Sexuality Beyond Procreation
Our Mishna, spanning from Amud Aleph to Amud Beis, delves into the quandary faced by an individual who is half-slave and half-freeman due to being emancipated by only one of their two owners. Bais Shammai argues before Beis Hillel that the other owner must be compelled to free the individual, as his current status prevents him from marrying a regular free Jewish woman or a Canaanite servant. This predicament, impeding the individual from leading a fulfilling life and building a family, transcends Jewish concerns, embodying a universal human dilemma. Bais Shammai supports their stance with a proof text from Isaiah (45:18):
לֹא תוֹהוּ בְרָאָהּ לָשֶׁבֶת יְצָרָהּ
“He did not create it to be a waste; He formed it to be inhabited.”
The choice of this verse, as noted by the Chasam Sofer, is significant. Bais Shammai deliberately avoids employing the traditional source for the commandment of procreation in Genesis (1:28) — “פרו ורבו” (“Be fruitful and multiply”). While it is true that the half-free individual is deprived of fulfilling this obligation, the Chasam Sofer explains that the rabbis would not mandate the second owner to free the slave solely to enable the fulfillment of a personal positive commandment that is not the master’s concern. Rather, the Gemara justifies this based on the overarching ethical directive of “settling the world,” applicable to all human beings. Consequently, this obligation becomes incumbent upon the individual who remains a slave and, by extension, upon their half-owner. As the master is responsible for the overall welfare of the slave, and since the slave is obligated to “settle the world,” the half-owner must facilitate this fulfillment by granting freedom.
While exploring the implications of this verse and the ethical directive it represents, an insightful Maharal elucidates a nuanced understanding of Jewish perspectives on sexuality (Be’er Hagolah 2). The Maharal ponders why engaging in sexual intercourse “not in the usual way” (commonly interpreted as anal intercourse) is permissible, despite the wasting of seed and the impossibility of conception (see Rama EH 25:2). This is particularly perplexing given that the Gemara (Sanhedrin 58b) presents an opinion forbidding Gentiles from engaging in this practice, implying a stringency applied to Gentiles over Jews.
The Maharal explains that sexual union serves two purposes: the procreative function and the spiritual bonding of souls. The procreative function, shared by Jews, Gentiles, and all living beings in the ecosystem, relates to the directive of “settling the world.” However, the profound mystical union achieved through sexuality is not solely about procreation. Therefore, from a Jewish ethical perspective, while procreation holds importance, as long as sexuality embodies a deep and unifying bond, procreation becomes secondary. This is why, according to certain opinions, although actively thwarting procreation and deliberately wasting seed are prohibited, occasional ejaculation outside of the vagina during loving sexual intimacy is not deemed a transgression. In such instances, the value of the sexual union transcends procreation, and its fulfillment is not considered wasteful or hedonistic (see Rabbenu Bechaye Vayikra 18:6, where he further elaborates on the themes of sexual union, creation, unity, and not solely procreation).
Our Mishna addresses the plight of a half-slave half-freeman, underscoring the need to rectify their predicament for the sake of leading a fulfilling life and forming a family. Additionally, the Maharal’s insights shed light on the intricate Jewish perspective regarding sexuality, highlighting the multifaceted nature of sexual union beyond procreation, emphasizing its spiritual and unifying aspects.
What Kind of Suffering Merits Forgiveness?
Our Gemara on Amud Beis delves into the sources and specific laws concerning the automatic release of a Canaanite slave whose master causes him to lose a limb. While the scripture mentions a tooth or eye, the halakhic interpretation extends it to any limb (See Shemos 21:27).
Sefer Daf Al Daf presents an insightful derush and analysis of Aggadah by Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Vaera 6:5). When Moshe expresses concern over the continued suffering of the Jewish people and their yet-to-be-realized redemption, God responds by saying, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.”
There are two elements to this statement: God’s acknowledgement and notice of the suffering and His remembrance of the covenant.
The Gemara (Berachos 5a) discusses how suffering acts as a means of cleansing a person from sin. It draws an a fortiori inference from the law concerning the tooth and eye of a slave: If the loss of a single limb results in the slave’s freedom, then suffering, which affects the entire body, would surely bring about freedom and atonement from sins.
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish further explores the metaphor of suffering being akin to salt. Just as salt enhances the taste of meat, suffering purifies a person’s transgressions, preparing them for a more elevated existence.
Rav Frank’s interpretation emphasizes the distinction between the metaphors of being set free via “tooth or eye” and suffering as salt. The tooth and eye metaphor relates specifically to suffering orchestrated by divine providence. In contrast, the metaphor of salt encompasses suffering experienced through the normal vicissitudes of life, including those inflicted by the Egyptians without God’s explicit direction.
Rav Frank suggests that even suffering not directly caused by divine intervention can still merit forgiveness and freedom from servitude. Perhaps, one might think that, since the Egyptians were the ones inflicting the suffering on the Jewish people, it is not coming via divine providence, and therefore it would not expunge their sins, nor merit their redemption. This is why the first ends with, “and I also remember my covenant.“ This is alluding to the covenant of salt (see Vayikra 2:13). Specifically the salt described by Reish Lakish, the sufferings of everyday life that also provide expiation and can merit redemption. Even if pharaoh was inflicting suffering on the Jewish people coming from his own free will, and not God‘s direction, this suffering still would merit forgiveness, and therefore freedom from servitude.
This understanding highlights the significance of perceiving day-to-day suffering with the right attitude, as it can serve as expiation for sin.
In Order to Succeed, Fail
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph offers a profound insight into human nature and the necessary role of failure:
“אֵין אָדָם עוֹמֵד עַל דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן נִכְשָׁל בָּהֶן”
“A person does not understand statements of Torah unless he stumbles in them.”
Failure is often feared due to the innate instinct of self-recrimination triggered by falling short. While this instinct serves a purpose in inducing reflection and awareness, it can sometimes become excessive and unbalanced. To achieve success, it is necessary for humans to experience and embrace failure.
Observing a young toddler, uninhibited by the societal notion of failure being negative, provides a remarkable example. Even a developmentally disabled toddler learns how to walk, enduring bruises and pains from falls. Yet, the child persists without giving up. They are emboldened by success, swiftly picking themselves up and trying again.
When and how did we come to view failure as inherently bad?
From a philosophical standpoint, Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols” delves into the concept of amor fati, highlighting the transformative power of embracing failure. Nietzsche argues that adversity and failures contribute to self-overcoming, fostering resilience, strength, and wisdom. By facing and learning from failures, individuals engage in existential growth, challenging assumptions, and refining values and beliefs.
In psychology, the theory of individuation sheds light on the significance of failure in personal development. Individuation involves integrating unconscious aspects of the psyche to achieve wholeness. Failures serve as crucial moments for self-reflection, enabling individuals to uncover and understand unconscious motivations, fears, and desires. This process cultivates self-awareness, facilitates a more balanced and authentic self-identity, and fosters psychological well-being.
A linguistic observation from my late father (Z”L) was that Hebrew lacks intrinsic words for “fair,” “fail,” or “fun.” The closest Hebrew term for “fail” is “kishlon,” which means to stumble and implies getting back up. Similarly, the closest word for “fair” is “zedek,” primarily used in a judicial sense rather than relationally. ( See our recent Psychology of the Daf, Gittin 37.) Likewise, there are Hebrew words such as sasson, which means to rejoice about something, but not mere frivolous fun. This is why Israelis need to borrow foreign words to express these ideas, such as “zeh lo fairrrr!” or “zeh me-od kef” (Kef is Arabic for fun.) Hebrew, that is pure l’shon kodesh, cannot brook the idea of failure. There is no failure; only temporary setbacks.
Hebrew, that is pure l’shon kodesh not Ben Yehuda’s modern creation, lacks the concept of failure. There is no failure; only temporary setbacks.
Failure is not solely an undesirable outcome; it is an integral part of the learning process. Embracing failure as a learning opportunity promotes personal growth, self-awareness, and adaptive behavior. It empowers individuals to surpass their limitations, cultivate resilience, and refine their understanding of themselves and the world.
Portable Homeland of the Jewish People
The Mishna on 43b teaches us that a Jewish master who sells his slave to live outside of Israel is fined by the Rabbis and compelled to set him free. This indicates the Rabbis’ recognition of the significant disruption to the spiritual life of the slave when forced to live outside of Israel. It is noteworthy that even the spiritual well-being of a slave is held in high regard. Additionally, the Mishna states that if a Jewish master sells his slave to a gentile, he will also be penalized and required to redeem him, recognizing the detrimental impact on the slave’s spiritual life by denying him the ability to live according to Jewish practices and mitzvos.
Our Gemara on 44a explores the case of a master who sells his slave to a gentile but retains ownership on Shabbos and holidays. The question raised is whether this arrangement would still trigger the penalty or not.
Chasam Sofer raises a logical objection to this discussion. If living in Israel is deemed important even though the servant can fulfill most mitzvos except those specifically related to residing in Israel, then shouldn’t the penalty also apply when a Jewish master sells his slave to a gentile and is prevented from many mitzvos? Although the slave would still observe Shabbos, he would be unable to fulfill many other mitzvos that are presumably more stringent than those achievable outside of Israel.
Chasam Sofer answers that there is a qualitative difference between the performance of all mitzvos in Israel compared to outside of Israel. As we learn in Kiddushin 110b: “Anyone who resides in Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who has a God, and anyone who resides outside of Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who does not have a God.” This statement highlights the profound qualitative experience of observing mitzvos in the land of Israel compared to outside its borders.
Another notable point emphasized by Chasam Sofer is his choice to use the recitation of the Shema as an example. Despite the exemption of women and servants from time-bound mitzvos, including the recitation of Shema, Chasam Sofer underscores the remarkable difference between observance in Israel and outside of Israel. Even a commandment that one is not obligated to fulfill still carries greater significance when performed in Israel.
Furthermore, Chasam Sofer may be emphasizing that since the recitation of Shema serves as a declaration of faith, and according to the aforementioned Gemara in Kiddushin, living outside of Israel is likened to having no God, one might assume that accepting the yoke of heaven would not be affected by location. Therefore, Chasam Sofer emphasizes that even when consciously accepting the yoke of heaven and declaring belief in God, there remains an inherent qualitative difference between faith expressed in the land of Israel and faith expressed outside its borders.
Lastly, Chasam Sofer provides some comfort to those who do not live in Israel. While the qualitative difference is significant, it is particularly evident in individuals lacking Torah knowledge, such as a Canaanite slave. Such individuals, devoid of Torah thought, struggle to cultivate awareness and connection to God outside of Israel. However, a Torah sage recreates, to some extent, the essence of the land of Israel wherever they go. As stated in Menachos (110a): “In every place where mention is made of Me, I shall come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:21). This refers to Torah scholars who engage in Torah study in every place. God attributes to them credit as though they offer sacrifices in His name.
This concept is eloquently expressed by the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, when he calls the Torah, “the portable homeland of the Jewish people”.
Mutually Reinforcing Misery
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses who should be penalized in a situation where an ethically improper transaction is performed, such as when a Canaanite slave is sold outside of the land of Israel (as we saw in Psychology of the Daf, Gittin 44). Specifically, should the buyer be penalized or the seller? The Gemara uses a clever metaphor: Who steals the food? The mouse or the hole?
This metaphor speaks to the psychological and behavioral pattern of circularity. Often in systems, there is mutually reinforcing behavior. For example, if one spouse engages in dishonest and secretive behavior, the other spouse will become mistrustful and angry. Conversely, if a spouse is mistrustful and angry, the other spouse might, out of fear, become avoidant and reluctant to share thoughts and actions transparently. This circularity in relationships requires mutual collaboration and self-awareness to break free from self-reinforcing patterns that often plague relationships. Let’s explore how this deeply impacts marriage and family relationships.
Psychologists Scheinkman and Fishbane (“The Vulnerability Cycle: Working With Impasses in Couple Therapy,” Fam Proc 43:279–299, 2004) observed:
“Couples often come to therapy polarized by reactivity and power struggles that make them feel increasingly disconnected. Trapped in impasses that they are unable to change on their own, they invite the therapist into the intimacy of their struggles, hoping for a new direction.
In working with couples’ impasses in the present moment, the goal is to help partners shift from reactive positions to more dialogical ones and move from viewing themselves as victims and villains to assuming increased responsibility and personal agency. The process of change is facilitated through awareness, behavioral changes, negotiations, and the creation of alternative narratives based on greater empathy and connectedness.”
According to Scheinkman and Fishbane, the key to breaking free from this pattern is to slow down reactivity, increase empathy, and develop an appreciation for each other’s triggers, which they refer to as “Core Impasses”:
“Couples come to therapy feeling stuck, caught up in impasses that are characterized by intense reactivity and escalation, rigid positions of each partner, irrationality, and the repetitive recurrence of the same dynamics in the relationship. While caught up in one of these impasses, the partners are unable to empathize and see the other’s perspective. They feel offended and violated by the other’s behavior and become increasingly defensive, disconnected, and entangled in power struggles and misunderstandings. These impasses involve vulnerability and confusion, and they tend to become more pervasive over time, taking up more and more space in the relationship.”
These triggers are related to what they call “Survival Positions”:
“‘Survival positions’ refer to a set of beliefs and strategies that individuals adopt to protect and manage their vulnerabilities. These positions are usually the best way a person found in the past to protect themselves or others in the family of origin and to maintain a sense of integrity and control in emotionally difficult situations. Survival positions are often adopted before they can be put into words and certainly before they can be critically evaluated. Survival positions include beliefs and premises that become ‘mottos’ to live by. Some examples of survival beliefs are: ‘It’s dangerous to be angry’; ‘You can only depend on yourself’; ‘Always please people’; ‘Don’t trust women’; ‘Be weak and submissive’; ‘Always be strong and don’t show your vulnerability’; and ‘If you get too close, you will get hurt.’ These beliefs are influenced by gender training, cultural norms, and family history. Survival strategies based on these premises are the actions that individuals take to protect themselves.”
While survival strategies may be self-protective, they often prove to be counterproductive in interpersonal relationships. They tend to elicit in the other person the very behaviors that the individual is trying to avoid, unintentionally perpetuating self-fulfilling prophecies. When acting from survival strategies, individuals often behave in self-referential and defensive ways, becoming blind to the views, needs, vulnerabilities, and strengths of the other person. This insensitivity triggers the partner’s vulnerabilities, and in a parallel manner, the partner’s vulnerabilities elicit automatic self-protective responses. Thus, the vulnerability cycle is initiated, with each partner’s survival strategies triggering the other’s. In a core impasse, both partners are guarding their vulnerabilities and acting and reacting from their survival positions. This is what makes the impasse so heated, confusing, and intense.
The key to moving beyond these impasses is for both partners to become mutually and respectfully aware of their coping strategies and to develop a more effective internal and external dialogue regarding their use and management.”
In my experience as a marriage and family therapist, I have observed that it is not differences themselves that cause conflict in couples. Those conflicts can often be reasonably resolved. The real challenge arises when one person’s safety and coping mechanisms trigger anxiety and distress in the other person. In other words, when one person’s way of dealing with their triggers creates a different trigger and safety concern in the other person. This is how certain marital issues become existential and turn into a fight for survival. However, with flexibility, intelligence, and empathy, these issues can be diffused, and coping techniques that work for both individuals in the relationship can be developed.
In our Gemara on Amud Beis, we encounter a compelling narrative involving a family trapped in a cycle of accumulating debts due to their habitual and negligent financial management. The dire consequences of their actions resulted in their captivity at the hands of gentile creditors. Although redeeming captives is generally considered a supreme mitzvah, the sages, in this case, declined to intervene due to their perception of the family as negligent scofflaws.
This narrative highlights the distressing psychological and human pattern known as pathological debt, which warrants deeper exploration. The sages of the Talmud were unafraid to pass moral judgments on individuals’ financial conduct. While circumstances beyond one’s control can lead to impoverishment and overwhelming debt, it is crucial to acknowledge that some individuals find themselves ensnared in financial challenges due to their own mismanagement, influenced by various psychological and cognitive factors. Let us delve further into the extensive research shedding light on this all-too-human behavioral phenomenon:
According to researcher Steven Lea (“Debt and Overindebtedness: Psychological Evidence and its Policy Implications,” 26 November 2020, https://doi.org/10.1111/sipr.12074), several factors contribute to debt:
- Lack of Conscientiousness: One of the key personality traits associated with debt is conscientiousness, or rather, its absence. Numerous studies have revealed a strong correlation between higher levels of conscientiousness and a reduced likelihood of defaulting on loans or taking on excessive mortgages. Individuals characterized by conscientiousness tend to exhibit greater responsibility and prudence in managing their financial affairs.
- Impulsivity: Impulsiveness, or a lack of self-control, has been extensively studied as a dispositional factor contributing to the risk of falling into debt. Impulsive individuals tend to prioritize immediate rewards and instant gratification over long-term financial stability. Their inclination towards short-term thinking can lead to impulsive buying decisions, unrestrained spending, and inadequate financial planning.
- Poor Financial Literacy: The level of financial education and guidance individuals receive during their formative years significantly impacts their financial well-being in adulthood. Research demonstrates that individuals who lack proper financial mentoring from parents or fail to develop early savings habits are more likely to experience higher levels of debt later in life. The absence of fundamental financial literacy skills is a prevalent issue worldwide, making individuals susceptible to financial missteps and poor decision-making.
- Youth: The stage of youth itself emerges as a prominent factor contributing to the onset of debt-related challenges. Younger individuals typically possess less financial experience, lower income, and limited social capital, rendering them vulnerable to financial difficulties. They are often burdened by student loans, compelled to rely on credit cards, engage in online retail, and encounter structural factors that exacerbate their financial struggles.
(Exorbitant student loans to achieve education that is no longer suited to the more entrepreneurial spirit of today’s “gig economy” are a serious problem, though personally I find Biden’s promotion of loan forgiveness to be immoral and craven. As the humorous quip goes, What did the Chassid say to the newly minted, Ivy League school graduate? – – “Rent is due at the end of the month.”)
As parents and educators, it is imperative to recognize the significance of providing allowances and introducing children to the principles of savings as essential tools for fostering financial literacy. Allowing children to manage their monetary resources through allowances grants them a sense of autonomy and cultivates proactive financial decision-making skills. Moreover, involving children in budgeting and savings activities enhances their feelings of competence and strengthens familial bonds through shared financial responsibilities. These practical experiences equip children with the cognitive skills necessary to navigate complex financial landscapes as they transition into adulthood, promoting higher-order thinking and problem-solving abilities.
By comprehending the underlying psychological factors that contribute to pathological debt and implementing proactive measures to promote financial literacy, we can empower individuals to avoid falling into detrimental debt patterns. Through comprehensive education, fostering responsible financial habits, and promoting prudent decision-making, we can nurture a generation equipped with the skills to make sound financial choices, ensuring their long-term financial well-being and overall success.
Reish Lakish and the Cannibals
The amazing narrative of Reish Lakish’s encounter with cannibals, as recounted in our Gemara on Amud Aleph, presents an intriguing tale that warrants deeper exploration:
רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ זַבֵּין נַפְשֵׁיהּ לְלוּדָאֵי שְׁקַל בַּהֲדֵיהּ חַיְיתָא וְגֻלְגֻּלְתָּא אֲמַר גְּמִירִי דְּיוֹמָא בָּתְרָא כֹּל דְּבָעֵי מִינַּיְיהוּ עָבְדִי לֵיהּ כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלֵיחוּל אַדְּמֵיהּ
Reish Lakish sold himself to gladiators, taking with him a bag and a round stone inside. He believed that there was a tradition that, on the final day of a captive’s life, before his captors killed him, they would fulfill any request he made to ensure that their “blood would be fresh.”
יוֹמָא בָּתְרָא אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ מַאי נִיחָא לָךְ אֲמַר לְהוּ בָּעֵינָא אֶקְמְטִינְכוּ וְאוֹתְבִינְכוּ וְכֹל חַד מִינַּיְיכוּ אֶמְחְיֵהּ חַיְיתָא וּפַלְגָא קַמְטִינְהוּ וְאוֹתְבִינְהוּ כֹּל חַד מִינַּיְיהוּ כַּד מַחְיֵיהּ חַד חַיְיתָא נְפַק נִשְׁמְתֵיהּ חַרְקִינֵּיהּ לְשִׁינֵּיהּ אמַר לֵיהּ אַחוֹכֵי קָא מְחַיְּיכַתְּ בִּי אַכַּתִּי פָּשׁ לָךְ גַּבַּי פַּלְגָא דְּחַיְיתָא קַטְלִינְהוּ כּוּלְּהוּ
On the final day before his scheduled execution, they asked Reish Lakish what he desired. He requested to tie them up and have them sit, striking each one of them one and a half times. He bound them and made them sit, and with each strike from the stone in the bag, the person he struck would die due to Reish Lakish’s immense strength. In his anger, Reish Lakish gritted his teeth and said to the one he killed, disguising the situation from the others: “Are you laughing at me? You still have half a strike left, as I struck you only once.” He killed them all and managed to escape his captors.
The precise meaning of the term דְּלֵיחוּל אַדְּמֵיהּ, “that his blood be fresh,” is subject to some debate. Rashi suggests that if the captive’s last wish is granted, he would be forgiving of his impending slaughter. Arukh (Erech Ches), on the other hand, explains that if the person is in a relatively pleasant mood before their death, the taste of their meat will be sweeter.
This “captivating” story raises various questions, particularly concerning Rashi’s interpretation. How can we believe that the captives would forgive their own murder simply for being granted a trivial last wish?
By employing our imagination, we may provide a more sophisticated psychological explanation. It is possible that the captives had endured days of torture and deprivation before being granted a final wish. In a manner akin to Stockholm Syndrome, this act of granting a wish might induce a sense of gratitude and even ingratiation towards their captors. Perhaps this is what Rashi refers to.
However, Chasam Sofer understands the entire story as a metaphor. He posits that there are two tools to combat the evil inclination, Yetzer Hara. One is the study of Torah, while the other is an awareness of one’s mortality and ultimate death.
Chasam Sofer argues that awareness of death alone could lead to nihilism in an unsophisticated and undeveloped individual. The mindset might become “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die” (based on a verse in Yeshayahu 22:13), resulting in a nihilistic outlook. Therefore, one needs the study of Torah alongside this awareness. It is the combination of recognizing the potential futility of life and the awareness of a higher, more spiritual alternative that allows for piety instead of nihilism. The captives forgiving their captors who grant them a hedonistic wish reflects the way in which the evil inclination seduces a person with trivial worldly pleasures, causing them to forfeit greater value, meaning, and spiritual success.