Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Jewish Response to Hedonism and Narcissism

A Jewish Response to Hedonism and Narcissism

In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Dorian’s problem, like any narcissist’s, is that he mistakes himself for the center of the universe. Judaism’s view of the world is completely antithetical to the narcissist’s. The Jew doesn’t put himself at the center of the world. The world is not even at the center of the world. God is at the center of the world, and a Jew should approach life with a sense of wonder that this is so.

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in God in Search of Man that the Jew’s primary stance in relation to the world should be one of wonder:

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. . . . [Man] knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23). . . (45).
The profound and perpetual awareness of the wonder of being has become a part of the religious consciousness of the Jew. Three times a day we pray:

                    We thank You . . .
                    For Your miracles which are daily with us,
                    For Your continual marvels . . . .

Every evening we recite: “He creates light and makes the dark.” Twice a day we say: “He is One.” What is the meaning of the repetition? A scientific theory, once it is announced and accepted, does not have to be repeated twice a day. The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship.

The sense for the “miracles which are daily with us,” the sense for the “continued marvels,” is the source of prayer. There is no worship, no music, no love, if we take for granted the blessings or defeats of living. No routine of the social, physical, or physiological order must dull our sense of surprise at the fact that there is a social, a physical, or a physiological order. We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food. Each time we are about to drink a glass of water, we remind ourselves of the eternal mystery of creation, “Blessed be Thou . . . by Whose word all things come into being.” A trivial act and a reference to a supreme miracle. Wishing to eat bread or fruit, to enjoy a pleasant fragrance or a cup of wine; on tasting fruit in season for the first time; on seeing a rainbow, or the ocean; on noticing trees when they blossom; on meeting a sage in Torah or in secular learning; on hearing good or bad tidings—we are taught to invoke His great name and our awareness of Him. Even on performing a physiological function we sat “Blessed be Thou . . .who healest all flesh and doest wonders” (48-49).

Dorian, as a hedonist and narcissist, becomes oblivious to everything but his own mindless pursuit of sensory delight and pleasure. But his indulgences aren’t redeemed and instead he becomes enslaved to his own animalistic urges.

We know that a Jew is not forbidden from enjoying the pleasures of the world:

The last mishna in the Talmud Yerushalmi in Kiddushin states:

רבי חזקיה ר' כהן בשם רב עתיד אדם ליתן דין וחשבון על כל שראת עינו ולא אכל

The Talmud states that when we die, God will ask us for a reckoning of all that our eyes saw but we did not eat.

It’s interesting to note the terminology the Gemara uses: Our eyes see and we eat. The acts remind us of what Adam and Eve did in their sin; they saw and ate. But the Gemara instead shows us that we have an obligation to see and eat, to look at the world and to partake in it in a halakhically acceptable way.

Another Jewish source, Pirkei Avot, can also be used to elucidate the topic of the Jew’s response to the material world.

Pirkei Avot 3:9 reads:

ג,ט  רבי יעקוב אומר, המהלך בדרך ושונה, ומפסיק משנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה, מה נאה ניר זה--מעלין עליו כאילו הוא מתחייב בנפשו.

Rabbi Yaakov said: "One who travels upon the road studying Torah and interrupts his studies, saying, "How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!" -- Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.

Does this mishna mean to say that one is guilty for not doing anything but studying Torah? Should a person really refrain from admiring the beauties of the world and be consumed with Torah alone? (Frisch would have to close if this were so!) Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this mishna means that a person cannot interrupt his study to admire a tree or a plowed field if he fails to understand that the natural beauty he beholds -- the tree -- or the wonder of technology he lauds -- the plowed field -- come from God. The one who is truly versed in Torah recognizes that all the wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, are from the Creator. The mishna, therefore, is not telling man he should not engage with the world, but rather that he must do so with the proper perspective.
Support for a Jewish lifestyle that includes both Torah and the pleasures of the world can be found in Rambam’s writings. Rambam in his famous work, the Mishnah Torah (Deot 3:1), writes that a person should not say to himself:  "Since material desires lead a person to sin, I will avoid these physical pleasures, such as wine, meat, and sex."  According to Rambam, asceticism is a Christian way; it’s the practice of the monks.  Judaism, however, teaches she-lo yimaneh adam atsmo elah mi-devarim she-manah ha-torah bilvad, that a person should only withdraw from those things that the Torah itself explicitly forbids.  And so, Rambam states, the reason why the Torah says that a Nazir must bring a sin-offering after he has fulfilled the term of his Nazir-hood is because he has sinned in forbidding for himself that which the Torah has permitted.

In sum, a Jew should, to use the Rav Soloveitchik’s word, “redeem” his actions by devoting them to God and remembering the Source from which springs all things. A Jew should maintain his wonder that God has brought the world and its manifold creations into being.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian has an additional problem aside from his intense narcissism. His narcissism stems from his fascination with his own incredible attractiveness, which he becomes aware of because of a beautifully painted portrait of his extreme good looks. Dorian’s beauty then leads him to an exploration of other beautiful objects, particularly objects of art, and to a hedonistic lifestyle, one in which he tries to sate himself with the enjoyment of sensual items. Heschel again offers his opinion on the proper behavior for a Jew:

The Beautiful and the Sublime

What do we mean by the sublime? . . . Since the time of Edmund A. Burke (1729-1797), the sublime has been contrasted with the beautiful. He [Burke] identified the sublime with the vast, the terrible, and the obscure which arouse the feeling of pain and terror, and the beautiful with the smooth, the small, and the delicate which arouse a feeling of love and tenderness. . . .

The sublime is not opposed to the beautiful, and must not, furthermore, be considered an esthetic category. The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as in acts of goodness and in the search for truth. The perception of beauty may be the beginning of the experience of the sublime. The sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves. It is that which all things ultimately stand for; “the inveterate silence of the world that remains immune to curiosity and inquisitiveness like distant foliage in the dusk.” It is that which our words, our forms, our categories can never reach.  This is why the sense of the sublime must be regarded as the root of man’s creative activities in art, thought, and noble living. Just as no flora has ever fully displayed the hidden vitality of the earth, so has no work of art, no system of philosophy, no theory of science, ever brought to expression the depth of meaning, the sublimity of reality in the sight of which the souls of saints, artists and philosophers live (38-39).

. . . It is not the sublime as such of which the Biblical man is aware. To him, the sublime is but a way in which things react to the presence of God. It is never an ultimate aspect of reality, a quality meaningful in itself. It stands for something greater . . . .
It is . . . an act of God, a marvel (40).

Dorian’s tragedy is that he mistakes the marvel, himself and the artwork, for the end and not the beginning of his search. His appreciation and enjoyment of beauty should lead him to recognize the mystery behind it: the presence of God. Instead, Dorian ends his search for the sublime at the superficial level.

“In contrast,” Heschel says, “the Biblical man in sensing the sublime is carried away by his eagerness to exalt and to praise the Maker of the world” (41).

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