Friday, May 1, 2015

Thou Shalt Not Hate…! Emotions on command? Kedoshim

Photo by Anita Sarkeesian,
reprinted under Creative Commons License Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic
I feel unmotivated, resentment, anger and even despair sometimes.  ‘I shouldn’t feel like this’ is one thought that appears in my mind. I should be positive and forgiving (toward everyone other than me) is one approach.  But surely that is unreasonable. I feel how I feel and I can’t change it. 

The Torah’s prohibition against hate (1) suggests otherwise.  Clearly, ‘to hate is a choice!’ is implied.

Perhaps, it is not. One scholar reinterpreted the commandment against hate to mean something more concrete, “do not speak smoothly with your mouth” while you hate them in your hearts (2). This fits a pattern of mundane applications of emotional commandments. Love your fellow like yourself is applied as an instruction about not marrying without first seeing your prospective spouse because of the risk that eventually the husband might see something ugly and this would cause her to be despised  (3). Another application is not to do to your fellow what you dislike (4). I think there is great wisdom in this approach because it recognises that in a sense our emotions are involuntary responses to the world around us and that sometimes we cannot be instructed what to feel. Similarly, many would argue that people cannot be told what they are allowed to think. 

On the other hand, the Torah suggests, that our feelings are significantly influenced by our thoughts (5).  We are therefore legitimately called to guide our thoughts to be loving rather than hateful. 

Here is an example. I flew on a fairly empty flight from Dallas to Sydney recently. There was a devout Arabic Muslim couple with a baby seated in the row of four seats in front of me.  They sat on either end of the row. I heard a baby crying for a while and I noticed that the husband/father remained sitting comfortably in his seat, presumably leaving his wife to deal with the baby by herself. I had heard from women in the Arabic Muslim community about some men who are sexist. Immediately a judgmental thought popped into my mind. What is wrong with this man? Why is he so selfish and chauvinistic? Then I noticed the thoughts in my mind and asked myself if I was stereotyping? “I don’t know this man!”. I then checked and found that his baby was actually sleeping soundly on the seats between them and the crying was coming from someone else’s baby. 

A great rationalist commentator on the Torah, Ibn Ezra, states that there are three types of commandments including one that governs what people think in their minds (6). He argues that through our thinking, we can control the impulse to covet another man’s wife. He argues that just as a villager would not covet a princess regardless of how beautiful she is because he knows this is not realistic. Surely then what God has forbidden to one person because it is the possession of another should be even less likely to arouse envy. A great theory, but if this was the case pedophilia would never involve religious people, tragically it does.  

Both approaches reflect part of the truth. It is true that we are commanded to love and think good thoughts and we can some of the time. It is equally true that this is impractical at least some of the time. Self-compassion is in order, accepting that some circumstances will reasonably elicit emotions like anger, or fear and this is ok. Yet we aspire to comply with the commands not to hate but to love instead, by being aware of our thoughts (7) and choosing to think other thoughts, sometimes.

1)    Leviticus 19:17, I acknowledge that this law is specifically when the potential hatred is directed against “your brother, which is disappointing for me because I would love to see a broader directive against all hate
2)    Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
3)    Talmud, Kidushin 41a
4)    Lekach Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima on Leviticus 1918, p.69
5)    Maimonides, Yad Hachazah, Laws of Teshuva 10:6, Tanya
6)    Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:2, also cited in Lebovitz, N. New Studies in Vayikra, p. 344
7)    My coleauge Donna Jacobs Sife has taught be that to counter prejudice in ourselves requires vigilance to our thoughts. Thank you Donna for this valuable insight.

1 comment:

  1. This is very true. We all have prejudices and pet hates, but what we do with it, both within our own thoughts and our external expressions is what really counts. We have a choice in that.