Sunday, June 1, 2008

More Thoughts on Dentistry and Chesed (and the Middle Way)

For those keeping up with the saga of my son Shmuel and his encounter with modern dentistry, last Sunday and Mondary mornings, it was back to the dentist--this time the Pediatric Emergency Dental Clinic at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. The care was excellent, though we were told that Shmuel may need general anesthetic for further treatment. And we were also told--in a nice Kafka-esque (read Israeli) twist--that Shmuel requires the treatment in the next few months or so, but that the waiting list for that treatment is eight months. In any event, it's an eventuality we want to avoid; so we are considering our options. As I said in a comment in a previous posting: gulp...

Which goes back to my daughter Avital, and her show of chesed (mercy or loving kindness) for her brother, particularly her pleas to the dentist that he refrain from pulling Shmuel's tooth. In hindsight, while admirable in an abstract sense, Avital's cries on behalf of her brother may not have been the mature or pragmatic response (and sometimes, for better or for worse, the two coincide). Though we cultivate the mida (or trait) of chesed, it often needs to be tempered with it's opposite: pure chesed and pure din (adherence to strict legal judgment) may not fit the complexities that the world puts in our path.

The necessity to temper the tendency to show unqualified chesed (as siblings, parents or spouses) is a principle enacted in the lives of the patriarchs. Abraham represents pure chesed. Yet while we know of his acts of generosity and hospitality, we also know that he prayed for the transgressors of Sodom. Can chesed go too far? In Abraham's offspring can be seen the consequences of a chesed which has no bounds: while Isaac continued in the tradition of his father, Ishmael represented chesed without limits--which, as our sages tell us, showed itself in his lascivious behavior. Chesed, which was manifested in Avraham's openness and generosity to the world, transforms in Ishmael to a generosity without limits, a full giving of himself leading to sexual impropriety (so yes, and this is a message often lost in our generation: there is too much of a good thing). That the Torah in Leviticus uses the very word chesed to refer to sexually forbidden behavior reveals how a chesed without boundaries transforms from a virtue into a transgression. (On how words sometimes have double--and opposite--meanings, see Freud's essay, "The Antithetical Meanings of Primal Words.")

While Abraham brought the characteristic of mercy into the world, Isaac, the inheritor of the legacy of his father, brought the polar opposite, din or judgment. Isaac's life is one of heroic restraint and withholding (as evidenced foremost in his experiences during the akeidah, the sacrificial binding which he withstood). Our tradition tell us that Isaac did not want to give blessings to either one of his sons, Esau or Jacob (though he does of course in the end to both); for such a blessing would upset the order of judgment upon which for Isaac the world needed to operate. This characteristic, like that of his father, was primary and powerful in the make-up of Isaac, but also resulted in an offspring--in this case, Esau, the hunter--unsuitable to continue the tradition begun by Abraham. Ishmael's licentiousness represents the excess of chesed; Esau's murderousness, represents an excess of din. Making oneself too available, giving too much of oneself turns into an openness which leads to license; while too much of an insistence upon judgment can lead to a desire for strictness which transforms in the end into rapacious violence and murder.

The history of the patriarchs shows the coming into the world of the ideals for which we as a people are known (generosity and justice), as well as their progressive refinement. While Abraham represents the ideal of chesed, and Isaac that of din, it is Jacob--all of whose children continue in the tradition of Abraham and Isaac--who represents emet or truth. Of all of the patriarchs, only one merits the affirmation of ongoing life: "Jacob our Father is not dead"; the Torat Emet of Yaakov, the true Torah of Jacob, contains both chesed and din. Jacob takes the middle path, avoids the extremes of din and chesed by themselves, and is associated with tiferet, splendor or glory--what Maimonides describes as simply the path of the straight or middle way. Derech Hayashar, the path of b'nai Yisroel requires negotating between the extremes. When our sages tell us that there are "only three whom we call patriarchs," they are not engaging in a simple counting game. They are rather revealing the deep secret that the Jewish people have their beginnings, as well as their destiny, in the number three. Between chesed and din, which reached their perfection in Abraham and Isaac, is the middle and third way of Jacob, the way of rachomim: a more refined mercy, one informed by judgment.

Does this all mean that we will not continue to celebrate Avital's love for her brother? Certainly not. Though the refinement of chesed into rachamim, a maturity that balances between extremes, will hopefully also come in time.


Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

In my world I would say your daughter's chessed is the true chessed that has not been tarnished with what experience and age brings. Your daughter's chessed is closer to the truth in my books. Our torah is full of examples of ego, lust and the rest of human emotions gone astray but always with adults or at least teenagers who by then should have more common sense or at least torah values in place.

The story of king David comes to mind sending what's his name off to war so his wife would become divorced from her husband so David could have his way with her. I would say that is extreme.

If your daughter was acting the way she was too knowingly manipulate the situation to create an outcome that would benefit her own personal gain like so many stories in the Torah I would agree with you, but, your daughter's cries were pure love shed for her brother with no intention of her own personal gain. I can't call those actions extreme.

I will call into question your reasoning, experience and knowledge and how you use them to formulate your opinion that your daughter is acting "extremely."

" The world would be a better place if us educated, sexually driven, dogmatic adults acted more like young children."

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

I have some questions about what you said below. 1) Can't anyone say that their way is the middle way?
2) What do you mean by splendor or glory re: Jacob
3) Isn't the term extreme subjective and different in every path of Judaism?

"Jacob takes the middle path, avoids the extremes of din and chesed by themselves, and is associated with tiferet, splendor or glory--what Maimonides describes as simply the path of the straight or middle way. Derech Hayashar, the path of b'nai Yisroel requires negotating between the extremes."

Thanks, Brad.

Yaakov A. Mascetti said...

Hello Bill. Thanks for this last post. It is, I think, balanced and complete. It appears to me, though, that this concept of "derech hayashar" in the Rambam may have some problematic consequences for some of those, today, who define themselves as "orthodox." The Maimonidean via media is entrenched in classical philosophy, it is well rounded in Jewish tradition, and it looks for answers in the sciences. Isn't the Rambam an example of a Jew who was exposed to many of the those very ideologies and cultural contexts which our orthodox Jews of today would never be willing to expose themselves to? It is, I agree with you, first and foremost a matter of middot - but it has important consequences on the way a person lives Judaism daily. Even though the Ishmael thing is a bit problematic, and so is the Esav one (living with allegories is easy - undoing them and actually perceiving thing is a bit harder...), I do agree with the principle that extreme chessed can have negative outcomes. The same, though, is true of Din - ve hamevin yavin. One should, in sum,expose himself or herself to the external world, to cultures, to things that belong to a xeno-context, and then elaborate the understanding on one's own culture in function of the things seen and learnt. Judaism is not pure, and it is certainly not an independent and purely Jewish system - it has SO many interpolations with Greek, Persian and other cultures, that the concept of authenticity and purity is simply a bad joke, or should I say a naive illusion. To go in the creative and middle way, one must apply and elaborate, one must open oneself and close oneself, one must interact and re-elaborate one's own conscience / culture. Just as Avital cannot be too focused on chessed, so many other people should not be focused solely on Din, and keep Judaism as it was fixed a few hundred years ago, but should make an effort to elaborate and adapt. Gosh, here I go again with my echoes of reform... Sorry Bill...

WDK said...

I wanted to pass on a comment that was sent to me by a colleague (in hebrew) who wants to remain anonymous:

אני מאד מאד נהנית לקרוא את הבלוג שלך. רציתי לציין שאמנם הרמב"ם מפנה לשביל הזהב בכל מעשינו. (חוץ מענווה. שבזה הוא ממליץ "מאד מאד היה שפל רוח) ובכל זאת לדעתי אחד מהמדדים של האדם היהודי הוא החסד שבו. (וכבר נאמר על ישראל שהם רחמניים, בישניים וגומלי חסדים). וככל שהוא יותר בעל חסד ועובד על מידותיו הוא נעלה יותר. והרי: "עולם חסד יבנה". החפץ חיים כתב מספר ספרים ואחד מהם הוא: "אהבת חסד". בהקדמה שלו לספר הוא מביא את דברי חזל: "דרש רבי שמלאי: תורה תחילתה גמילות חסדים וסופה גמילות חסדים, תחילתה גמילות חסדים: דכתיב: "ויעש ה' אלוקים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור.." וסופה גמילות חסדים: דכתיב: "ויקבור אתו בגיא". הקב"ה ציוונו ללכת בדרכיו שהם דרכי החסד והנתינה כמו שכתוב: " ועתה ישראל מה ה' אלוקיך שואל מעימך..." ובספרי מסבירים: אלו דרכי הקב"ה" ה' ה' א-ל רחום וחנון.ומה המקום נקרא רחום וחנון אף אתה הוי רחום וחנון ועושה מתנת חינם לכל.."
לדעתי בחסד אדם לא צריך לחפש את דרך האמצע אלא להפך, להרבות בחסד ככל יכולתו.