Back when I was a student, we viewed Aggadah – the non-legalistic, stories within the Talmud – as the ‘easy’ part of study. Rather than being bogged down by complex and nuanced logic arguments, we would skim through those sections, fascinated by the stories. But in fact they can be far more challenging to understand.
For many years I’ve been teaching a weekly Talmud class to businesspeople. In order to make the study relevant, we chose to study the tractates that deal with civil matters: damages, compensation, property and employment law. Many of the concepts are readily applicable to contemporary situations, and lend themselves to comparisons between legal systems.
But having just completed one of the more bizarre sections of Aggadah (starting at Bava Metzia 83b) left us struggling. It starts with the tale of Rabbi Elazar (son of the renowned Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), who was seconded to become a government marshal, responsible for identifying and arresting thieves. But this role leads to community backlash and regular insults from people – he is viewed as a moser (informer). After a public insult from a certain laundry operator, Rabbi Elazar gets angry and orders him to be arrested. But after calming down, he goes to the police station seeking to have him released, only to discover that the man has already been hanged.
Rabbi Elazar is devastated, initially thinking that his angry response led to an unnecessary death. Later, he is informed that the man had actually committed a grave sin that was worthy of death. Upon hearing this, he declares that he has great trust in his gut instinct, and then actually puts it to the test by having a liposuction procedure to remove a large amount of fat from his gut (he was obese, which becomes a topic in a later section), and then leaves it out in the summer sun, where it did not putrefy. This was ‘proof’ that his gut could be trusted and that his decision was correct.
This left our study group perplexed. Surely one cannot actually measure gut instinct. Should we just relegate this as yet another supernatural Talmudic tale?
The Torah is replete with metaphorical references to major organs such as the kidneys as the source of counsel. In the classic Chassidic work Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that all disease stems from poor “flow of blood around the body”. Rationalists interpret these as coming from a lack of understanding of physiology. And yet, for centuries language has been full of such metaphors – trusting our gut, using our kidneys, breaking hearts etc. Do these metaphors have any physiological meaning?
This view of the human body seems aligned somewhat with that of Eastern medicine, and there are a number of Jewish practitioners who theorise on this. Both systems share concepts of elements, flows, and a broader (i.e. not purely physiological) view of the major organs. These two different perspectives on medicine – Eastern vs Western – look at the body in entirely different ways, and neither system seeks to reconcile with the other.
So I was fascinated to read of the work of Alessandro Monti from the University of Rome, whose work “focuses on the role of visceral physiological signals in bodily self-consciousness”. What does that even mean? Allow me to explain.
When we “trust our gut”, or “follow our heart”, we are being self-conscious – maintaining an awareness of what is happening within our bodies – in our visceral organs. Our bodies receive stimuli both from the external environment (via our eyes, ears, mouth etc) and also from our internal organs. While we can close our eyes and block our ears – cutting off external stimuli – we can never cut off the links between our brains and our internal organs. They are always broadcasting signals to the brain.
Our sense of self is informed by our heartbeat and our respiration, which are readily measured. In times of stress, we can notice those things changing and responding to events around us and to our emotional changes.
In the same way, it’s reasonable to assume that the gut also contributes to our sense of self, although measurement of this has historically been far more difficult. But new technology like ‘smart pills’ – ingestible capsules with sensors – can record visceral changes triggered by various events, and can theoretically measure the link between gut activity and a sense of self. Results of this research is encouraging, and also has applications for other conditions such as eating disorders.
With technology like this, Rabbi Elazar would not have needed an invasive liposuction-like procedure to measure the strength of his gut instinct.
But more broadly, this science challenges both the traditional views of mind vs body as well as the Eastern vs Western views of the human system. Rather than existing as two separate views of the body that can never meet, perhaps there is some overlap between them. In Torah terminology, perhaps we can genuinely say that “These and these are the words of the living God”.