Perashat Shoftim: The Headmaster Within

Most of this week's perasha deals with the authority structures of the society meant to be established in the new land. First we are presented with the commandment to appoint judges and magistrates at all the gates, then in cases of doubt, we are told to turn to the priests. Following this comes the appointing of a king, and finally the role of the prophet is elucidated.

Whereas in the classical medieval commentators these sections provided an opportunity to discuss political and social issues, from the Shenei Luchot Habrit (the Shel"a) onwards there is a tendency to internalize these commandments, reading them as referring to psychological states. Less concerned with the political workings of a society, the Hasidic masters turned these ordinances inward, into statements of inner governance. The Shel"a's reading of the verse "judges and magistrates you shall set up at your gates" hinges upon the word 'your', thus understanding the verse as commanding a personal, internal critique at the portals of entry of sensory information to consciousness, that is at the senses. One needs to create an internal monitoring service to filter and process incoming information. This approach is continued in the earliest of the Hassidic writers, the Degel Mahane Ephraim. In a quotation attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the Degel gives specific form to the types of filters with which we must process the outside world- with "judges" referring to love of Gd, and "magistrates" referring to fear or awe of Gd; with love and awe filters on we must analyze every action we undertake (much like the spam filters we operate on our emails). The Shem M'Shemuel suggests that there must be a master "chush", a master sensory input filter, which integrates all the other senses into a spiritually correct vision, so to speak, to which this verse refers.

This approach can perhaps be translated into contemporary analytic language; this filter we might call the "super-ego", a category that appears late in Freud's writings. Freud, in his "Civilization and Its Discontents" explicitly links the role of the psychological super-ego to the development of ethics and norms in the society at large. The super-ego in the individual is developed as the result of an internalization of the parental agency, which acts to control, or more specifically, repress the action of the ego, functioning as what we experience as the "voice of conscience". Thus:

'The super-ego of an epoch of civilization has an origin similar to that of an individual. It is based on the impression left behind by the personalities of great leaders... another point of agreement between the cultural and the individual super-ego is that the former, just like the latter, sets up strict ideal demands, disobedience to which is visited with Ôfear of conscience'... For that reason some of the manifestations and properties of the super-ego can be more easily detected in its behaviour in the cultural community than in the separate individual'

Freud goes on to explain that this is the source of the importance of Ethics in human society:

'Ethics is thus to be regarded as a therapeutic attempt...As we know, the problem before us is how to get rid of the greatest hindrance to civilization- namely, the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another, and for that reason we are especially interested in what is probably the most recent of the cultural commands of the super-ego- the commandment to love one's neighbour as oneself'

However, the same problems which plague the individual as a result of the super-ego, that is, by the severity of its demands it creates resistances and repression which ultimately lead to unhappiness in the individual, are also reproduced in society:

The commandment, "love thy neighbour as thyself", is the strongest defence against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological proceedings of the cultural super-ego. The commandment is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty...what a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself... (Civilization and its Discontents, translated by Peter Gay, The Freud Reader, pp. 769-770, italics mine)

Certainly much of what many of us have experienced in the organized religious world would confirm some of this sense of pathological repression, as R. David Hartmann for example, frequently discusses in terms of the Orthodox 'Yeshivish' world, and R. Kook in the intro to his Orot HaTeshuva insists that teshuva must come from a place of mental health.

The Hasidic commentators sensed the possibility of this type of sickness in their newly evolving socio-religious structure and thus stridently urged ways to prevent this sickness from appearing, particularly in their commentaries on this verse. One might argue that "the Law" is completed by the approach to the Law, one can fulfil to some extent the laws in a literal sense but still not be living a fulfilled life; at the same time one can easily fetishize the appearance of being "fromm", pious, but be devoid of any meaningful or even healthy internal life.

The Noam Elimelech reads the text of judges and magistrates as referring to those inner voices that are meant to modulate our every activity, along the lines described earlier. However, he presents two emendations. Firstly, the inner voice is not a fixed identical one for every person, rather, using traditional terminology, the righteous have an Ôinner critic' ("mochiach b'kirbam") that is derived from the "good inclination",while the wicked choose the "evil inclination" as their inner voice, and those not at either pole have, well, a more complicated inner filter. Thus, the conscience, according to the Noam Elimelech is formed as a result of our own personal choices, and is thus not as heteronymous as Freud's (the super-ego would be in part determined by our own life decisions according to the Noam Elimelech). Secondly, he recognizes the danger of a repressive super-ego, and adds a post-analytic demand, that yone must be wary of this voice, as it tends to be a critical voice. As a critical voice, if listened to uncritically it may lead to our seeming worthless in our own eyes, and thus bringing about a state of depression, what is called in Hassidic language 'ye'ush', deep despair. To prevent this, the Noam Elimelech reads the continuation of the verse as a prescription for when to best utilize this super-ego- the verse states: "at all your gates", that is, at those gateway moments, when one is standing at the doorway of new gates of holiness, that is, when praying, or doing mitzvot. Call upon your spiritual critical sense at moments requiring spiritual resolve, but not in circumstances that will simply lead to self loathing. Thus the Noam Elimelech is conscious of the capacity for a sick repression by the super-ego and prescribes a corrective relationship to one's inner crises of self-valuation.

The Divrei Hayim offers a reading which goes one step further, one that is noteworthy in the context of contemporary cognitive psychotherapy. He reads the opening verse as follows: One needs to set filters 'bechol shearecha', which we have been translating as 'at your gates'. However, in Hebrew 'shearecha' can also mean 'evaluations', as in the verb 'l'sha'er', to estimate. To the Divrei Hayim, if you are having heavily self critical feeling in response to some external stimulus or thought, you need to meditate on that nidus and find out what is provoking these negative feelings. Invariably, working through that negative stimulus will lead you to a therapeutic moment in which you realize how the negative stimulus can be transformed into a positive self insight.

Operating within the same inner judge framework, the Tiferet Shelomo explains that the righteous do, in fact, debase themselves and learn to see themselves as utterly devoid of merit, which is a fine in the inner space realm as it prompts the individual to a continuous quest for self improvement. However, he understands the last clause in verse 18 as meant to provide the critical regulatory message, to prevent the sickness that can rot the vitality of society with overly punitive normative code. "They shall judge the people with upright judgment". explains the Tiferet Shelomo, means that the inner critical voice must only be used privately, turned against oneself as a goad towards positive achievement, but this critical voice must be silenced when dealing with others. One can choose to find fault with every aspect of their own being, but at the same time must look at every person they meet as though that other person were the most perfected and righteous individual in the whole world. In this way we prevent the formation of a sick hypercritical and repressed society, and refuse to allow personal ressentiment to become a societal norm. There is both an Ethics, and a Psychology, as it were, before the law. Perhaps that is a reading of the talmudic teaching in Berachot 33:- everything is in the hands of heaven but the awe of heaven, and that Gd's treasury consists solely of yir'at shamayim, humanity's awe of heaven. What the individual personality brings of itself to the relationship with Gd and the Law, at every encounter, is what is paramount and valued.

A related halachic teaching: The Ben Ish Hai, (the great Baghdadi mystic of a century ago) asks why this section dealing with setting up of judges and the political order is narrated immediately following the verses dealing with the ascent to Jerusalem for the major festivals. His answer is built upon the verse which instructs that when bringing a sacrifice one should "donate as much as one is able", not more than that. Thus, money gained illegally, graft or illicit funds, gained in opposition to the laws of the judges and the magistrates, that is, of society, is not made permissible by using some of it for ostensibly 'holy' purposes; it is not 'laundered' by being brought to the Temple.


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