Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Rationalizations, The Atheist who is a Masmid and More Bava Basra 6-8


Red-Handed Rationalizations 

Our Gemara on Amud Beis describes various partitions between two yards and their function. One of them is known as misepas, which can be a barrier, only ten handbreadths high, and a smaller barrier, even less than ten handbreadths. Both small partitions are ineffective in keeping out intruders or line of sight, but the taller one is big enough that a trespasser cannot innocently claim he didn’t realize he was on private property. This has consequences as his unlawful presence automatically puts him in the status of a person with intentions to engage in thievery. In Hebrew, the idiom is nitfas alayv ke-ganav, which loosely translates as, “caught red handed.”

In life there are different kinds of boundaries, and some of them function like this misepas, in a sense that they are more effective as reminders than preventatives. And, amongst those boundaries, some of them function as a means to puncture rationalizations, such as how we blow the cover story of the thief by pointing out the obvious partition that he walked. So too, in life, there are some boundaries whose function is to remind you and catch your rationalizations. The morality of certain actions or behaviors are sometimes judgment calls, and can be innocent or less so. For example, the content and time of day that a text is sent to a married co-worker, or a questionable business deal that one decides their spouse doesn’t need to know about. Technically, there can be good excuses for either behavior. This is why couples should discuss boundaries in advance; it is not merely a matter of proper or improper. Examples of boundaries include: How much one spends without consulting a spouse, what kinds of professional and personal relationships are acceptable with members of the opposite sex, and information that is ok to keep private and what must be shared, and how disclosures are dealt with. Whenever one notices an erosion of agreed upon boundaries, just like the mesipas, it makes it harder to rationalize, acting as an early warning system. It might be innocent, but what internal pressure caused you to violate the standard you agreed to? This shows that something fishy is going on and can allow you to catch yourself before a serious transgression is committed.


Stages of Moral Development 

In our Gemara on Amud Beis, Reish Lakish offers a proof text that sages benefit from a divine shield and watchtower protecting them:

“I am a wall and my breasts are like towers” (Song of Songs 8:10), which may be explained as follows: “I am a wall”; this is referring to the Torah. “And my breasts are like towers. These are Torah scholars, who are as towers, and do not require additional protection.”

These protections are not only physical, but also moral and spiritual.

Rav Yisrael Salanter (Ohr Yisroel 30) speaks of three levels of divine inspiration in developing a sense of service toward God, inspired by Torah study. The first stage involves becoming awakened to recognize his moral deficiencies. The second stage is acting on that inspiration to resist temptation to behave immorally. The final stage is to have a developed and refined character, whereby he rejoices in following the will of God. 

Representative of these three stages are the three ways in which the Gemara describes the benefits of Torah on morality. The Gemara (Avodah Zara 3b) describes Torah as the source of life, like water is to a fish. This represents the first stage, an inkling of an awareness that there is a basic need, a thirst if you will, for a necessary resource, which is the Torah. The Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) describes Torah as a medicine and cure, which is representative of the second stage, where the healing of the soul begins, by willfully overcoming temptations and urges to behave immorally. Finally, our Gemara calls Torah a wall, acting as the firm barrier, which is the third stage, when character is corrected so the violations are not even a temptation.

As an example of how these stages of awareness can occur psychologically, imagine the following scenario: A person first notices through Torah study the damage caused by rage and realizes that he has an anger problem. This leads him to aspire to behave better. From that recognition, he goes on to overcome his temper and react with more patience and acceptance, which is the second stage. However, he still has to fight and overcome his temper. The final stage involves correcting the root cause of the anger, such as impulsivity, arrogance, entitlement or lack of empathy.

Of course, Torah is not a panacea and sadly, we occasional hear of individuals devoted and knowledgeable of Torah who commit terrible transgressions. Yet, our tradition is that the method of study, analysis of the legal details of Torah civilization leads to inspiration and inner change. We will see more about this in our next blog post, Psychology of the Daf, Bava Basra 8.


The Atheist who is a Masmid

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph continues to discuss the protective power of Torah study:

אדנביאי – דכתיב: ״גם כי יתנו בגוים עתה אקבצם, ויחלו מעט ממשא מלך ושרים״ – אמר עולא: פסוק זה בלשון ארמית נאמר: ״אי תנו״ כולהו – ״עתה אקבצם״, ואם ״מעט״ מהם – ״יחלו ממשא מלך ושרים״.

And you have transgressed the words of the Prophets, as it is written: “Though they have hired lovers [yitnu] among the nations, now I will gather them, and they will begin to be diminished by reason of the burden of kings and princes” (Hosea 8:10). With regard to this verse, Ulla says: Part of this verse is stated in the Aramaic language; the word yitnu should be understood here in its Aramaic sense: To learn. And the verse should be interpreted as follows: If all of Israel learns Torah, I will gather them already now; and if only a few of them learn Torah, they will be excused from the burden imposed by kings and princes. 

Ha’amek Davar (Vayikra 20:22) explains the following verse in accordance with this principle:

ושמרתם את־כל־חקתי ואת־כל־משפטי ועשיתם אתם ולא־תקיא אתכם הארץ אשר אני מביא אתכם שמה לשבת בה

You shall watch and guard all my laws and fulfill them, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out.

The fulfillment refers to obeying the commandments. What then does watching and guarding the Torah allude to? And what is its relation to the second part of the verse warning against exile? This refers to the study of Torah which prevents banishment from the Land of Israel, even if sins are committed that are otherwise deserving expulsion. This particularly regarding sexual immorality (see juxtaposition of preceding verses.)

What are we to make of this belief that Torah study somehow counters and even, dare we say, compensates for certain sins? This is a dangerous path that can lead to sinner-saint personalities who are pious and learned, while at the same time, sexually transgressive. There is an even more radical statement about the redemptive power of Torah for the sinner, from the introduction to Midrash Eicha Rabbasi:

“Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Yirmeya said in the name of Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba: It is written: “They have forsaken Me and did not observe My Torah” (Jeremiah 16:11). God says, “If only they had forsaken Me and observed My Torah. By engaging in it, the light that is in it would have returned them to the good [path].”

The Midrash offers God’s sentiment that He would rather have the Jews study Torah and forsake Him, than believing in Him but not being observant. Taken literally, God prefers an Atheist who is a Masmid over a believer who does not follow the commandments. 

Torah is so influential upon those who engage in it that they will be inevitably drawn toward increased observance. This cannot be absolutely true, as there are people who are so cynical and disassociated that their study of Torah might have no effect, or even be used as a tool to cover sinister behavior with a pious front or justifications. Indeed, our sages warned that even Torah can be abused and lead a person astray (Hoshea 14:10 and Nazir 23a):

מִ֤י חָכָם֙ וְיָ֣בֵֽן אֵ֔לֶּה נָב֖וֹן וְיֵדָעֵ֑ם כִּֽי־יְשָׁרִ֞ים דַּרְכֵ֣י ה׳ וְצַדִּקִים֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔ם וּפֹשְׁעִ֖ים יִכָּ֥שְׁלוּ בָֽם׃ 

The wise will consider these words,

The prudent will take note of them.

For the paths of GOD are smooth;

The righteous can walk on them,

While sinners stumble on them.

The very same Torah can be a stumbling block or a pathway to greatness.

What is the difference? I believe it’s whether Torah is studied with an open mind. God doesn’t need the person to be perfect or even believe in Him as much as he needs him to be ready to consider what the Torah has to say. However, if one is a scoffer and approaches Torah merely as a cover or false piety, then the ideas may not penetrate his distorted soul.

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