Baal Teshuva Syndrome Gittin 10
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the status of Matzah baked by Cuthite. According to this Gemara, though this nationality converted to Judaism under duress, the conversion was still valid, and they had the status of Jews. However, the Cuthites didn’t quite absorb the full message of Judaism and often would follow the written Torah but not trust the Rabbinic oral tradition.
According to one opinion, even though of course, we are strict when it comes to matzah and chametz on Pesach, since we know that the Cuthites take this particular Mitzvah seriously, we can even trust that their matzahs are kosher for Passover. Rabbi Gamliel observes that,
: כׇּל מִצְוָה שֶׁהֶחֱזִיקוּ בָּהּ כּוּתִים – הַרְבֵּה מְדַקְדְּקִין בָּהּ, יוֹתֵר מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.
In regard to any mitzva that the Cuthites embraced and accepted, they are more exacting in its observance than are Jews.
It is not an uncommon pattern of human behavior, that a newcomer to a religious practice can become more devout than the old timers. There is even a Yiddish idiom that captures this sentiment, “The Chassid is hotter than the Rebbe.” There are a number of psychological reasons for this dynamic, and they are not mutually exclusive:
- Since they came to the religion by a process, either choice, desperation, or Epiphany, the attitude is one of motivation, curiosity and novelty. Plainly said, they are excited and enamored of all the rituals in a way that somebody born into it might not be able to appreciate.
- Persons who are willing to convert to a different religion, or become more devout within their current religion, may already have a predisposition toward spiritual extremes. For example, we know the Midrashim by Avraham and Yisro who in their quest to find God, sampled many, many other religions (Midrash Tanchuma 7:1 and Guide for the Perplexed (3:29). There might be such a thing as an inherently religious or ascetic personality.
- Because they are new to the culture of that particular religion, there are nuances and unwritten sensitivities regarding which values take priority over others, that they are unable to see. A Baal Teshuva would have no way of differentiating between the importance of kissing a Mezuza versus the importance of lighting Shabbos candles. This can put a newly developed person in a state of disequilibrium with family members as he or she may be over emphasizing or under emphasizing principles and values that until now were self understood. Rav Kook writes about this in Ein Ayah Berachos 7:18. They are missing the fifth volume of Shulkhan Arukh or what the great historian and Talmid Chacham Hayyim Soloveitchik calls, the Mimetic Tradition. That is, the understanding of what people actually do, and how they do it within the routines of life, as opposed to a rule book.
As you can see from these enumerated examples, some of them represent valuable personality features and others might be deficits. Regardless, it is important to recognize archetypes and patterns of human behavior, because they do tend to repeat themselves. It doesn’t matter if we are referring to Cuthites from 2000 years ago, or 21st century Baale Teshuva, or people who become newly enamored of a particular kind of psychological theory or insight, or a holistic health practice. The newcomers tend to become extreme, partially from excitement and relief, which is a good thing, and partially from lack of integration of the new ideas and system into the manageability and routines of life.
By the way, though this is hotly debated, for the most part religious beliefs and practices do not predispose someone to obsessive behaviors. However, what might be true is that if one already has a pedantic, perfectionistic and obsessive personality, they can use religion as a convenient figleaf and justification, as well as a bully pulpit to mobilize and gratify their subjective anxieties and need for control. According to one study, it isn’t so much religious belief that contributes to obsessive behavior, but scrupulosity, which is a subset of religious behavior, which does predispose one toward perfectionism and obsession around rituals and religious requirements. Scrupulosity is defined as excessive attention to the legal aspects of religious practice in order to avoid the wrath of God, and/or to please God through specific modes of worship that are reliant on technical rules.
(For more about this faster than the topic. See this research paper by Kawika Allena, Kenneth T. Wangb and Hannah Stokesc, “Examining legalism, scrupulosity, family perfectionism, and psychological adjustment among LDS individuals.”, Mental Health Religion & Culture · March 2015.)
A Vered by Any Other Name Gittin 11 Psychology of the Daf
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses Jews who have names of Gentiles. It is a known halakhic and moral debate about the practice of choosing Gentile names. Different communities have different customs and that will not be the focus of our discussion. But there is a fascinating Midrash about the history and process of Jewish names. It states in Bereishis Rabbah 37:7:
A dispute between Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel. Rabbi Yose says: The ancients who knew their lineage (as they lived hundreds of years so they could keep records by their recollection) name their children based on occurrences and events. In our times, as we do not keep track of our lineage well, we name our children based on our ancestors. Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel says: The ancients who had divinely inspired precognition, were able to name their children based on the events that would occur. However, we who do not have that degree of foreknowledge, we name our children after ancestors.
It is difficult to parse what is the exact dispute between these two sages. The way I understand it, it would seem that Rabbi Yose holds that parents can name their children without even a sure understanding of their future, perhaps with hopes for their future. That is to say, we have this principle that a name influences a person. Midrash Tamchuma (Ha’azinu 7) states:
זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר וָדוֹר. לְעוֹלָם יִבְדֹּק אָדָם בַּשֵּׁמוֹת לִקְרֹא לִבְנוֹ, הָרָאוּי לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק. כִּי לִפְעָמִים הַשֵּׁם גּוֹרֵם טוֹב אוֹ גּוֹרֵם רָע, כְּמוֹ שֶׁמָּצִינוּ בַּמְּרַגְּלִים, שַׁמּוּעַ בֶּן זַכּוּר (במדבר יג, ד), עַל שֶׁלֹּא שָׁמַע בְּדִבְרֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וּכְאִלּוּ שָׁאַל בִּזְכוּרוֹ. וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר, כִּי חַטַּאת קֶסֶם מֶרִי (ש״א טו, כ). שָׁפַט בֶּן חוֹרִי (במדבר יג, ה), עַל שֶׁלֹּא שָׁפַט אֶת יִצְרוֹ, וְנַעֲשָׂה חוֹרִי מִן הָאָרֶץ. …
Remember the days of yore; understand the years of each generation: Always should a man check the names to call his son one that is fitting to be righteous – as sometimes the name causes good or causes bad, as we found by the scouts (Numbers 13:4-15): Shamua son of Zakur, since he did not listen (shama) to the words of the Omnipresent, and it was as if he asked his male (zikhuro) organ (a type of divination), as it states (I Samuel 15:23), “For rebellion is like the sin of divination”; Shafat son of Chori, since he did not judge (shafat) his [evil] inclination, and he was made a hole (chori) from the earth; [The Midrash goes on to get any other examples of the different names of the spies, and how it portended their sinful behavior.]
On the other hand we can say Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel holds that in order to choose the name properly one must have Ruach Hakodesh, otherwise the name will not fit the person. In a situation, where one is lacking in the Ruach Hakodesh it is best to go with an ancestor’s name, because there will still be some kind of consonance with the overall Middos of the family.
And in most of the biblical narratives, the names are related to events, past or future. In Megillas Rus, you couldn’t have a better predictor of doom and early death than the names Machlon and Kilyon, which means sickness and destruction. Where those their actual names? Or is it something that was inserted as an editorial by Ruach Hakodesh? Or were their names similar or had different implications when they were born? I don’t know. Sometimes biblical characters name their children ugly names, too, simply to commemorate the experience. We have ma’achah (Bereishis 22:24) which means smooshed. Does that mean that when the baby was born she came out malformed? I would say so. And what about Achran, which means “Ugly one” (Bamidbar 1:13). Even Binyamin is a complicated name, with mixed meanings. His mother named him after the pain she went through, as an expression of sorrow, and perhaps also dedication and sacrifice. However, since his mother died during childbirth, his father re-purposed his name with a more optimistic connotation (Bereishis 15:18):
וַיְהִ֞י בְּצֵ֤את נַפְשָׁהּ֙ כִּ֣י מֵ֔תָה וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ בֶּן־אוֹנִ֑י וְאָבִ֖יו קָֽרָא־ל֥וֹ בִנְיָמִֽין׃
But as she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni (son of my pain); but his father called him Benjamin (right-hand son).
It is hard to imagine a culture without the free and cheap use of written media, let alone photographs and such. In an oral culture, they did not have family picture albums. At such a momentous event like the birth of a child, giving a name that describes the circumstances of the birth served as a mnemonic to recall the events. It is like a verbal photo album.
Pele Yoetz 381 takes a strong stand on the value of choosing a name that recalls, and then engenders gratitude for God’s kindness regarding the circumstances of the birth or future aspirations. He says, “A name expressing gratitude toward God and hoping for future benefit is worth seven times that of naming after an ancestor.”
Intuitively, it would seem a chosen name subliminally and psychologically influences a child. My name is Simcha. Did it somehow make me feel more happy? I don’t know. There is an interesting study that discovered that the name itself does not seem to influence attitude, however, the phonetic structure and expression of the name does seem to have impact. There are certain words and letter combinations that are stronger and harsher and others that are softer, kind of like music. Here is what researchers Sidhu, Deschamps, Bourdage and Pexman report (“Does the name say it all? Investigating phoneme-personality sound symbolism in first names.“, August 2019Journal of Experimental Psychology):
Sound symbolism has typically been demonstrated as an association between certain phonemes and perceptual dimensions (e.g., size or shape). For instance, the maluma-takete effect is the sound symbolic association between sonorant and voiceless stop phonemes and round and sharp visual shapes, respectively. Here we explored a novel association between phonemes and a more abstract dimension: personality. Further, although sound symbolism has often been examined using nonwords, here we studied it in the context of existing first names….
…We found that participants associated these with different personality factors from the HEXACO model of personality. In general, names with sonorant phonemes (e.g., Mona, Owen) were associated with high Emotionality, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, whereas names with voiceless stop phonemes (e.g., Katie, Curtis) were associated with high Extraversion.