Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mind control? Do we have control of our thoughts? (A multi-part series)

Last year, one of my friends and classmates sat down for lunch in the JTS courtyard and reflected that as he was going through his alumni magazine, he felt unhealthily jealous of many of the accomplishments that others had attained. And as he noted, he had chosen a different path. He has a beautiful family, the love of friends and is literally engaged in a living dream as he studies Torah each day.

It wasn't as if he actually wanted to be at the top of a particular firm — that would not bring him happiness. But still, it was tough to read about the accomplishments of others and not "covet" their place in life.

Such is the conundrum of the 10th statement/commandment of the Big Ten (15, before Mel Brooks dropped a tablet). Is it really possible ever to fulfill the mandate of not coveting? In broader terms, can thought be legislated?

Exodus 20:13 reads in full:
יג לֹא תַחְמֹד, בֵּית רֵעֶךָ; לֹא-תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ, וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֹל, אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ.
13. You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that belongs to your neighbor

As you will quickly note while reading this blog, if you don't know this already, I find great wisdom in the West Wing. In this case, the episode entitled "Take out the trash day" touches precisely on the dilemmas of this verse.

Sam: "There's a town in Alabama that wants to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments. . . . Well, they're going to have a problem. . . . Coveting thy neighbor's wife, for instance. How're you going to enforce that one?"

and then a follow-up to this rhetorical monologue

Sam: Leo, did you know there's a town in Alabama that wants to (abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments)...
Leo: Yes.
Sam: What do you think?
Leo: Coveting thy neighbor's wife's gonna cause some problems.
Sam: That's what I said. Plus, if I were arrested for coveting my neighbor's wife, I'd probably bear false witness.

That's precisely the issue, of course — how does one mandate thought, let alone legislate against it. Of course it works differently when being enforced by God, an omniscient power (bear with me on the theology for now — I use it purposefully, though could word it differently if this is a deal-breaker) and a state which does not have said powers. But the issue remains. Do humans have control over their thoughts at all, and if not, is it setting people up to fail to legislate against how people should think?

Another episode in Season One of the West Wing (In Exelcis Dio) approaches the same issue, this time in relation to a Hate Crimes legislation. Here's part of the script, which emphasizes the dialectic; it is an argument pulsing with emotion after a parallel in the narrative to the Matthew Shepard attack:

Beyond the crime itself is a manifestation of racism, or sexism, or anti Semitism or
homophobia that are only a tip of the iceberg of the pathology troubling this country.

I’m aware of all that. I’m just not sure it’s right to legislate against how someone thinks.
A lot of people aren’t sure, a lot of ‘em work here and I’m telling ya’ to dial it down.

We could continue with other such examples of whether states should censor particular topics, even the most hateful ones which could eventually manifest violence toward its citizens. What are the results of various European countries banning public displays of anti-Semitism, of denying the Holocaust?

Is there merit in banning books? In excommunicating the most heretical members of a society? EVER? If so, what are the ramifications of such actions?

These are not perfect parallels. But the similarities provide fodder for discussion.

During Yom Kippur, we will recite the Vidui repeatedly throughout the liturgy. We will recite various sins which we have transgressed, beating our breasts in rhythm and turn. We will recite "our sins that we have committed by hirhur halev" (inner thoughts; I prefer to translate it as reverberations of the mind) — על חטא שחטאנו לפניך בהרהור הלב.

(A note: Many cringe at the word sin. They prefer a P.C. term such as "missing the mark." Sin, after all has fire and brimstone connotations, Fundamentalist overtones. But I insist on it. Rabbi Richard Hirsh, my rabbi when we lived in Evanston, framed it best when he said:

Often Jews mistakenly dismiss the reality of sin, substituting the gentler but weaker image of “missing the mark.” This suggests that sin lies only in failing to do what we should rather than in failing to be who we should be.

Reducing sin to the status of an almost inadvertent error hardly seems tenable in the light of our awareness of the horrors of which humans, individually as well as collectively, have proved capable. The very nature of human nature lies before us as an open question.
There is a dark side to human nature, an impulse to evil which distorts and corrups our best intentions... Sin is not only what we do, or do not do it is also a question of who we are. In order to confess sin, we must first confront sin. (From Siddur Kol HaNeshama))

Today during the weekly sicha (discussion) at the Conservative Yeshiva, Reb Shmuel suggested that the confession of sinning because of inner reverberations is the paradigm for all of the statements where we confess our sins. Everything builds from this. These "reverberations of the heart" are real, intended thoughts. And they lead to tangible manifestations of negating that the human in front of us is an entire world to herself. They negate our humanity and place in the wider world.

Yes, there are times such unintended thoughts creep into our minds, but that does not imply that we cannot work on conditioning these "in-between moments," as Reb Shmuel suggested. It is an endless task, certainly. But fundamentally "an understanding of an ideal moral state is through trying to achieve it."

Before today, I questioned strongly whether it was possible to restrict said hirhurim from entering the mind. The question still is reverberating around my own mind. But again, as Reb Shmuel suggested, cleaning up one's act is largely about cleaning up one's mind. Moreover, almost all theories of psychological health try to make the unconscious, conscious. In sum, "there is nothing more powerful than denying what you want to know about yourself."

It is important to note that this is not an all-in phenomenon — it would be self-defeating and overwhelming to suggest that such a repair could be.

The notion that restraining thought, or more accurately restricting it, is at the forefront of the "10th commandment." Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th c. Spain) introduces his commentary on the verse with a self reflective question — "Many people are astonished about this mitzvah! How is it possible that one can not covet something beautiful in his heart if it is so beautiful in his eyes?!"
לא תחמוד אנשים רבים יתמהו על זאת המצוה?! איך יהיה אדם שלא יחמוד דבר יפה בלבו כל מה שהוא נחמד למראה עיניו

I will not quote the entire passage, which includes a parable which leads to an answer. But such a rhetorical introduction notes the inherent difficulty in this mitzvah. How does one restrain hirhurim?

And thus is the challenge.

As Amichai Lau-Lavie notes, the mandate of "do not covet/ לא תחמד" ultimately protects the very fabric of society. If only people were more punctilious about it:

"The tenth commandment does not refer only to the sins of lust. It lists the types of properties one must not desire – someone else’s spouse, servant or ox (or laptop). Like the other nine commandments, this one is a pretty good idea, an early form of ethical norm making. But, unlike the other nine, it is the only one that prevents one from even thinking about transgression. It’s an early version of mind control. But how well does it work?

Coveting, in all its manifestations, can easily, perhaps too easily, be identified as the possible root of so many evils – consider consumerism or adultery, and useless wars and crashing markets. Have I mentioned global warming? Throughout human history, it seemed, with an eye always on the next big thing, our healthy appetites became binges of craving, crashing delicate eco-systems of propriety, and destroying lives, homes and countries. Now it may even be the planet."

As I enter Yom Kippur, I think about the uncontrollable and know that it is a cop-out to frame it as such. It is a continual task to be aware of when these ideas come to my mind — and there are most certainly commonalities among them — and proceed onward from there. Because these thoughts are sins in themselves. But thoughts also affect the very fabric of an individual.

Intellectually, I'm also curious — when are we commanded to refuse certain thoughts from entrance to our minds? Why these cases?

I've assembled a few examples to illustrate this — for now "negative" examples. When can I not think certain things? What are these thoughts?

But that's for a later post. For now, on to Shabbat in Tel Aviv and Yom Kippur in Yerushalayim. Hineh Ani Ba, indeed.

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