Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Moral Babies, Anxiety and Religion, and Hidden Treasures Bava Metzia 8-11


Is There a Natural Moral Sense?

Our Gemara on amud aleph makes a seemingly contradictory assertion that a deaf mute is lacking in enough intelligence or discernment to acquire possessions. The rabbis enacted a ruling that regardless, they should be allowed to possess objects. This was in order to forestall and protect a vulnerable population (the mentally impaired) from financial abuse. If two people pick up an ownerless object at the same time, they acquire it jointly, even though each does not have full possession nor has made an act of full acquisition. In effect, there is a tacit agreement that each becomes the other’s agent to achieve a joint acquisition. Therefore, what will be the case if two deaf-mutes simultaneously attempt to acquire an object? Technically, lacking in proper intellectual discernment, they cannot function as agents for the other. Nevertheless, the rabbis extended their enactment to even this case, in order to prevent these two deaf-mutes from quarreling with others, who could legally take the item from their hands, as they did not really acquire it.

So far all this is understandable. Then we have a surprise ruling. If a deaf-mute and a fully rational person attempt to jointly acquire an object, neither ends up owning it.  The deaf mute cannot function as an agent for the rational person, so the rational person has no partner in acquisition. Since the object must be jointly acquired if it is being picked up simultaneously, and neither person alone has full possession, the rational person will not acquire the object, nor will the mentally incompetent person.

Why are the rabbis not concerned in this scenario that it will also lead to quarrel? The Gemara answers that the deaf-mute will see that his counterpart did not acquire the object, and though he may not possess the intelligence to follow the Sages’ rationale, he will accept it as fair since both parties lose out equally. So long as he perceives fairness, it will not lead to a quarrel. This is a surprising idea that a deaf-mute, deemed by the rabbis as mentally incompetent and unable to make acquisitions, can still be considered intelligent enough to discern moral fairness.

This shows that morality might be partially instinctive and not just subject to society’s arbitrary values. There have been a fascinating series of experiments conducted on young infants, whereby measuring their actions and choices following an observed staged event, seems to show moral instinct. According to research conducted by Paul Bloom and colleagues (NYT, May 5, 2010, “The Moral Life of Babies”), the following was observed:

  • The research involved children watching animated movies featuring geometric characters with faces. In one scenario, a red ball attempted to ascend a hill, sometimes aided by a yellow square and hindered by a green triangle. The study aimed to understand infants’ expectations regarding the ball’s attitudes towards the characters assisting or hindering it. Results indicated that both 9- and 12-month-olds showed surprise when the ball approached the hinderer, suggesting they expected it to approach the helper.
  • Further studies explored whether infants’ preferences were due to attraction to helpful individuals, repulsion from hinderers, or both. Introducing a neutral character into the animated movie revealed that infants preferred helpers over neutrals and neutrals over hinderers, indicating both inclinations were at play.
  • The research also examined whether babies possessed subtle moral capacities beyond preferring good and avoiding bad. Testing 8-month-olds, the study found that babies preferred puppets who rewarded good behavior and punished bad behavior. Interestingly, despite their overall preference for good actors, babies were drawn to bad actors when they were punishing bad behavior.

That last finding is the pièce de résistance, showing amazing discernment and nuance. The eight month olds ordinarily rejected the aggressive puppet, still PREFER the aggressive puppet if its aggression was a justified punishment of an offending puppet.

This research supports the idea that individuals with limited intelligence possess an intuitive sense of morality, as proposed by the Gemara. The Rabbis, drawing from tradition and divine insight, were keen observers of human nature, even in unexpected ways.


Does Religion Make People Anxious?

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the method of acquisition known as “chatzer = courtyard”, where an object can be acquired by being placed in the person’s domain. A mobile courtyard, such as vessels to be acquired that are placed on one’s moving animal, cannot acquire the objects.  However, a boat is not considered mobile despite moving on the water, as the subjective experience is one of relative stability and standing still. Therefore, one’s boat might acquire fish that jump inside. 

Mei HaShiloach, (Volume I Shemos 1) and Tiferes Yosef (Tiferes Yosef, Nitzavim 5) both use this concept metaphysically. The verse in Mishle (30:19) states:

שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה הֵ֭מָּה נִפְלְא֣וּ מִמֶּ֑נִּי וארבע [וְ֝אַרְבָּעָ֗ה] לֹ֣א יְדַעְתִּֽים׃

Three things are beyond me; Four I cannot fathom:

דֶּ֤רֶךְ הַנֶּ֨שֶׁר ׀ בַּשָּׁמַיִם֮ דֶּ֥רֶךְ נָחָ֗שׁ עֲלֵ֫י צ֥וּר דֶּֽרֶךְ־אֳנִיָּ֥ה בְלֶב־יָ֑ם וְדֶ֖רֶךְ גֶּ֣בֶר בְּעַלְמָֽה׃

How an eagle makes its way over the sky; How a snake makes its way over a rock; How a ship makes its way through the high seas; How a man has his way with a maiden.

The simple peshat in this verse is by listing three occurring subjects and objects in the world that seem to achieve a balanced relationship despite the tumultuous environment, it is an inspiration that it is possible to achieve a sense of peace between man and woman. This is itself an important reminder that it is intrinsic within relationships to have opposite tendencies and conflict. How you handle yourself and others within that encounter makes all the difference.

Tiferes Yosef suggests, by way of derash, that these different relationships hint at different challenges in maintaining proper middos, despite conflicting impulses and tendencies.  Mei HaShiloach says that the boat being relatively stable amidst the turbulent water, is akin to the person who can find peace and contentment via appropriate yiras shamayim, fear of heaven. He goes on to say that fear of heaven is not like regular fear. Instead of inducing anxiety, it leads to serenity and fulfillment.

What does psychological research say about religion and anxiety? Is the religious lifestyle protective, or just the opposite, and the guilt and pressure of religious life creates more stress?

The Gemara itself (Shabbos 86b) observes that Jews, who are concerned about fulfilling mitzvos, may have a body temperature that is hotter than a gentile’s, and therefore, there may be different standards and timelines for the absorption and breakdown of various biological materials. Interestingly, the Gemara considers the opposite reasoning as well: “Perhaps, since gentiles eat detestable creatures and creeping animals, their body temperature is also hot?”

Researchers Malinakova et al, (“Religiosity and Mental Health: A Contribution to Understanding the Heterogeneity of Research Findings.” International Journal of Environmental and Residential Public Health. 2020 Jan; 17(2): 494.) reported the following:

Most studies report a positive association between religiosity and spirituality and aspects of mental health, a lower prevalence of anxiety and depression, suicidal tendencies, and substance abuse, and better cognitive functioning. 

While that was the predominant finding, some studies indicated the opposite. The authors sought to hypothesize what accounts for when religion protects from anxiety versus increasing anxiety.  They considered the possibility that: 

“Associations may be different for those living in more secular countries. Some studies report that religious individuals show better subjective health only in countries in which religiosity is common and socially desirable.”  

This makes sense, as being part of a community is an important form of support, status, and social reinforcement.  Additionally, they suggested:

“Research shows that a believer’s perceived relationship with God meets the defining criteria for attachment relationships and can function psychologically—much like other attachments…relating to God also contributes to personal happiness and that it has a strong positive impact on spiritual well-being…Taking into account participants’ image of God may therefore represent another way of taking into account the heterogeneous nature of religiosity and spirituality.”

The implications are that we may make God in our image, that is to say based on one’s attachment style with early caregivers, one may see God, our Father, as literally a father, for good or bad.  People who have contentious relationships with parents and loved ones may have similar mistrust, fear and avoidance in their relationship to God.  However, most human behavior is systemic and circular.  So perhaps if one develops a more stable and trusting attachment with God, it might assist in developing better relationships with others and vice versa. 


Dispense With the Middleman

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses an important and recurring theme in Jewish religious philosophy that has halachic and metaphorical implications. Under many circumstances, an employee or laborer can quit on the spot. The rationale is that God wants no Jewish person to be encumbered by any mortal. The Gemara declares:

It is written: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves; they are My slaves whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:55), which indicates: They are My slaves, and not slaves of slaves, i.e., of other Jews. Consequently, a Jew can never be enslaved to another Jew with a contract from which he cannot release himself whenever he wishes. 

Be’er Mayyim Chayyim (Shemos 20:2) develops this idea in an innovative way, also explaining a difficult verse. The verse in Devarim (4:19) warns about idolatry in a manner that seems to be giving some credence to other deities:

וּפֶן־תִּשָּׂ֨א עֵינֶ֜יךָ הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וְֽ֠רָאִ֠יתָ אֶת־הַשֶּׁ֨מֶשׁ וְאֶת־הַיָּרֵ֜חַ וְאֶת־הַכּֽוֹכָבִ֗ים כֹּ֚ל צְבָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ֛ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִ֥יתָ לָהֶ֖ם וַעֲבַדְתָּ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר חָלַ֜ק ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ֙ אֹתָ֔ם לְכֹל֙ הָֽעַמִּ֔ים תַּ֖חַת כׇּל־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם

And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven;

The verse implies that the other nations of the world are allowed to worship the starts, which were “alloted for them”.  Rashi sidesteps this exegetical problem by interpreting this allotment as the stars meant for the purpose of light, which incredibly implies the Jews do not need them for light. Perhaps, in an ideal sense, the Jews were meant to use the special hidden light from creation, that was before the Sun and Moon were created, (see Chagigah 12a).  The second peshat of rashi is that indeed the stars were set aside for the nations, but not that it was permitted, but as a test to see who they would worship.  If so, that is an enormous theological problem, as why would Hashem set up the Gentiles to fail? As the Gemara (Avodah Zara 3a) asserts, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, does not deal tyrannically [beteruneya] with His creations.”  I am sure there is an answer to this, but I will not discuss that today.

Be’er Mayyim Chayyim suggests an alternative oeshat in the verse. Indeed, the Gentiles are not forbidden to worship intermediary deities, so long as they ALSO serve Hashem. Jews, on the other hand, were meant to be free and serve no masters aside from Hashem, be they in heaven or on earth.  This is along the lines of what Moshe beseeched Hashem after the sin of the Golden Calf, that God not relegate the Jews to His delegates (Shemos 33:16):

וּבַמֶּ֣ה ׀ יִוָּדַ֣ע אֵפ֗וֹא כִּֽי־מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֤ן בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ אֲנִ֣י וְעַמֶּ֔ךָ הֲל֖וֹא בְּלֶכְתְּךָ֣ עִמָּ֑נוּ וְנִפְלֵ֙ינוּ֙ אֲנִ֣י וְעַמְּךָ֔ מִכָּ֨ל־הָעָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?”

So Hashem wants a Jew to stand free before God and answer to no one else.  What a concept, if only we would have the strength to live that way!


Hidden Treasure, But Open Suffering

Our Gemara on amud aleph discusses the ability of a courtyard to acquire objects for its owner without his awareness.  However, Shulchan Aruch (CM 269) rules that if it is an unexpected object, then it does not acquire it for him, such as hidden treasure.

In Vayikra (14:34) the Torah speaks about tozraas blemishes that will afflict your houses, “upon your entry into the land of Canaan.”  This odd phraseology sounds like it is a prediction, even good news.  Picking up on this, Rashi (ibid) quoting the Midrash, says that it was indeed good news. This is because the Emorites concealed treasures of gold in the walls of their houses during the 40 years the Israelites were in the wilderness to hide them, and the tzoraas would lead them to destroy the wall and discover them.

Based on the above ruling of Shulchan Aruch, Panim Yafos says that Hashem gave the Jews this warning and prediction so that the Jews may genuinely acquire the treasures.

Let us consider this Midrash.  How is it really positive when a house must be destroyed? True, it is ultimately for the good, but what a painful way to discover this!  And, generally tzoraas is a punishment for a variety of sins (see Arachim 16a-b), so how can this be a reward? God could have found another way to show the person buried treasure.  There are a number of answers to this question, each one carrying its own lesson.  

The Zohar on Tazria (50a) says that  certain structures that have been too much contaminated by the forces of impurity must simply be eliminated.  We might then say that God needed to have the house destroyed for the occupants’ own good, and the hidden treasure was reparations to cover the cost. Birkas Asher (Vayikra 14:34) suggests that there were two phases.  In the beginning of entry into Israel, the tzoraas was merely a sign for hidden treasure.  Subsequent to the entry phase, later on, tzoraas would come from sinful behavior.  According to this answer, we might say that it is not experienced as a major punishment or inconvenience, if just as one took possession of a home, tzoraas developed.  Machzor Vitry (Pirkei Avos 1:6) says the punishment is coming for living next to an evil person, “oy la-rasha, oy la-shecheyno woe to the evil person, and woe to his neighbor”.  That is, the righteous person shares a wall in an attached dwelling with a wicked neighbor. The wicked neighbor has the blemish, which leads to a demolition of both sides of the wall. The treasure presumably is found somehow on the righteous person’s side. 

Despite all these erudite answers, I believe the simple answer is that sometimes we are not able to merit absolute providential goodness without going through suffering. This might be due to needing expiation for sins before being worthy or able to handle the goodness.  God offers a promotion because you are close to qualifying, but you need some life lessons first in order to be on the level of benefitting from the gift.  Especially when we consider wealth, it can be as destructive as it is beneficial.  Perhaps even a relative tzaddik may need some humbling so that the wealth doesn’t destroy him or his family. As Devarim (32:15) warns, material success can lead to arrogance and denial of God:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ן יְשֻׁרוּן֙ וַיִּבְעָ֔ט שָׁמַ֖נְתָּ עָבִ֣יתָ כָּשִׂ֑יתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ֙ אֱל֣וֹהַ עָשָׂ֔הוּ וַיְנַבֵּ֖ל צ֥וּר יְשֻׁעָתֽוֹ׃ 

So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—You grew fat and gross and coarse —They forsook the God who made them And spurned the Rock of their support.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
Related Topics
Related Posts