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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Inflation: when it hits souls, not shekels (Sotah 4b)

The Talmud’s discussion of the Sotah and adultery in marriage, has thus far assumed that blame for a failed marriage lies primarily with the wife. While the Rabbis acknowledge that, at least in theory, it’s as difficult to make a good match as it is to part the Reed Sea (Sotah 2a), the prevailing assumption on the first two dapim is that women are responsible for the quality of the marriage. The turning point comes on 4b where the Sages explore the meaning of a verse from Proverbs:
What is the meaning of the verse, and a married woman ensnares a precious soul (nefesh y’karah) (Proverbs 6:26)? R. Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: Any person who possesses a haughty spirit in the end will stumble [into the sin of committing adultery with] a married woman, as it is said, and a married woman ensnares a nefesh y’karah (Proverbs 6:26).
R. Chiyya conveys R. Yochanan’s teaching that the “precious soul” of the lover that is ensnared by a married woman may be understood as the “haughty soul” of the lover that ensnares him, and as a result he becomes involved with a married woman. In reading nefesh yekarah as “haughty soul” rather than “precious soul” he opens the door to recognizing that the lover shares responsibility. Rava makes this point more explicitly:
Rava said: [but it reads] nefesh y’karah (“precious soul”); it should have said nefesh g’voha (“haughty soul, or spirit”); and also it should have said “it ensnares” [rather than “ensnares [the married woman]”]. Rather, Rava said, anyone who has sexual intercourse with a married woman, even if he has studied Torah, about which it is written, it is more precious than pearls (peninim) (Proverbs 3:5) – [that is] more precious than the Kohen Gadol who enters the innermost sanctum (lifnai v’livnim) – she ensnares him into the judgment of Gehinnom (purgatory).
Rava holds that it is the lover’s own arrogance (his haughty soul) that ensnares him, not the woman. The “she” in Proverbs 6:26 is understood by Rava as the nefesh gevoha (haughty soul).

Jungian psychologist James Hollis, in his book Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves asks: why do otherwise good, decent people, do unexpected bad things? Drawing on Jung’s concept of the Shadow, Hollis points out that we think our egos reign over our psyches, but in fact our psyches are driven by discrete energies and an agenda we are barely aware of, and need to bring out into the open, into the light of day, so we can deal with the pain fueling them.

In a sense, the gemara says something similar when the passage continues, comparing arrogance to idolatry:
R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: Any person who possesses a haughty spirit is like an idol worshiper, because here it is written, Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord… (Proverbs 16:5) and there it is written, And you shall not bring an abomination to your house (Deuteronomy 7:26).

R. Yochanan himself said: It is as if he denied God’s existence altogether, as it is written, And your heart will become haughty and you will forget Adonai your God… (Deuteronomy 8:14).
Robert L. Moore (author of Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity) argues that the deep structures of our minds harbor narcissism and spiritual grandiosity that can erupt to cause havoc and wreak destruction. Moore writes, “There is a healthy narcissism that results in self-esteem and a healthy exhibitionism, in contrast to pathological narcissism, which results in an oscillation between arrogance and terrible self-hate” (p. 100). Destructive narcissism is arrogance on steroids. For the Rabbis, as in Torah, idolatry is uniquely dangerous and always destructive of human life – spiritually and physically. Moore, who promotes a healthy spirituality and recognition that we are not God, would agree.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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