fruit, and throwing out the shell”.

  19. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Furthermore, you can’t simultaneously expect people to dismiss science and yet consume it and then distinguish it from pseudo-science.”

    On a slightly different note, I would say that there is indeed a “risk”, so to speak, in living in a society which gives value to a non-physical reality. I quote from a CC article titled “Lessons from a Tragedy”(June, 2007 archives, see also “The Apostasy of the Monsey Fish”, May 2006, and “Rav Yaakov Hillel Outs the Charlatans” in November 2006):

    “Torah Jews base their lives upon their intense belief in Hashem, Whose existence cannot be demonstrated by our five senses. Sometimes that leads us to the logical fallacy of concluding therefore that the less empirically supported or scientifically-based a particular therapy is the better. That can be a fatal fallacy ”

    However, there is also the fact that learning gemera is an exercise of the intellect(although that’s not the goal in of itself), and that develops an element of rationality, which counters misapplications of supra-rationality (I may be wrong, but I wonder if it’s particularly important in chinuch habanos to give girls a sense of what’s an acceptable segulah and what’s not, since the study of Chumash & Ramban, although it can be profound, is usually not the same intensity of logic as gemera, and they could thus not have the benefit of a mitigating factor, which certainly analytical Litvacks pride themselves on :) ).

    Regarding R. Adlerstein’s main point that “denying those realities turns us into warped beings”, I absolutely agree, because if someone is blind to psychological realities and self-awareness, then they are building spiritual or charcter growth on a false foundation, by trying to go against pysycholgical realities. This is probably included in “Chachmas haMussar”.

  20. Baruch Horowitz says:

    In “and from Jerusalem His Word”, Rav Shlom Zalman Auerbach stopped to watch a construction site, not because of nifloas Haborei(wonders of Creation), but because “…he was fascinated by the operation, as any normal human being might be”(pg. 120). He also expected his grandson to be able to repair a broken tape recorder(pg. 119). Rav Yisrael Meir Lau relates that RSZA “had a great interest in the world at large aside from Torah learning”(pg 332), and craned his neck on a bus to hear what college students were discussing in studying for their physics exam.

  21. Bob Miller says:

    The story in Joel Rich’s July 6, 2007 @ 5:34 am comment above is a well-known short story from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. The Hebrew version is in the collection “Sipurim Niflaim”

    http://www.azamra.org/Essential/grain.htm

  22. Garnel Ironheart says:

    What Yevamos 63 (and many other areas in the gemara) show is that our sages were far more balanced in their approach to life than many of their descendants.
    I can suggest what should be done – leaders of the community should be publicizing these gemaras and asking: Okay, you learn all day long. Do you do what this daf recommends? Why not?

  23. Noam says:

    ‘shkoach. I couldn’t agree more.

  24. RAM says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    Now that you have the diagnosis, what is the path to a solution?

    It seems that we most need communities that are demonstration projects and object lessons of healthy Jewish normality, free of mental pollution from the general secular society, that are led by top-level Torah scholars committed to this goal. Can you identify examples of this that are functioning today?

  25. mb says:

    “The Mussar literature, however, cautions us to avoid taking leaps too large for where we are.”

    Thanks, that lets me off the hook.

  26. S. says:

    Unfortunately you can’t simultaneously immerse children into an environment in which they will be told rebbeshe mayselach (or Aggadah) and allow them to believe it to be true and historical and then expect fully rational people to emerge. Furthermore, you can’t simultaneously expect people to dismiss science and yet consume it and then distinguish it from pseudo-science.

    If we’re looking for normal, we’d need to be normal.

  27. joel rich says:

    I often think of this story:

    A Crazy World
    by Rabbi Berel Wein
    10 August 2001

    There is a famous Chasidic story that pretty much sums up
    our present situation and the world that we live in. It seems
    that a great king had an extremely wise and prescient adviser
    whose opinion he trusted implicitly. One day, the adviser
    appeared before the king with very bad news. Its seems that
    the coming crop of grain just being harvested contained an
    organism that would make people who ate that grain stark
    raving mad. The king was terribly shocked and found himself
    in a quandary. If the contaminated grain was removed from
    the market, the population would starve to death. And yet if
    the people ate from that grain they would all become crazy.

    The adviser told the king that he should allow the grain to be
    marketed, for better mad than dead. The king agreed to this.
    The adviser then told the king that a sufficient amount of last
    year´s normal grain remained in the king´s pantry for the king,
    the adviser and their families to allow them to live until next
    year´s more normal crop. The king responded that if the
    adviser and he were the only sane people in an otherwise
    insane society, then they would be the ones judged to be
    insane by the crazy people. Therefore, he ruled that he, the
    adviser and their families would also have to eat from the
    affected grain. However, the wise adviser painted a line on his
    forehead and that of the king, so that when they looked at
    each other they would at least recognize that they were crazy.

    KT