Sunday, May 3, 2009

'Swaying Towards Perfection' - Torah, Worldliness and Perversion

Perversion, the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, involves 'an anxious narrowing of the mind when it comes to pleasure.' From his clinical experience, Phillips observes that what characterizes sexual perversion is 'a determined sense of knowing' about what one wants. 'The person in a perverse state of mind,' Philips writes, 'has no conscious doubt what will excite and satisfy him.' Knowing what one wants, and fixating on the fulfillment of a specified set of expectations - this is the sensibility of the perverse mind.

Don't close your browsers just yet! I understand that even my most generous readers will be wondering what Phillips' notion of perversion might have to do with Torah - no matter how open-minded. Counting the days from Passover to Shavuos, we do know what we want and expect - and there is no perversion here - matan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. What could be wrong with the certainty of knowing what one wants?
Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rebbe Yehuda the Prince, says, 'the learning of Torah is pleasing when accompanied by derech eretz or worldliness - for toiling in both of them causes sin to be forgotten. The study of Torah which is unaccompanied by labor will come to naught and lead to sin.'
Man, the Maharal from Prague writes, is constituted by his body and his soul. Engaging with the physical world - worldliness and earning a livelihood - leads to the perfection of the body, while studying Torah leads to the perfection of the soul. For the temptations of the body for licentiousness and the temptations of the mind for idolatry, work and Torah provide the respective antidotes. But the former takes precedence. Not only - or even necessarily - working a 9 to 5 job, but engagement with the world is the necessary prerequisite for Torah. The character traits essential to derech eretz are not mentioned in the Torah, writes the Vilna Gaon, because it is assumed that without them, Torah is impossible!

Both kinds of engagmenent, the Maharal emphasizes, require toil or exertion - y'giah. Such toil holds out promise; it's opposite brings about stagnation. Every where the Torah mentions 'settling,' our sages tell us, there is eventually failure and disappointment. When the people of Israel settled in Shitim, they soon gave into licentiousness - 'and the people began to commit whoredom (nod to King James) with the daughters of Moab.' After Yaakov 'settled in the land of Canaan,' his favored son Joseph is sold into slavery. The people of Israel settle in Egypt, and soon after Jacob, here called Israel, 'approaches the end of his days.' For the sages, settling breeds stagnation which - in the prooftexts which they cite - leads to perversion, the selling off of the future, and eventually death.

Pursuing the perfection of body and soul through worldly engagement and Torah study protects one from chisaron and ha'eder - from the forces, to speak metaphorically, of privation and lack. The paradox is that when one rests, when one entertains the notion of having achieved perfection, then one becomes susceptible to the powers of negation and loss. But when one is 'm'tno'ai'a el ha'shlama' - moving towards, or more literally 'swaying towards perfection,' then one is immune to the sin that attends the belief that one has already arrived. Swaying towards a perfection never to be achieved in this world protects one from transgression. 'He who thinks we are to pitch our tent here,' the poet John Milton writes, 'that man shows himself to be very far short of the truth.'

Clinical perversion is the expectation of the fulfillment of vulgar expectations, of pitching my tent and hoping to never leave, knowing what I want - and hoping that my future will be just like my past. The perverse act, as Phillips writes, is one in which 'nothing must be discovered.' So while we know the direction in which when we're heading when we claim to have arrived, or to already be in the know, we are risking losing ourselves in the perversion that leads to loss of the future and death. It is the acknowledgment of lack - this is the paradox - that shows our perfection. The frantic certainty, by contrast, of a perspective achieved is a mark of our failure; it is the cover-story for our self-doubts about facing the demands of discovery.

The Torah provides a set of instructions for such discovery, an impetus and framework for our striving - the means through which immersing ourselves in the past we embrace the present and create a new future. The chiddush - the innovative interpretation - is an ideal not only in the learning of Torah, but in the way of life, in our worldliness as well. As Rabban Gamliel explains, one needs to toil - to be fully engaged - in both. But when as parents, teachers or members of a community we foreclose the possibility of that discovery with expectations that the future be merely a copy of the past - insisting that stereotypes are our models and cliches our ideals - then we are in danger of stagnating, perversely selling off the future, endangering ourselves with spiritual death.

This is not Torah, but its perversion.

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