Sicha #6: Mussar and "Normalcy"

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein
In our last two shiurim, I've been rather argumentative.  I thought it necessary, owing to the confusion that usually fogs the subject of humility.  In moving on to our next topic, I am glad to return to a more reflective mode. 
Let me lead into this subject by referring back to our last discussion.  We delved into a diagnosis of ga'ava (arrogance) - the preoccupation with one's accomplishments and status vis-a-vis others.  The very search for such a diagnosis was motivated by an assumption, which we took to be self-evident, namely, that ga'ava is a negative phenomenon - if you will, a moral pathology.  Certainly, Chazal saw it that way.
But the world around us doesn't.  In the marketplace of life, it is said, success belongs to he who blows his own horn.  Reality seems to bear this out, at least in regard to the things which define success most readily to modern man - money, power and prestige.  Success-driven man (and this is the common species in our society) in turn assimilates a value-system which not only sees no flaw in egocentricity, but sees it as a positive good.  People today don't believe that one's conscience ought to flinch when indulging in self-praise or cultivating the good opinion of others.  What we have called arrogance is commonly considered as man's natural instinct of self-preservation and self-interest.  One who refrains from living as though he is the center of existence is acting in a strange, unnatural way, antithetical to man's true nature. 
Here, then, is a challenge to the Mussar orientation.  Western man will never try to arrive at a workable definition of humility, because the whole idea is foreign to him.  As a matter of fact, the instance of humility - a linchpin of Jewish ethics, as we have seen - exemplifies a larger predicament which besets the Jew who wants to actualize Torah without ghettoizing his lifestyle.  This is the feeling that to take tikkun seriously means to be what the outside world would call "maladjusted."  If we see ourselves as part of that world, something inside us is bound to share that assessment.  What do we do with this? Do we fight it, and try to live a "normal" life in spite of everything?  Or should we abandon all pretenses, resigning ourselves to an existence of incessant grappling and unrequited striving?  Do we divorce ourselves from the accepted standards of "normalcy," in order to walk a path which runs counter to what is usually termed "the pursuit of happiness?"  The modern-day student of Mussar ultimately must face these issues squarely.
I think this problem has two parts.  Being "adjusted" or living a "normal" life can be discussed in relation to man vis-a-vis himself, connoting a state of freedom from anxiety, a psychological wholeness.  Does Mussar promise, value - or even make possible - such an existence?  Secondly, we can ask whether we can achieve a well-adjusted existence with respect to the world around us.  Is this possible, despite the value-conflict? In this shiur we will concentrate on the first problem.
The following is an excerpt from Madregat Ha-Adam, written by a well-known figure in Mussar circles, Rav Yosef Horowitz of Novhardok (Nekudat Ha-Emet chap. 4).  In it he claims that the goal of ethical living is "chayei menucha" - peaceful existence.  But true peace, he believes, is a rather tempestuous affair:
There is a peace which comes together with trials, as that pious man said (- cited in Chovot Ha-levavot), "Even if You burn me with fire, it will only increase my love and joy in You," because he feels a tranquility of soul and tremendous joy at the moment of the trial.  He doesn't call it a "trial" - he calls it "life."  For then he actualizes all his powers, his courage, and his trust in God, and that is the point of living.  The longer the trying situation lasts, or if [it ends but] is followed consecutively by another one, he does not feel it a burden, an unfortunate occurrence which he can't wait to be done with, but on the contrary - then all of his life-spirit is aroused, and then he feels alive on the path of wholeness.  He is content to do battle with the yetzer....  There is no greater spirit of life than this, for his feeling is very high, and his mind is distilled and devoid of self-interest and passions.  And when a man feels that he can fight (his) nature and win, according to his exalted outlook which is beyond the excitement of nature and all sensations and wants, this feeling gives him a tremendous pleasantness.  As he continues to score victories in consecutive trials, so his life-spirit will soar, and he will never entertain the thought of "Better to forego them along with their exaltation," because trials and life are one and the same...
We will consider this description in the framework of our previous study.  The gap between human potential and its actualization is the backdrop of this passage.  What kind of lifestyle is generated by the awareness of the gap?  We are reading here of someone who is more than merely well-adjusted.  Rav Horowitz thinks in terms of exhilaration.  Doing battle with oneself and winning is the essence of life, and the seeker is likened to a warrior in constant pursuit of contest. 
            At first glance, we may find this astounding - self-defeat resulting in soaring spirits? The answer, of course, is that Rav Horowitz doesn't think that the "self" which is defeated is the true self.  A person possesses a higher self which is the true one.  A fulfilled, peaceful existence means removing one's ego from the lower story and depositing it above.  A man in relentless quest for tikkun constantly confronts his lower self, and is constantly actualizing potential. 
            To sum up, the polarity of  "what could be" as opposed to "what is" generates an optimistic response, which is energized by the first of the two poles.  The typical response is a heady delight in rising to challenge.  Rav Horowitz does not believe that a serious spiritual quest leads to personal "maladjustment."
            But it is clear that not all of our spiritual masters felt this way.  Consider the following:
...It is well-known that a man must be very careful to be always in joy, and to keep very distant from sadness ...and even when he begins to examine himself and sees that there is nothing good in him, and he is full of sins, and the "adversary" (= evil inclination) wants to make him fall thereby into sadness and melancholy, Heaven forbid - even so he must not falter because of this, but rather he must seek and find within himself some small good.  For how can it be that that in all his life he has never done some mitzva or good deed? And even if when he begins to look that good thing, he sees that it too is full of wounds without an unblemished spot; that is to say, that it is full of selfish aims and strange thoughts and many other faults - but still, how could it be that there isn't within that mitzva or good deed some small amount of good... for a man must search and seek to find within himself some small good to revive himself, in order to come to joy, as we mentioned above...
As you may have guessed, the foregoing was by Rav Nachman of Braslav (Likutei Moharan 282).  Rav Nachman's disciples heard him stress that this teaching (or "Torah," in the Hassidic jargon) is one of the most basic and crucial tools of the religious person:
Our master always cautioned us to "walk with" the above Torah, because it is a great foundation for anyone who wants to draw near to God, blessed be He, so that he should not utterly lose his world.  For most people who are far away from God, the main reason for their distance is melancholy and despair, because their spirits fall when they see in themselves the extent of the corruption in their actions - each one as he knows within himself the illnesses and pangs of his heart.  And because of this, their spirits fall and most of them completely despair, and then they do not pray with any concentration at all, and they don't even do what they still could have done.  Therefore, a man must internalize this fact: all these failures of the spirit, even though they are caused by evil deeds which he has truly done, yet the despair and the sadness and the melancholy which befall him because of this are exclusively the work of the "adversary," who is weakening his mind in order to defeat him completely, Heaven forbid.  Therefore he must strengthen himself very much, to "walk with" this Torah to seek out and search within himself every time some small amount of good...
If we compare this to the picture painted by the Rav of Novhardok, the difference in atmosphere is palpable.  Gone are the invincible optimism, the ethical fearlessness.  Here, the gap between what could be and what is leads to a lifestyle which is irresistibly drawn to agonizing confrontation with the latter.  It seems that the tortured spirit here described can take no solace in the realization that he possesses great potential.  What difference could that make, if actual life evidences only imperfection? No, theoretical pronouncements and subjective feelings about man's greatness, precisely because they are true, serve only to make the pain of missed chances and broken promises even less bearable.  A sober appraisal of the state of affairs brings one to the brink of despair.  Consolation can be had only through the search for good deeds actually done.  That alone can prove that there is something to live for.
Rav Nachman seems to identify with this sensibility.  His counsel is that despite the anguished, torn existence which is the lot of religious man, there is no person whose life is without points of true, irrefutable light.  Man's good deeds must be sought and discovered, their seeming insignificance notwithstanding, for it is their actuality that anchors the sense of purpose one needs to go on.
Rav Nachman, then, cannot even imagine what the Rav of Novhardok holds out as the attainable ideal of ethical life: "chayei menucha," a peaceful existence.  It ought to be stressed again, however, that the content of the "peaceful existence" of which Rav Horowitz speaks is a life of constant trial.  A student of Mussar is at peace, he would say, when spoiling for a fight.  Rav Nachman, for his part, is far removed from any promises of inner harmony.
In the above citations, both Rav Horowitz and Rav Nachman of Braslav are talking to their disciples, though, of course, their teachings derived from their own personal experience.  Rav Kook, on the other hand, writes openly about himself in the following excerpt:
He who said of me that my soul is torn - said well.  Certainly, it is torn.  We cannot imagine in our mind a man whose soul is not torn.  Only the inanimate is whole, but man has contradictory ambitions, and there is constantly an inner battle within him.  And the whole work of man is to unite the shreds in his soul through an embracing thought, in whose greatness and exaltedness all is included, and thus come to harmony.  (Chadarav, p. 115)
A torn existence, says Rav Kook, is the norm for any thinking person (that is, one who is not "inanimate").  However, he does view harmony as a desired goal.  In part, this undoubtedly has to do with Rav Kook's mystical outlook, which views the human soul as a reflection of cosmic Unity.  Practically speaking, the path to unity according to Rav Kook involves rising above the conflict.  Exactly what this means is a lengthy affair, which we can't dwell on here.  What we can derive from this self-description is that Rav Kook saw himself as a torn soul, and that harmony for him was a goal to work for but not something he thought he had achieved.  Inner conflict is fundamental to the human condition, though it is a flaw which needs rectification.
Rav Soloveitchik was, like Rav Kook, aware of the pervasiveness of inner spiritual strife, but he had a different evaluation of this state of affairs.  The following generalization is from his essay "Majesty and Humility" (Tradition, Spring 1978, vol. 17 no. 2):
Man is a dialectical being; an inner schism runs through his personality at every level.  ...the Judaic view posits that the schism is willed by God as the source of man's greatness and his election as a singular charismatic being.  Man is great and creative because he is torn by conflict and is always in a state of ontological tenseness and perplexity.  The fact that the creative gesture is associated with agony is a result of this contradiction, which pervades the whole personality of man...
The Psalmist proclaimed, "I said in my haste all men are liars." What kind of lie did the Psalmist have in mind when he hurled this serious accusation at man in general?  Does man indeed engage constantly in immoral lying?  By no means!  The Psalmist is concerned with a different kind of lie - the existential lie that man tells, not others, but himself.  Man is indeed a liar, because he is involved in an un-resolvable contradiction, in an insoluble dialectic... He swings like a pendulum between two poles: the thesis and the antithesis, the affirmation and the negation, identifying himself either with both of them or with neither.  He must lie, but this inevitable lie is rooted in man's uniqueness and is a moral lie...
I would define the distinguishing feature of Rav Soloveitchik's position by referring to what I said earlier about what an "adjusted" life means.  I suggested two characteristics of such a life: freedom from anxiety and psychological wholeness.  But here the schism within man is so central that the two characteristics must contradict.  To live a life which is spiritually and psychologically whole, one must live simultaneously in differing, contradictory modes.  This generates tension and anxiety.  Freedom from anxiety is available, but only at the cost of psychological fragmentation.  One must be willing to ignore one of the poles of existence, to suppress it from the realm of actuality and into the depths of oblivion, in order to achieve peace of mind.  But in so doing, according to the Rav, one is cutting oneself off from the source of human creativity and greatness.
I should clarify that the rift within man, in Rav Soloveitchik's view, is not necessarily the one we have been emphasizing - spiritual potential versus actual life.  Reading the article (recommended, of course) will reveal more about what he has in mind here.  But the dual nature of man is a recurring and dominant motif in his writings and lectures, and was described by him in many ways and on different levels.  The many facets of this are alluded to in the opening sentence of our excerpt. 
Even without delving into Rav Soloveitchik's various works, it is easy to identify many conflicting aspects of human existence.  A very partial inventory: rationality and emotionality as ways of life; rationality and irrationality as modes of thought; expressing individuality while being committed to society; career as opposed to family obligations.  A Jewish existence has more conflicts to add: religious moral obligations stemming from different sources - Shulchan Arukh, the "spirit" of the Law, reason, conscience (they differ experientially even if they philosophically coalesce); universalism versus Jewish particularism, both on the level of principles and ideals, and on the level of personal identity (a potential source of particularly painful conflict).  In all of these planes of existence, man feels his soul being tugged in opposite directions.  He can respond to any of the conflicts by abdicating in favor of one side.  His life will then be easier, and smaller.  To be fully human, says Rav Soloveitchik, is to refuse to abdicate, to opt for the conflict, however agonizing.
This discussion touches on philosophical questions whose surface we have barely scratched.  Our main aim has been to examine the issue from the point of view of Mussar - how ought one to live.  I hope that our study has served to open some avenues of thought.  If it does not point to a single solution, it does allow us to formulate the various considerations in retrospect, which is how I would like to conclude.
One issue we examined is whether a harmonious "well-adjusted" life is possible for the Mussar-oriented person; and if possible, is it realistically or only remotely so?
The further issue is: Is such a life desirable?  One reason for preferring a harmonious lifestyle would be the practical one.  Living with conflict is certainly harder than without.  This relative facility also has moral ramifications.  More worthwhile things may be accomplished if each task is achieved in a smooth, non-turbulent manner, which economizes our investment of time and emotional energy.
The larger question is whether either harmony or conflict can be held to be superior from a basic ethical standpoint.  Unity may be preferred on the supposition that the ultimate spiritual reality of the world is a harmonious one.  In this view, the very idea of inner spiritual conflict (analogous to interpersonal conflict) represents a flawed existence.  This is the way we understood Rav Kook.
On the other hand, we may view the conflict within man, along with Rav Soloveitchik, as a Divinely-ordained fact of life, which is a necessary vehicle of man's greatness.  According to this, the aspiration to rid oneself of anxiety is equivalent to abdication of responsibility for the sake of comfort.
One further remark.  My own sense is that, practically speaking, any serious student of Mussar must be prepared for inner conflict.  A person who has been so conditioned by the modern world that he will not take a single step which risks "maladjustment" will not get very far.  Fear is what keeps us chained to our habits.  We may aim for harmony as our final end, but all of our practice will be futile if we refuse to risk discord.