Category Archives: Psychology

Journeying into the Unknown

“The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit, 12:1)

There are certain basic necessary ingredients which comprise a typical journey; a starting point, travel companions, luggage and, of course, a destination. Parashat Lech-lecha describes Abraham’s voyage in great detail, but omits one of these key elements. Abraham’s starting point is depicted in great detail, the various constituent elements of the life he is required to leave behind are carefully listed. Abraham’s travel partners and his accompanying equipment are also recorded. Interestingly, Abraham’s ultimate destination, perhaps the most important facet of any journey, is left shrouded in uncertainty. The final stop on his voyage is yet to be revealed. Abraham is simply told rather mysteriously that he will be shown where he is to end up.

The Ramban raises the startling possibility that Abraham’s final destination was hidden for the entire duration of his voyage. The Ramban writes:

“To the land that I shall show you – he wandered aimlessly from nation to nation and kingdom to kingdom, until he reached Canaan, when God told him, “To your seed I shall give this land” (12:7)… Before that, he did not yet know that that land was the subject of the command.” (Ramban 12:1)

Abraham’s journey was a wandering expedition without a clear end goal in sight. Indeed, when Abraham retrospectively reflects upon this journey later in life, he explains that “God made me wander from my father’s house” (20:13). When reflecting back, Abraham viewed this period in his life as one of itinerant travelling, a time without a target or goal. According to the Ramban, the importance of Abraham’s journey lay in the very act of travelling, in the voyage itself, rather than the specific destination.

Developing this thought further, the Sfat Emet (1847-1905) posits that it is no surprise that God’s very first interaction with Abraham revolved around journeys. Journeying itself, the Sfat Emet writes, is a crucial part of the human experience: “Lekh Lekha – Go forth: Man is defined by his travelling, and indeed man must always travel, from one level to the next.  One must always aim to extract oneself from habit, from the state of the normal.” The journey Abraham embarks upon represents the journey that all must make, a voyage that breaks free from routines to embrace new heights. In other words, the Sfat Emet believes that man is to be judged by his capacity to change and grow.

The Hasidic thinker, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (the Ishbitzer), proposed that Abraham’s journey was so important as it ultimately led him to better understand himself. Indeed, this is the literal translation of Lech-lecha – “Go to yourself.” The very act of wandering, of uncoupling from familiar surroundings, presents the opportunity to learn more about oneself or, in the Ishbitzer’s terminology, to experience “the root of your life”. Thomas Mann, the early 20th Century German writer, also believed in the power of travelling to awaken knowledge of ourselves, journeys “engender forgetfulness by setting us physically free from our surroundings and giving us back our original, free state.”

Parashat Lech Lecha seeks to illustrate that journeys, be they physical, mental or spiritual, can be sources of great illumination and strength. The very act of movement shifts perspectives, opening up new horizons and possibilities by exposing us to undiscovered parts of ourselves. Like Abraham’s journey, often the end goal is not always so apparent from the outset. And yet, the paradoxical lesson to be learned is that we don’t always need a clear goal before embarking upon a voyage. Indeed, it is precisely the act of faith in the midst of such uncertainty which enables us to see the beauty of the journey itself. Sometimes we can put Waze to one side and we will eventually arrive, like Abraham, precisely where we need to be.

Between Memory and Forgetfulness

Standing before the crowded theatre in Stockholm in the Winter of 1986, Elie Wiesel surveyed the room as he delivered his Nobel Prize lecture on the critical importance of memory. “Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living.”  Wiesel believed that any leap into the future without a deep awareness of the past would ultimately prove futile. In Wiesel’s words, without dreams there can be no hope, no future without memory.

Memory, of course, plays a central role throughout Jewish thought and practise. Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, in his pivotal study on Jewish history and memory, Zakhor, wrote of the unique emphasis Judaism places on memory: “Only in Israel, and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” No commandment figures as frequently and indeed as powerfully as the resounding call to remember.  A casual perusal of the Torah reveals a plethora of such instructions: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past” (Dev. 32), “Remember the day you left Egypt” (Dev. 17), “Remember that which Amalek did to you” (Dev. 25) and “Guard yourself lest you forget what your eyes saw…. the day you stood at Chorev” (Dev. 4). By preserving the memory of these pivotal moments of history, we perpetuate the values those events contain into the future.

Whilst memory presents a ubiquitous feature throughout the Jewish year, it receives particularly poignant attention on Rosh Hashanah. One of the names adopted by the Jewish tradition to mark this transition between one year and the next is Yom Hazikharon, ‘the Day of Remembrance’. Rosh Hashanah is thus to be a day dedicated to memories, to recall and reflect upon the past. As the previous year fades into the distance, the Jewish calendar provides a brief period of careful remembrance before the onset of the new annual cycle and the fresh year gathers apace.

Memory also takes centre stage at the very heart of the Mussaf service on Rosh Hashanah. The central blessing devoted to Zichronot summons God’s all-knowing memory: “You remember what was wrought from eternity and heed all that has been formed from of old; before You all secrets are revealed and the multitude of hidden things from the beginning.  For there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, nor is anything hidden from Your eyes.  You remember every deed and no creature is concealed from You….” Evoking God’s memory on Rosh Hashanah prompts us to reflect honestly and frankly upon our selves and our actions. Rosh Hashnah presents a day to gaze earnestly and sometimes painfully at the moments in our past we might otherwise wish erased from the records.

In many ways, Yom Kippur marks a tectonic shift away from this marked emphasis on memory. The very first prayers we utter on Yom Kippur are the words of Kol Nidrei. This harrowing piece is dedicated to annulling the promises, oaths and vows we have taken over the previous year. Yom Kippur thus begins with an act of wilful and concerted forgetfulness. The process of forgiveness and atonement of Yom Kippur can only begin once we have undergone a moment of such forgetfulness. This purposeful act of abandonment, discarding the unrealistic commitments made over the past year, enables us to enter the new year fresh and with clear vision.

In order to move forward and develop, we cannot simply  perpetuate the aged and dusty goals of erstwhile years. The very act of self-creation, perhaps the ultimate act of freedom, necessitates a degree of forgetfulness. As Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) proclaimed in the realm of economics, often one needs to destroy in order to create. It is perhaps for this very reason that Yom  Kippur itself is ushered in by the tones of forgetting. On Yom Kippur we erase our old vows and thereby unhinge our inner selves to mould a new vision and pave a novel path for the year ahead. Judaism certainly encourages memory, yet a degree of forgetfulness carves out a space for change and, ultimately, hope. Hold on to the past too tightly and we run the risk of replaying and re-enacting a past we wish to avoid.

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This complex combination of memory and forgetfulness appears, perhaps surprisingly, in the realm of Torah learning too. Here too we see that creativity is spawned through the act of forgetting. The rabbinic caution against the dangerous pitfalls of forgetfulness suggests a distinctively negative vision of forgetfulness. In Pirkei Avot (Chapter 3:8) Rabbi Meir warns that “one who forgets even a single matter of his study, it is as if he is liable for his soul…” Forgetfulness is thus closely associated with moments of sin. The Talmud (Temurah 16a) describes how hundreds of laws were suddenly forgotten due to a momentary exhibition of arrogance on Joshuah’s  part.  A similar tale (Pesachim 66a) is told of Hillel the Elder who forgot a particularly pertinent teaching after sharply and unjustly reprimanding his questioners.

Despite these condemnations, numerous positive descriptions of forgetfulness abound. The Talmud (Bava Metziah, 85a) writes: “R. Zeira, when he journeyed to the land of Israel, observed a hundred fasts to forget the teachings of Babylonia.” R. Zeira underwent a period of forgetfulness to create a space for the creative regeneration necessary to attain higher spiritual heights.

Another Talmudic piece (Eruvin, 54a) describing Moses’ shattering of the tablets illustrates that forgetfulness does indeed play a vital role within our lives. The Talmud writes: “If not for the breaking of the First Tablets, the Torah would never have been forgotten.” And yet, when Moses does indeed shatter the tablets, God, according to the Talmud, offers His ultimate seal of approval: “Yashar Kochaha.” Forgetfulness thus appears to receive the ultimate sanction.

In a rather remarkable commentary, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah 3) seeks to explain this positive endorsement of forgetfulness:

“We learn from here a great novel idea, that Torah can grow through forgetfulness, to the point where it is possible to receive Divine congratulations for forgetting the Torah… Not only this, but the whole basis for arguments within halakhah stems from forgetting…. we seen from here that divergence of opinion and the exchange of ideas contributes to the growth and splendour of the Torah which is born specifically through forgetting the Torah.”

According to R. Hutner, forgetfulness and  spiritual creativity are intimately intertwined — forgetfulness provides the fertile ground for novel Torah ideas to sprout and flourish. Memory is paramount in any conception of Torah, yet a degree of forgetfulness allows each generation to breathe renewed life into the revered Jewish tradition. It is this oscillation between remembrance and relinquishment that lies at the very heart of the transition from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from memory to forgetfulness.


In Praise of Distraction

Whether we like it or not, distractions have become part and parcel of life in the modern world. In 1903, George Simmel, the German sociologist, wrote an essay entitled ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ which described the effects of the modern city on our selves.  A century before social media came to dominate all aspects of life, Simmel felt that the modern environment and its constant bombardment of intense stimuli was harming mankind. Overwhelmed by the multiplicity of distractions, man was made blasé, dulled to life’s experiences and indifferent to the world around. Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966), Simmel’s student, argued that the bustling backdrop of modern life encouraged people to avoid precious time alone by filling empty moments of time with monotonous distractions. In his essay ‘Bordeom’, Kracauer writes that “although one wants to do nothing, things are done to one: the world makes sure that one does not find oneself.” For Kracauer, the modern world of constant distraction had alienated man from his core being.

Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) was born in Frankfurt and, amongst many things, studied Talmud in a study group with Franz Rosenzweig and Erich Fromm under the famed Rabbi Nobel.
Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) was born in Frankfurt and, amongst many things, studied Talmud in a group with Franz Rosenzweig and Erich Fromm under the famed Rabbi Nobel.

At first glance, Jewish thought appears to frown rather heavily upon distractions. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:9) relates Rabbi Shimon’s declaration: “Someone who is walking along immersed in the study of Torah and interrupts his review saying “How beautiful is that tree! How pleasant is that ploughed field!” He is regarded by Scripture as someone who has forfeited his soul.” When engaged in the study of Torah, the Talmud expects complete concentration, any distractions are deemed to reflect a lack of adequate respect and appropriate attention. Similarly, the Talmud (Megilla 28b) describes how Ravina, Rav Ada Bar Matna and Rava sheltered themselves from a downpour in a synagogue  during a Torah discussion so that they could better concentrate on the matter at hand without distraction. As Rashi (1040-1105) describes, Torah requires complete clarity of mind without the  most minor of distractions.

Interestingly, whilst the Talmud cautions against diversions, the Talmud itself is replete with seemingly haphazard deviations from the matter at hand. Any page of Talmud often reveals a host of curious distractions from the broader topic under discussion. Even the short talmudic piece (Shabbat 3b) cautioning students from distracting teachers with impromptu Torah questions is itself a diversion from the Talmud’s immediate subject of concern.

The importance of such talmudic tangents are highlighted by Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg in one of his drashot (Lifrakim, Halachah veAgaddatah).  R. Weinberg believed there to be two distinct currents within Jewish thought, one represented by halakhah and the other by aggadah. Each strand represents a unique way of experiencing life. The halakhic model is associated with clarity, consistency, reason and, above all, order. The cool legal logic of halakhah reflects “the beauty of order which maintains and matures the old.”

R. Weinberg then highlights a second current within Jewish thought which acts as a foil to the halakhic strand, the non-legal  world of aggadah.  Weinberg writes:

“There are passionate souls who crave the exceptions to the rule, the abnormal, they desire not the trodden and fixed paths… they yearn to conquer and reveal the new. These individuals are not satisfied with the present, with the regular and the clear, their souls crave for the new and for birth, they pine for the future… These individuals look to the Aggadah which collects and concentrates these rays of light.”

R. Weinberg believed that both these modes of thought are vital components of life. Law becomes dry and rigid without the unpredictable and creative spurts of aggadah. Similarly, aggadah on its own is too frenetic and haphazard to sustain a systematic body of laws to govern society. For a fully balanced life, Weinberg prescribes a healthy melange of order and chaos, halakhah and aggadah.

Seen in this light, distractions might not always be that bad. The Talmud embraces these tangents which often unveil features and emotions inaccessible to pure legal reasoning. The chaotic and random aspects of our lives are ignored if we focus solely on the regimented and legal air surrounding halakhah. Such sporadic tangents bring new and perhaps unexpected insights into otherwise dry topics. They connect previously unrelated areas of thought and action. Opening ourselves to these distractions allows one to see beauty amidst the chaos.

The difference, then, between the distractions sanctioned and proscribed by the Talmud,  is thus a question of how instances of distraction integrate with our lives. Diversions are to be avoided if they remain forever disconnected from our existence and present an escape from life. If, however, the meandering and distracted moments of our chaotic minds inform our regimented thoughts and remind us of the turbulent parts of our existence, they are to be embraced.

To avoid the harm inflicted by modern society’s environment of manifold innovative diversions, some advocate for the elimination of distraction from our daily lives. In Matthew Crawford’s recent book, The World Beyond Your Head, one finds a recipe to avoid distraction and a programme to refocus our minds on chores demanding concentration. But, perhaps the problem is not distraction itself, but the way we are distracted today. Perhaps we simply don’t value distraction enough. The onset of social media and the proliferation of YouTube playlists have provided an abundance of ways to occupy every moment of spare time. As Kracauer lamented, our distractions have become predictable, repetitive and, above all, dull. In short, we need to reclaim our distractions and allow our unfocussed and uncensored selves to illuminate our lives. Just as the Talmud invited aggadah into the realm of halakhah, perhaps we too should summon real distraction into our regimented world.


Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Jewish Views on Optimism

History has certainly had its fair share of optimists, those who invariably view the world in a positive light and who anticipate a better and brighter future. The 18th Century had Leibniz, the German philosopher who confidently declared this world “the best of all possible worlds.” The 19th Century had its own proponents of optimism; perhaps most prominently Hegel who believed that the world was striding towards a more enlightened, free and prosperous future. There have always been figures who see the glass half full.

However, the past few decades have witnessed an unparalleled flood of literature emphasising the importance of optimism for the modern age. Martin Seligman’s now classic work from 1990, Learned Optimism, opened the gateway to a new field of positive psychology focusing on the manifold benefits of an optimistic outlook on life. Seligman’s work drew on research indicating that optimists were generally better at overcoming misfortunes in life and gave up less easily when confronted with challenges. Since Seligman’s work, numerous psychological studies have been conducted illustrating that optimistic personalities are often linked with better health, longer-lasting friendships, successful marriages and even career triumph. In short, those who look on the brighter side of life actually seem to end up getting more sun.

Recent years have seen this trend gain further momentum with a snowballing of publications on the topic, including Elaine Fox’s Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism (2013), Tali Sharot’s The Optimism Bias (2012), Mark Stevenson’s The Optimist’s Guide to the Future (2012), Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2011) and Tal Ben-Shahar’s Being Happy (2010) to name only but a few. Whether society craves the comfort of such literature out of anxiety or whether our generation is indeed already supremely optimistic remains a question for the sociologists. What seems clear, however, is that modern society appears to have cultivated a fixation around optimism.

Interestingly, this is not the first time in history that a group of thinkers has been preoccupied with the question of optimism. Almost one hundred years ago to the date, Orthodox rabbis at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary founded by Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer devoted their intellectual energies to answering the question as to whether Judaism is an optimistic religion or not. Does Judaism believe the future will be better? Indeed, does Judaism encourage an optimistic attitude to life, believing that redemption, both personal and national, is guaranteed?

Two of the most well-known rabbis to contribute to this debate were Rabbi Isak Unna and Rabbi Joseph Carlebach. Both these figures were rabbinic graduates of the Hildesheimer Seminary and armed with PhDs from the top German universities. Unna wrote his doctorate on the thought of Philo whilst Carlebach inclined towards the sciences, making a name for himself in academic circles for his research into Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Both Unna and Carlebach were deeply concerned with the well-being of Judaism and harnessed the breadth of their education to tackle the central problems confronting Judaism in the modern era. In a period ravaged by war, suffering and widespread despair, it was vital for these rabbis to revisit the principle which held the keys to a brighter future. Both rabbis thus penned works dedicated to the question of optimism in Jewish thought.

Rabbi Joseph Carlebach with his youngest son, Solomon
Rabbi Joseph Carlebach with his youngest son, Solomon

In a fascinating article from 1915, Rabbi Unna identified the fundamental difference between pessimists and optimists. Unna argued that the key contrast lay in how one understands the role of man in the world. At their core, pessimists see themselves as passive recipients of fate, helplessly blown around by the tempest of history. The pessimist is static, either fortunately receiving or being fatefully deprived of worldly happiness. In short, pessimism understands that man has no real control over his life. Thus, when faced with adversity, the pessimist will simply accept the world as it is, rather than seeing how the world ought to be. Rabbi Carlebach similarly argued that pessimists tended to view obstacles in life as beyond their control and thus insurmountable. For Carlebach, pessimism was linked closely with deterministic philosophies, like that of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), which viewed man as fundamentally un-free and bound by the causes and effects of nature.

Both Unna and Carlebach believed that Judaism thoroughly rejected this pessimist worldview and felt a need to respond to Schopenhauer. These rabbis emphasised the true freedom which Judaism endowed upon man. Rather than seeing the world as a series of permanent and unalterable obstructions, closed doors, Judaism viewed setbacks as opportunities for growth and as springboards to inspire achievement. Whilst misfortunes are certainly painful and ought not to be ignored, they also present man with the prospect of progress and growth. The world is not a stagnant fixed conclusion, but an occasion brimming with infinite possibilities.

What is perhaps most interesting about these early theories of optimism is that neither Unna nor Carlebach opted for a blind optimism which unconditionally guaranteed utopia. The bright future would only be attained through hard work and by surmounting the considerable barriers that lay in wait. Unna and Carlebach firmly placed responsibility upon the shoulders of man to locate meaning in the world and to strive towards that meaning. Like the recent positive psychologists, both rabbis strongly believed that optimism itself made that successful future all the more attainable. They drew on the Talmud’s (Shabbat 31a) axiom requiring of man to anticipate the redemption. Once the foundation of hope was in place, all was possible.

Interestingly, both these rabbis also looked to the figure of Rabbi Akiva as the paragon of Jewish optimism. The Talmud (Makot 24b) recounts the reaction that various rabbinic sages expressed in response to the destruction of the Temple. Whereas the host of other rabbis cried in despair upon witnessing the destruction, Rabbi Akiva responded with laughter. It was Rabbi Akiva’s optimism that gave the surrounding sages the hope they needed to endure Roman rule and to perpetuate Judaism for future generations. Avot de Rabbi Natan, the Geonic commentary to Pirkei Avot, also tells of Rabbi Akiva’s optimism in his personal life, which allowed him to overcome numerous setbacks to attain his unmatched level of scholarship.

Both Unna and Carlebach appreciated the value of optimism and positivity almost a century before such phrases became the buzzwords of today’s era. Many of the psychological and philosophical ideas they debated recur in contemporary optimism and positive psychology literature. They believed that the deeply entrenched optimism latent within Judaism gifted it the power to surmount the incalculable suffering endured throughout history. Had Judaism resigned itself to fate, Unna stated, it would simply have ceased to exist. Belief in a better future itself made the possibility of that future all the more probable. 2014 is hopefully not 1914, yet the idea of optimism is still just as vital.