Leo put down the letter and felt his temples throbbing. And all this crap was going on while I was fooling around with the kid in my German lit course—what was his name? Bryce Pendleton, or…maybe this was when I was with that piece of tush, Carrie Osborne. Well, what did I expect? Ruth was too faithful to see some guy on the side, but a little Sapphic smooching with Stephanie—who could blame her? After my fooling around with Dvorah—Ruth knew about it all the time. Not surprising, what with the looks I used to give Dvorah—you didn’t have to be an Einstein to figure it out. And then, when Ruth got the diagnosis—when what’s his name? Bernstein, the surgeon, told her the lump was malignant—what did I do? What did I wish for? I cruised around looking for ass of every imaginable variety. It was already the 80s--lucky I didn’t get goddamn AIDS. The truth is, I thought about how, when Ruth was gone, I could go back to Cambridge, back to Dvorah. Yetzer hara—the Evil Impulse— in the ascendant. For which, no doubt, God has inflicted the Arch-Serpent, Couleuver, upon me. And Ruth, acquiescing in my screwing around—never really confronting me. Because? Because she was atoning for wanting to sleep with with Stephanie?
Bok wandered down the linoleum-lined corridor, bathed in the moonish coolness of the overhead fluorescent lights. Where the hell is room B-789? Supposed to be right off this hallway, but…
Bok’s appointment was intended asa routine follow-up evaluation with the nurse, in order to ensure that his pediculosis humanus capitis had been eradicated by four applications of the pyrethrin shampoo. But somehow, Bok had wound up in the wrong section of Eutopia’s labyrinthine basement complex. He felt the crumpled lab slip grow sweaty in his trembling hand. How the hell do you find your way down here? No doubt Daedalus has revealed the floor plan only to Ariadne. Probably run into the poor, fucking Minotaur—half man, half bull—almost certainly a distant relation.
Bok turned the corner and saw two frail-looking figures—an elderly man and woman—sitting together near a gun-metal grey door. The man appeared to be in his late 70s, the woman, perhaps older. The man wore a Madras-style shirt that reminded Bok of the early ‘60s, when he and Rizzoli had been wine-swilling grad students at Harvard. The woman was decked out incongruously in what looked to be some sort of party dress. When the couple saw Bok approaching, they smiled weakly. Bok saw no light in their eyes, but instead, a sort of reptilian gaze he associated with turtles or crocodiles.
“Howdy!” said the man, waving to Bok. He was a tall, thin gentleman with a vestigial slip of white hair pomaded against his scalp.
“And howdy to you,” Bok said.
The woman looked at him appraisingly and smiled, pointing her finger in mock accusation.
“I’ll bet you’re here for the sampling, too!”
“Sampling? I’m not sure…I’m supposed to see the nurse about—well, anyway, just a nursing follow up.”
“Oh, yes,” the man said brightly, “I can see you’ve had the procedure already.” He tapped his scalp meaningfully with his index finger.
“I’m not really sure what procedure you mean,” Bok said. “I was told I had a—well, it’s a little embarrassing. The doctor told me I had some head lice, and that’s why I had these damn red marks on my scalp.”
The man and the woman exchanged glances silently. An expression of sympathy and understanding overspread their faces.
“Oh, yes,” the man said, still smiling. “That’s what they told us at first, too. I never really believed them. Imagine! Both of us clean as a whistle our whole lives, and then suddenly developing head lice! If you look close, my friend, you can see we have those funny marks, too.”
Bok felt a tightness in his chest and throat. He leaned forward and peered at the man’s head. The same tiny, red punctuate marks that Binky Behrenfeld had seen on Bok’s head were present on the man’s scalp. The woman, whom Bok now presumed was the man’s wife, pulled aside a wisp of grey hair, revealing the same lesions. She smiled sweetly, as if showing off a beauty mark.
“Well, so—what are you folks saying? How did you get—how did we get these marks?”
The woman placed her hand on her husband’s thigh, and giggled. “It’s the sampling procedure, my dear! We’ve all been through it—you, me, my husband. There are others, too. Probably a dozen or so in the past year. It’s all for the good, you know.”
The man spoke, still smiling at Bok. “They start out doing it while you’re sleeping, so you don’t actually feel it. I think they must slip you something to help you sleep through it. It’s all quite necessary, you see. Dr. Couleuver has explained it to us. It has to do with the—the—what’s that thing again, honey, that the doctor says has to do with aging?”
“The telomere!” the woman said, smiling as if she had just won the national spelling bee. “They can tell a lot about your telomere by just taking out a few hair roots. Follicles, they call them. They can tell how long you’re going to live, and so…”
“It’s a medical fact,” the man interjected, nodding in affirmation. “The way the doc put it, it all made sense. You see, at some point, society has to…well, you know, thin the herd. It’s just the survival of the fittest, really.”
“Thin the—what the hell do you mean?” Bok said, expelling a glob of spittle that nearly hit the other man’s face.
“No need to get upset, friend!” the man replied. “It’s all for the sake of medical research. By the way, my name is Fred, and this is my wife, Agnes. Everybody calls her “Peaches”, though.” The man extended his hand to Bok, who took it as if grasping a dead carp.
“Hi, I’m Leo.”
“Pleased to meet you, Leo,” Agnes said. “Been called “Peaches” most of my life,” Agnes added. “I’ve always been told my skin was like peaches and cream.” The woman rubbed her hand dreamily over her left cheek.
At this point, the gunmetal-grey door clattered open, and a young man in a white lab coat emerged. “God allfuckingmighty!” he growled, quickly slamming the door shut. He looked Bok up and down, as if seeking some kind of physical explanation for the strange man’s presence. The young man wore a neatly-trimmed Vandyke beard, and had knitted his brow into a perturbed “M” configuration.
“Sir!” the young man said, “You need to come with me. You are in an area of the building requiring special authorization.”
“Listen, boychik, I was just looking for a nurse to check me for goddamn head lice!”
“Well, sir, I’m sorry, but you are in the wrong area! If you follow me, I’ll take you to the right corridor.” The young man grabbed Bok firmly by the arm and hustled him down the corridor, barely allowing for the limitations of Bok’s festinating gait.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Bok yelled, desperately trying to maintain his balance.
“Wonderful meeting you, Leo!” Agnes cried out. “Remember, it’s all for the good of the Commonweal! Too-da-loo!”
The morning sun streamed in through the single, mullioned window in Bok’s room. It had been two days since his encounter with Fred and Agnes, and Bok was still trying to sort out what it all meant. He had left a worried-sounding voice message for Rizzoli but had heard nothing back yet.
Bok stared into the mirror, slowly surveyed the 12-by-15 foot enclosure that had become his world, and stared back into the mirror. Beneath the grey remains of his once curly, black mop, Bok could make out the bumpy contours of his skull. Totenkopf.Just like the skull in Holbein’s painting. Tell me, Leonardo—has anything at all been done? Has anything at all been done in all the years of writing, theorizing, teaching, cheating, screwing around? One lousy book out in forty years. You begin your life with the Great American Novel in your lion’s heart. You end it with a badly-written short story in your dopamine-depleted brain. Leo: the name of 13 Popes, including Leo the Great. Talked Attila the Hun into sparing Rome. Harder than convincing the Dean to spare your faculty appointment, I would guess.
Bok prepared himself for another day in Eutopia. In the tiny bathroom—“Not even room to change your mind!” he heard his father quipping--Bok emptied his bladder while sitting on the elevated toilet seat the nursing staff had ordered. He rose timorously, pushing up off the metal arm supports, and took a minute to get his footing. Moving over to the miniature sink, Bok brushed his teeth and rinsed with a little Listerine. Next came the ritual of the PPs—the Parkinson’s pills: Sinemet Extended Release, 1 tablet; Eldepryl 5 mg. Damn stuff drives a man’s brain like a fire engine, except the engine conks out every now and then. Stuck in another god-awful “off” period.Confined to the wheelchair until the neurons spring back to life.
It took Bok about fifteen minutes to dress himself nowadays. Pulling on his socks had become an engineering challenge, requiring the "Easy-Pull Sock Aid": a flexible plastic trough that allowed the patient to pull his sock over the trough, slip his foot inside, and then pull the trough away. Bok then used a long-handled shoe-horn to squeeze into his Hush Puppies, which he secured with "Easy Laces"--lockable shoelaces that tied with a single pull. (The occupational therapist had recommended sneakers that fastened with Velcro tabs—“Mr. Bok, believe me, Velcro is like gold for Parkinson’s!”--but Bok had demurred: he had worn Hush Puppies since his grad school days, and he was not about to be shod like some goofy teenager).
After the dressing procedure and a perfunctory breakfast of shredded wheat with skim milk, Bok confronted the blank slate of a day freed from either responsibility or purpose. There were, of course, plenty of activities scheduled at Eutopia, just in case any of the denizens got the idea of sitting alone and thinking. In the morning, there were the “Cognitive Programs”: trivia challenges, word games, card clubs, book clubs, lectures, travelogues, and current events classes, all designed (as the glossy Eutopia brochure put it) “…to keep those neurons happily hopping!”. In the afternoon, there were the “Outbound” programs: trips to nearby restaurants or local theater productions; tours of the Ft. Lauderdale canals; and—for the religiously inclined—excursions to nearby churches or synagogues. At five p.m., there was a daily “Happy Hour”: Eutopia’s attempt at “…re-creating that devil-may-care atmosphere of a Miami resort hotel!…”. In truth, only glasses of wine were served, with a limit of two to a customer, and the ubiquitous Eutopia Springs water. Happy Hour was also an opportune time for the buffed and beautiful to mingle, display biceps and breasts, and engage in the hopeful banter of seduction. One did not see the crippled or the infirm at these gatherings. Dr. Couleuver himself was not above dropping in on the wine-happy crowd, sipping a Pinot Grigio, and regaling the throng with “tales of my misspent Florida youth”.
In the early evening, Eutopia settled in to a genteel calm. Often, a local string quartet or jazz band would perform in one of the huge atria. First-run movies—Couleuver prided himself on “stealing films from the best thee-aters in southern Florida!”—were shown nightly in the huge lecture hall. Most of the films, Bok had concluded, had a decidedly didactic tone, and included a few unlikely to appear in the average Cineplex: “America’s Godly Heritage”, “Martin Luther” (in its original, 1953 black-and-white version), and “The Cross and the Towers” (in which “…a symbol of hope is found buried beneath the rubble of ground zero…”).
As Bok was contemplating his existential options for the day, the phone rang, startling him into spilling his coffee. “Mr. Bok,” the nurse said with unusual urgency, “I have your friend, Mr. Rizzoli out here at the nursing station. He says he needs to see you right away.”
Rizzoli had not even bothered with his usual four-note rap on the door. His face was moist and blanched, and his brow more deeply furrowed than usual. “Well, my friend,” Rizzoli said, “it seems your suspicions were right all along.”
“You look like shit, Rizzoli. What the hell happened? You have that water analyzed?”
“Indeed, I did, Leo. As I told you, Tony Perotta—my friend in the chemistry department--has his own lab at the college. He runs—what do they call it?—toxicology studies for some of the county health agencies.”
“Well, what’s the story?”
“Leo, I…I’m no scientist, but from what Perotta told me, this whole situation is really…” Rizzoli threw his hands up in the air. “It is…roba da matti! Crazy stuff!”
“Well, for goddsake, Rizzoli, what did this guy find?”
“Alright, alright. Here--I have it written down on a paper. Perotta says, and I’m quoting, “The water samples analyzed contained low but non-negligible levels of flunitrazepam. This is a benzodiazepine drug, related to drugs like Valium or Xanax. Flunitrazepam is colorless, odorless, and flavorless. It is easily dissolved in water. It can induce effects that include sedation, muscle relaxation, reduction in anxiety, and prevention of convulsion. Flunitrazepam can also induce anterograde amnesia in sufficient doses.” Ma donna! Leo, this water contains a…
“They’re fucking poisoning us here. That’s what your friend is saying!”
“Well,” Rizzoli said, running his fingers through his wispy hair, “it…it’s not so clear, Leo. Perotta told me that, in the quantities he is seeing, the drug might not have very strong effects, unless you had consumed great quantities of it. But…” Rizzoli opened his mouth but did not speak.
“Well, I don’t know if you are familiar with these news stories, Leo, but this drug has another name—it is called “Rohypnol”, and…”
“Wait a minute…don’t the kids call those ‘roofies’ or…?”
“Yes, that is my recollection, Leo. You know, all this drug stuff is a long way from our nights sipping Chianti in Harvard Square. But these…these ‘roofies’—I understand this is also what they call, ‘the date rape drug.’ It could be…”
Bok snapped his fingers, as if he had just found the key to some obscure text. “It could be, my friend, that the alte kockers around here walk around like fucking zombies because Couleuver is spiking the water with this stuff! And I never got to tell you about the other day, when I was wandering around in the basement. Rizzoli, they are doing some kind of weird-shit experiment around here—taking hair samples—I don’t know, trying to see who is or isn’t going to live…”
“Indeed, siamo nellamerda, my friend! And there is more. I looked into our good Dr. Couleuver--or not so good. First of all, this whole “University of the Commonweal” business is a lot of crap. There is no such place—or rather, it’s a front of some sort. As far as I could tell, it’s a kind of—how do you say it?—a ‘diploma mill’. And, this “university” has ties to some very unsavory characters. It turns out, one of the big contributors is this faccia di stronzo—you have heard, have you not, of this bastard, “Digger” Scanlon? The guy in Tallahassee who is with the KKK? “Grand Lizard” or some such nonsense. Well, I saw photos on the Internet of our good friend Couleuver and Scanlon, practically kissing!”
“I’m not surprised, Rizzoli. You never see a black face around here, unless she’s serving or cleaning. What else did you find out about Couleuver?”
Rizzoli pursed his lips and exhaled noisily. “Well, you remember his little tale about studying the work of Niccolo Leoniceno, at the medical school in Salerno? Well—that much is true. I have some contacts back in the old country, and they talked to friends, who talked to friends. Couleuver was there alright, at Salerno, in the mid-60s. He was a young doctor and, from what I could learn, quite brilliant. He was involved in research on neurosyphilis, but, apparently, he went outside the protocol of the study he was involved in— administering some sort of drug to patients without proper authorization or supervision. God knows what he gave them, but…”
“He got the boot, I assume.”
“Indeed. Sent back to America under quite a cloud. And now…with this drug in the water here, Leo…”
“Rizzoli, I saw this old couple down in the basement, looking like the cast from “The Night of the Living Dead”! And with the little red marks on their heads, just like me. You have got to get me the hell out of here!”
Rizzoli paced the floor, and twisted the ends of his wispy moustache.
“Si, certo! ma…but how do we do this, Leo? Your brother holds all the keys to the jail house!”
Irwin was furious. The vein on his temple throbbed as it had since their days on Blue Hill Avenue.
“You realize, Leo, that you have put me in a terrible position. First you curse out the social worker who comes to interview you—what’s her name, Miss Hanson? Then you wind up in some restricted area of the building. Now I hear about some cockamaimie lab test you had your friend run on the water here—after I had already told you….”
“How did you hear, pray tell?”
“It’s all over the nursing station, this mishugas about Rohypnol! Your friend Rizzoli evidently has a big mouth!”
“More likely, the nurses were listening in when Rizzoli was here talking to me.”
“What, now you think your room is bugged? Jesus, Leo, I don’t know if it’s the L-dopa or if you are just losing your mind, but…”
“Don’t tell me I’m crazy, Irwin! This guy, Couleuver—he’s bad news! He experiments on old people, or worse. The older, sicker ones here—not the ones from the Geritol commercial—they wind up…”
“What’s with this Geritol commercial? Leo, are you seeing things? I mean…”
“Yeah, I’m seeing things, alright! You ever read William Burroughs? "A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what's going on." And believe me, a lot is going on around here, Irwin!”
Irwin stared into his lap and shook his head. “I should have seen this coming. It’s partly my fault. Allowing you to be influenced by…busy-bodies and gossips! I should have protected you. That Binky person, she probably fed you that hogwash about the water, right?”
“That Binky person has more neurons in her fingernail pairings than you have in your fucking head, Irwin! I’ll send you the goddamn lab report.”
“Yeah, Leo, you do that. But in the mean time, here’s what we need to do: no more passes out of the building, no unapproved visitors, no more fraternizing unless it’s somebody that I…that the nursing staff and Dr. Couleuver approve. We might need to readjust your meds, too, if…”
“Irwin, for godssake, what are you doing?” Bok said, his voice cracking. “This is a shtuken nisht in harts! Do you hear? A stab in my heart, Irwin!You always tried to protect me, growing up. Sure, you were an overbearing, self-righteous, anal-retentive twit, but that was fine—at least you looked out for me. But, now—Irwin, if you keep me in this place, as God is my witness…”
“It’s a good place, Leo.”
“…I may have to kill myself. Before the cryptofascists come for my scalp.”
Bok lay naked on Binky’s king-size, brass bed, sipping the sweet, thick liquid.
“Binky, this tastes almost as good as you. Is it Kahlua?”
“Not just any Kahlua, babe.” Binky Behrenfeld lay beside him, her hand on Bok’s thigh, taking a drag on a cigarette. “This is what I call ‘Binky’s Brew’. See, you take sugar, corn syrup and vodka. You mix them up with the best Mexican coffee you can buy, and add just a drop of vanilla. Bingo!”
“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
“Don’t do that, kiddo. I’d miss you and your heavy plowing equipment.”
“Not bad for an alte kocker with Parkinson’s, I guess. But you! Lady, you just knocked me back about forty years.”
“Well, hey. After springin’ you from the Big House, I figured you needed a little down home lovin’!”
“I still don’t understand how you got the nurses to let you pull your coffee cart right up to my room.”
“Oh, I pulled out a little early Christmas cheer for the girls. I told you, I can get three or four cases of good liquor down below, in that thing.”
“Yeah, but who would have figured you could squeeze a 70-year old Jewish guy inside?”
Binky let out a cackle. “Your friend Rizzoli helped me out a little. He managed to create quite a ruckus up at the nursing station—singing some kind of Italian opera at the top of his lungs! They actually called Security! Gave me just enough time to get you the hell outta there before the storm troopers came for us.”
Bok frowned and let out a deep sigh. “Well, I suppose it’s just a matter of days before Irwin tracks me down. Then they’ll notify social services or the police or…”
“Hey!” Binky shouted, swatting Leo with her hand. “Stop that shit! You gotta think positive, Leo.”
“OK. I’m positive Irwin will track me down.”
“Listen, kiddo. You’re not going back to that place. You’re gonna stay here, got it? If I have to hire some hot-shot lawyer to keep you around, I’ll do it. And maybe go after that cracker son-of-a-bitch, Couleuver, too.”
Bok smiled. “I thought for a long time that God was punishing me, Binky. I mean, He would have had a million good reasons. My cheating, my wilde putz ways. But now, I’m not so sure.”
“Isn’t there a passage in the Talmud about, you know, grabbing for the gold ring or something?”
“Not exactly. But you’re close. It’s from the Palestinian Talmud: “In the future world, a man will have to give an accounting for every good thing his eyes saw, but of which he did not eat.”
“Irwin, cut the crap. You didn’t fly down here and cancel two days’ surgery to tell me this. You could have phoned, for Chrissake! What the hell is going on?”
At this, Dr. Irwin Bok sighed deeply and slumped down in the armchair beside Leo’s bed. “It’s not the whole story with Stephanie. Or with you and me, Leo.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
Irwin shook his head and let out a kind of snort.
“A few months ago, Stephanie sent me a bunch of letters—letters that she had exchanged a long time ago with Ruth.”
“What? Whaddya talking about? Why would she send you letters to Ruth?”
“I only read one of them, Leo. Then I decided they should really be in your keeping, as mementos of Ruth. But…the one I read…”
“Well, what already, goddamn it?”
The vein on Irwin’s temple was throbbing. From the time the two brothers were boys in Dorchester, Leo always knew the premonitory import of this dark pulsation. He remembered seeing that vein throbbing when two Irish kids were about to pound the crap out him, on Blue Hill Avenue, and Irwin had to protect his pipsqueak brother. Now, he could hear Irwin’s breathing becoming more rapid.
“Leo, I know about you and Dvorah.”
“Oh.” Leo shifted his buttocks in the chair. “Well, look—I mean, I’m sorry, Irwin. It was a long time ago and…”
In the room’s low light, Irwin’s face had turned a sort of plum color. Suddenly, his voice boomed. “It’s always the same song with you, isn’t it, Leo? You gotta try everything! Every hors d’oeuvre on the tray! It’s not enough you had a beautiful wife who loved you dearly—you have to go after your brother’s wife! It’s not enough you have the college girls crawling all over you--you have to sleep with the faigelehs, too! And Jesus Christ, even your own niece, Leo!”
“Did Stephanie tell you that? That I slept with her? That’s a lie, Irwin! I never…”
Irwin’s voice suddenly became soft and raspy. “I don’t give a flying crap what you did with Stephanie! But Dvorah…I knew even back in Cambridge that something was up with you and Dvorah, but I never had the guts to confront you. Or her. For that, I have to accept responsibility.”
“Look, Irwin, I never meant—I was a vilde putz! I still am.”
At this, Irwin Bok chuckled, and his features softened a bit. “That you are, Leo! And you are still my brother. Look, all this is not the end of the world. But Stephanie…she clearly wanted me to find out about you and Dvorah.”
“Wait a minute. You…you say she sent you these letters a few months ago?” Suddenly Leo’s face filled with blood.
“That’s right, why?”
“That was just before you put me here, wasn’t it?”
“Leo, what the hell—what are you saying? You think I got you admitted here because I was…”
“Because,” Bok said, pointing his finger at Irwin, “you had just found out I was once shtupping your wife, you pitiful, cuckold bastard!”
“That’s crap and you know it! I put you here because you almost burned your damn house down!”
“You got a lot of chutzpah, you know that, Leo? I find out about you and Dvorah, and you just turn the tables! You make me the problem! Guess what? I’m outta here. Oh, and by the way, I had your stupid Eutopia Springs water analyzed.” Irwin reached into his briefcase, pulled out a sealed manila envelope, and through it on the bed. “It’s fine, Leo. Pure as the driven snow. Nothing to worry about. Goodbye, Leo.”
“You know, Leo, I don’t use that Eutopia Springs water at all. Never have. I bring in my own, like I told you.”
Leo Bok sat in his wheelchair at a tiny folding table, immediately next to Binky Behrenfeld’s coffee stand. Bok sipped luxuriously from a large, steaming cup of espresso and wore an expression of amused contentment. He had arranged a late-afternoon tryst with the woman, and was savoring this small victory.
“Well, Irwin had the stuff analyzed. He says it’s fine. Nothing to worry about.”
“Bullshit! Where did he have it analyzed? Do you know the lab?”
“What do I know from labs, Binky? I teach comparative freakin’ literature! Used to, anyway.”
Suddenly, Binky’s face lit up in a radiant smile. She snapped her fingers meaningfully. “Hey, I got an idea, Leo. How’d you like to blow this place?”
“I’d like to blow it up, quite frankly.”
“Grab a ticket and stand in line, boitschik! Seriously, if you don’t mind me pushing you in the wheelchair, I can show you a nice little garden spot just outside the main building.”
“I don’t think you can sign me out, though, Binky. I believe that the Grand Inquisitor and my brother have it arranged so that only family can spring me.”
But Binky Behrenfeld had a certain cachet with most of Eutopia’s nurses, having treated them on more than one occasion to coffee and donuts—not to mention smuggling in a little spiked eggnog for a few Christmas and New Year’s parties. She managed to sign Leo out on pass, with only a “Get him back soon!” and a wink from the charge nurse.
Binky guided Leo Bok through a succession of marble corridors, down two elevators, and finally, out of the main atrium and into the dazzling south Florida sun. Bok gasped in the brilliance of the day, realizing that since his arrival at Eutopia, he had not once set foot outside the huge complex of buildings.
Binky placed her hand on Leo’s shoulder, as if to reassure him of his safety. “First time out, huh? Well, some of our folks never make it out at all, so count your blessings, hon.”
“It’s amazing to think I actually forgot what season it is--and how gorgeous the spring is down here. Thank you, Binky.”
Binky Behrenfeld said nothing, but again placed her hand on Bok’s shoulder, this time giving it a light squeeze. She maneuvered Leo’s wheelchair along a narrow, faux-wooden walkway that led them toward a large grove of palm trees. On either side of the paved path was a lush growth of tropical flora, so thick it nearly formed a green canopy above them. They came eventually to a small semi-circle of carefully-groomed grass, and an elaborate, Roman-style fountain.
“Here’s a nice place to stop,” Binky said, removing her fanny pack and placing it on a nearby bench. “I brought some peaches with me, if you’d like one.”
“Peaches? What, you had this whole outing planned?”
Binky cocked her head and waggled her eyebrows suggestively. “Ummm….I might have had it vaguely in mind.”
She cut a plump, wet peach in half, and handed the dripping morsel to Bok. He chuckled at the sight of the slick, deep-yellow fruit, with its red-fringed center. “Very Laurentian of you, my dear!” he said with a vague English accent. “As in D.H.”
“Say what? You lost me on that one, kiddo.”
“Nothing but an old literature professor’s prattling, Binky. Pay me no heed.”
“Oh, I think I’d rather pay you some heed, Professor.” She had sat down on the grass beside Bok’s wheelchair, and now placed her hand on his thigh.
Bok took a bite of peach, savoring its sweetness. “You know, Binky, I’ve been in this hell-hole four months now, and we’ve met probably six or seven times. But I still don’t know a lot about you.”
“You mean,” she said smiling, “what’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?”
“Well, something like that. I mean, how did you decide…?”
“Oh, it wasn’t like a planned thing, Leo. Let’s see—I started out at Florida State, majoring in sleeping around—well, actually, in criminology…”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“No, believe it or not, Florida State has the oldest graduate program in criminology in the country. I thought it would be neat to get inside, you know, the ‘criminal mind.’ Took a few semesters as an undergrad, then dropped out of college.”
“Why? You would have made a great detective!”
“Hah, thanks, Babe! Actually, I just never took to studying. Did a lot of partying, a lot of weed, lots of booze. Then my dad got sick, and mom wanted me back home to help, so…”
“Well—you sound a lot like me in my college days. For that matter, in my grad student days. So how did you end up here?”
“Oh, I drifted in and out of a bunch of jobs. Don’t tell anybody, but for a few years, I worked in Miami as a stripper.”
“I’m not surprised. You still got the body, lady.”
“Nice thing to say to a 63-year-old broad, Leo! I actually liked stripping. The other girls were nice—nicer to me than the uppity bitches I met in college. Plus, you could make a hell of a lot in tips, with just a couple of hours of swinging your ass, pardon my French.”
“Your French is good around here, Binky.” Bok leaned toward Binky Behrenfeld and placed his trembling hand on the woman’s neck. Goddamn Parkinson’s isn’t going to stop me. Bok drew her face toward him. Binky flinched for a nanosecond, emitted a soft moan, then leaned into the kiss.
“Your tongue tastes like peaches, Binky. How does the rest of you taste?”
Suddenly, Bok felt her stiffen in his hands and rear back on the grass beside him.
“Leo! Jesus, honey, where the fuck did you get those marks?”
“What marks? Christ, you look like you just kissed a dead leper!”
“I’m sorry, Leo…it’s…those little red marks on your scalp. I’ve seen them before. Two or three times, now, and each time…”
“What, for goddsake? Binky…each time what?”
“Each time, the person was gone a few weeks later.”
“I’m telling you, Rizzoli, this is what the woman said. And I trust her, goddamn it! She’s the only person around here who’s treated me like a human being.”
Stefano Rizzoli sat with a small carton of Chinese food balanced on his lap, munching on Chicken Lo Mein. He looked concerned, but the arch of his left eyebrow registered some skepticism.
“Leo, listen. I certainly detect the whiff of proto-fascism about this place. And this Dr. Couleuver, with his mysterious training in Salerno—God knows what he’s up to! But Dio mio! You don’t really think he’s…”
“I don’t know what to think about him, or this place, Rizzoli. Look, all I can tell you is, I had this bizarre dream involving Dvorah and a swarm of bees, stinging me on the head. Then I notice these little red dots on my scalp. I forgot all about them, but when Binky saw them, she looked like she was hemorrhaging!”
“Well, what did she say, exactly?”
“That she knew three other people here, over the last two years—a single man, and a couple—all of whom had these fucking red marks on their scalp. And all three of them disappeared.”
“Eh? Che dici?What is this, “disappeared”, Leo? Maybe these people were sent home, or to another facility. Or maybe they died! It happens around here, you know.”
“Don’t be a wise-ass, Rizzoli. Binky Behrenfeld is no fool. If something is up, she’d know it. And I still don’t trust the goddamn water here.”
Rizzoli’s eyebrows arched slightly. “You know, you’ve been obsessing about that bottled water for months, Leo. Even after Irwin said it’s OK! Look, I have a friend in the chemistry department. Why don’t I have him take another look at the stuff.”
“Wonderful. Benissimo! I appreciate it, Rizzoli! And in the mean time, I want you to find out what you can about this Couleuver character. Do one of those internet searches or hire a damn private eye, or…”
“Leo! Ma che cazzo vuoi? How am I supposed to investigate this man? You think the music department pays me to be, como se llame?Columbo?”
“Alright, alright. Just do what you can Rizzoli. But you have got to get me the hell out of here!”
“Not so easy, my friend, as long as your brother is holding all the legal levers.”
Suddenly, Bok smiled. “Rizzoli, remember the strings you pulled when I was in deep caca with my department chair?”
“Ah, that was different, Leo. I had some clout with old Dean Cruthers.”
“What? You mean besides your stellar scholarship and that lecture you gave Cruthers on “Nomos vs. Eros?”
Rizzoli chuckled. “I’m afraid my eloquence was less involved than was my dating the Dean’s daughter at the time.”
“Ah, you are too modest, my friend! You always made scholarship look easy. Your paper on “Stockhausen and Frank Zappa”, for godsake! Who else could have gotten away with that?” Suddenly Bok’s face darkened, and his mouth drooped slightly. “It’s been different with me, Rizzoli. Every fucking thing I ever wrote was ripped away from the demon’s claws. I mean, anything of value I produced—and there hasn’t been much—was at the expense of the other side. Yetzer hara, you know. ”
“Ah, yes—you Jews and your famous “Evil Impulse.”
“You know damn well it’s more complicated than that, Rizzoli. Yetzer hara is also Eros—the generative impulse! It’s what makes a man marry and build a house, the Talmud says. Not to mention grabbing an occasional morceau de derriere.”
Rizzoli smiled and sighed. “In short, my friend, all the things that have gotten you into trouble over the years. You are still allupato! ”
“Listen, goddamn it! The Baal Shem Tov says, “Pleasures are manifestations
of God's love.” Moreover…”
Before Bok could pontificate further, the two men were startled by a loud rap on the door, followed by the appearance of a young female nurse bustling into the room.
“Oh, sorry to intrude, gentleman, but I’m afraid that Dr. Couleuver needs to see Mr. Bok right away.”
“Ah! The good Professor!” Couleuver said with teeth resplendent, and a slight, ironic bow. “Please, please, come in! Oh, nurse, please just wheel Professor Bok right on up to my desk here, thank you. Make yourself comfortable, please, Mr. Bok.”
Leo Bok looked around the dark, walnut-paneled office and felt a slight pricking on the back of his neck. Amidst the usual book-lined walls and framed diplomas, Bok could not help noticing a large coat-of-arms, hung prominently on the wall opposite Couleuver’s desk. Emblazoned on its shield was a yellow cross, each arm of which ended in three points, with each point touching a small sphere. Wrapped around the cross was a serpent with a long, protruding tongue. Beneath the shield was a motto or emblem that appeared to read, “La couleuvre d’esculape.”
“So, Professor, I see you have noticed the Couleuver family crest. Perhaps you recognize the Cross of Toulouse? Or the fabled “Snake of Aesculapius”. The crest has been in the family for, oh, goodness—since the twelfth century, at least. You see, the Couleuvers are descended from the Counts of Toulouse, who…”
“Mazel tov, Doctor! Onward Christian soldiers! Now, suppose we skip the heraldry, and you tell me what was so damn important, you had to chase my friend out of the room?”
Couleuver looked slightly discomfited. “Oh, my sincere apologies, Professor. Was that your dear friend, Prof. Rizzoli? Charming man. I’m most sorry, I would have enjoyed a chat with him myself. Care for a piece of sour candy?”
“No thank you. Life is sour enough these days.”
“Ah, well, I’m sorry to hear that, Professor. Are you sure you wouldn’t like one? When I was a kid, growing up in Florida, my daddy used to take me to a little candy store where they had these wonderful trays of chocolate, gum drops, liquorices, you name it. But my favorite was the sour balls. Always made me pucker and smile.”
“Yes, of course. And you summoned me here because…?”
The smile dropped from Couleuver’s face with measured grace. “Well, sir, as you wish. My concern—how shall I say this without giving offense? Your, um, comments in the environs of our facility—well, quite frankly, Professor Bok, you have become something of abête noire in our little community.”
Bok felt his hands tremble. “Ah, I have become a black beast, have I?”
The physician leaned forward in his chair and laughed heartily.
“Your French is much too literal, Professor, if you will forgive my critique of —what is it you were, sir?—a professor of romance literature? No, no, not a beast, sir. But—shall we say, a person to be avoided, here in our happy community.”
“Well, pardon my French once again, doctor, but what the fuck is your problem with my comments, here in your happy community?”
Couleuver seemed to scribble something on a small pad. “Oh, dear! I see we must still do something about that nasty frontal lobe disinhibition phenomenon, Professor. Well, well, hmmmm…we will attend to that.” Couleuver tapped his pen reflectively. “Permit me to come to the point, Mr. Bok.” Coulever’s eyes narrowed as he leaned forward in his seat, and his voice seemed to drop an octave. “You simply cannot go gallivanting around this facility, sir, making scurrilous accusations about my staff. You cannot accuse my staff of trying to poison you, or …”
“I never said anybody was trying to poison me, Couleuver. I just don’t trust the goddamn bottled water you people are always pushing. Furthermore, I don’t know how the hell I got these little red marks on my scalp…” Bok said, tapping his head fiercely.
Couleuver struggled to suppress his annoyance, then smiled benignly.
“Marks, eh? Hmmm. Let me take a look at those, Professor.” The physician rose from his chair and stood beside Bok, scrutinizing the old man’s head. “Hmmmm…yes, yes--fairly typical…erythema, scaling. Yes, and the tell-tale nits, too, I’m afraid. Well, I must say, Mr. Bok—I think you have, indeed, been the victim of a rather dastardly villain, here at Eutopia: it is called pediculosis humanus capitis.”
“Wait a minute. If my Latin hasn’t left me, you’re talking about…head lice?”
“Just so, Professor. Nasty little varmints! Much more common in children than in adults, but, as Dr. Moschella notes in his excellent chapter on skin diseases in the elderly, pediculus capitis does occasionally make his home on the hoary heads of our elderly loved ones.”
Bok’s mouth hung open in a bovine gape. “But…but…how would I ever pick up head lice? Doesn’t that come from living in dirty…”
“Oh, no, not at all, Professor! One can acquire this infestation from direct, head-to-head contact, from shared brushes, and so on. Have you had any…um, intimate contacts of late, sir?”
“Well, no, I…unless…” Bok’s thoughts ran immediately to his toothsome encounter with Stephanie, but he did not wish to relive the humiliation in front of Couleuver.
“No matter, sir. We shall take care of this at once! Of course, we’ll want to launder all your bedclothes, towels and other such fomites. A few applications of some pyrethrin shampoo ought to take care of you just fine. Now, then, Professor, I’ll call the nurse to take you back to your room. Oh, and--I trust, sir, that you will be more considerate of our staff. You shall have my deep gratitude.” Couleuver bowed ever so slightly and once again bared his teeth.
Leo Bok’s room was turned upside down, in an attempt to gather and decontaminate all the fomites—any object that might carry the eggs of what Couleuver termed, “those nasty, bloodsucking ecto-parasites.” During the course of this turmoil, Leo was scheduled to meet with one of the staff social workers, ostensibly to “fill in the gaps” of his social and family history.
Bok sat miserably on the plush, leather chair. The social worker, Miss Doris Hanson—she insisted on the “Miss”—reminded Leo of his 11th grade English teacher, Miss Dorst: a woman of such impeccable propriety that she would not associate with the other teachers in the Faculty Lounge because of “...the foul atmosphere and coarse language.” Miss Hanson, too, radiated that sense of tucked-in, old-school values, and in fact had taught social work many years ago at Bryn Mawr. At about five-feet, three inches tall, with a tight bun of silver-gray hair, the diminutive, sixtyish Miss Hanson pursed her lips and quickly sized Bok up.
“You, I take it, are not very happy here, is that right, Mr. Bok?”
Her speech had the slightly patronizing cadence of one who had spent too much time at New England preparatory academies.
“Well, Madam, you are very perceptive. Or, you have received accurate intelligence from Couleuver’s minions.”
Bok felt oddly intimidated by this tiny, graying lady—perhaps recollecting how Miss Dorst would deftly fillet any obstreperous sixteen-year old at Boston Latin. Bok’s hands began to tremble slightly, and he protectively crossed his arms.
“Oh, it doesn’t take a very keen eye, and certainly not a spy, Mr. Bok, to perceive your unhappiness. One has only to look at the way you are sitting.”
Bok reflexively straightened his back.
“And how, pray tell, am I sitting, Madam?”
“Well, even allowing for your Parkinson’s Disease, Mr. Bok, you are sitting slumped in your chair. Your head is lowered, and your eyes have hardly met mine since you set foot in my office. You are scowling. And, if I may say so, sir, you have not tucked in your shirt.”
“OK, OK, Miss Hanson, you have demonstrated your keen deductive powers. No, I’m not very goddamn happy here. Why should I be? I had my own fu—my own lovely little apartment, lined with rare books and smelling of French-roast coffee. I was a professor of comparative literature, Miss Hanson. Until quite recently, I could even pick up the occasional middle-aged babe, if her cataracts were sufficiently advanced. Now I’m being held in the geriatric version of Stalag 17!”
“Ah,” replied Miss Hanson, tapping her pen against her chin, “and you, no doubt, are Sefton.”
Bok stared blankly at the woman. “Who the hell is Sefton?”
“In the movie, Mr. Bok. William Holden played Sefton in Stalag 17.”
“Oh…yes, I…I believe I do remember that. The GIs in the camp thought Sefton was a traitor, but he wasn’t. He was the guy who spent the night in the women’s barracks.”
“Which is no doubt where you’d rather be, I’ll wager! But here you are, Mr. Bok—and neither of us can really change that, would you agree? So perhaps we can figure out some ways for you to be a little more content here in the old P.O.W. camp.”
Bok could not suppress a little cackle at Miss Hanson’s chutzpah.
“Alright, Miss Dor—ah, Miss Hanson. You may begin the interrogation! ”
Miss Hanson smiled a tight and tolerant smile. She was businesslike and thorough, taking Bok through his early developmental history, family history, school and work history, and all the elements of a competent social services intake. After about forty minutes, however, Miss Hanson put down her pen, sat forward in her chair, and exhaled noisily. She drew down the corners of her mouth, as if in preparation for something singularly unpleasant.
“So, if I understand what you are telling me, Mr. Bok, your brother adapted to all the demands at home by becoming a sort of young Maimonides. And, to this day, he brow-beats you with all your father’s internalized admonitions. You, on the other hand—well, how shall I put it? You became quite the naughty boy, didn’t you? A kind of… asthmatic Oedipus.”
Bok’s mouth fell open for a moment, until a drop of spittle fell on his wrist, startling him. “Look, lady, where the hell do you get off…? I thought the object of this meeting was to help me become happier here in the P.O.W. camp, not to tell me how I really want to jump in bed with my mother!”
“Well,” Miss Hanson said, cocking her head as if to home in on her target, “you did say is that your mother was an artist and that…”
“Not by profession. I told you, she kept the books for my father’s smoked meat business. But…”
“But she loved to sculpt. And she often invited you in to her little studio, where you would assist her in smoothing out all that nice, wet clay. And meanwhile, there was Irwin—good, stolid, responsible Irwin—trying to keep all 613 Jewish commandments, even though your father was hardly an exemplar of Jewish piety.”
Suddenly, Bok felt himself tumbling: pitching headlong down some kind of tunnel, at the end of which was his mother’s little studio in their old Dorchester flat. Bok smelled the rank odor of his father’s spent cigars and the musty scent of wet clay. Just a glorified walk-in closet, really, so close and warm in here. Soft clay wrapped up in those moist towels…that slick, smooth, water clay and my mother spritzing the towels with her misting bottle. ‘You see, Bubeleh, you must first test the clay. Roll it between your fingers, into a cylinder. Bend it double. If it cracks, the clay is too dry. If it bends smoothly, you can use it for sculpting.’ Placing my hands under her own, the two of us stroking the slippery surface of her sculpture…”
“Mr. Bok, are you feeling ill?” Miss Hanson was standing over Bok, her brow deeply furrowed. “Shall I get one of the nurses?”
“What? No—that’s…I’m fine. I just had a strange experience, is all.”
“Well, you seemed very far away. Were you having a hallucination of some sort? What were you experiencing?”
“It’s not important. Just a memory of my mother.”
“Do you want to say more?”
“Alright,” Miss Hanson said, taking her seat. “Alright. Well, how about your father? Do you have any vivid memories of him as well?”
“What I remember, Miss Hanson, is riding around with my father at seven in the morning, before class had even begun at the Lewenberg School, stopping at the delis and grocery stores all along Blue Hill Avenue. I was eleven. I remember my father begging Herb Goldman and Arnie Pitkin to please, please place an order for Blum’s Smoked Meat! My father shrinking down in his baggy wool pants, begging. Oh, and him watching, as the Irish kids teased me. “One who rules over his own spirit is mightier than he who rules over a city.” That was my father’s teaching. You know from Pirke Avot, Miss Hanson? It’s a tractate in the Talmud. My father’s favorite. Irwin knows the thing by heart.”
“So, you were humiliated by your father. At the same time, he insisted that you abide by all the strictures of his Jewish faith. And you’ve been a very naughty boy ever since, haven’t you? Always pushing the envelope, always testing the limits. So--do you see any connection between your behavior toward your father, and that, say, toward Dr. Couleuver?”
Bok began to tremble violently. “Brilliant! Goddamn brilliant, Miss Hanson. Whoop-dee-do! You are what my friend Rizzoli would call a cacasentenze! Well, it’s been a splendid session! Now listen to me: you tell Dr. Couleuver that there is something called Occam’s Razor. Lex parsimoniae, Miss Hanson: the law of parsimony. No Oedipal exigesis needed. My behavior toward Dr. Couleuver can be explained quite simply as a logical reaction to an ophidian, crypto-fascist, bottom-feeder!”
Bok sat in his room, leafing through the letters Irwin had left, trying to comprehend it all. You spend ten, twenty years with someone. You sleep with her, eat with her, share the mouthwash, stink up the bathroom together. You penetrate the closest, tightest spaces of her body. And what the hell do you really know about anybody?
In all, there were more than forty letters from Ruth to Stephanie, all from the two year period in which the young woman had summered with them in Florida.
Leo is out tonight, doing one of his so-called late classes. God only knows what he’s really up to, or who or what he’s shtupping these days. Does it really matter? A man capable of screwing his own brother’s wife is capable of anything. But, my darling, when I think of you, that’s the only thing in my head all day! Your smile, your hair—the way your arm melts into mine when I sit behind you, guiding your paint-brush. I know this is not the way an aunt is supposed to think about her 17-year-old niece, but this is how I feel. Do you feel the same way, sweetheart? I hope so. I know there is a line we can’t cross, but I admit I think about it often….
deep into his boxer shorts. Ah, such hands!Please, God, don’t let me piss my pants…
“So like I said, Uncle Leo, a little tender loving care…”
A river of flowing, black hair swept over Bok’s lap, as Stephanie bent to her task. Bok felt the steam-heat of the young woman’s mouth against his unfurling flesh. Amazing how the old bear can still stand up at all, faced with a bit of honey. Moisture, suction, moaning, straining, suction. Please, God, don’t let me have a stroke. Not a bad way to go, though--different strokes for different folks. Incest is best, relatively speaking. Not related by blood, though, Stephanie. God, she does it better than Carrie Osborne...
Suddenly, Bok felt a sensation like none in his seventy years of life. It seemed to begin as an explosion deep inside his head, as if a grenade had gone off at the base of his skull. The sensation shot down to the tip of Bok’s penis and flared there momentarily, before settling as a burning ember in his rectum. Bok’s vision darkened into an inky haze. He thought he heard himself scream, but he was in so much pain, he wondered if perhaps this was some kind of auditory hallucination. When Bok looked up, he saw Stephanie standing near the door, smoothing out her dress and daubing her mouth with a handkerchief. He gazed down and saw a small drop of blood on the tip of his now flaccid and humiliated organ. The woman’s central incisors had left two purplish, crescent-shaped bruises on what Dr. Couleuver would later refer to, ceremoniously, as “that most sensitive area of the male nether-regions, the glans penis”.
“That’s for what you did to Aunt Ruth, you fucking philandering pervert,” Stephanie growled, “and for that night you copped a feel! Have a nice life in hell, Uncle Leo!”
It took Leo Bok three days to recover from Stephanie’s feral ministrations. Bok decided, now that he could rise to his feet without pain, to pay another visit to Binky’s Brews, having found himself thinking of Binky Behrenfeld rather more than he might have expected.
“Hey, pilgrim! Long time, no see!” came the chirpy greeting from behind the coffee cart.
“I had a little…physical challenge, but I’m OK now. So, how are things in the world of coffee? Same old grind?”
Whether missing or forgiving Bok’s feeble word-play, Binky Behrenfeld shrugged.
“Oh, not much changes around here, Leo, except for the customers who can’t come back. Speaking of which, you probably know about the big lecture today, right?”
“Lecture? No. Who’s giving it?”
“The Great Man himself, right in the main auditorium. Couleuver gives these big spiels at least once a month and always gets a big crowd. You know, like lemmings to the sea.”
Leo Bok was momentarily distracted as he watched Binky open a door at the base of her coffee cart, revealing a large, dark space.
“Wow, Binky—that’s an awfully big under-carriage for a coffee cart. More like the trunk of a Lincoln Continental!”
At this, the woman broke out into a wide grin, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand, as if to shush Leo Bok. “You don’t know the half of it, my friend.”
“Well, let’s hear at least a quarter of it. In the mean time, I’ll take a large cappuccino with a little cinnamon on top.”
“Good choice. Well, Leo, how shall I put it? Some of my friends over the years have come to depend upon my—shall we say, my importation services. You know, you can’t get any real liquor in this freakin’ place. Part of Herr Couleuver’s health regimen, you understand.”
“So…let me guess. You import a little contraband inside your…?” At this, Leo rapped the base of the coffee cart with this knuckle.
“I won’t tell if you won’t, hon. I managed to sneak in two cases of 18-year-old Chivas Regal once. Right on up to Joe and Ida Feinberg’s place. Nice couple, but they’re gone now.”
“Oh. They moved, or…?”
“Moved, my tuchas! Let’s say they were “permanently relocated”. Listen, Leo, we need to be careful around here. I told you, the walls have ears. My suggestion is, go to Couleuver’s talk today. It’ll be an eye-opener.” Binky Behrenfeld smiled, and placed her hand on Leo’s. “Well, hon, gotta move up to the outdoor bistro. See you ‘round campus!”
Bok decided that he quite liked Binky Behrenfeld’s raspy voice, absurdly chipper demeanor, and large breasts. He caught a glimpse of her from the rear, too, as she maneuvered the large, motorized cart away from him. Twenty years ago, this old broad had a truly great tuchas, Bok decided. Even now, not bad at all.Ah,Aphrodite Kallipygos!
Suddenly, before Bok could sip his cappuccino, his visual field was flooded with images that seemed uncannily real. There was Stefano Rizzoli, standing in front of a trattoria in Venice, sipping a caffè corretto con grappa, looking just as he did on that European trip they took together, more than forty-five years ago. It was the summer of their first year in grad school, and neither of them was attached at that point. They had drunk themselves sumptuously through Rome, Florence, Venice, and the ancient Renaissance town of Urbino, eventually winding up in the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. Rizzoli had wealthy cousins living in the walled, medieval village of San Gimignano, and his family had put the two young men up for a week, in grand style. After that, Rizzoli had insisted that they get off the well-worn “tourist path”, in order to see the “unspoiled wetlands” of Siracusa. Accordingly, the two students headed down to southeastern Sicily, camping out near what Rizzoli had called, mellifluously, i pantani Longarini—the Longarini marshes. The wetlands were indeed desolately beautiful, but after two nights of being devoured by mosquitoes, Bok decided he much preferred the hectic night life of Rome. Straightaway, he and Rizzoli headed back to the Eternal City, holing up in a seedy pensione off the Via della Croce. Unfortunately—“Leo being Leo,” as Rizzoli would put it--Bok managed to pick up a grand case of the clap, from a stunning young puttana who had accosted him on the Spanish Steps. This malady prompted an urgent visit to a nearby pronto soccorso—something like our emergency clinics--where a disgruntled, elderly doctor scolded Leo for “dipping in to the local patacca.”
“Sir? May I help you? You look a little disoriented.”
An attractive young woman in a nurse’s uniform stood before Bok, her hand gently grasping his shoulder.
“Oh, Christ…I’m sorry!” Bok replied, his brain still wrapped in some weird but pleasant gauze. “It all seemed so damn real. Rizzoli, the caffè corretto…Well, anyway, Miss, I was….I mean, I would like to go to that lecture.”
“Dr. Couleuver’s talk? That’s in the main auditorium, sir. I can take you there myself.”
Bok walked unsteadily beside the nurse, grasping the handles of his two-post walker as if to draw strength from them, until they reached the auditorium. Outside the massive hall, a placard read,
Lecture at 1 pm:
Old Age and the Vital Elderly: New Research, New Hope.
B. F. Couleuver M.D., Physician-in-Chief, Eutopia Residential
Community; Clinical Professor of Geriatrics,
University of the Commonweal
What the hell sort of University is that? Bok thought. He had been in Florida for more than twenty years and had never heard of the place. And, come to think of it: what the hell kind of name is “Couleuver”? Sounds like something else in French, but not exactly…a reptile? An insect? What am I forgetting?” After thanking the nurse who had escorted him, Bok headed into the huge auditorium. The great hall struck him as better suited to pep talks from the CEO of General Motors than to instructive chats on bowel care or osteoarthritis. A giant video screen dominated the front of the hall, beneath which was a small podium.
As Binky had foretold, the talk was drawing a big crowd. Searching around for some familiar faces, or at least some more like his own, Bok found few of either. In the month or so since his arrival at Eutopia, he had mostly kept to himself, save for the visits from Irwin and the calamitous oral encounter with Stephanie. Besides Binky, Leo Bok realized, he knew almost none of the regular denizens here.
More puzzling, though, was the appearance of the crowd. Again, the Geritol commercial! Bok muttered under his breath. With the exception of perhaps a dozen wizened elders pushing two- or four-post walkers, and another five or six in wheelchairs, nearly the entire audience appeared to be in preternaturally good shape. The men stood ramrod-straight, flashing Hollywood smiles and glad-handing each other. Casually dressed in khaki pants and short-sleeve, Izod polo shirts, these men fairly rippled with biceps and triceps muscles. Only their meticulously-trimmed grey or white hair pointed to what Leo assumed was their advanced age. As for the women, these were not the wilted crones Bok had expected to see in a nursing facility, if that term applied to Dr. Couleuver’s Eutopia. Bok could only marvel at how time and gravity seemed to have been defied in the flesh of these zaftig women. With rare exception, they had the buoyant breasts and well-toned thighs of much younger women. The telltale signs of aging—the turkey wattles, crow’s feet, and finer lineaments that normally crease the brow—seemed remarkably faint, so far as Bok could discern. My god!These women are genuine, geriatric pieces of ass! Whatever the hell is in that bottled water, maybe I should start drinking it!
The lights in the auditorium rapidly dimmed and brightened. The audience—which numbered well over a thousand—began to hush itself. The Great Man, they knew, was about to step to the podium.
Dr. B.F. Couleuver sauntered up to the microphone, resplendent in a crisp, blue seersucker suit. He smiled, and the audience seemed to bask in the man’s supernal radiance. Couleuver’s image—enlarged twenty-fold upon the huge screen—seemed nearly to envelope the room.
“You, my friends,” Couleuver said forcefully, extending his arms to the crowd, “You are what keeps this ol’ country doctor young!”
At this, there was appreciative laughter and ripples of amused applause.
“My friends,” he continued, “it is your unflagging effort and support that has made our program at Eutopia the envy of the entire health-care community. No, no, please—no applause. I am merely stating the facts. Of course, you know that my philosophy of geriatric care is actually quite simple. It begins with the premise that old age should not be something to be feared. Rather, old age should be enjoyed with all the vigor and enthusiasm we bring to youth. And, of course, we all know that youth is wasted on the young!”
At this, the audience guffawed appreciatively. Leo Bok began to shift in his seat and felt the muscles in his legs twitch slightly.
“Ladies and gentlemen, for too many years, we have assumed that old age means decline and decay; that the elderly must be condemned to a life of increasing incapacity—or, as William Shakespeare so bleakly put it, in his play, As You Like It, old age is “…second childishness and mere oblivion…sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
“No, my friends, I say, No! to the Bard! Old age need not bring such decay or oblivion. We now have harnessed the powers of science in service of the flesh. We—that’s right, we here at Eutopia—have been at the very forefront of geriatric research and treatment. We have found ways not merely to improve vitality in the elderly, but to ensure that it is the vital elderly who improve!” At this, Bok felt the hairs on the back of his neck prick up.
Dr. Couleuver smiled beatifically. His voice became suddenly softer, though no less urgent.
“My friends, I am going to give you a word today. And you know that words are very powerful. My goodness, the ancient Greeks called the word “Logos”, and identified it with the very essence of the Godhead! So—here is a word for you: telomere. A beautiful word, is it not? And what is a telomere? Well, you know, at heart, I’m just a plain ol’ country doctor. Yep--grew up and spent most of my life in a little town near Loxahatchee, Florida. So I’m not much for complicated explanations! So, my friends, a telomere is basically just like that little piece of metal that wraps around the end of your shoelace, to keep it from unraveling. Some folks call that an “aglet”. Now inside the cells of our body, we have genetic material you all are probably familiar with—that’s our DNA. Our genetic blueprint. Well, a telomere is also made up of DNA, and its job is to stabilize those bigger strands of DNA we call chromosomes. Just like that little aglet that keeps the shoelace from fraying at the ends! Well, it turns out these telomeres seem to slow down the aging process. The longer your telomeres, the slower you age, all other things being equal. I know, it sounds kind of like science fiction, but we have solid proof of this! And here at Eutopia, we are doing some of the world’s leading research on this. In fact, we now have the ability to examine individual telomeres, and deduce from their length the likely longevity of that individual! Now, folks, I just know what you’re thinking. Who on earth would want to know such a thing about himself? Isn’t that like—well, like looking into the mind of God? Well, my friends, let me assure you—we have no wish here at Eutopia to compete with the Almighty!”
At this, the audience applauded, and a few of the men held forth with a robust “Here! Here!”
“But what do you think the Almighty would say if we could do something about extending your life, or the life of your loved ones, my friends? Do you think He—or She!—might approve of that? Well, you know, as a physician, I feel an obligation to act as a humble instrument in the hand of the Almighty. Oh, I know: some folks think that doctors just like to play God! And maybe some of my colleagues do! But a real doctor—one who feels called to the profession—knows that his calling is to improve life. Our research here at Eutopia is laying the foundation for that. Because, ladies and gentlemen, if we can figure out what that ol’ telomere is up to in any given individual, there may be ways we can beef up that little guy. And, folks: when you strengthen your telomere, you lengthen your life.
Of course, we also do a whole lot of common-sense things here at Eutopia, when it comes to improving and extending life. Those of you who swear by our Eutopia Springs water—I know, some of you who prefer harder stuff sweat at it!—well, you know that this special spring water is just chock full of healthy vitamins and minerals. I recently had a chat with one of our new residents about the magnesium content on our special brew—and you know, folks, magnesium is very good for the nerves and muscles….”
By this time, Leo Bok had dozed off. Recently, his sleep had been disturbed by unusual muscle spasms and bizarre, rather surrealistic dreams. A nurse practitioner who had seen Bok speculated that both phenomena might be related to “the dopamine kick” from his medication. The dreams, however, had struck Bok as unlikely to have emerged simply from the random surge of dopamine molecules against his flagging neurons. Now, as he sat snoozing in the lecture hall, the nightmare had returned: Leo was standing buck naked in front of Ruth, back in their old Cambridge apartment. The old TV with its rabbit ears and “halo light” was glowing in the background. Ruth was naked from the waist up. She was still young and attractive, but her right breast had been removed; in its place, only an ugly mastectomy scar was visible. Standing in the room with both of them was Dvorah, clad in a very seductive, black leather corset and fishnet stockings. Around her head was a huge swarm of bees, to which Dvorah seemed oblivious. Suddenly, the bees darted en masse at Leo, stinging him fiercely on the head.
Bok was startled awake, vaguely aware of an elbow nudging his arm.
“Sorry, but you were snoring,” said a distinguished, white-haired gentleman in a navy-blue blazer, sitting to Bok’s right. The man smiled tightly at Bok. “And you were making odd noises.”
“Sorry…” Bok mumbled, his mind trying to surface through layers of sodden sleep. “Must have dozed off.”
“Uh-huh,” said the man, concealing his disgust behind a toothy grimace.
“And so, my friends,” Dr. Couleuver intoned, “to conclude: let me remind you again of our motto, here at Eutopia: “Health for the Healthy!” And may you all carry with you the strength that God intended you to have! Thank you very much.”
Leo Bok sat on his bed, awaiting an unscheduled visit from Irwin—something had come up regarding their late father’s estate, and Irwin needed to speak with Leo “right away”. What, for godssake, could come up now, with Pop dead twenty years?
Since Couleuver’s lecture, Bok had been ruminating about Dvorah, and the dream of the bees. He was no psychoanalyst, and, indeed, Bok had always been deeply suspicious of “Freudian” interpretations of literature. Same goes for Marxist and “feminist” interpretation—just procrustean beds made by true believers.But still, you gotta wonder: it is damn peculiar that Dvorah means “bee” in Hebrew. A strong, respected woman, this Dvorah, or Deborah. Too strong for old Rabbi Nachman, who changed the translation of “Dvorah” from “bee” to “wasp! Too bad for Dvorah: one of the few strong female role models in the Tanakh. So maybe my screwed up brain was playing little word games, showing me Dvorah as a swarm of bees? These days, dreams seem more real, and life, less real—like some wall being eroded away. And as for time—forget about it! As the great clock runs down, all the little clocks run wild—especially the clock of desire. Senza speme, vivemo in disio. And then, the strangest damn thing: waking up the other day with those tiny, tender areas on my scalp. Like little nips or stings. Bedbugs, maybe? Or maybe, as Irwin would say, I’m suffering from a psychosemitic disorder!
Irwin entered his brother’s room after a perfunctory knock, carrying the omnipresent brown leather briefcase. “Hello, Leo, how are you?” Dressed in his customary charcoal-grey suit, Irwin bent over Leo’s bed and placed one hand behind his brother’s back. With his other hand, Irwin made a brisk rubbing motion across Leo’s breastbone.
“What the hell was that, cardiac massage?”
“Hey, don’t be a wiseass, Leo. I had to re-schedule two days of surgery to get down here.”
“OK, Mr. Put-Upon Surgeon! So what’s the groisseh gedilleh that brings you so urgently to the geriatric netherworld?”
“Well, it…as I said, it has to do with Pop. Do you remember that meat franchise he ran, for that guy up in Montreal?”
“Do I remember?” Leo cackled. “How could I forget? With those ads for ‘Blum’s Smoked Meats: A Montreal Tradition for 80 years!’”
“Right. Well, you know, Pop never made much money all those years, selling this Canadian guy’s smoked meat in Dorchester. Remember how they always resented Pop at the G & G Deli, because they thought his meat was traif?”
Suddenly, Irwin’s voice grew muffled. In Leo’s visual field, Irwin’s image seemed to shrink, as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. In a sunburst of colors and images, Leo Bok felt himself propelled back nearly sixty years, to Blue Hill Avenue. Yeah, Irwin, look! There’s the old Martin Theatre, the G&G Deli. There’s the Prime Kosher Market, the Blue Hill Credit Union, Waldman Candies. Pop with his early morning runs to the grocers, the restaurants, trying to make a sale. There’s me, along for the ride, standing next to Pop, pleading with Herb Goldman.
“This is the real thing, Goldman, I’m telling you. This meat comes to me twice a week, straight from Blum’s. A Montreal tradition for 80 years! You know how with some brisket, they add chemicals? Not Blum’s Smoked Meat! Blum’s prepares smoked meat the old-fashioned way, Goldman-- using a secret blend of fine herbs and spices marinated for 10 days. Blum’s meats are smoked daily and contain no preservatives! I can get you twenty pounds…”
“Bok, let me tell you something, as a friend,” says Goldman the grocer, “This Canadian crap you’re pushing is traif, garbage! If your boy weren’t here, I’d use stronger language. And you, my friend, for all your highfalutin rabbinical beliefs--you are turning into a traifnyak!”
“What, traifnyak! Goldman? You know I keep a kosher house. You know I read my boys every day from Pirke Avot! This Blum’s meat, this is just business!”
“Leo?” Irwin’s voice broke in. “Leo! What the hell are you looking at? I’m telling you about Pop’s estate.”
“Sorry, uh…I was day-dreaming. So what’s the problem with the estate, after twenty years?”
“Well, you may not remember, but what money Pop had—maybe a hundred thousand, tops—it all went into a trust fund. Pop had worked it all out with Kimmelman, you remember, the lawyer who used to play pinochle with Pop. Anyway, I just found out about a lawsuit against the trustees—that’s you and me, Leo.”
“What kind of bullshit is this? Who suing, and for what?”
“Well, that’s the interesting thing. It’s our lovely niece, Stephanie.”
Leo Bok felt the blood drain from his face. The pain associated with the wound Stephanie had inflicted flamed back to life.
“Leo, are you alright? You look like a ghost! Look, just tell me: she was out here recently, right? You saw Stephanie?
“Yes. I did see her. The visit did not go-- especially well. What is she claiming the trustees—I mean, what is she saying we did?”
“Well, apparently, Pop had some valuable jewels—diamonds, gold, that sort of stuff—that I never even knew about. Heirlooms from his family in Poland that they managed to smuggle out before the Holocaust. Anyway, Stephanie somehow got wind of this and got in touch with Kimmelman. She tracked it all down and concluded that Pop had intended some of the jewelry for Stephanie, as a sort of dowry for when she married. So now, Stephanie is claiming we mismanaged the trust—you know, trying to screw her out of her inheritance.”
Leo sat in silence for a minute. He felt his jaw muscles tightening. Finally, he smiled and let out a little cackle.
The great clock of your life is slowing down, and the small clocks run wild. For this you were born.
--Stanley Kunitz, King of the River
“Mr. Bok! A pleasure, sir! I’m Dr. Couleuver. Please allow me to welcome you to Eutopia. I am delighted that you are joining our community of enlightened elders.”
Leo Bok, still seated in his wheelchair, silently passed a small amount of flatus and looked the man up and down.
“It’s Professor Bok,” he said, tugging at his beard. “And I’m in your enlightened community because my brother the fucking doctor put me here.”
Dr. B. Folwell Couleuver had extended his hand in welcome, but now let it fall theatrically to his side. At six-foot two, with his lightly-pomaded mane of white hair and meticulously trimmed Van Dyke, Couleuver towered over the squinting, bedraggled Bok. The medical director of Eutopia had dealt many times with Bok’s type. Summoning up a lifetime of southern decorum, country doctor savvy, and brandy-laced charm, the great man sighed and smiled.
“Pro-fessah Bok. Of course! Sir, you have my heartfelt apologies. Your brother—Irwin, I believe—certainly acquainted me with your stellar academic credentials. English teacher, isn’t that right, sir?”
“No,” Bok replied, furiously twisting the hair on his chin. “No, Dr. Couleuver, it is not right. I am—that is, I was until recently—Professor of Comparative and Romance Literature at Broward-Dade Community College.”
Couleuver smiled broadly, revealing a fortune’s worth of perfect teeth. “And I’m sure your family is very proud, Professor. Well, let’s not tarry out here in the atrium. I’m sure you’d like a tour of our facility. My associate, Miss Clement, will be coming in just a minute and…”
“No tour. Just get me the hell to my room.”
“Well, just as you like, sir. There’s plenty of time to look around, learn about our philosophy here at Eutopia. I’m sure you’ll find that once you settle in, Professor, things will look a whole lot brighter.”
At that moment, Dr. Irwin Bok strode into the atrium, beads of perspiration breaking out on his forehead. Despite the late April heat, Irwin Bok wore his customary charcoal grey suit. His black, horn-rimmed glasses had slipped down beneath the bridge of his nose. “Hello, Dr. Couleuver,” he said, briskly shaking the other man’s hand. “Sorry I’m late. Had a little trouble parking. I see you’ve been getting acquainted with my brother. Some place, eh, Leo?” Irwin Bok lightly tapped his brother’s shoulder, as if to inoculate him against Irwin’s own doubts.
Indeed, Eutopia was some place. The atrium alone might convince you that you were in the lobby of some posh hotel in Miami. Sitting amidst the potted palms and dark, mahogany furniture, you half-expected a bow-tied waiter in a dinner jacket to take your order for drinks. The fluorescent corridors and alcohol-swabbed atmosphere of the typical nursing home were not to be found in Eutopia. Even the color scheme of the lobby had been created by Couleuver himself, based on “principles of behavioral science and esthetics”. Overhead, the great, domed skylight filtered the Florida sun through huge panes of lavender and robin’s-egg blue.
“Yeah, some place,” Leo Bok replied, allowing a thin ribbon of bowel gas to escape his clenched cheeks. “How do you get laid around here?”
“You see,” Irwin Bok said to Couleuver, shaking his head, “You see what I mean, Dr. Couleuver? This is what I’ve been telling you--the behavioral disinhibition. Plus the memory problems. This is him now.”
“Hey, Doctor Smarty-Pants! Do you see me sitting here or not? Am I dead to you already? What’s with the “him”?”
“Well, alright then, folks, there you go!” Couleuver said amiably, clapping his hands together as if to put an end to all the unpleasantness. The bland vacuity of his comment left Leo Bok slightly baffled. “Time to get our new guest settled in.”
“I can take Leo to his room, Dr. Couleuver, if that’s alright,” Irwin said brightly.
“Well, sure, that’s fine. I’ll bet our English professor here is pretty tired, and we can run him through orientation tomorrow. Gentlemen,” Couleuver said, extending his hand and bowing slightly, “it has been a sincere pleasure.”
“Can you believe this putz actually bowed?” Leo Bok said to his brother, watching Couleuver saunter down the corridor. “Rhett Butler the geriatrician.”
“Leo, will you please—just please try to cooperate, OK?”
Irwin Bok wheeled his brother down a short corridor, and pushed the button on the elevator.
“My brother sends me to Auschwitz-by-the-Sea, and he wants me to cooperate.”
The elevator opened on the third floor to reveal yet another gigantic atrium, in the center of which was a large, circular desk.
“Isn’t this impressive?” Irwin asked. “I read about this atrium, Leo. It’s called “The Panopticon.” Couleuver designed it himself, after an idea from—some philosopher. Jeremy Bentham, I think. The nurses can see every patient’s room, right from the desk.”
“The greatest good for the greatest number,” Leo replied, smirking. “Wonderful.”
“If you give this place half a chance, I think you may like it here, Leo. Anyway, let’s make sure we get you to the right room.”
As Irwin Bok leaned over the circular desk and chatted with the nurse--a large, Haitian-sounding woman with a pleasant smile—Leo surveyed the new territory. To his surprise, he did not see the expected nursing-home retinue of Parkinsonian men and doddering women, shambling along with their four-post walkers. In truth, the denizens of Eutopia looked unusually spry. Like the actors in the old Geritol commercials, Leo thought, all perfectly coiffed, tanned and smiling. His mind rolled back forty-five years to the apartment he and Ruth had in Cambridge, when Leo was a furiously thin and ambitious grad student at Harvard. “Geritol” and “The Jack LaLanne Show” on that old RCA Victor TV with its “halo light” and bent rabbit ears. He and Ruth were barely scraping together enough to pay the rent, but their life seemed like heaven at the time. The free-loving 60s were just unfolding, but already, the air was heavy with exotic ideas, funky smells, and the first sounds of revolution. In 1960, Leo recalled fondly, some Harvard undergrads started publishing the now-famous “Let’s Go” guides to Europe, and he and Ruth had devoured the fifteen page pamphlet with the greedy joy of would-be Bohemians. In early 1961, Leo had caught one of Dylan’s first performances in a Greenwich Village coffee house, and felt as if some primal spring within him had finally gushed to life. Meanwhile, Leo’s best friend, Stefano Rizzoli, had introduced Leo and Ruth not only to the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, but also to the pleasures of savoring two or three bottles of chianti on the roof of their apartment building, overlooking Harvard Square.
Yet even then, Leo had ventured into the darker corners of the fledgling counter-culture. Kerouac’s great, subversive riff, On the Road, had appeared just a few years earlier—reportedly written on long rolls of tracing paper, so that Kerouac didn't have to load paper into his typewriter--and a bunch of Harvard grad students had fervently adopted the author’s free-wheeling attitude toward pot. Leo had joined a few of their “High Tea” sessions, but had not told Ruth about it. Even the easy-going Rizzoli had voiced some qualms about “pickling your brain with that merdoso stuff”, but Bok had shrugged off his friend’s concern. There was something dizzying and delectable in stepping over this boundary, and—notwithstanding the potential legal repercussions—Bok was in no hurry to step back.
“Leo, stop spinning wool, I’m talking to you!” came the familiar barking cadence. Irwin Bok—though three years younger than Leo—had been this hectoring, admonishing voice ever since the boys were old enough to ride bikes: Irwin, the best student Boston Latin had seen in a generation, and Leo—the asthmatic screw-up, whose health depended on his methodical and punctilious younger brother. “We’re all squared away, Leo. Let’s get you to your room.”
“I can walk to my room.”
“Too risky. We don’t want you walking during an “off” episode.”
Yes, the Parkinson’s Disease could play havoc with his nervous system, now that the “L-dopa honeymoon” (those romantic neurologists!) was over. Some days, he would feel well enough to walk around the block, back in his old Coral Springs neighborhood; other days, his arms and legs would feel like lead pipes.
Suddenly, Bok’s attention was captured by a couple of workmen pushing a large dolly past the nursing station. As the platform rolled by, Bok could see at least a dozen cases of what looked like bottled water, labeled “Eutopia Springs.” So what the hell is this? They have their own Fountain of Youth here? Maybe that’s why everybody looks as if they’re about to book a cruise.
“You’re gonna like it here, Leo,” Irwin said amiably, again with the pats on the shoulder. “This place is like the Hilton.”
Twenty years ago, the two brothers had stood together on the frozen ground of Ohabei Shalom cemetery in East Boston, attending the unveiling of their father’s headstone. It was also their father’s yahrzeit—the annual anniversary of a loved one’s death. Unlike Leo, Irwin had come to visit their father’s grave before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well, following the custom among some orthodox Jews. Five years earlier, Leo and Irwin had lain their mother to rest here, too.
Ruth—not yet estranged from Leo, but already silent and remote—stood next to her husband, clutching at her meager wool coat and shifting from foot to foot, miserable in the December chill. Irwin’s wife, Dvorah--darkly voluptuous in her long, suede coat--stood arm-in-arm with her husband. Her eyes nervously searched Leo’s face, then darted suddenly away when Irwin conspicuously cleared his throat.
“We need to take the shroud off the matzevah now, Leo,” Irwin had whispered.
When Leo stared blankly back at him, Irwin frowned and said, “Off the headstone, shmendrik. Come on, let’s go.”
Feeling a bout of wheezing coming on, Leo grabbed the albuterol inhaler from the pocket of his overcoat, closed his lips tightly around the mouthpiece, took a deep breath, and quickly pressed down on the container.
The brothers lifted off the heavy velvet shroud.
“I can’t believe there’s nobody here from Pop’s synagogue,” Irwin whispered to Leo, “especially after you called the rabbi. If we don’t have a minyan, we can’t say the Mourner’s Kaddish.”
“Shit!” Leo said in what evidently was more than a whisper, in as much as Ruth and Dvorah both flashed looks of alarm.
“Don’t tell me,” Irwin said slowly, shooting Leo a look that could have felled Medusa. “Let me guess. You never called the rabbi, did you?”
“It was on my list. I’m sorry, Irwin, so much came up this past week, and…”
“Don’t apologize to me, Leo. Apologize to Pop! Nothing has changed with you in forty years, has it? Well, we’ll just have to say the Yizkor instead. Is your asthma OK? You look terrible.”
For more than forty years, it had been this way between the brothers: Irwin taking care of his older, sicker brother, while simultaneously cuffing him on the head. Leo looked over at Dvorah, hungrily taking in her flaring hips. Such thoughts, even here at my parents’ grave site. But what could he do? Evidently, God—if there was a God—had made Irwin healthy, devout, and pure of heart, whereas Leo was…what was it his grad school pal Rizzoli had said once? That Leo was, “always allupato.” “It’s hard to capture the Italian sense in English,” his friend had explained, sipping a glass of Chianti. “The word is derived from lupo—wolf—and the expression literally means, “starved like a wolf.” But, well—“sexually excited” is probably close enough, Leo.”
Irwin Bok silently recited the Yizkor, a prayer less sanctified than the older ones of the Jewish liturgy. Because of your screw-up, Leo could almost hear Irwin say, Pop winds up with the shlumpf prayer! Aft tsi’lehaches, ahf tseloches! No matter what you do, it still comes out wrong!”
Irwin reached into his coat pocket, removed a small, polished stone, and placed it at their father’s graveside—a symbol of permanence. The four of them—Leo, Irwin, Ruth, and Dvorah—shuffled across the cemetery grounds and piled into Leo’s beat-up 1980 Buick. They had planned a late lunch over at Irwin’s house, and Leo was famished. Ruth, knowing much more than Leo imagined, twisted around in her seat and wolf-whistled at Dvorah. “That’s some sexy coat, babe! Just what did you have to do for it?”
Miss Julia Wade Clement sat in a chair facing Leo’s bed. He was having another terrible bout of shaking, and Miss Clement—Eutopia’s Director of Nursing—had decided it was best that Leo be interviewed at the bedside. Miss Clement, who looked to be in her early thirties, sat with her long legs crossed, a clip-board balanced precariously in her lap, and peppered Bok with questions. In another life, Leo thought, I’d have your skirt hoisted up over that lovely goyishe tuchas, with you bent over the side of…
“Mr. Bok? Are you with me? Are we having a little trouble tracking today?”
Miss Clement smiled sweetly and brushed aside an errant strand of honey-blond hair. She reminded Bok of a student of his—Carrie somebody or other—whom he had fooled around with during his third year teaching at Broward-Dade Community College. Right:Carrie Osborne…oh, yes—that first sweet, time in her dorm room. Her roommate was—what was the story? Visiting her boyfriend, and Carrie had invited me in to see, ostensibly, a first draft of some paper she was having trouble with. I was, how old? Maybe fifty, fifty-one—still in pretty good shape. Ruth hadn’t left yet, but I was already trolling around among the undergrads, practically sniffing their panties. But what the hell am I doing here? Whose room is this, anyway? This girl does look like Carrie, but…
“And so these are some of our rules and procedures, Mr. Bok. Mr. Bok? Look, I know this is hard to take in all at once. But I do need to ask a few more routine questions. For example, are you having more difficulty with your memory these days?” Miss Clement held her pen poised above the checklist of symptoms.
“If I were, Carrie, how would I remember it?” Bok replied.
“Actually, Mr. Bok, my name is Julia, and I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”
“Yes to you anytime, my dear.” Bok’s hands shook with their usual pill-rolling tremor, but he felt a warm and friendly twitching in his groin. “By the way, what’s with this place? I see people who look like they walked off the beach in Miami. I thought this is a nursing home.”
“Well, that’s a very good question, Mr. Bok. You see, our philosophy at Eutopia is that a healthy mind leads to a healthy body. We work very hard with our residents here to achieve the proper attitude, as Dr. Couleuver has so well articulated in his lectures and writings. And we believe that this proper mental outlook leads to improved physical well-being.”
“Mens sana in corpore sano, eh?”
“I’m sorry? Was that Italian, Mr. Bok?”
“It was Juvenal, darling.”
“Oh, now let’s not put ourselves down, Mr. Bok. There was nothing juvenile about it. I just wondered…”
“Juvenal! The poet, for Godssake! “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano." “You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body." You, by the way, don’t do bad at all in the body department, my dear.”
Miss Clement made of sort of repetitive clucking sound in her throat. “That’s very cute, Mr. Bok. But we really do need to get back to our intake evaluation. So, in terms of memory problems…”
Can’t even offend properly these days.But how did this happen? Wasn’t I just putting a volume of Mann’s stories up on my shelf? I remember something about leaving the damn stove on and burning an omelet or something. Irwin and the social worker coming over and filling out all kinds of fucking forms. My library—I was standing in my library and had just put a first edition of Faust up on the shelf. The memory problems, burning things—this is what the social worker was bitching about, why they needed to put me away. And the time I patted that sweet nurse’s aide on the ass. What does Irwin call it? “Disinhibtion”. Ugly word, that. Doctors are the Kings of the Ugly Word. I call it life, eros, chaim, a handful of gorgeous rump. I left the stove on, that was it. I remember the smoke alarm going off, security people running in to my apartment. What, Irwin? You can’t find me a cook? I have to be sent here? Straightaway dangerous, and handled with a Couleuver, eh? All my beautiful books surrounding me—the leather smell of the old covers, the musty paper that has nourished me my whole life. You and some damn social worker, filling out the guardianship forms—locking me away, all for burning some lousy eggs! Now look—trapped in Gilgul—reincarnated as a character in a Geritol commercial. In the Zohar we find: “All souls are subject to the trials of transmigration; and men do not know the designs of the Most High with regard to them.” Yes, but to end up here? Sitting with Carrie Osborne drinking Eutopia Springs water?
“Earth to Mr. Bok, Earth to Mr. Bok!” came Miss Clement’s chirpy voice, as she moved her hand rapidly from side to side. “Are we drifting off again? I do need to go over your list of meds, Mr. Bok. Now, I know there’s the Sinemet and the albuterol inhaler. Are there any other prescription or over-the-counter remedies you take?”
At this point, both Bok and Miss Clement were startled by two sharp volleys of rap-rap-rap rap on the door.Rizzoli’s old calling card—the first momentous notes of Beethoven’s fifth.
“Ah,” came the familiar voice, “and how is Herr Professor Bok doing, whirling around down here in the second circle?”
“Rizzoli!” Leo Bok exclaimed, his face suddenly unfrozen. “Come in, come in! The second circle, indeed. Maybe this young woman is the fair Francesca, eh?”
Noticing the discomfited expression on Miss Clement’s face, Rizzoli bowed slightly and extended his hand toward the young woman.
“Please permit me, Signorina. I am Stefano Rizzoli, an old friend of Professor Bok’s. And as for our foolish repartee, we were just having a bit of fun with an old poem.”
Stefano Rizzoli stood holding a bag of onion bagels in the crook of his arm, his eyebrows cocked in their perpetually quizzical expression. Leo Bok took in the face and figure of the man he had called his friend since their graduate school days: the same coat-hanger frame, now slightly stooped at the shoulders; the same tapered, wispy moustache that gave the musicologist a vaguely feline expression; and the perennial, gravely-etched “M” that had marked Rizzoli’s brow since their student days. His once sleek, brown hair had given way to unruly shocks of gray—but otherwise, Stefano Rizzoli had changed little over the past forty-five years. Back in the mid -80s, both he and Bok had wound up on the faculty of Broward-Dade Community College and had remained close until Bok’s dismissal four years ago. Since then—and partly as a consequence of Bok’s slowly progressive illness--the two kept in touch, but did not see each other often.
Miss Clement shook Rizzoli’s hand. “It’s nice meeting you, Mr. Rizzoli. I can see you two have a lot to chat about. How about if I come back later, Mr. Bok?”
Rizzoli carefully followed Miss Clement’s ample, swaying hips as she exited the room. “Aphrodite Kallipygos, eh, Leo?”
“ You’re right about the nice ass, Rizzoli, but—Aphrodite? I doubt it. If you have to pick goddesses, I’d go with Kali.”
“The one who would adorn herself with the heads and limbs of her victims? Oh, I hardly think so, Leo. Very pretty, I thought, in a mid-Western, white bread sort of way. Here—have a bagel with a little schmeer.”
Suddenly, Bok felt his eyes filling up, as images of Rizzoli and a young, healthy Leo Bok came back to him: the two of them wolfing down thick burgers at the newly-established Mr. Bartley’s in Harvard Square, Rizzoli pontificating on “the death of music as we know it.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem such a terrible place, Leo. In fact, it looks a bit like the Grand Hotel to me.”
“Listen, Rizzoli. Take a good look around you. There’s something very fucking damn peculiar going on around here. They bring in their own bottled water here, did you know that?”
“Well, if that isn’t the fetid whiff of death, I don’t know what is.”
“Look, wise-ass, I’m telling you! This antebellum putz, the Medical Director—Couleuver. There is something about him…”
“Like the scent of sulfur, perhaps? Well, you know, Leo—all these doctors, these nursing homes. You know what we say in Italian?—“A rubar poco si va in galera, a rubar tanto si fa cariera”
“Hah!” Bok exclaimed, jabbing the air with a trembling index finger, “Just so! Steal a little, go to jail; steal a lot, make a career of it.” I love it!”
Bok’s thoughts suddenly drifted back to his fourth year at BDCC, and how his own career had been saved, almost single-handedly, by Stefano Rizzoli. That gorgeous boy in my German lit class….what was his name? Some ridiculous WASP moniker, like Boyden or Bryce…Bryce Fucking Pennington III, or something. Golden, curly hair and the face of a rebel angel. The same year Ruth got breast cancer, she finds out about me shtupping this kid. One little fling and the Dean has me for lunch—almost fired, if it hadn’t been for Rizzoli fighting tooth and nail to save my sorry tuchas. Rizzoli lecturing old Dean Cruthers about “Nomos vs. Eros”. “The choice is not ‘To be or not to be’, my dear Cruthers, but ‘Law or Love’, Nomos or Eros! Yes, it is true: my colleague Prof. Bok sometimes veers off from Nomos a bit too enthusiastically. But there is nobody in the country who knows more about comparative literature than Leo Bok.” Or words to that effect, anyway. Brave soul, Rizzoli, molte grazie…”
Once again, there was a rap on the door, but this time, without Rizzoli’s musical invention—a precise, dry, perfectly-calibrated knock knock.
“Very sorry to interrupt you gentlemen, but I’m afraid I will need to do my medical intake with the good Professor,” Dr. Couleuver said, baring his splendid teeth.
“Well,” said Leo Bok grumpily, “there are two professors here, Couleuver, but only one good one.”
“Ah,” came the honeyed reply, “then may I assume this is a colleague of yours, Professor Bok?”
Rizzoli extended his hand toward Couleuver. “Stefano Rizzoli. A pleasure, sir.”
“The pleasure is mine, Professor Rizzoli. And do I detect just a hint of the old country in your inflection, sir? Italy, yes? Oh—please, I don’t mean to embarrass you. It’s just that—well, I did spend some time at your very fine medical school in Salerno.”
Rizzoli’s quizzical eyebrows blossomed into an expression of full-blown surprise. “Indeed, sir! I’m most impressed. Salerno was, as you doubtless know…”
“Yes,” Couleuver interrupted, baring his teeth, “the first known medical school in Europe. I was privileged, during a post-doctoral fellowship in Salerno, to have studied the work of Niccolo Leoniceno.”
Noting the expressions of puzzlement on the faces of both Bok and Rizzoli, Couleuver resumed with a slightly apologetic look. “Excuse me, gentlemen, this is rather obscure medical stuff. Leoniceno was the author of a wonderful work on syphilis. Of course, he referred to it as morbus gallicus—the French disease! But, forgive me, I don’t mean to bore you with such arcana.”
“Not at all,” replied Rizzoli, “I am intrigued, Dr. Couleuver. You seem to be quite the Renaissance man.” Rizzoli’s eyes met Couleuver’s with the searching intent of a Samurai.
“Oh, hardly, sir. I consider myself, first and foremost, just an old country doctor. Something of a cracker, in fact.” Couleuver grinned with delight at his absurd self-deprecation.
A sound that might be described as a partially-muffled Bronx cheer emanated from Leo Bok, provoking a moment of embarrassed silence on the part of Couleuver and Rizzoli.
“Well,” Rizzoli said, looking slightly nonplussed. “I shall leave you to Dr. Couleuver’s tender ministrations, Leo. Doctor Couleuver, sono lieto di aver fatto la sua conoscenza.”
“Ah, il piacere e mio, Professore!” Couleuver said, bowing slightly and taking Rizzoli’s hand.
After Rizzoli had taken his leave, Couleuver turned to Leo Bok. “A wonderful language, Italian, isn’t it Professor? You must know it well from your literary studies. I always loved the expression, A tutto c'è rimedio, fuorchè alla morte. ‘There is a cure for everything except death.’”
“Yes,” Bok replied, the color draining from his face. “Very charming saying, Couleuver.”
“Well, here at Eutopia, we have our own views on the issue of “end of life” care, of course. But those are matters for another time, Professor. First, I’d like to complete my medical intake.”
“First, I want to know about the water.”
“I’m sorry, Professor. The…?” Couleuver managed a look of puzzlement that must have taken him years to perfect.
“You know very well what I mean, Couleuver! This stuff they were carting in… “Eutopia Springs” or some such nonsense. What gives?”
“Ah, I understand now, Mr. Bok! Yes, yes—well, you see, sir, our health care philosophy here at Eutopia is very closely tied to our beliefs about good nutrition. We provide the finest purified water from our own mineral springs, located in a very remote region of California. We fly in hundreds of bottles every week. This water, sir, is very high in magnesium content. And if you care to see the chemical analysis, Professor Bok, I’d be happy to oblige. You see, most mineral water contains, perhaps, six milligrams per liter of magnesium. Our “Eutopia Springs” water contains over one-hundred milligrams per liter. Now, you may not be aware, Professor, but magnesium is very important for good health, particularly in our elderly. Magnesium may alleviate migraines, muscle pain, insomnia…”
“Rheumatiz, lumbago, snake bite, syphilis!” Bok loudly interrupted, cackling with glee.
At this, Couleuver’s face suddenly darkened. He swallowed hard and seemed to struggle with himself, as the muscles of his jaw clenched and unclenched.
“I… I will need to go now, Professor Bok,” Couleuver said in voice so tightly-controlled Bok could barely hear it. He rose from his chair and addressed Bok with a gaze that seemed to travel straight through the man. “I can see, sir, that you are not going to cooperate with our intake procedure, and that we will need to find —well, other ways of assisting you.” Then, regaining his country-doctor charm, Couleuver flashed his million-dollar smile, and left Bok’s room with a quick and courtly bow.
Not even sure what the hell room I’m waking up in—no books, no delicious aroma of old pages and leather. My espresso coffee maker missing and no scent of French roast mixed with a little hazelnut. Some kind of damn hotel, or—is it all real, or just a bad dream? Was I dumped here by fucking Irwin? Irwin, you ineffable putz! Don’t even know the day of the week. All my writing over the years—where has it gone? My book, Thomas Mann and the Judaic Tradition, remaindered for the last ten years. “Leo Bok, the One-Book Wonder”—my Department Chair at Broward, smirking at the faculty Christmas party, drunker than I was, which was very goddamn drunk. Harvard was supposed to take me after grad school, but passed me over for Bert Goldstein, that post-modern, pseudo-scholarly twit. Twenty-five years of knocking around Boston, floating from one adjunct faculty post to another: Bok, the Wandering Jew. The death of scholarship, death of brain cells, death of meaning. No progeny to visit me, protect me. Headstone will no doubt read, “Leo Bok, DSP”. Decessit sine prole-- died without issue. Decessit sine prole malus--died without sons. No advocates, except maybe Rizzoli. Also, Ruth’s crazy niece out in California—my only connection to the old life. No one to say kaddish over my blighted bones. Ruth, dead of breast cancer fifteen years now-- deserved better, much better. Those last months, so hard for her, and separated, with no support from me. All the fault of my vilda chaya ways. Allupato. Incontinence. Dante has the incontinent punished in the second through fifth circles. The lustful, the gluttons, the spenders and hoarders, the wrathful. Never went in much for wrath, but lust, gluttony and big spending, for sure. Eros, l’chaim, mehr licht, more light! At least my incontinence isn’t the urinary kind. Ruth nearly hit the roof when I bought that first-edition of Faust for over a thousand bucks—me, a lowly assistant professor. Then finding out I was fooling around with the Pennington boy—that’s circle VII, Ring 3: sodomy, Brunetto Latini—violence done to Nature. If that didn’t give Ruth cancer, I don’t know what did. Probably she knew about Dvorah. That look Ruth had on her face, after Pop’s unveiling, turning around in the car, staring daggers at Dvorah. Tremor, drooling, the higher-level neurons starting to flicker out. On and off periods with Parkinson’s. Where do you get a good cup of coffee around this feckuckteh place?
The next few days were given over to more meetings with the legions of Eutopia’s support staff: the physical therapist, the dietician, the occupational therapist, the social worker, and a nervous young man with furiously red hair who described himself as a “neuropsychologist.” Evidently, Couleuver had requested some sort of test battery, aimed at defining Bok’s “cognitive deficits.”
Notwithstanding this barrage of evaluations, and with his Parkinson’s under somewhat better control, Leo Bok was able to make his way through the cavernous facility, using only a cane. The place seemed to consist of three main buildings in a sort of stacked and staggered array, each with its own, gargantuan atrium. A series of corridors linked the three sections, and moving walkways—similar to those found in airports—allowed the infirm to move comfortably from building to building. In the bottom-most section, Bok found the main dining hall, which struck him as a cross between the dining room at The Ritz Carlton, and the Great Hall of the People. Later, he stopped in at the “Wellness Center”, and watched with morbid fascination as several immaculately-tanned and trim elders huffed and puffed their way through an automated “exercycle” routine. (What was it Will Rogers said? Whenever I feel the need for exercise I go and lie down until the feeling passes? Or was that Churchill?). To Bok’s great relief, there was a large, push-cart selling coffee in the atrium on the main floor. Binky’s Brews, read the sign, and a small, attractive woman stood behind a service counter.
“What can I do you for, stranger?” came the raspy voice.
“I’ll have a large French roast, please. So, are you, uh…Binky?”
“Guilty as charged! Binky Behrenfeld,” the woman said, extending her hand to Bok. “And to whom do I have the pleasure of serving this elegant brew, if I may be so bold?” The woman—who looked to be in her early sixties—gazed at Bok through a pair of 50s-style cat-eye glasses with rhinestone accents. Bok’s gaze drifted down to the woman’s very ample bosom, then returned, with a twinge of embarrassment, to her face. Her carefully-coiffed gray hair, high cheek-bones, and intense, sky-blue eyes reminded him vaguely of Jane Fonda or Kate Hepburn. Tacky glasses, Bok thought, but as Pop would have said, she’s a gezunta moyd.
“Uh…the name’s Leo. Just got here a couple of days ago.”
“Well, greetings, Leo! I’ll have to bring you up to speed, on our little paradise on earth here. But we can start with the French roast.” She poured a steaming cup of coffee and continued. “So, what do you know about this place, kiddo?”
“Not a hell of a lot. My brother dumped me here. Too much trouble at home, it seems.”
“Yup, that’s how a lot of them end up here. The sicker ones, I mean. They don’t last that long, though. Mostly what you see struttin’ around are what I call the shtarkers. You speak a little Yiddish, right Leo?”
“Sure. ‘The strong ones.’Yeah, I noticed. Tanned and buffed, just like in the Geritol commercials.”
“Hah!” the woman cackled, “You remember those, too? Yup, it’s all part of our Fearless Leader’s health shtik. “A healthy mind leads to a healthy body.” You’ve gotten the pep talk, right?”
“Yeah, from Miss what’s-her-name and from the Big Macher himself. So, uh, Binky…you actually live here?”
“Not exactly. I’m in one of the condo apartments. They basically give it to me for free, in exchange for my running the little coffee deal here. I get health insurance and meals. And, I get to keep the tips, too.”
“Oh, I see. Sounds like a good deal. So, what do you know about this Couleuver character?”
At this, Binky Behrenfeld’s facial muscles seemed to flinch, and she turned slightly away from Bok.
“Leo,” she said, leaning over the counter as if to pass on something in confidence, “all I can tell you is, watch your back.” She turned her head sharply from side to side, sweeping the atrium with her eyes, and whispered to Bok. “And watch what you do. They have cameras all over the freakin’ place, you know.”
“For security, I suppose.”
“Yeah, but whose security? Oh, and stay away from the water.”
At this, Bok heard his name being called in a familiar, barking, cadence.
“Leo! They told me I’d find you here,” Dr. Irwin Bok said. “I see you’re finding your way around. Oh…don’t let me interrupt, if you’re schmoozing with this young lady.”
“Binky, this is my brother, Dr. Irwin Bok. Irwin, meet Binky—uh, Behrenfeld, if I’m not mistaken?”
“A pleasure.” Dr. Irwin Bok extended his had unenthusiastically, and Binky Behrenfeld gave the man’s index finger a dismissive squeeze.
“Charmed,” she said, glancing down at her counter.
“Listen, Leo. I need to go over some papers with you. Just nonsense. Legal stuff. Can we head back to your room?”
Dr. Irwin Bok opened the brown leather briefcase he had carried for the past twenty years. Leo smirked at seeing, once again, the letters “I.B.” prominently embossed in gold.
“It’s called a “Durable Power of Attorney” form, Leo. I had Kostiner draw it up last week.”
“Kostiner, the shyster who helped with the commitment papers?”
“He’s not a shyster, Leo.”
“OK, then—Kostiner the pettifogger. In Spanish, tinterillo or rabula. In French, avocat marron. In German…”
“Enough, Leo, for godssake! Listen, I’m not trying to put anything over on you. The reality is, with your Parkinson’s—look, the research is clear. About 40% of Parkinson’s patients eventually develop dementia. Suppose, in another year, you can’t make informed decisions about your care? I’m the one who…”
“You’re already my damn health care proxy, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Leo,” Irwin Bok said with just a hint of patronizing weariness, “but that’s different. The Durable Power of Attorney allows me to make…”
“Allows you to rob me blind, if you should care to do so.”
“Oh, for Crissake, Leo.”
Irwin’s expression softened slightly. Here was the younger sibling who had been Leo’s guardian for most of their lives. Here was the good, responsible cardio-pulmonary surgeon—the selfless doctor who saved the lives of hundreds of desperately ill patients each year. Here was the scholar who wrote learned articles, not only on surgical matters, but on the Judaic foundations of medical ethics--on Rambam, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach! Here was the harried man-child who had made sure that Leo took his asthma medication, as the two trudged the hallways of the Lewenburg School, and later, of Boston Latin.
Suddenly, the old neighborhood flashed before Bok in all its rich smells, blaring horns, and cruddy, washed-out colors. Hot pastrami sandwiches and the raspy voices of old Jewish men at the G & G Deli…where was it? Yeah, 1106 Blue Hill Avenue. Irish kids called it, “Jew Hill Avenue” -- used to beat the crap out of us. Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester back then: stinking with anti-semitism. The beatings got worse after Pearl Harbor, what with the streets blacked out. Blackjacks, brass knuckles—the kids in that goddamn Coughlinite Christian Front came after us like jackals. Laughable Leo, coughing at the Coughlinites, while beefy Irwin bloodied his fist on the teeth of some big Irish kid from Fields Corner, out for a little Jew hunting. Not all the Irish were bad guys, though—Joesph Dineen, writing for the Globe, had the balls to stand up for us: “Antisemitism is the cornerstone of fascism.” And Irwin—he saved my Hebrew heinie many a time. Not to mention being the best student Boston Latin had seen in God knows how long. Those little, blue-lined index cards, with all Irwin’s class notes boiled down to a stark quintessence. Irwin Bok, valedictorian. Leo Bok, shlumpatorian with astigmatism and a chronic wheeze. Maybe Irwin never knew about Dvorah, but maybe—this whole business of putting me here, in the second circle of Hell…
“So what do you say, Leo? Are you OK with this? It’s not such a big deal. Here!” Irwin held out his 18-karat gold, Apogee Sable fountain pen--the one he had received “with much gratitude” from the President of Massachusetts General Hospital.
Leo took the pen and looked down at the papers that lay atop his little bedside table. “I’ll sign on one condition,” Leo Bok replied. “Find out what the hell they put in the water here.”
Irwin gave Leo a look of perplexity and pity, then nodded vigorously. “Right! Absolutely, Leo. I’ll get the full biochemical breakdown. Now, if you could just sign by this X…”
Leo Bok braced the ball of his hand against the surface of the night table, trying to minimize the effects of what the neurologist, Dr. Karpov, had called, “resting tremor”. He positioned the nib of Irwin’s pen next to the X and paused. Bok’s signature had shrunk as his Parkinson’s Disease had progressed, so that his once flowing, Hancockian penmanship now resembled the pinched scrawl of some Lilliputian accountant.
All at once, a scene came back to Bok from more than twenty years ago. Leo and Ruth were sitting at the realtor’s desk, in Boca Raton, about to sign the “Purchase and Sale” for their first home in Florida. The little ranch house was a flimsy, ersatz-hacienda design, but both Leo and Ruth had fallen in love with it. It was a good time in their life, just after Leo had gotten his professorial position at Broward-Dade Community College—the period that Leo referred to as “BC/BP”: before cancer, before Parkinson’s.. Ruth—having earned her PhD in Fine Arts at Harvard, years back—had been appointed “Visiting Scholar” at the University of Miami, with the promise of a permanent faculty position. All our fervid plans, all that crazy-Jew energy! I was outlining my magnum opus, the trilogy, figuring Rizzoli could help me out with the music, and Ruth, with the art. What the hell did I call it? The Madonna, the Skull, and the Carnival. A unified field theory of art, literature, and music—must have been completely fucking manic to dream up such a thing! Ruth had put me on the scent of the three, archetypal paintings: Cimabue’s Madonna and Child with Angels; Holbein’s The Ambassadors; and Miro’s Harlequin’s Carnival. That damn skull, staring at you in the Holbein painting—death intruding into life, but only if you could view it from a certain angle. Chaos piercing the cosmic order of the Renaissance. All for naught. Nugatory.From the Latin nugatorius, from nugari, "to trifle." Never finished writing the first volume of the goddamn thing. Years later, finally eked out a so-so book on Thomas Mann and the Judaic Tradition. New York fucking Times gave it a patronizing, kissed-by-your-sister review. What did Leonardo say at the end, in his Notebooks? ‘ Tell me if anything at all was done.’ Tell me if anything at all…”
“Leo, please don’t rest the point of the pen there, you’ll smear the ink.”
Leo Bok grunted and signed the agreement.
“Irwin,” he said, “there’s something I need to ask you. Dvorah—has she ever said anything about me? I mean, about the time when we were all in Cambridge?”
Irwin’s face darkened momentarily, but quickly regained its habitual expression of peevish certitude.
“Dvorah doesn’t talk very much to me, Leo. And even less about those days. Water over the bridge, as they say.”
“Under the bridge. Even demented patients know that.”
Leo’s irony was lost on Irwin Bok, who was already checking his watch. “Have to get to the airport, Leo. Look, I’ll call you from Boston in a few days, alright? Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“Don’t forget about the damn water!” Leo Bok replied, wondering how many pieces of his life would remain after the vultures of confinement and disease had finished picking away at it.
The first three weeks passed like a drug-induced stupor, pierced at times by the prick of annoying nurses, solicitous social workers, and the omnipresent Dr. Couleuver. But then, a month after his arrival at Eutopia, Bok was surprised to get an early evening phone call from the nursing station. “There’s a young woman here to see, you Mr. Bok. She says she’s your niece, and that she just flew in from California. Shall I walk her to your room?”
Bok felt a peculiar sensation that started in his genital region and spread like prickly heat to his face and neck. He had not seen Stephanie in more than twenty years. My God, he realized, she must be in her mid-thirties by now. Ruth’s younger sister, Anita, now residing at an assisted-living facility in Encino, no longer spoke to Leo, for reasons too painful for him to contemplate. Anita’s daughter, Stephanie, had always been a favorite of Ruth, and had spent two summers with Ruth and Leo when the couple first arrived in Florida in the mid-80s. Back then, Stephanie was a stunning, rather zaftig teenager, and something of a hellion. Anita had gone through a messy divorce when Stephanie was only twelve, and at age fifteen, Stephanie seemed to channel the trauma into various acts of deviltry. Ostensibly, she had been suspended from high school for smoking in the girl’s bathroom, but Leo eventually learned that the behavior had been more egregious than that—apparently, young Stephanie had been caught French-kissing a female classmate in the lavatory, and then telling the Dean of Girls to perform a sexual act requiring several intricate, anatomical contortions. The suspension was followed by charges of shoplifting from a large department store in Los Angeles, and two instances of check-forging. Anita had begged her sister to “talk some sense” into Stephanie, and—having secured Ruth’s consent--quickly shipped the girl down to Florida. Notwithstanding all this “acting out”, as Ruth charitably described it, Stephanie was, even then, undoubtedly a young woman of charm and intelligence. Like Ruth, whom the girl seemed to worship, Stephanie loved art, especially portraiture. Ruth, at that time, was teaching a course on “The History of Western Painting” at the University of Miami, and books on Picasso, Magritte, and Pollock lay lavishly strewn about Ruth and Leo’s condominium in Coral Springs. Ruth was teaching Stephanie some elementary principles of painting, and on some level, this seemed to settle the young woman’s turbulent moods.
Yet Leo and Stephanie’s relationship was anything but calm, back then. Two things had happened, late in the summer of 1985, that led to tensions between the two. First, Stephanie—who had become quite protective of her Aunt Ruth—came to suspect Leo of infidelity. It was not clear to Leo then, or now, how precisely the girl had reached this quite accurate assessment—had she picked up the scent of alien perfume on Leo’s Harris tweed jacket?—but Stephanie’s poisonous looks told Leo that she had his number.
The other incident that had left Leo and his niece so unsettled occurred one night when Ruth was teaching a class, and Stephanie was alone in the apartment with Leo. Stephanie had just emerged from a late-night shower, and was trying to negotiate the hallway from the bathroom to the guestroom, clad only in a flimsy and revealing terry-cloth towel. At the same time, Leo happened to have left his small study for the kitchen, intending to have a little nosh. There was, in the dark and narrow hallway, a sharp collision of uncle and niece. Leo, in an attempt to keep his niece from falling, grabbed for her arm. Instead, he managed to squeeze her right breast rather firmly. Stephanie had let out a high pitched, “Jesus!” and fled to her room, leaving Leo apologizing outside the guestroom door. The next day, neither had spoken of the incident, but in Stephanie’s eyes, Leo’s philandering had just been crowned by his pedophilic and incestuous groping. Though Leo could exonerate himself of the latter charge, he also had to acknowledge the larger truth of the girl’s feelings. After all, how close had I been, really, from peeling off that towel and hoisting Stephanie’s lovely fifteen-year-old tush…
“Mr. Bok? Are you there?” the nurse said sharply. “I have this very nice, young woman with me at the nursing station, and I need to know if you want her to visit.”
“Yes, uh—yes, you should bring her over,” Bok replied, his voice quavering. What the hell am I supposed to say to this girl--this woman, after twenty years? And what’s she doing visiting me, anyhow? How did she even know I was here? His hands trembled fiercely, as they always did under stress.
When Stephanie Seligman entered the room, Bok nearly lost his dentures. The stunning and zaftig teenager was now a dazzlingly beautiful, raven-tressed woman. A Jewish Sophia Loren, Bok thought, eyeing his niece’s ample breasts and flaring hips. Dressed in a clingy but elegant outfit with a deep décolletage, Stephanie could easily have passed for a woman in her mid-twenties.
“Uncle Leo!” she said, smiling warmly. “It’s so good to see you!” She threw her arms around Bok’s neck, allowing her breasts to rub lightly against his chest. Bok inhaled a rich, musky scent that seemed compounded of roses and something reminiscent of goat cheese. “Uncle Irwin called me on my birthday, and told me you were here. I’m actually in Florida on a business trip. God, it’s like, been so long!”
“Yes, it certainly has. How have you been? We hardly heard from you all the years…”
“Oh, I know! I was terrible, not keeping in touch. It’s just…well, my life has been so busy. And after Aunt Ruth died, I…well, I guess I just kind of withdrew a little.”
“Well,” Bok said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, “that’s certainly understandable.”
“Anyway, you were always in my thoughts, Uncle Leo. I still remember how you and Aunt Ruth took me in when I was in my crazy years. You know, all those art lessons from Aunt Ruth paid off. Now I run a fashion photography studio with three offices in California. I’m here talking to some guy about opening a branch in south Florida.”
“Well, that’s…wonderful, Stephie. And—I’m glad you have some good memories of the time you spent with us. Ruth really loved you, you know.”
At this, an odd look came over the young woman’s face. Her lips seemed momentarily to stifle a smile, but Bok saw a flicker of something feral in her eyes. In an instant, though, Stephanie’s features had been genially recomposed.
“Of course I have good memories, Uncle Leo. But anyway, how are you? How are you adjusting to all this? It’s a really nice place, but—well, you look like you could use a little TLC.” At this—and to Bok’s puzzlement--Stephanie drew the curtains across the doorway window that faced the Panopticon’s nursing station. She pulled up a folding chair, and sat very close to Leo.
Tender loving care? What the hell is she thinking?
“Well, it—it’s been a big adjustment,” Bok replied. “I wasn’t exactly put here at my request, you know.”
“Yeah, bummer, for sure. My mom’s in a place sort of like this, right near Encino, but she actually wanted to move there. Turns out, she’s met a man, if you can believe it.”
“I believe it. Your mother was always one to socialize.”
“Oh,” Stephanie replied, with a quick flip of her shoulder-length hair, “it’s not just social, Uncle Leo. I mean, the two of them are—well, lovers, basically. Hey, I’m from California! It’s fine with me, but not everybody understands that you older folks like getting it on, too, now and then!”
As Bok pondered the meaning of “getting it on”, he suddenly became aware that Stephanie had positioned her right hand on his thigh, approximately three inches from his crotch. She wore, he noticed, two large and rather gaudy rings, and had painted her nails a garish, purplish-red. As the young woman continued to chatter away, describing her mother’s living situation, Bok’s head began to fill with ancient memories. Carrie Osborne, that night in her dorm room. I was filling up like a garden hose, and she just kept blowing hot air in little circles, blowing around the root of me like a gardner blowing leaves. Her perfume—some cheap scent she must have bought at the campus book store. Heady stuff, though not bestial, like Stephanie’s goat-cheese and roses. This Parkinson’s crap: what did that Israeli study find? The one Irwin found for me? Something like 70% of men with Parkinson’s can’t get it up. The L-dopa actually helps, though: something I read about dopamine and old men on L-dopa chasing the nurses around the hospital ward.
Stephanie was still babbling on about her mother and the assisted living place. Bok could barely focus on his niece’s words, though he was dimly aware that her monologue had something to do with “free laundering services”. Meanwhile, the woman’s ring-bedecked hand h
“Who is mighty?One who conquers one’s passions, as it is said:“One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one who rules over one’s spirit is better than one who conquers a city” (Proverbs 16:32) –Ben Zoma, Pirke Avot 4:1
Rabbi Tarfon says:The day is short, the task is great, the workers are lazy, and reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. -- Pirkei 2:20
The son of Hei Hei says: According to the exertion is the reward.--Pirkei Avot 5:27
Judaism in general and the Talmud in particular place a high value on self-restraint, self-discipline, and diligent labor.The Rabbis are especially keen to mitigate (if not eliminate) the terribly destructive effects of unbridled anger.In Proverbs, we are taught that, “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” Proverbs (Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 785). Indeed, Rabbi Shlomo Toperoff notes that erekh apayim--being slow to anger--is “one of the thirteen attributes of God...” (Avot . Toperoff, 1997, p. 280).Similarly, a real mensch does not explode at others or yield to rage.
The mensch is also expected to restrain and regulate other strong emotions or desires.In general, Judaism emphasizes redirecting rather than extirpating passions. Passion “…should be mastered, not destroyed.” (Lieber, 1995, p. 213). As Unterman puts it, “Instead of the extirpation of desire, Judaism demands a more complicated and problematical achievement--that man, by dint of his will, discipline his desire--that everything be held within proper limits by control and will power.” (Unterman, 1964, p. 214). Thus, “…sexuality…is not repressed or denied but is channeled positively within marriage.” (Katz & Schwartz, 1997, p.73).And even within marriage, Maimonides insists that a man should not “…be with his wife like a rooster” (Laws Concerning Character Traits; in Weiss & Butterworth, 1983, p. 42).
Anger, however, is dealt with somewhat ambivalently in the rabbinical tradition.The Vilna Gaon believed that anger “…must be totally eradicated, as it has almost no redeeming value.” (Lieber, 1995, p. 213).But the word “almost” is important here. Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah (Twersky, p. 54) describes anger as “an exceedingly bad passion, and one should avoid it to the last extreme.” And yet, even Rambam notes the occasional value of simulating anger, as when one wants to discipline one’s children--so long as one “does not really feel” anger. Thus, Maimonides seems to say that anger is not an inherently evil emotion; but rather, a passion to be bridled and mastered so that one doesn’t truly “feel” it.Notably, Pirkei Avot does not admonish us, “Never get angry!” Rather, Ben Zoma urges us to be “slow to anger”, and Rabbi Eliezer instructs us,“...do not anger easily...” (Pirke Avot 2:15). Indeed, Lieber wisely observes,
“It is really impossible never to get angry, so the mishnah (Pirke Avot ) instructs us not to anger easily. We must be level headed enough to assess whether the incident that sparked our anger is sufficient cause for an outburst. We should actively attempt to find reasons not to be angry.”
(Lieber, 1995, p. 106).
Even in those rare circumstances when it may be a mitzvah (commandment) to show anger—for example, when there is a public breach of the law—our expression of anger “…should be done like all other mitzvos—calmly and with much forethought.” (Lieber, 1995, p. 106). In short: the mensch has the complicated task of showing, at most, a kind of highly refined and nearly “rational” form of anger! This is clearly not an easy line to walk.
Michelle was an attractive, 38-year-old mother of two who had just been promoted at work. Having struggled for many years in “the boys’ club” world of a major Boston law firm, Michelle had just been made a partner in the firm. She was “riding on air” for several weeks, until her first meeting with the head of the firm, a man in his mid-60s whom Michelle described as “kind of a lech” (as in lecher). Mr. Forbes was known for his patronizing and sometimes inappropriate behavior toward young female partners in the firm. When, during their meeting, Mr. Forbes put his hand on Michelle’s knee and suggested that “Your new position will go much more smoothly if we can put you in the right position.” Michelle was understandably enraged and appalled, but kept control of her emotions. She calmly removed the boss’s hand from her knee, smiled tightly, and said simply, “Mr. Forbes, I want to do a good job for this firm. I hope you’ll let me do that by showing me the same respect you show to all the new partners. Now, sir, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to my office.”
We have to give Michelle a great deal of credit for “ruling over her spirit”. Many women (and men) in a similar situation would have reacted with rage, insults, or maybe even the delivery of a smack in the face! Michelle resisted these understandable urges, and managed to keep her cool. At the same time, she was not passive or subservient to Mr. Forbes: she calmly and politely but assertively made her displeasure known to the boss.
In the Judaic tradition, anger is closely allied with pride or arrogance.
As Rabbis Byron L. Sherwin and Seymour J. Cohen put it, “Anger places the ego at the center, displacing God and others, and causing the alienation of relationships.” Sherwin and Cohen add, astutely, that “…the paradox of anger is that while focusing on the ego, it causes one to lose control of the self.” (Sherwin & Cohen, 2001, p. 84). We’ll say much more about pride and arrogance in Chapter 6.
On the other hand, we can learn a great deal about the person when he or she is angry. As a famous 15th century code of Jewish ethics puts it, “…When one is angry, one’s true nature can be recognized.” (from Orhot Zaddikim, cited in Sherwin & Cohen, p. 84). The true mensch is not necessarily a person who never gets angry—essentially the nature of a god or an automaton!—but rather, one who knows how to express and channel anger in a constructive manner, in order to correct some injustice. Indeed, as Sherwin and Cohen point out,
“Orhot Zaddikim also discusses a positive side to anger; i.e., anger is a necessary spur to survival, and…a necessary stimulus in confronting evil and evil people.” (Sherwin & Cohen, 2001, p. 252).
For example, Michelle might consider meeting with the other female partners of her firm, and organizing some kind of support group or committee to look into the issue of sexual harassment. Or, if Michelle wanted to confront Mr. Forbes’s boorish behavior more directly, she and her colleagues might arrange a meeting with him, in which they present their grievances as a group—or even consider suing him for sexual harassment. But clearly, the latter course carries with it substantial professional and personal risks.
The point is simply that anger is not to be suppressed or extirpated entirely in the face of injustice or evil; rather, it should serve as a finely-honed instrument to promote beneficial change. Aristotle (384-322 BCE)may have anticipated some of these Judaic ideas in his Nichomachean Ethics, when he said, “The good-tempered [person] is always angry under the right circumstances, with the right people, in the right manner and degree, at the right time, and for the right length of time." (Book IV, chapter 5).
Jim had come home late, after a rough day at the office. His wife, Karen, had also come home late from her nursing job at the pediatric intensive care unit. Both Jim and Karen were “stressed out” and emotionally exhausted. Neither had made any plans at all for dinner, and neither was in any mood to cook. Karen turned to Jim with a look of exasperation and snapped, “You don’t get it, do you? I have to deal with sick kids all day, and then I come home to find out that I’m supposed to cook dinner! That’s just plain selfish on your part! How about taking charge for once and picking up something on your way home, or even cooking us a meal, for godssake!” Jim felt hurt and angry upon hearing this diatribe from Karen, believing with some justice that he had been criticized unfairly: after all, he had not suggested that it was Karen’s job to cook dinner. But Jim also understood that Karen had been dealing all day with sick and perhaps dying children; that her job placed enormous demands upon her; and that she was entitled to “lose it a little” upon returning home and finding that neither of them had thought about dinner. Jim turned to Karen and said, “Hon, you’re right. I could have picked up something for us. I’m sorry, I just didn’t think of it. I know we’ve both had a rough day. How about if we just order a pizza now, or I can whip us up some eggs?”
A mensch not only controls his own anger, but also knows how to absorb or deflect anger expressed by others. In Proverbs, we are told, “A soft answer turns away anger.” (15:1). As Rabbi Lori Forman advises, “The next time you come up against anger, see if you can respond with a soft or gentle word to disarm its acceleration.” (Olitzky & Forman, p. 26). I think the Rabbis would conclude that, in this instance, Jim had responded like a mensch!
Incidentally, a recent study led by Dr. Jean-Philippe Gouin appearing in the December 19, 2007 issue of Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that healing of skin blisters (an index of immune system health) occurred more quickly in those who expressed anger calmly than in those who “flew off the handle”. As the BBC reported, “Whether one directed one's anger externally or internally proved to have no bearing on recovery - what was crucial was just how much control the individual was able to exert over their feelings.” (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7252415.stm).
Perhaps the Rabbis of the Talmudic era were ahead of our modern-day scientists?
Personal encounter: How Hillel Restrained His Anger
Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century BCE, was one of the greatest of the great Talmudic sages. He is perhaps best known for two teachings: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?When I am for myself only, what am I?And if not now, when?” (Pirke Avot ); and that famous formulation of the “Golden Rule”, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you…” (Shabbat 31a). There is a wonderful story in the Talmud concerning Hillel’s renowned powers of self-control in the face of provocation. As told by Steinsaltz (1997, pp. 8-9), we find Hillel the victim of a perverse wager: two men bet four hundred zuz (a large sum!) on whether either one of them can make Hillel angry. One of the men presents himself at Hillel’s home over and over again, asking what most of us would term, “ridiculous questions”—for example, “Why are the heads of Babylonians round?” and “Why are the eyes of the Palmyreans blearied?” Yet, time after time, Hillel does not berate the man or disparage his questions; instead, Hillel responds in each case, “My son, you have asked a great question!” Finally, the provocateur gives up. He tells Hillel, in effect, “I hope there aren’t many more of you in Israel, because I just lost four hundred zuz on account of you!” Hillel replies, “Always be careful and watch your temper. It is worth that you should lose four hundred zuz because of Hillel, and even another four hundred zuz; but no matter what you do, Hillel will not lose his temper.” (Shabbat 31a, in Ibn Chaviv, 1999, p. 80).
Mitch had spent four years in his PhD program, and was “ABD” in the field of English Literature: “All But Dissertation”. Unfortunately, Mitch was having constant disagreements with his dissertation supervisor. The supervisor kept insisting on changes in Mitch’s arguments, but no matter what Mitch did, his supervisor never seemed to be satisfied. This was taking a toll on both Mitch and his fiancée, who complained that Mitch “was falling apart under the pressure.” Mitch began to drink increasing amounts of wine, and would find excuse after excuse for avoiding work on his thesis. When his fiancée confronted Mitch on these behaviors, he replied, “I just don’t have time to get the work done. There are too many distractions. And besides, no matter what I do, this clown is never satisfied!” Mitch began to sleep in until late in the afternoon, and spent more and more time wandering around a near-by shopping mall. His explanation was, “There’s a bookstore I go to just to clear my head. It’s important that I approach my work feeling refreshed.”
Many of us who have experienced pressure and frustration in an academic or business setting will sympathize with Mitch—who wouldn’t be driven to distraction, given a supervisor who is always criticizing, and a task that seems insurmountable? Yet the Talmud tells us that a real mensch must find the self-discipline and “stick-to-itiveness” to get back to work.
At the beginning of this chapter, we quoted Rabbi Tarfon to the effect that, “The day is short, the task is great, the workers are lazy, and reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent.” (Pirke Avot 2:20). What did Rabbi Tarfon mean by that? God, of course, is the “Master” for whom we are—or should be!—working. But as human beings, we tend to get lazy, despite the potential rewards that come from spiritual growth. Especially when faced with a complex or frustrating task, we tend to react like Mitch: we avoid, we rationalize, and we find a multitude of unhealthy distractions. This is not the way of the mensch, of course!
The foundational text for the teaching of Pirke Avot 2:20 may be found in Proverbs 6.6-11:
“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in summer, and gathers her sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?” (OAB, p. 775).
Lieber notes that “…one should not waste a moment of the precious few years…granted in this world. Life is a fleeting opportunity to gather treasure; once the time is up… [we] can no longer earn anything.” (Lieber, 1995,p. 124). On the other hand, if we are good stewards of our time, we will find ways to gather spiritual treasure. As Toperoff remarks, “if we divided our days into well defined compartments, we should find ample time to satisfy all our needs, material and spiritual.” (Toperoff, 1997, p. 130).
The role of study in the Judaic tradition can hardly be stressed enough. The Talmud tells us that, “in the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment…”, one of the questions the person is asked is, “Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a; cited in Telushkin, 1994, p. 3). On the other hand, the Rabbis did not intend us only to study. They knew that we must earn a living, and encouraged the acquisition of some practical skill. The mensch must strike a balance between the active and the contemplative life.Thus, in Pirke Avot (2:2), Rabban Gamliel tells us:
“The study of Torah combined with an occupation is an excellent thing, for the exertion demanded by both together causes sin to be forgotten, while any Torah study without work ultimately fails and causes sin.”
The lesson for the mensch is to avoid becoming what in Yiddish is known as a luftmensch. This is usually defined as “…a person who has no profession, trade…or any visible means of support…” (Steinmetz, 2005, p. 100). (The reader will recall our description of Morty, the schnorrer!). The term luftmensch also carries the connotation of someone who is impractical, quixotic, or “spacey”. In contrast, the idea of self-discipline in Judaism entails productive labor.
Furthermore, study without ethical action is not praised by the Rabbis. As Borowitz and Schwartz make clear, “Torah is doing.”Indeed, “…a man who has no good deeds to his credit, though he has studied Torah, is like one who builds a structure and lays down a foundation of clay bricks and puts the stones above that. Then even a little water will undermine the building.” (Elisha ben Abuyah in Avot de Rabbi Natan, 24, cited in Borowitz & Schwartz, 1999, pp. 257-58 ). In essence, if we do not transform study of Torah into practice of its commandments, our spiritual “home” will ultimately be washed away.We will have much more to say about study and the mensch’s responsibility to acquire wisdom in Chapter 18 [Acquiring Knowledge and Wisdom].
Personal encounter: Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) and the Idea of Self-Discipline
Maimonides (1135-1204) must have been one of the most self-disciplined individuals in the history of Judaic scholarship. Imagine spending your adult life fleeing persecution in your native country; working as a physician in an alien culture; dealing with the death of your beloved sibling while supporting your family; and all the while producing the most voluminous and influential corpus of Jewish philosophy in all of the Middle Ages! As the great Maimonides scholar Isadore Twersky put it,
“ Maimonides’ life was a mosaic of anxiety, tribulation, and, at best, incredibly strenuous work and intellectual exertion.” (Twersky, 1972, p. 1)
Maimonides understood self-discipline primarily as a “cognitive-behavioral” skill. Indeed, in many ways, Maimonides was the “father” of our modern field of cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT (Pies, 1997). Here is what Maimonides has to say about self-discipline:
"The more mental training man has, the less affected he will be by luck or misfortune. He will not get excited over a very fortunate event and will not exaggerate its value. Likewise, if one meets disaster, he will not be disturbed and aggrieved, but will bear it valiantly."(Minkin, 1987, p. 389).
Furthermore, according to Maimonides, we acquire healthy, balanced dispositions or character traits only by constant practice of “the middle way”:
“Let him practice again and again the actions prompted by those dispositions which are the mean between the extremes and repeat them continually until they become easy and...no longer irksome...whoever walks in this way secures for himself happiness and blessing...” (Kranzler, 1993, p. 54)
At times, Maimonides can seem unduly “stoical” or even unfeeling in his austere beliefs. Yet I believe that much of his philosophy of self-control developed in reaction to the death of his beloved brother, David, who was lost at sea. It was a blow from which Maimonides may never have recovered fully—but his philosophy of self-mastery is still well worth emulating. We will say much more about moderation and “the middle way” in chapter 5.
“…if someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn him off with pious words, saying: ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God!’ You shall act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in all the world who could help this man--only yourself.” -- Rabbi Moshe Lieb of Sasov (quoted by Martin Buber, in Besserman, p. 217).
“May God save me from the stingy of heart!”—From a Yiddish prayer (Borowitz & Schwartz, 1999, p. 94)
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”--Proverbs 25:21 [Oxford Annotated Bible]
In this chapter, we are concerned with two closely related traits or habits of the mensch: generosity (nedivut) and charity ( tzedakah). Clearly, there is no bright line between these attributes and the traits of kindness and compassion we have just reviewed, though in theory, they are distinguishable. We might say roughly that generosity and charity constitute two forms of kindness, compassion, or good-heartedness.
But before proceeding, we need to take a closer look at the Hebrew word, tzedakah. Our English word, “charity” is derived from the Latin caritas, meaning “from the heart”. On the other hand, as Rabbi Telushkin points out, the word tzedakah is derived from tzedek, meaning “justice”. So, tzedakah is much more than just dropping a dollar into the slot of the Salvation Army kettle. As Telushkin says, “…one who gives tzedakah is acting justly, while one who doesn’t is acting unjustly…” Indeed, he continues, “…Jewish law regards withholding tzedakah as not only ugly but also illegal.” (Telushkin, 2000, p. 74).Let’s see how such ancient ethical principles come up against the “realities” of our own age.
Lucinda was down on her luck. She had just been laid off from her job as a legal secretary, and was having trouble making payments on her home mortgage. With three children to feed, and a husband just scraping by doing occasional carpentry work, Lucinda was feeling depressed and anxious. She had just learned that only $1500 remained in her savings account, and that another mortgage payment of $1000 was due in two weeks. And as if this weren’t enough, her small Tennessee town had just been hit by a vicious “twister”, which had destroyed nearly a quarter of the town. Fortunately, Lucinda’s home was spared. Her neighbors had just startedtaking up a collection for those less fortunate—particularly those who had lost their homes in the tornado. One of her neighbors, Annie, came to Lucinda’s door and asked, “Is there any way you could make a small contribution to the neighborhood relief fund, Lucinda?”
What are Lucinda’s obligations under Talmudic ethical principles? What would a mensch do in these circumstances? Is somebody in Lucinda’s dire financial straits obligated to go into hock, in order to aid her even less fortunate neighbors?
Talmudic ethics are very clear on this point: Lucinda is morally obligated to do what she can, within her means, and contribute something to Annie’s fund—even if it’s just a dollar. Jewish law eventually decreed that Jews should donate at least ten percent of their annual net income to the needy (Telushkin 2000, p. 75). Even a beggar is required to do whatever he can, by way of tzedakah. The Talmud tell us, “If a man sees that his livelihood is barely sufficient for him, he should [still] give charity from it” (Gittin 7a); and, “Even a poor man who himself survives on charity should give charity” (Gittin 7b). There is a special mitzvah that arises in celebration of Purim, called matanos l’evyonim (gifts to the poor), and here we are told to give with special generosity.
On the other hand, Judaic ethics does not require a person to go into bankruptcy or become so destitute from giving charity that his or her family is imperiled. Indeed, in Deuteronomy , we are told, “You shall carefully preserve your lives”—that surely includes preserving the wellbeing of your loved ones. As Rabbi Telushkin puts it, “…there is such a thing as being too generous…what Judaism particularly esteems is a life of passionate moderation.” (Telushkin, 2000, pp. 336-7)
Mike was walking through a busy city square one day, when a shabbily-dressed figure approached him. “Got any spare change?” came the familiar question. The man certainly looked down on his luck. His clothes were tattered, and he wore a straggly beard that seemed encrusted with some kind of dried liquid. Mike was about to reach into his pocket to pull out a few coins, when he noticed that the man was also wearing what looked like a rather expensive gold chain. Immediately, Mike felt “conflicted”. As he put it when discussing the issue with his wife, “I thought maybe this guy was a con artist, or maybe a drug dealer. How do you wind up with a gold chain like that, begging on the street? It didn’t make sense.” Somewhat reluctantly, Mike gave the man a dollar, but said nothing to him, avoided eye contact, and quickly walked away.
Was Mike acting like a mensch? What does the Talmud tell us about our obligations to provide tzedakah in cases of this sort—in which we have serious doubts about the “legitimacy” of the person asking for our help?
Overall, Mike didn’t quite rise to the occasion, though he did partially fulfill the “mitzvah” (commandment) of providing sustenance to the poor. The Talmud takes a balanced and sensible approach to the kind of situation Mike faced. It says, “When a man says, ‘Provide me with clothes,’ he should be investigated (lest he be found to be a cheat); [but] when he says, ‘Feed me,’ he should not be investigated [but fed immediately, lest he starve to death during the investigation]” (Bava Bathra 9a, as translated by Telushkin, 2000, p. 13).
In the case of Mike’s “Got any spare change?” scenario, though, the “beggar” did not indicate that he was hungry, and, indeed, seemed to have the means of providing sustenance to himself—after all, he could have pawned the gold chain. But let’s imagine for a minute the not implausible scenario that the man might have been suffering from some kind of mental illness. (Many individuals with chronic schizophrenia find themselves on the street in such dire circumstances). Perhaps the man was not thinking rationally about pawning the chain. Or maybe the chain had some strong sentimental value to him—perhaps it was the one possession he had managed to salvage from a home (or a relationship) that he had lost. Here I think one best serves the spirit of the Talmud by “inventing excuses”, as we saw in the previous chapter. What’s the worst that could happen if you give such a man a dollar and it turns out he is defrauding you? Yes, he might use the dollar to buy alcohol or drugs—but then again, he might be hungry and use it to buy a loaf of bread. (It may be less humiliating for some people on the street to spout the familiar, “Got any spare change?” than to say, “Please, I’m hungry, help feed me!”). I would be inclined to give such an unfortunate person the benefit of the doubt, as Mike evidently did. Rabbi Telushkin, in this regard, quotes the Chassidic rebbe, Chaim of Sanz (D. 1786), who said: “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to one hundred beggars even if only one might actually be needy.” (Telushkin, 2000, p. 13).
There is one sense, though, in which Mike did not properly carry out the commandment of tzedakah. Mike turned away from the beggar, refusing to make eye contact, and said nothing. While understandable, this is nevertheless a violation of Talmudic ethics. As Maimonides put it in his Mishneh Torah [Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:4]:
“Whoever gives charity to a poor man ill-manneredly and with downcast looks has lost all the merit of his action even though he gives him a thousand gold pieces. He should give…with good grace and with joy and should sympathize with [the beggar] in his plight…” d in Telushkin, 2000, p. 12].
Similarly, as Rabbi Morris Adler puts it, “He who speaks kindly words to the needy is more blessed than he who gives alms unaccompanied by kind words.” (Adler, 1963, p. 106).
There is a larger point to be made regarding “charity.” As important as it is to help poor people with a monetary gift, it is more praiseworthy (and productive) to help the poor person get “back on her feet”. A well-known Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” (Tripp, 1970, p. 76). Judaic ethics takes a similar position. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides noted that in the highest degrees of charity, one provides the destitute person with a loan; enters into a business partnership with him or her; or puts the person “…in a position where he can dispense with other people’s aid.” d in Telushkin, 2000, p. 55]. An indirect way of accomplishing a similar goal is to start, or contribute to, a scholarship fund for worthy but indigent recipients.
Michelle was in a quandary. She had been contacted by a major funding organization devoted to fighting breast cancer—a cause that Michelle strongly supported, having survived breast cancer herself. Michelle felt “ambivalent” because she was suspicious of her own motives. “I had planned to give a large sum—around $1000—to this organization. Then I realized that half the reason I was doing so was the “thrill” I would get from seeing my name printed in this organization’s monthly magazine, listed in their “Angels” category of big donors! I was ashamed of myself for having this tacky, narcissistic motive. I began to think, maybe it would be better not to donate at all, with that kind of selfish attitude.”
Should Michelle forget about making this contribution? From the standpoint of Judaic ethics, the clear answer is no. Despite her “mixed” reasons for giving, Michelle should “be a mensch” and make the donation. True--the Talmud generally likes people to perform acts of kindness and tzedakah from “pure” and altruistic motives, such as the wish to benefit humanity. Indeed, in Pirkei Avot (), we find a catalogue of “pure” and “impure” motives for giving charity:
“There are four types among givers of charity:One who desires to give but that others should not give -- begrudges what belongs to others; one who desires that others should give but he not give -- begrudges what belongs to himself; one who desires to give and that others should give -- this characterizes the pious person; one who does not give and desires that others should not give -- this characterizes the wicked person.”
Furthermore, tact and discretion in giving alms is a hallmark ofJudaism. Thus, Rabbi Eliezer states, “He who ostentatiously gives alms to the poor--for this, God will bring him to judgment.” (Hagigah, 5a; Newman & Spitz, 1945, p. 62). Nevertheless--and notwithstanding the importance of motive--Judaism still holds that charity is worthwhile in its own right; for even if one’s motives are not “pure”, the poor are nevertheless sustained by the act of giving (Besserman, p. 125).
Ben’s second cousin, Morty, was known in the family as a “schnorrer”—roughly translated, a “mooch”. In the colorful description by Jacobs and Eisenstein (accessed 2008), a schnorrer is
“…a Jewish beggar having some pretensions to respectability. In contrast to the ordinary house-to-house beggar, whose business is known and easily recognized, the schnorrer assumes a gentlemanly appearance, disguises his purpose, gives evasive reasons for asking assistance, and is not satisfied with small favors, being indeed quite indignant when such are offered.”
Morty truly was impoverished. He had been down on his luck for the last ten years, owing to a combination of poor planning, laziness, and some genuinely “bad breaks” in the job market. Recently, Morty had tried, unsuccessfully, to start his own “consulting” business, but apparently, few people believed that Morty could provide expert consultation in the area of “estate planning”, for which he had essentially no professional training. (“That’s not true,” Morty told Ben. “I took a correspondence course!”).
One day, Morty literally showed up on Ben’s doorstep, carrying a battered suitcase and a grocery bag full of assorted papers. “Here’s the thing, Ben,” Morty began, “I’m trying to finish an article for the New York Times, and I need a place to crash for a few days—you know, just to get away from all the distractions at my place.” In truth, Morty didn’t have “a place”, and been sleeping in bus stations and airports for the past month. Ben felt a terrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as soon as he heard Morty’s story. “I knew I was in deep trouble if I said yes,” Ben later explained to his wife. “But I felt like I couldn’t say ‘no’, either.”
What are Ben’s (and his wife’s) responsibilities in relation to poor Morty? What does a mensch do when faced with anyone who is impoverished, down on his luck, and in need of a home? In Pirke Avot (1:5), we read as follows: “Yose the son of Yochanan, of Jerusalem, says:Let your house be opened wide, let the poor be members of your household…”
And in another portion of the Talmud, we find the following: "R. Yohanan said: Extending hospitality to strangers is as great as attending the academy, for the Mishnah likens making room for guests to removing an impediment in the academy.” (Shabbat 127a-127b, quoted in Bokser, 1989, p. 94).
But how do we translate these noble principles into guidelines for our own time? It hardly seems reasonable, in this day and age, literally to leave the doors of our houses open to indigent strangers, or to take in such persons directly off the street. It seems unlikely that the Rabbis of the Talmudic era—who were, by and large, eminently practical men-- could have intended such potentially dangerous behaviors. Rather, the Rabbis were intent on creating an attitude and orientation toward the poor and needy: one of open-heartedness, acceptance, and respect. But attitude alone is not enough. We must convert the attitude into action. Thus, Rabbi Bulka says we must ensure that “…those who come to you for material or spiritual help do not feel like strangers in an alien environment, but like members of the house.” (Bulka, 1993, p. 29). So, we must go out of our way to help the needy without patronizing or humiliating them. If the circumstances permit us to do so safely, we should open our house and home to the needy with warmth and understanding. Similarly, Rabbi Toperoff notes the importance of restoring to the poor “…his personality and individuality,” adding, “…do not offer him the crumbs of your table…” but rather, “offer him the comforts he was accustomed to enjoy in the past. Such help is not merely charity, but zedakah, a form of righteousness which should be the basis of all charity.” (Toperoff, 1997, p. 36).
Ben and his wife clearly have an ethical obligation to assist Morty—not only because he is needy, but because he is also part of their family. Indeed, the great medieval ethicist, Jacob ben Asher (died 1340), notes that needy relatives must take priority over others, when it comes to giving charity [ see Borowitz and Schwartz, 1999, pp. 124-25]. And yet: we must also bear in mind the earlier dictum, ““When a man says, ‘Provide me with clothes,’ he should be investigated (lest he be found to be a cheat).” How do we balance this with the need to open our hearts and homes to the needy? There is no pat formula, and the situation becomes more complex with people like Morty, who have, well-- a “checkered” history. Here is how Ben and his wife dealt with the issue:
We agreed to take Morty in, letting him know in advance that he was welcome to stay with us for “a few weeks”. We felt we needed to give him a rough time frame, because we didn’t want to create the expectation that the invitation was open-ended. That would be just too much for Miriam and me, since we tend to be fairly private people. We gave Morty the guest bedroom and didn’t ask him any questions about his circumstances for the first few days. We pretty much took his “New York Times article” story at face value and didn’t interrogate him. Morty ate his meals with us, we reminisced about old times, and we really tried to treat him like one of the family. I even got the two of us tickets for a Red Sox game. After a couple of weeks, though, it was pretty clear that Morty was not only not working on “an article”, he wasn’t doing much of anything! He would lie around the house most of the day, then borrow my car and drive out to the coffee shop for donuts. Once he came back with alcohol on his breath. At that point, my wife and I felt we needed to have a long talk with Morty. We tried our best to be kind and non-accusatory. We explained that while we loved him, we wanted our “old lives” back, and that Morty would need to move on. I decided to float him a loan at no interest, and gave him a couple of business contacts that might help him get back on his feet. I also drove him around town to look at some low-income apartments. Eventually, we were able to get him settled in a few miles from us, and Morty found some part-time work doing landscaping.
Overall, Ben and Miriam handled the situation with Morty quite admirably. They behaved like real menschen!
Mitch was in a quandary. Over the years, his next-door-neighbor, Fred, had been “a real pain in the tuchas” as Mitch put it. Fred and his wife would host lavish outdoor parties during the summer, and refuse to turn down their very loud music when Mitch complained about it, even at two in the morning. For many years, Fred had refused to trim the hedges that spilled over his fence and into Mitch’s yard, blocking the sun from reaching a portion of Mitch’s garden. Once, when Fred’s lawn mower broke down, Mitch lent him his own mower, and it was weeks before Fred returned it.
Perhaps most infuriating, Fred had refused to cover an old well on his property, and more than once, Mitch’s cocker spaniel had come perilously close to falling in. Then, late one night, Mitch and his wife were awakened by the wail of sirens. To their horror, they watched as Fred’s house went up in flames—a near-total loss. The firemen barely succeeded in keeping the blaze from spreading to Mitch’s house. The following day, Fred knocked on Mitch’s door and sheepishly asked if he could use Fred’s computer and fax modem, in order to send some documents to his insurance company..
What are Mitch’s obligations in this difficult situation? Should Fred’s history of thoughtless, passive-aggressive behavior weigh against Mitch’s helping him? What would a mensch do in such circumstances?
In essence, the Talmud calls upon us to heed our “better angels”—our yetzer tov (good inclination) rather than our yetzer hara (evil inclination). The “reference text” is Bava Mezia 32b, which says: “If a friend requires unloading, and an enemy loading, your first obligation is toward your enemy, in order to subdue your evil inclination.” This takes precedence even over relieving the burden your friend’s animal may be experiencing. Telushkin interprets the passage as saying, “…if you see a person whom you dislike in a difficult situation, and you are in a position to provide assistance, overcome your evil inclination, break the pattern of enmity, and help him or her out.” (Telushkin, 2000, p. 376).
Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman provides another reason why Mitch is obligated to help Fred: avoiding the dual prohibitions against nekimah, or revenge; and netirah, or bearing a grudge. Feldman gives an example from the Talmud (Yoma 23a):
“An individual, wishing to borrow his neighbor’s sickle, is rebuffed. The next day, the offending neighbor is now himself in need and asks the rejected party to lend him his scythe. If the latter [party] were to obey his natural instinct to refuse, noting the treatment he himself received, he would be in violation of nekimah, of revenge…[furthermore] if he cannot also resist the temptation to add, “I am not like you,” as he hands over the scythe, he flouts the injunction of netirah, of bearing a grudge.” (Feldman, 1999, p. 96).
This brings us full circle to one of the quotations at the beginning of this chapter, from Proverbs 25:21:
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”
Personal Encounter:How Do We Prioritize Charity? The Teachings of Joseph Karo
Joseph Karo (1488-1575) was one of the most renowned legal scholars in all of Jewish history. Like other rabbinical scholars before him (such as Maimonides), Karo also had strong mystical yearnings. Legend has it that during an “all-nighter” on the holiday of Shavuot, Karo was visited by an angel who perched on his shoulder “and kissed Jewish law into his mouth” (Jewish Virtual Library, 2008). Karo is perhaps best-remembered as the author of the Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law. This work became tremendously influential in the Jewish world partly because it was the first such code to be printed on the “new” invention, the printing press!
Here is Joseph Karo’s teaching on how we should prioritize tzedakah:
“A man should give to his relatives…before giving to anyone else…The poor in a man’s household come before the poor in the town in which he lives. The poor of the town in which he lives come before the poor of another town, and the poor of the land of Israel come before the poor in lands outside Israel.” (Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah, chapter 251, section 3, quoted in Klagsbrun, 1980, p.333).
I am now posting several chapters from my upcoming book, "Becoming a Mensch" (forthcoming from Hamilton Books/UPA). Readers are free to quote and reproduce short passages from this material, so long as "Fair Use" guidelines are applied. Readers may write to me c/o Box 332, Bedford MA 01730, with comments, suggestions, or questions.
Copyright 2009, Ronald Pies MD
Table of Contents
Introduction: What it Means to Be A Mensch
Chapter 1: A Brief Tour of the Talmudic Territory
Chapter 2 Kindness and Compassion
Chapter 3 Generosity and Charity
Chapter 4 Self-mastery and self-discipline
Chapter 5 Moderation and “The Middle Way”
Chapter 6 Humility and Flexibility
Chapter 7 Forgiveness and Apology
Chapter 8 Justice and Retribution
Chapter 9 Respect for Self and Others
Chapter 10 Attentive Listening and Understanding
Chapter 11 Acquiring Knowledge and Wisdom
Chapter 12 Caution and Prudence
Chapter 13 Discussing and Criticizing Others Fairly
Chapter 14 Honesty and Integrity
Chapter 15 Trustworthiness and Fidelity
Chapter 16 Gratitude and Contentedness
Chapter 17 Politeness and Tact
Chapter 18 Honoring and Revering Parents and Teachers
Appendices: Chronology of Sages, Glossary of Terms
Chapter 2: Kindness and Compassion
For I desire kindness, not sacrifice.
-Hosea 6:6, speaking in the name of God
The world stands on three things -- on the Torah, on the Sacred Service, and on the practice of loving-kindness.-- Shimon the righteous, Pirke Avot 1:2
A religious [individual] is a person …whose greatest passion is compassion [and] whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.
--Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”
- George Eliot
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) once said, “When I was young I admired clever people.Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” (Telushkin, 1994, p. 182). Indeed, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests, kindness and compassion compose the keystone in the great arch of Jewish values. In a sense, all other Jewish values depend on, and may be derived from, these central virtues—expressed in Hebrew by the word rahamim.Thus, Rabbi Shlomo Toperoff tells us that, “Torah itself cannot exist if it is divorced from acts of lovingkindness.” (Toperoff, 1997, p. 25).
Another way of putting it: without kindness and compassion, it doesn’t matter what else you do in life—you are not a mensch, and you are not living like a worthy and decent human being. Indeed, the Talmud tells us, “…one who shows no pity for fellow creatures is assuredly not of the seed of Abraham, our father.” (Babylonian Talmud, Betzah 32a, as cited in Telushkin, 1994, p. 182). A consistently unkind person is, spiritually speaking, essentially expelled from the Jewish community. I would argue that such a person is not fit to be a member of the human community--while adding the caveat that we are all capable of changing for the better, and that even habitually unkind people should not be “written off” as beyond redemption. (That would be neither kind nor compassionate!). Let’s see how the qualities of kindness and compassion are sometimes put to the test:
There was no love lost between Carol and Malkah, her mother-in-law. “ ‘Malkah’ means “Queen”, doesn’t it?” Carol would tease her husband,
Joel. “Well, your mother sure lives up to the billing!” It was true that Malkah criticized Carol at almost every opportunity, though she (Malkah) “meant well”. Usually, Malkah’s critiques were in the nature of “looking out for my son”, and involved such things as how Carol would prepare meals, whether she was spending enough time with Joel, etc. Occasionally, though, Malkah would rip into Carol for no apparent reason. Once, Malkah made the statement, “Joel would have been better off if he had never married, the way you treat him!” This jibe had hurt Carol deeply, and she had never fully forgiven Malkah for the remark. One night, Carol and Joel received a phone call from Joel’s father, who was calling from the hospital. Malkah had suffered a mild stroke, and was having trouble with arm movement and speech. She was expected to recover, but would need a lot of “rehab” and assistance at home. Carol began to wonder what her responsibilities were, given how Malkah had treated her.
We will have more to say later, regarding a child’s responsibilities to his or her parents (and in-laws!), as well the mutual responsibilities involved in “forgiveness”. (Forgiveness is not a one-way street, as we shall see). But for now, it’s enough to say that Talmudic ethics call for kindness and compassion at this point in Carol’s life—notwithstanding Malkah’s own less-than-spotless record of kindness. In a situation like this, it is Carol’s responsibility to let her “good inclination” (yetzer tov) overcome her “evil inclination” (yetzer hara), and to assist her mother-in-law as best she can. Ideally, Carol would find a way to do this without a sense of disgruntled and begrudging duty—though this would hardly be easy! But, as Borowitz and Schwartz put it, “Only when we find the inner power to lovingly take back the one who hurt us can we overcome estrangement.” (Borowitz & Schwartz, 1999, p. 69).
How does a person who has been hurt by another find the ability to show rahamim to that individual? One way is suggested by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who describes a group in Israel that meets on a regular basis, and actually tries to come up with “excuses” for slights that group members have suffered!As quoted by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (2000, p. 35), here is one example:
You were hoping that somebody would invite you to his house, but he failed to do so.
a.Perhaps someone in his family is ill.
b.Perhaps he was planning to be away from home
c.Perhaps he did not have enough food in his house.
So, in the case of Carol and Malkah, perhaps Carol might come up with a few creative “excuses” for Malkah’s inconsiderate behavior; for example, “Maybe Malkah needs to criticize me because she is afraid she herself hasn’t done enough for Joel. Or, maybe she doesn’t know how to express affection, except by criticizing.” Sure, these may sound like “lame” rationalizations—and they are not meant to exonerate Malkah. But for the moment—and particularly in the circumstances of Malkah’s stroke-- inventing some plausible “excuses” for Malkah’s bad behavior will do more good than harm. They may allow Carol to get in touch with her “better angels” (yetzer tov) and show compassion to her mother-in-law.
Kindness and compassion don’t always involve a “positive” intervention in the life of another, such as sending flowers to a hospitalized friend. Sometimes rachamim involves removing some obstacle that could harm or thwart another. In the Old Testament, we are told, “Don’t put a stumbling block in front of a blind man” (Leviticus ). But it is not enough to refrain from such obvious cruelty; we must also remove “stumbling blocks” that endanger, hamper, or in any way diminish the wellbeing of others (Telushkin, 2000, p. 297).
Bruce was an “up and coming” young executive at a computer software company. He had been with the company for ten years, and had put his heart and soul into his work. Bruce was up for promotion to Senior Vice President, but so was Rita, a long-time colleague and friend. Bruce and Rita had always been respectful of one another, even as they competed for various positions within the company. Two days before both Bruce and Rita were to have an important interview with the CEO of the company, Bruce discovered that an email from an important client—intended for Rita—had somehow come to him.Before realizing that the message was not meant for him (It began, “Hi, I thought you’d like to know that I was very impressed with your presentation…”) Bruce read the contents of the message. The client’s email reflected very favorably upon Rita and her work in behalf of the company. For a few minutes, Bruce debated whether he should alert Rita to the error—or do nothing. If Bruce did nothing—or simply deleted the message--Rita might never know how favorably impressed the client was with her and might never be able to use that information in her own behalf, as she competed for the Senior V.P. position. If Bruce did alert Rita to the error, he could risk putting himself at a relative disadvantage, with respect to the promotion.
What are Bruce’s obligations under the ethics of the Torah and Talmud?First, it’s important to note that Judaism generally views spiritual or material success (in Hebrew, hatzlachah) as a blessing. But, as Rabbi Louis Jacobs reminds us,
“Success is a good provided it is not seen as self-made but as God made, and is not attained through disregard for the interests of others.” (Jacobs, 1999, p. 243, italics added)
In the case at hand, Rita was “blind” to the “stumbling block” in the path of her career (the missing message). Even if it means Bruce’s losing an advantage in his competition with Rita, he is morally obligated to notify her of the missed email message. That’s just part of being a mensch! In one sense, this falls under the rubric of “kindness”. On a more practical level, Bruce’s obligation is simply part of honest business practices. As Rabbi David Golinkin puts it:
“…the law of the stumbling block can be readily applied to modern situations: a real estate agent should not dupe a young couple into buying a home with structural faults simply in order to make a fast buck. A stockbroker should not sell his client a bad investment just to collect the commission. A salesman should not convince his customer to buy an expensive item he really has no use for. These are all considered “a stumbling block before the blind” about which we are warned “and you shall fear your God, I am the Lord.” (Golinkin, 2002).
In short, we are being honest and ethical when we do not put a stumbling block before someone who can’t “see” the situation clearly. We are doing that person a small kindness when we actively remove that stumbling block—which is what a real mensch does!
The Talmud is filled with other examples of what is called gemilut hasadim—acts of loving-kindness. Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser (2001) lists the following as examples:
·Visiting the sick
·Providing hospitality to strangers
·Caring for the orphaned
·Relieving the poor in their distress
The last item requires a bit of clarification. The Rabbis distinguished between acts of loving-kindness (benevolence), on the one hand; and charity or almsgiving, on the other: “Greater is the benevolence than alms,” we are told, because “…almsgiving is restricted to the poor [whereas] benevolence applies to the poor as well as to the affluent…” [Sukkah 49b; Bokser, 2001 p. 131]. We will say much more about charity in chapter 3.
Personal Encounter: What Character Trait of the Mensch Is the Most Comprehensive? Rabbi Yochanan’s Answer
In the only purely “ethical” work in the Talmud, known as The Ethics of the Sages (Pirkei Avot 2:13), we read of a certain Rabbi Yochanan, who sent his disciples out to answer the most fundamental of all moral questions: what is the right path in life? (“Go forth and see which is the good way to which a person should cleave.”). Rabbi Yochanan bar Nafcha (died 279 CE/AD) was one of the most esteemed figures in all of Talmudic literature, famous not only for his wisdom but also for his extraordinary beauty. And yet, his life was one of great sorrow: he had ten sons, all of whom died within his own lifetime. Legend has it that he carried with him a small bone from the body of his tenth son, and would show it to anyone who complained of his fate, saying, “This is the bone of my tenth son”( Berachot 5b; Steinsaltz, 1997, p. 116).
Rabbi Yochanan’s five disciples—Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Yose,Shimon, and Elazar--apparently did go forth, and must have done some extensivesoul-searching. When they returned, here is how each answered the master’s question regarding the right path in life. From their answers, it seems clear that the disciples defined the “good way” in terms of personal qualities. In effect, they seem to be answering the question, “What is the single character trait that best defines a real mensch?” :
R. Eliezer says -- A good eye; R. Yehoshua says -- A good friend; R. Yose says -- A good neighbor; R. Shimon says -- One who foresees that which will be; R. Elazar says -- A good heart.He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them:I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for your words are included in his words.
Commenting on this portion of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Reuven Bulka explains this teaching as follows:
“A person with a good heart has a good eye, is a good friend and neighbor, and sees the consequences of actions. A good heart feeds sustenance to an entire body; a good heart feeds feeling to an entire community.” (Bulka, 1993, p. 76)
You bet I was upset,
and I let the store manager know it: the priceless reels of our old home movies,
dating back more than fifty years, had been lost. Uncle Jack, Aunt Minna,
Grandpa, and the cousins, gathered round the sizzling grille of my childhood
summers—all lost. My wife and I had taken the film to a local pharmacy, which
was supposed to have sent it to some photo lab for conversion to DVDs. Nobody
could tell us where all that brittle celluloid had ended up.
We found out about
the lost movies a day after Continental flight 3407 went down, just a few miles
from the small town in western New York
where I grew up. And as the magnitude of the disaster became clear—as the
stories of so many bright lives snuffed out unfolded—I began to feel slightly
ashamed and foolish. The people on that plane would never again have to worry
about lost home movies, or paying taxes, or where their next meal would come
from. They would never again have the opportunity to burn a piece of toast,
wreck a relationship, or be on the receiving end of a pink slip. The passengers
who lost their lives on flight 3407 would now have no problems at all—and would never have problems again. Having
problems means you are alive. It is a great gift that we often mistake for an insufferable
As a psychiatrist,
I am usually focused on helping people overcome their emotional problems. So
are most of my colleagues in the mental health profession, and that is as it
should be. People come to us with various crises and in various states of
suffering and incapacity. We do what we can to help them get back on their
feet. But with the exception of some who practice an existential form of psychotherapy,
we rarely teach our patients the spiritual value of having problems—which is to say, the value of the ineffably
precious and fleeting gift of life.
In the Jewish
tradition, there is a folk saying: “When a Jew breaks his leg, he thanks God he
did not break both legs. When he breaks both, he thanks God he did not break
his neck.” This is not quite the same as being thankful for one’s problems, but
it does acknowledge, with gratitude, that one’s problems could be much worse.
In Islam, the well-known
declaration usually translated as, “God is great!”—the
spoken both at times of joy and on occasions of mourning. And the German
Christian monk, Thomas a Kempis, taught that, “…it is good to encounter
troubles and adversities, from time to time; for trouble often compels a man to
search his own heart.”
me be clear: I am in no way endorsing the misguided notion that clinical depression
is somehow “good for the soul”, or that it is represents a state of heightened spiritual
or artistic awareness. This myth has been thoroughly debunked by my colleague,
Dr. Peter Kramer, in his book Against
Depression. But I am saying that when we find ourselves dealing with everyday
problems, we can find a measure of consolation in the fact that we are troubled
only because we are alive—and life is
something we must never take for granted. Just as the philosopher Martin
Heidegger argued that the awareness of death allows us to live a more intense
and “authentic” life, I believe that the embrace of our problems leads us to a
deeper appreciation of our pleasures.
philosopher Boethius observed that, “Good fortune deceives; adverse fortune
teaches.” I believe he meant something like this.We are often lulled into a false sense of
complacency by the good things that happen to us. We win the lottery or make a
killing in the stock market, and we imagine that good fortune will always be
ours. The present financial crisis befalling the nation has shown us the
emptiness of such ersatz optimism. On the other hand, adversity points us
toward a hard truth: we are all just flesh and blood; we are all mortal. It is
silly to fuss and fume over a few lost reels of film. The tragic end of flight
3407 has deprived fifty of our fellow human beings the rich pleasure of having
problems. We can honor their memory by
living our lives more authentically, and rejoicing in the sweetness of our
Acknowledgment: I wish to thank Dr. John Grohol and the PsychCentral website, where this essay first appeared, for permission to post this. The article may be viewed at:
Ronald Pies MD is Professor of
Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics and Humanities at SUNYUpstateMedicalUniversity,
and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston.
He is the author of Everything Has Two
Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living.
Judaic Foundations of Cognitive-Behavioral and Rational-Emotive Therapy
Judaism has long
been linked with the fields of psychology and psychiatry, but usually in the
context of psychoanalysis and its
practitioners. The most infamous example, of course, was the Nazis’ scurrilous
characterization of psychoanalysis as “the Jewish Science” (Frosh, 2003). In
contrast, it is hard to find much written about the connections between Judaism
and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)—the form of treatment that arose from
the pioneering work of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. (Ellis and Harper, in A Guide to Rational Living, do mention
the Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, but only in passing). Ironically, CBT
is, in some ways, more fundamentally “Jewish” than psychoanalysis, and the
connecting veins that run between CBT and
Judaism are extensive and deep.
Among the wealth of ideas that connect Judaism and CBT,
we can discern at least seven over-arching principles or themes:
·The Imperative of Self-awareness and
·The Necessity ofStriving for Self-mastery
·The Primacy of behavior over “insight”
·Cultivating Self-sufficiency and
·Understanding and Tolerating the Behavior
of Oneself and Others
·Happiness or Unhappiness are “internally caused”
·The Emptiness of short-range hedonism and
Principle 1: The Imperative of
Self-awareness and Self-examination
Corollary: Lack of self-deception
Self-awareness and self-examination
in the Judaic tradition are
predicated on the conviction that
each of us must scrupulously and fairly assess our motives, actions, and
characters. Both elements of this self-inventory—scrupulousness and fairness—are
critical. We go astray, for example, when we either overestimate or
underestimate some quality or fault.
the Hasidic master, Bunam of Przysucha (1765-1827), Sherwin & Cohen (p.
196) discuss the first element, scrupulousness:
is a common human inclination; integrity is its antidote…Just as one is
proscribed from deceiving others in word or deed, one is enjoined not to
deceive one’s own self. In this regard, the Hasidic master, Bunam of Przysucha
was asked: Who is a hasid, who is
pious? He answered: One who goes above the requirements of the law. The
questioner asked: What is the law? The rabbi replied: It is forbidden to
deceive one’s neighbor. And what is going above the letter of the law? Not
deceiving one’s own self.”
REBT also demands that we evaluate ourselves honestly and without
self-deception. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, thinking “rationally” is
quite different than “rationalizing”. As Ellis and Harper point out, rationalizing in the psychological sense
devise superficially rational or seemingly plausible explanations or excuses
for one’s acts, beliefs, or desires, usually without being aware that these are
not one’s real motives. Psychologically, therefore, rationalizing or excusing
one’s behavior is virtually the opposite of being rational about it.” (Ellis
& Harper, 1961, p. 67).
In contrast, REBT encourages—sometimes by means of pushing, “noodging”,
or cajoling the patient!—an unflinching and honest examination of one’s true
thoughts and beliefs. Psychiatrist Rabbi Abraham Twerski frankly points to the
traps that we can set for ourselves, through clever rationalizations:
“…people of greater
intelligence are more likely to be more expert at rationalizations. Any
psychotherapist will testify that the most sophisticated patients are apt to be
the most difficult to treat, because they believe most strongly in their own
lies.” (Twerski, 1995, p. 112).
That said, for both REBT and the rabbinical tradition, our
self-evaluation must be fair-minded and balanced—that is, we must be fair to ourselves. Rabbi Tuviah Basser, in his gloss on
the Maharal of Prague’s commentary on Pirke
Avot, observes that the expression “knowing one’s place” [Pirke Avot 6:6]
means that one must
assess [both] his accomplishments and his faults. If he does not evaluate
himself accurately, but overestimates himself, he is in error…Conversely, if
one can objectively recognize his personal faults, he will be able to recognize
his shortcomings in his studies and rectify them.” (Basser, p. 397)
In A Guide to Rational Living, Ellis and
Harper offer strikingly similar advice:
“Accept your own and
others’ wrongdoings objectively and unmoralistically: as misdeeds to learn from
and to correct in the future. Fully acknowledge the fallibility of yourself and
others and make due allowances for the possibility—indeed, the practical
certainty—of your and their continuing to make numerous errors and
mistakes.”(Ellis & Harper, 1961,
It is true of course that, for
Ellis, one does not attach moral opprobrium
to wrongdoing, whereas moral judgments are intrinsic to rabbinical thinking.
Nonetheless, both the Maharal and Ellis would advocate accurate and objective
self-analysis, with the aim of improving,
rather than condemning, oneself. Indeed, we see the cognitive-behavioral and
rabbinical traditions brilliantly knit together in the comments of Rabbi Dr.
Abraham Twerski. Commenting on the Rabbi of Kotzk’s remarks regarding not
deceiving oneself, Rabbi Twerski writes:
“We may think back about a sin we
committed, or some inappropriate behavior, and we may severely chastise
ourselves for it….Although this may appear to be adequate teshuvah [repentance], it is not yet sufficient, unless we understand how it came about,
because only then will we be in a position to avoid a recurrence.” (Twerski,
1999, p. 95).
Furthermore, for Twerski, we have an
affirmative responsibility to avoid unwarranted self-loathing and poor
self-esteem. Rabbi Twerski writes,
“A person must know the truth about
himself and recognize his strengths, talents, and worthiness. The great
ethicist, Rabbi Leib Chasman said, ‘One who denies one’s strengths is not
humble, but rather a fool,’ and another prominent ethicist, Rabbi Yeruchem
Levovitz, said, ‘Woe unto a person who is not aware of his defects, and who
does not know what he must correct. But much worse off is the person who does
not know his strengths, [and therefore] who is unaware of the tools he must
work with to advance himself spiritually.” (Twerski, 1995, p. 166).
Twerski points out that self-deception can sometimes take the guise of
shame and inferiority are universally destructive and they have nothing to do
with humility…inasmuch as these negative feelings about oneself are not based
on reality, they are false…[and] as we have seen, the Torah condemns falsehood
in whatever shape it comes…A person must know the truth about himself and
recognize his strengths, talents, and worthiness.” (Twerski, 1995, pp. 165-66)
for both CBT and the rabbinical tradition,
accurate self-understanding are the
keys to self-improvement. This means we must critically but fairly take
inventory of our strengths and weaknesses, and resolve to do better.
Principle 2: The
Necessity of Striving for Self-mastery
1: The intellect is capable of directing the emotional and physical faculties
Corollary 2: Great effort and internal struggle are needed
3: The individual will never achieve complete self-mastery (anti-perfectionism)
burden of the Jewish faith isnot unlike the task of cognitive psychotherapy, even
though the latter is not theologically-based. As Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
succinctly puts it, in his book on Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), the Jew
is called upon
perform specific actions and to perfect his character…the Jew is called upon to
undertake a twofold preparatory course of action. He must develop his mind and must educate his emotions and deeds…(Goldberg,
1982, p. 144, italics added).
Indeed, self-mastery is a common theme throughout rabbinical Judaism. In
the Talmud, we find the famous question of Ben Zoma (2nd century
mighty?One who conquers one’s passions,
as it is said:“One who is slow to anger
is better than the mighty, and one who rules over one’s spirit is better than
one who conquers a city” (Pirke Avot 4:1).
centuries later, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (known as the “Ramchal”,
1707-1747)—a forerunner of the Mussar movment-- tells us that
“If man follows
earthly pursuits and is drawn away from his Creator, he is impaired and the
rest of the world is impaired along with him. [But] if he becomes master over himself and unites himself
with his Creator…he is elevated and the world is elevated long with him.”
(Twerski, 1995, p. 56).
Rabbi Twerski later addresses one of the
issues that often provokes skepticism when some individuals are first exposed
to REBT and other forms of CBT. Discussing
Ramchal’s admonition to serve God with joy, Twerski asks,
there be a commandment, “You shall rejoice” (Deuteronomy 16:15), as if there were a button one could push to turn
on simchah [joy]? Perhaps there is no
button to push, but we are capable of having far greater mastery of our
emotions than we think…Affect is largely
dependent on cognition. We are happy when we win a huge prize because our
cognition is that having money is good…if we rethink our values, then our
cognition, our ideas of what is good, may change, and along with that our
affects can change…( P. 255-56, italics added)
could not hope for a more succinct statement of the chief principles underlying
far beyond the limited claim that our cognitions determine our feelings. He
went so far as to say that our very
organs are radically influenced, if not controlled, by our
thoughts--essentially a presentiment of modern psychosomatic medicine. As
Maimonides puts it in his Guide for the
Perplexed (Part I, chap LXXII)
"...Man has been endowed with
intellectual faculties which enable him to think, consider and act...and to control every organ of his body, causing
both the principal and secondary organs to perform their respective
functions." (Maimonides, 1956, p. 118, itaclics added).
In the same
section of his Guide, Maimonides
writes that “…the intellect is the highest of all faculties of living
creatures.” Similarly, theMaharal
(Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague,
1512-1609), discussing Pirkei Avot 4:1,
“…the measure of human strength is
self-discipline, which is the power of the intellect to direct the physical
faculties according to what is right or wrong.” (Basser, 1997, p. 214).
does not come easy, of course. Thus, Ellis and Harpernote that, “The greater your loss or
frustration is in life, the more philosophic you must force yourself to become
in regard to it.” (Ellis & Harper, 1961, p. 118). They go on to say that
“It is very difficult for the average or even
the above-average individual to keep fighting against his or her normal
tendencies to give up easily on hard tasks, to put off till tomorrow what
really should be done today and to slacken self-discipline long before it
automatically develops its own momentum and begins to maintain itself with
relatively little effort. All right, so it’s hard. But it still continually has
to be done…” (Ellis and Harper, 1961, p. 149).
The rabbis, too,
understood that self-mastery does not come easily, and it is never a task we
complete in this life. Thus, Ramchal reminds us that, “Man was not created for
tranquility, but to struggle and toil…as is written in Job (5:7), ‘Man is born
to labor.’ If one accepts this, he will find the Divine service.” (Twerski,
1995, p. 123).
Yet the Divine
service can be frustrating and demanding. As Rabbi Raymond Beyda has observed,
“In order to grow
and reach new heights Hashem confronts the human being with obstacles and
tests. He does not do it to find out what you are going to do in the test
situation --He already knows that. The test is an opportunity to grow from the
situation--and even failure presents a positive side. If you analyze your
defeat you can usually discover a positive learning experience.”
In sum, from both the cognitive-behavioral
and rabbinical perspectives,the intellect
is capable of directing the emotional faculties so as to change the way we feel
about whatever may befall us. However, great effort on a sustained basis is
required to maintain our emotional equilibrium, and none of us will achieve
complete mastery over our emotions. Nevertheless, we must not cease our
efforts, or allow a pointless quest for perfection to deter us from acting with
the personal resources we have available. As Rabbi Tarfon reminds us (Pirke
Avot 2:21), “It is not your duty to
complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Finally, as Rabbi
Beyda observes, even our failings can open us up to new possibilities for
growth. A modern Jewish sage—the singer and songwriter, Leonard Cohen—expresses
a similar idea in these lyrics from his song, Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything--
That's how the light gets in.
Principle 3: The
Primacy of behavior over “insight”
Corollary: Habits may be self-destructive and must
Corollary: Partial effort counts
the late Dr. Albert Ellis first developed his treatment, he called it “Rational
Emotive Therapy” (RET). In later years, he changed the name to REBT—Rational
Emotive Behavioral Therapy. This modification was in recognition of the crucial
role not merely of “thinking rationally”, but of practicing rational and
constructive behaviors. It was also
Ellis’s great insight to argue—contrary to many older theoretical models—that
changing one’s behavior could
actually modify one’s feelings. A
number of experimental studies in cognitive psychology have since confirmed
this view. As Ellis and Harper (1961) put it,
just think: act! Years or decades of
past fright and inertia may almost always be overcome by days or weeks of
present forced practice…thinking and doing; these are the unmagical keys that
will unlock almost any chest of past defeats and turn them into possible
present and future victories.” (Ellis and Harper, 1961, p. 162).
with REBT, the Judaic tradition generally emphasizes how the pious individual
should act, not how he or she should feel. Thus, as Rabbi Bradley S. Artson
observes (Artson, 2001, p. 127), the Torah does not insist that we love our parents; rather, we are commanded
by the mitzvah of
kibbud av va-em to
honor our parents [kibbud=
honor]. As Artson puts it,
“Given the profound complexity
of our emotions toward our parents,
it would be impossible to mandate
our feelings toward them. But our behavior
is another matter.” (Artson, 2001, p. 127).
rabbinical tradition as well, practice
is also paramount. The Talmud tells us, “Not learning, but doing…” (Pirkei 1:17). Similarly, the Talmud teaches that behavior itself may actually transform
one’s initial motive for the
“Rav Yehuda said in the name of
Rav: “A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvoth, even if he
does it for ulterior motives, because from doing it for selfish reasons,
eventually he will come to do it for the sake of Heaven.” (Sotah 47a; in ibn Chaviv, p. 478).
Talmud teaches us that good behavior begets good behavior; i.e., “one mitzvah
leads to another mitzvah” (Pirke Avot 4:2). On this point, Rabbi Raphael
Pelcovitz comments as follows:
“Every act creates
a habit, and man becomes adept at doing what he practices all the time. Hence,
a mitzvah does not exist in a vacuum…but rather, brings other mittzvos in its
wake. This is the greatest reward, not in the sense of payment, but in creating
and developing man’s character…” (Sforno, 1996, pp. 104-05].
millennia after the Talmud was redacted, the physician Maimonides propounded a
behaviorally-based method of altering one’s character that presciently
anticipated modern CBT. In a
letter to his son, for example, Rambam explains how achieving humility first
requires control of one’s anger. And how is anger to be controlled?Maimonides writes,
the habit of always speaking calmly to everyone. This will prevent you from
you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your
heart.” [Iggeres HaRamban]
short, if you habitually speak as if
you are not angry, you will avoid actually being
angry. Rambam then goes on to describe a certain manner of walking and
conducting oneself that is conducive to humility, such as walking “…with your
head bowed, your eyes looking down to the ground and your heart focusing on
Dr. Abraham Twerski observes, “…if one adopts these behaviors, it is likely
that they will impact on him so that he indeed begins to feel humble.” (Twerski, 1999, p. 207). Moreover, Dr. Twerski notes
that, “…recently, behavioral schools of psychology have come to the fore, whose
emphasis is primarily on changing the pathologic behavior, leaving insight to a
later date…” (p. 206)
primacy of behavior over mere thought is also brought out in the writing of
Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, who emphasizes the
importance of repetition and practice:
speech and thought will not affect behavior unless employed habitually—for
years—whereupon the impressions left after countless instances ‘…implant
themselves as an immovable stake, a lasting nature’…” (Goldberg, 1982, p. 140).
Goldberg elaborates on Rabbi Israel’s
views, as follows:
describes a method of transmuting both the inner self and external behavior,
which amounts to habit. He writes that the more one observes commandments
precisely as they are defined in halakha,
the more one weakens one’s inclinations that run counter…” to moral action
(Goldberg, 1982, p. 141).
for Rabbi Salanter—as for cognitive-behavioral therapists—reason alone cannot
alter our inclination to engage in self-destructive or injurious behavior
(“…urges to sin”). Rather, “…it is necessary to engage in habitual self-restraint.” (Goldberg, 1982, p. 143, italics added).
therapists apply these concepts not only to negative emotions, such as anger,
but to positive ones as well. For example, Twerski notes that “…external
behavior can influence one’s internal
feelings. Acting as if one were happy
may actually mitigate one’s dejection…”(Twerski, 1999, p. 60).
Cultivating self-sufficiency and equanimity
Corollary: Reducing “Neediness” by recognizing what
is truly necessary
Corollary: Accepting discomfort, loss and suffering
Self-sufficiency is an important
character trait in Judaism. But we must immediately qualify this claim by
noting that, by self-sufficiency, the rabbis do not have in mind a state of
haughty isolation, or disgruntled indifference to the larger needs of the
community. On the contrary, Rabbi Hillel ( ca. 110 BCE-10 CE)
admonishes us, “Do not separate yourself from the community…” (Pirke Avot 2:5).
Rather, by self-sufficiency, the rabbis had in mind something resembling what
psychologists might call, “healthy autonomy”, and what the ancient Stoics
called ataraxia—very roughly, “serenity” or “freedom from troubles.” (A related term from the Stoics is euroia, which may be translated as
“equanimity”).(Seddon, 2005, pp.111,
144).Tightly linked with
self-sufficiency are two related faculties: (1) an understanding of what one truly needs in order to be fulfilled,
happy, and productive in life; and (2) the ability to accept and tolerate
discomfort, loss, and suffering.
the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague), the
trait known as “acceptance of suffering” (Pirke Avot 6:6) means,“…reducing the constant neediness that
accompanies dependence on the material things of life.” (Basser, 1997, p. 395).
aside from food, water, oxygen, and freedom from severe bodily harm, our
genuine “needs” in life are very few. This idea is absolutely central to
Ellis’s philosophy and practice. Thus, Ellis and Harper write,
are deprived! Will your wailing and moaning bring back your loved one? Will
your ranting at fate really make you feel better? Why not, instead, maturely
accept the inevitable, however unpleasant it may be?” (Ellis & Harper,
1961, p. 113).
“No matter what happens to you, with the
exception of prolonged, intractable, physical pain, we do not think it
necessary for you to remain unhappy for more than a very short while.” (Ellis
& Harper, 1961, p. 70).
Judaic tradition stresses the importance of self-sufficiency on a number of
levels. On the most concrete and mundane level, the individual must be economically self-sufficient.Thus, the Maharal writes that
“Although it is improper for a
person to be avid in pursuing wealth, it is…[appropriate] that he make
provision not to be dependent on people, because this is a defect in a person…It is for this reason that our sages
said (Pesahim 113a): ‘Be a stripper of the carcasses of dead animals in the street,
but do not be dependent on people.’” (from Netivot
Olam, Asher 2, cited in Bokser, 1981, p. 160).
rabbinical concept of self-sufficiency goes beyond mere economic independence.
For the rabbis, self-sufficiency is what we nowadays might call “a state of
mind”; or, more precisely, a quality of
one’s thought and character. As Rabbi Tuvia Basser observes, in his
discussion of Pirke Avot 4:1 [p. 215]:
“Ben Zoma describes the rich person whose
wealth is not in the bank, but in his personality…he feels that he lacks
nothing; he appreciates what he has; and he enjoys the tranquility that comes
from feeling secure and independent.” (Basser, 1997, p. 215).
in his Hygiene of the Soul,
distinguishes between necessary and unnecessary (if not frivolous) concerns,
and links this distinction with personal happiness. Through consideration of
ethical and philosophical principles,
"...the mind becomes strong and regards the important as important and
the unimportant as unimportant. Thus, affects become lessened, bad thoughts
disappear, fear is taken away, and the mind is cheerful, as well as the whole
person." (Savitz, 1932, p. 83, italics added).
Similarly, in the Guide (Part III,
Chapter XII), Maimonides argues that
"Those who are ignorant and perverse in
their thought are constantly in trouble and pain because they cannot get as
much of the superfluous things as a certain other person possesses...all the
difficulties and troubles we meet in this respect are due to the desire for
superfluous things; when we seek unnecessary things, we have difficulty even in
finding that which is indispensable." (Maimonides, 1956, pp.270-271)
Harper speak forcefully to our potential for self-sufficiency, if only we
discipline our mind and spirit:
“Accidents and physical ailments do occur.
Environmental circumstances sometimes are impossibly constricting. War and
famine, pestilence and destruction still…show their ugly fangs. But the human
spirit, when freed of ignorance and cant, has remarkable resiliency. However
bowed and bent it may temporarily be, it still may throw off its
unthinking…chains, and rise above…[its misfortunes].” (Ellis and Harper, 1961,
Understanding and Tolerating the Behavior of Oneself and Others
Never confuse an individual with his acts, or a person who acts badly with a
Corollary: We cancorrect our self-defeating behaviors
without indulging in self-punishment or self-abnegation.
Corollary: We need not become unduly upset when others
insult or mistreat us.
understanding and tolerance for one’s own actions and those of others is an
important value in Judaism. Although Biblical Judaism is certainly replete with
references to “evil-doers,” rabbinical and Talmudic Judaism adopts a more
nuanced view. In general, the rabbis tend to distinguish the individual’s acts from his or her value as a human being. This applies
both to the actions of others, and to one’s own behavior. To be sure, none of
this means that Judaism takes an “anything goes” attitude toward bad
behavior—far from it! But a certain kind of deep human sympathy is called for,
in reaching judgments concerning ourselves and others—a character trait known
as rahamim (roughly, compassion and
mercy).As Eugene Borowitz and
Francie Schwartz (Borowitz & Schwartz, 1999, p. 68) note, the term rahamim shares the same root (r-h-m) as the Hebrew word for womb (rehem). The underlying implication is
that the woman who nurtures her child in the womb develops an intimate and
tender “relatedness” with the child. But we may read the etymological
connection in a broader sense, as well: all of us are “born of woman.” All
human beings share both the burdens of the flesh and our common destiny as
mortals.From this realization, we may
come to feel a degree of rahamim for
our fellow human beings—and for ourselves as well.
in Pirke Avot 2:18, we are told, “…do not consider yourself wicked.” Rabbi
Shlomo Toperoff comments on this as follows: “Self-criticism can be healthy,
but self-hatred--being wicked in one’s own esteem--is an unhealthy and
devastating philosophy.” (Toperoff, Avot, p. 126). Similarly, citing Rabbi
Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), Rabbi Moshe Lieber observes that
than falling into despair over his shortcomings, [Man] must seek out positive
elements in the totality of his being and judge himself favorably on that
basis. Such an attitude brings one to the joy necessary to serve God."
(Lieber, 1995, p. 27).
concept that every person has inherent value is further elaborated in Pirke
Avot 4:3, in which we are told, “Do not despise any person...for there is no
person who does not have [his]hour...”
In understanding this teaching, Rabbi Toperoff observes as follows:
you despise any man, you despise God...do not, therefore, despise the whole
person even if you should discover an objectionable trait in his character. Be
patient and you may yet discover that he possesses an admirable quality.” (p.
Reuven Bulkatells us: “Everything in
life has its purpose, every individual has a potential meaning possibility,
however distant and remote it might seem from the superficial view. It is
obligatory upon each individual to see the good and the potential of other
individuals.” (Chapters of the Sages, p. 146).
When we examine
statements by Drs. Ellis and Harper, we are struck by how closely they parallel
those of the rabbis. Thus, Ellis and Harper write,
“If human beings
have any intrinsic worth or value, they have it by virtue of their mere
existence, their being, rather than
because of anything they do to “earn” it...You are “good” or “deserving” just
because you are...”
(Ellis & Harper, 1961, p. 89)
underlying premises of REBT are not derived in any direct way from theological
concepts, it is interesting that Ellis and Harper cite the work of theologian
Paul Tillich (The Courage to Be), in
referencing this passage.
We see a similar parallelism when we analyze
Pirke Avot 4.3 in more detail. One rendering of 4:3 is “Do not debase the
entire person on the basis of a particular character flaw.” (Lieber, Treasury,
p. 223). Lieber adds, “There is no person who does not have redeeming value,
and one should never dismiss him based on one fault.” This is strikingly
similar to the philosophical approach to human worth taken by Ellis and Harper
“Blaming an individual means to confuse his
wrong acts with his sinful being. But no matter how many evil acts
an individual performs, he cannot be intrinsically evil for the very good
reason that he could, today or tomorrow, change his behavior completely and
commit no additional wrong deeds...A person’s (good or bad) acts are the results of his being, but they are never
that being itself.” [Ellis and Harper, 1961 p. 104]. (italics the authors).
sentiment is reflected in the writing of Nachman of Breslov (see Lieber, 1995,
p. 27), who says, “Even if one seems to have no redeeming qualities, search
further. Your search will certainly uncover some bit of good which justifies
the person’s existence.”
short—while drawing on vastly different world-views—the rabbinical and
cognitive-behavioral perspectives may be said to converge, in the matter of the
individual’s intrinsic and unalienable value.
connected to the rabbis’ ideas on intrinsic human value are their teachings on
how we should respond to insults or
abusive speech.It may not be
obvious, at first glance, how these ideas are related. One way of understanding
the link is to realize that our inherent value as human beings is not
diminished because someone has insulted us. Nor is the one who has hurled the
insult thereby rendered “evil” or “worthless” by such admittedly bad behavior. Furthermore, when we lose
control or become enraged because someone has insulted us, we also lose our
God-given faculty of reason—which,
for the rabbis, is what separates us from the “lower” creatures.
Thus, in the
Talmud we are told, “Happy is the person who hears himself being disdained and
ignores it, for a hundred evils will pass by him [without affecting him].” (Sanhedrin 7A, in: ibn Chaviv, 1999, p.
This same idea is reflected
in this passage by Ellis and Harper:
“Even when people are specifically nasty to
you…it is still most important that you keep calm yourself and not condemn them
severely or viciously retaliate. Whether you like it or not, they are the way
they are and it is childish for you to think they shouldn’t be…if you tell
yourself, instead, that ‘this situation stinks—tough! So it stinks’ you will at
least prevent yourself from being annoyed at being annoyed…” (Ellis &
Harper, 1961, p. 171).
this same spirit of self-control and composure, we find the following tale, in
a commentary on the work of the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meier Kagan of
“The tzaddik R’
Zalman of Volozhin was travling with R’Chaim. When they arrived at a certain
inn, the innkeeper spoke harshly to them and refused to grant them a room for
the night. Later, as they resumed their journey, R’Chaim noticed his brother
crying. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “Did you then pay attention to the
innkeeper’s words? I ignored them completely!” R’ Zalman replied: “Heaven
forfend that I should cry over being insulted. I am crying because I sense a
slight inner hurt as a result of his words. I cry that I have not yet attained
the level of ‘Those who are insulted…and are glad in their affliction.’” (from Sefer Toldos Adam; cited in Ibn
Chavivman & Berkowitz, 1995, p. 277).
Ellis would be largely in agreement with R’Zalman’s desire to abide insults
with equanimity—but might have put his hand on R’Zalman’s shoulder and reminded
him, “Nobody has perfect control over his emotions, Rabbi!”
Happiness and Unhappiness are “internally caused”
“world” does not revolve around me, nor is the world,God, society, etc. responsible for making me
Corollary: Anger and
related negative emotions are irrational states that come from “within” and can
be controlled from within.
tradition, with great psychological acuity, posits a direct connection between
ignorance (or irrational thinking) and narcissism.
Narcissism, in turn, leads us to unhappiness, anger, and other negative
emotions. Although “narcissism” has
very specific meanings in the psychoanalytic literature, we may define it as
the belief that, “The world revolves around me, and owes me happiness, comfort,
and success.” Perhaps the most forceful statement of rabbinical Judaism’s views
on narcissism is that of Maimonides:
“For an ignorant man believes that the whole
universe only exists for him; as if nothing else required any consideration.
If, therefore, anything happens to him contrary to his expectations, he at once
concludes that the whole universe is evil. If, however, he would take into
consideration the whole universe, form an idea of it, and comprehend what a
small portion he is of the Universe, he will find the truth.” --TheGuide
for the Perplexed, Part III, chapter 12
(Maimonides, 1956, p. 268)
Part 3 (ch. XXIV) of his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides
pursues this line of reasoning in discussing the suffering of Job. In essence,
Maimonides draws a straight line between Job’s narcissism, with its attendant cognitive
errors, and his mental anguish (Pies, 1997). Specifically, Job errs in
"...imagining [God's] knowledge to be similar to ours...His intention,
providence, and rule similar to ours." (Maimonides, 1956, p. 303).In effect, for Maimonides, Job envisions his
own needs and expectations as the moral
fulcrum of the universe. The “principal object of the whole Book of Job”,
for Maimonides, is that “we should not fall into the error of imagining [God’s]
knowledge to be similar to ours, or His intention, providence, and rule similar
to ours.” When we abandon Job’s anthropocentric (if not self-centered)
assumption, "...we shall find everything that may befall us easy to
bear... " (Maimonides, 1956, p. 303). As Rabbi Levi Meier puts it, Job's
deficiency was not his lack of virtue but "his lack of
wisdom...demonstrated by his confusion in not comprehending his
afflictions" (Meier, 1988, p. 105).
the work of Ellis and Harper, we find a similar aversion to “externalizing”
unhappiness by blaming others. They write
“You should reject the hypothesis that human
unhappiness is externally caused and that you have little or no ability to
control your sorrows or rid [yourself] of your negative feelings. Instead, you
should realize that most of your own misery is created by your own irrational
thinking, your own self-propagandization, and that you can eliminate most of
your despair or anger by changing your thinking or your self-talk.” (Ellis
& Harper, 1961, p. 186).
With very few
exceptions, the rabbinical tradition views intense anger as a particularly
egregious vice; conversely, mastering one’s anger is a cardinal virtue. Indeed,
Rabbi Shlomo Toperoff notes that erekh
apayim--being slow to anger--is
“one of the thirteen attributes of God...” (Toperoff, 1997, p. 280).
As in REBT, the
elimination—or at least, the mitigation--of anger by means of one’s
intellectual powers is a central tenet of Judaism. Furthermore, the Judaic
tradition posits a direct connection between cognitive deficits and anger
directed at persons or forces outside oneself. Thus, in Proverbs 19:3, we read,
“A man’s folly subverts his way, and his heart rages against the Lord.”
Similarly, Proverbs 14:29 tells us, “He who is slow to anger has great
understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” (Oxford Annotated
Bible, p. 785).
The medieval poet
and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol ( ca. 1021-1058 CE) writes that,“[He] who cannot control his temper is
defective in intellect.” (in Sherwin and Cohen, 2001, p. 106). One can infer a
“two-way street” in ibn Gabirol’s formulation; that is, defective reasoning leads to anger, but it is also possible that anger renders the intellect defective.
Cognitive psychologists would probably argue that a “vicious cycle” often
operates in us, such that impaired reasoning leads to anger, which further
impairs reasoning, which increases anger, etc.
stressed the destructive aspects of anger.For example, in Hilchot Deot
(Laws of Character Traits, part of 1st book of Mishneh Torah) ,
Maimonides counsels that
“…anger is an
extremely bad character trait, and it is proper for a man to move away from it
to the other extreme and to teach himself not to become angry even over
something it is proper to be angry about…”(Weiss & Butterworth, 1975, p. 32)
these condemnations of anger, the rabbis are also realists. Notably, Pirkei Avot does not admonish us, “Never
get angry!” Rather, Ben Zoma urges us to be “slow to anger”, and Rabbi Eliezer instructs us,“...do not anger easily...” (Pirke Avot 2:15). Indeed, Lieber wisely observes,
“It is really
impossible never to get angry, so the mishnah (Pirke Avot 2:15) instructs us not to anger easily. We must be level headed enough to assess whether the
incident that sparked our anger is sufficient cause for an outburst. We should
actively attempt to find reasons not
to be angry.”
people are gone into captivity, for want of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:12-13)
literate Jews are aware of an enduring tension within Judaism: that between the
“rational” and the “mystical”. Many Jews may identify the “rationalist”
tradition with the great medieval thinker, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides). In
contrast, they may associate the “mystical” strain of Judaism with Hasidic
masters, such as the Baal Shem Tov (the Besht). This dichotomy is
understandable, and not entirely incorrect—but it drastically oversimplifies
the complex reality of Jewish teachings. Indeed, I want to suggest that within
the stream of “mystical” Judaism is a surprisingly strong current of
rationalism—one that joins the Hasidic tradition in a fundamental way with that
of Maimonides and other rationalists. Additionally,
I will suggest some striking parallels between this rationalist strain and
modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)—a treatment based on the premise that
emotional disturbance is caused by irrational or self-defeating ideas.
But before proceeding, we should
briefly define what these terms—“rational” and “mystical”—are supposed to mean.
In essence, the rationalist strain in Judaism has identified religious truth
with the faculty of reason and the use of logic. Thus, Maimonides has been
described as, “…the typical rationalist, in that rational understanding stands
immeasurably higher for him than the experiences men have through feeling and
intuition.” (1) (pp. 127-28). On the other hand, it is more difficult to define
“mysticism” in the Judaic context. Still, Louis Jacob’s definition is a good
start: “Jewish mysticism can be defined as that aspect of the Jewish religious
experience in which man’s mind is in
direct encounter with God.”(2) (p. 3). Hence, no perjorative connotations
should be attached to the term “mysticism” as used in this essay. Though not
synonymous with mysticism, Hasidism, as Green observes, “at its theoretical
core is a mystical movement.” (3)(p.
While not the focus of this essay, one
could make a strong case that even in Maimonides (Rabeinu Moshe ben Maimon, Rambam), the mystical strain of Judaism
is present (2). For example, in Section 3, chapter 51 of his Guide of the Perplexed, Rambam’s
discussion of “communion with God” has strong affinities with the Hasidic
concept of devekut –“perpetually
being with God” (2). Thus, even in the “arch-Rationalist”, Maimonides, an
element of mysticism may be discerned.
enough abstraction—how do specific figures identified with Jewish mysticism
actually incorporate rationalist elements into their teachings? We shall
examine three seminal figures in the Jewish mystical tradition: Shneur Zalman
of Liady; Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; and—perhaps the most problematic of
the three-- Nahman of Bratslav,
Shneur Zalman of Lyady
Shneur Zalman (1745-1813) was a contemporary of Rabbi Nahman. His magnum opus,
the Tanya (Sefer Shel Beinonim) has formed the basis of the Habad or Lubavitch
movement (4). Rabbi Shneur Zalman (RSZ) is unquestionably part of what Bokser
calls “the Jewish mystical tradition”, having studied kabbala under a certain
Rabbi Issachar in Lubavich. On the one hand, we find in RSZ’s writings many
references to “the soul’s yearning to cleave to God,”“the return of the soul to its divine
source,” and many other ideas found in the Jewish mystical tradition (4) (pp.
218-219).But RSZ developed his own
strain of Hasidic thought that incorporated strong rationalist elements. For
example, RSZ modified the concept of the zaddik
(the righteous or saintly individual), so that it was seen “…in terms closer to
the classic conception of the rabbi as a teacher and a guide, but not as a
channel of divine grace.” (4) (p. 210).
his spiritual practice, RSZ can certainly sound quite “mystical”, emphasizing
intense catharsis and penitence. Thus, Foxbrunner tells us that Zalman advocated
or monthly periods of introspection and self-berating that, ideally, were to
culminate in a tearful outpouring of the heart. This weeping was intended
simultaneously to purge the soul of its spiritual guilt and of all its worldly
worries; it would then be capable of serving God with unadulterated joy.” (5)
yet, RSZ paid high tribute to the role of the intellect. This is especially
true in his depiction of the struggle between the “divine soul” and the “animal
nature” inherent in all human beings. Indeed,
“…it is clear that in Tanya (and in some discourses) the emotions are generally caused and completely controlled by the
intellect. A mind engaged in contemplating sublime matters will eventually
bring forth sublime emotions. Conversely, the powerful, untamed physical
passions generated by the animal soul may always be tamed and sublimated by the
intellect of its divine adversary.” (5) (p. 102, italics added).
RSZ’s concept of the emotions does not necessarily pit them against the
intellect. His view is more subtle than that. RSZ suggests that, “…the greater a man’s intellect, the greater
his potential for arousing commensurately great emotions…in other words,
like all good parents, the intellective faculties feed, clothe, educate and
discipline their emotive offspring…” (5) (p. 102, italics added).
effect, for RSZ, even as the divine soul struggles with our animal nature, the
relationship between the intellect and the emotions is essentially nurturing
like Rabbi Nahman and other Hasidic masters, Rabbi Shneur Zalman seems to have
been preoccupied with depression. RSZ
distinguished between what he called “dejection”— what modern-day psychiatrists
might term, “major depression”—and “bitterness”. Whereas dejection is a
crippling emotion that “inhibits Service” bitterness is a form of “active
dissatisfaction” with one’s shortcomings (5) (p. 122). Bitterness, in this
sense, is a kind of goad to self-improvement. It is not unlike the modern cognitive
psychologist’s instruction to the depressed patient; e.g., “Write down all the
things that you’d like to change about yourself, and then some practical ways
you might bring that about”. This instruction is provided in a context that
also emphasizes self-acceptance—distinguishing
the individual’s self-defeating actions from his or her ultimate value as a
human being (6).
Foxbrunner writes that “RSZ devotes much attention to psychological strategies
for dealing with periodic depression. These episodes were to be examined and their nature determined…” (5)
(p. 120). Then, the individual could begin to alter his thinking so as to
alleviate the depression. For example,
arising from one’s apparent spiritual weakness-the inability to suppress
profane thoughts, for example—could be overcome by simply accepting one’s lot…as one of the vast majority of men
whose purpose in life is constantly to struggle with profane thoughts, speech,
and actions naturally arising from the animal soul and the yetser hara [evil impulse].”(5) (p. 120).
effect, Zalman is advocating self-acceptance
and the avoidance of unrealistic, perfectionistic thinking. This is essentially
a change in one’s belief system,
though it occurs in the hothouse atmosphere of “self-abasement and
self-effacement” sessions (5)(p. 121).
These are akin to what the narcissistic individual undergoes—often painfully—as
his grandiosity and self-involvement are gradually confronted in psychotherapy.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman is thus a classic example of how the mystical and the
rational are closely interwoven in Judaic teaching.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-94)—head of the Lubavitcher movement for
forty-four years—was and is regarded, by many of his followers, as the Messiah.
But as his student, Rabbi Simon Jacobson, has observed, the Rebbe “…never
required anyone to accept his authority—as a Messiah, or for that matter, even
as a Rebbe.” (7) (p. 283). On the other hand, as Jacobson notes, there is no
doubt that the message of “the Rebbe” (as he is known by his followers)
represents “…the culmination of nine generations of the Chassidic tradition…” extending
back to the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman (7)
(p xvi). In this sense, the Rebbe is also squarely within the Jewish mystical
tradition, emphasizing that, “…to begin to understand G-d…we must learn to go
beyond our own mind, our own ego, our own tools of perception.” (7) (p. 214). Indeed,
the Rebbe tells us that, “…to look for G-d with our eyes, with our intellect,
with our logic, would be like trying to capture the sun’s light in our hand.” (7)(p. 214).
And yet—once again, we see in the Rebbe
the magnificent paradox of our greatest spiritual leaders. For like his
predecessor, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson also draws
on traditional sources of Jewish “rationalism”. (It is intriguing that, in the
1930s, the Rebbe studied mathematics and science at the University
of Berlin and the Sorbonne! It is
almost certain that he would have been exposed to the psychoanalytic theories
of Freud, as well). Also in the tradition of his Chassidic forebears, the Rebbe
was intensely interested in how we cope with pain and suffering, fear and
anxiety. To those of us in the mental health profession, some of the Rebbe’s
advice might well have come from a handbook on cognitive-behavioral therapy.
“To defeat depression, you must introduce a
fresh perspective to your thinking. You must begin to replace troubling,
destructive thoughts with positive, constructive ones. Think good and it will
be good. This is not foolish optimism; this is recognizing the goodness within
even a seemingly bad situation…” and “…the moment you look fear in the eye, it
begins to crumble. Use your intellect to harness your emotions…” (7) (p. 141).
often use a technique called “reframing”, in which the patient’s mode of seeing
a predicament is altered by means of a new cognitive “schema”. In this regard,
consider the Rebbe’s approach to the following case:
“…a woman came to the Rebbe for a blessing for
her father, who was depressed that he had to spend the High Holidays in a
hospital. The Rebbe smiled and said, “Tell your father that he should finish
the mission he was sent to the hospital for, to inspire the others there to
intensify their spiritual commitments. Then he will be released.” (7) (p. 92).
Indeed, by redefining the
problem—not, “hospitalized and depressed”, but “hospitalized with a
mission”—the Rebbe acts in the manner of the cognitive therapist: “The
real-life problem itself has not been changed, but the therapist assists the
patient to view it from a different perspective so that it no longer appears
insurmountable.” (8) (p. 197).
Similarly, with respect to physical
pain, the Rebbe tells us that “…we must challenge our own intentions…[and]do
everything possible to not let our emotions overwhelm us…we shouldn’t allow our
aberrational thoughts and doubts in
response to pain to become the new norm…” (7) (p. 127, italics added). The
person in pain needs “…to broaden his perspective…” realizing that “pain is an
opportunity for growth...” and a “…test that examines how consumed you are with
material comfort as opposed to spiritual growth…[Pain is]…a challenge to be met
with intense determination…” (pp. 131-32).Of course, this is no easy task. The Rebbe tells us that, “Realigning
your perspective on life…cannot be done easily. It takes discipline…[and] the
concentratedefforts of study, prayer,
and good deeds.” (7) (p. 129-130)
Nahman of Bratslav
Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810)—a great-grandson of the Besht—has rightly been
termed, “The Tormented Master” (3). As Nahman’s biographer, Arthur Green,
notes, “the most essential religious reality for Nahman was always the realm of
his own inner struggle.” (3) (p. 40). Seen in the light of modern psychiatric
theories, Nahman’s life might be viewed either as a struggle with repressed
sexual impulses, or as a case study in manic-depressive illness. But these
issues are not our focus here. Rather, we need to examine a striking paradox in
a man whom Green describes as “…a deep and thoroughgoing anti-rationalist”(3)
(p. 298). On the one hand, it is true that for Nahman, the essence of religion
is faith, not reason or logic. There is no point, in other words, in
arguing that Nahman is somehow a rationalist in the straightforward manner of
Rambam. Nahman himself tells us, “One really has to cast aside one’s mind,
throwing off all cleverness, and serve God in simplicity.” (Liqqutim II 5:15). Green
sees this process of “setting aside…one’s intellect”—histalequt ha-mohin—as an essential part of Nahman’s world view.
yet, and yet!—Nahman’s “penchant for paradoxical thinking” is also recognized
by Green. Despite his espousal of “simple faith” (emunah), Nahman also tells us that, “…the primary essence of man is
his comprehension, and wherever one’s
reason is focused, there one has his
being…whatever deficiencies a person suffers…they all stem from a lack of
knowledge...similarly, anger and cruelty result from a lack of comprehension…”
(Liqqutei Moharan 21; italics added) (4) (pp. 241-42). And in the realm of emotion—particularly
when it came to the crushing bouts of depression he suffered—Nahman is
surprisingly “rational”. As Green puts it, in Nahman’s later years, he
not going to let his illness get the best of him. The threat of depression is a
real one…He seeks to escape it by reasserting his own ability to maintain willful control over his own mind.
He contrasts himself with those who “do nothing to help themselves,” who do not
work to fight off the depression that engulfs them…” (3) (p. 245; italics
Nahman himself tells us, during this period, that “…the reason why people
remain far from God is that their minds
are not settled. They do nothing to help themselves in this regard. The
main thing is to get it clear in one’s
mind that there is no ultimate meaning to our passions and to those things
that bind us to this world…” (Liqqutim II 10) (3, p. 245, italics mine). And how can
we help ourselves? Nahman’scounsel is
strikingly similar to that of modern-day cognitive-behavioral therapists, such
as Albert Ellis (6) and Aaron Beck (9). Nahman tells us,
than falling into despair over his shortcomings, [Man] must seek out positive
elements in the totality of his being and judge himself favorably on that
basis. Such an attitude brings one to the joy necessary to serve God.” (10) (p.
that Nahman’s advice is fundamentally cognitive
and rational: our self-esteem and
mood are dependent upon judgment and attitude. To be sure, we may draw close
to God by means of simple faith and the “setting aside” of intellect. But we must
surmount our own despair by thinking
our way out of it.
Nahman is probably best known for his
posthumously published collection of “Tales”, recorded by his pupil, Rabbi
Nathan. (It is likely that Rabbi Nathan added to these tales from memory or
from his own notes). Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (11) describes these tales as “…a
medium for conveying the hidden aspects of Torah in all its multifaceted dress,
albeit in such a veiled way that the content is not outwardly apparent…” (xvii).
Thus, any interpretation of Nahman’s tales is bound to be somewhat subjective.
Nevertheless, I believe that one of the tales, retold with commentary by
Steinsaltz, illustrates the subtle rationalist elements in Nahman’s world-view.
In “The Clever Man and the Simple
Man”, Nahman tells the tale of two very different men, who first knew one
another as childhood friends: “One of them was clever, and the other was
simple; he was not stupid, but he had a plain mind, not subtle.” While a complete synopsis of this parable
would exceed the bounds of this essay, suffice to say that each man takes a convoluted
path to quite different lives. In the end, the “clever” man’s obdurate
rationalism leads him to deny the existence of “the king”—understood by
Steinsaltz to represent God. In stark contrast, the simple man “…really has
seen the king,” for he is “….one of those rare mystics who has direct personal
experience of God.” (11) (p. 212).
Now, on the one hand, Steinsaltz
interprets this tale as Nahman’s “…fierce attack on a certain species of Jewish
scholar…who strive[s] to master the realm of faith by means of rational inquiry
and by gathering information.” (11) (p. 201). The “clever man” (hakham) in the story begins as a
rationalist and ends as an atheist. So—where is the “other hand”? Where is the “rationalism”
in Rabbi Nahman?
In fact, as the “simple” man moves
down the path of his life, he does not remain quite so simple. As Steinsaltz
observes, “His mind had developed, and he is able to deal with the most complex
and subtle concepts and also has complete command of day-to-day matters. The
clever man, on the other hand, has become totally involved in himself, almost
to the point of lunacy.” (11) (p. 212). The simple man is “…able to grow
intellectually, without impairing his essential fairness and without losing his
simplicity.” (11) (p. 208). Seen in this light, Nahman’s parable is not fundamentally
a diatribe against rationalism or the intellect; rather, it is a cautionary
tale about “…one of the greatest dangers of rationalism: when it is extreme, it
becomes highly irrational…” (11) (p.
211, italics mine). Nahman does not want to annihilate the intellect in the
name of simple faith. Rather, at least in this tale, Nahman is “anti-rational”
only to the extent that unbridled rationalism despoils simplicity of spirit,
self-awareness, and belief in God. Nahman is fiercely opposed to the scholar
who is “too clever by half”--and who is thereby led into a rationalized and
hard-hearted denial of God.
why this struggle between rationalism and simple faith in Nahman’s tale? Green
(3) provides us with a telling “interpretation”: The clever man and the simple
man “…are all aspects of Nahman’s own
tortured and conflicted mind.” (p. 291, italics mine). Thus, if Nahman’s
writings sometimes seem contradictory on the matter of “rationalism”, it may be
due to the internal contradictions of the man himself—a man who, as Steinsaltz
puts it, “…was personally acquainted with the agonies of cleverness…” (11) (p.
any case, it is misleading to classify Nahman as a dyed-in-the-wool “anti-rationalist”.
Green astutely observes that if sechel
(the rational faculty) and hokmot (wisdom/cleverness)
are “villains in Nahman’s world” (3, p. 320), da’at is not. Da’at may
be understood, roughly, as “…knowledge of God in a positive way…” (3, p. 320). For
Nahman, this type of knowing amounts to an openness
to God’s presence. Da’at is
neither rational nor irrational, but suprarational.
Ironically—or perhaps, not surprisingly—this brings us full-circle to the supposed
arch-rationalist, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. In the final words of the final
chapter of The Guide of the Perplexed (M.
Friedlander, translator) Rambam leaves us with a robustly mystical assurance:
“God is near to all who call Him, if they call Him in truth, and turn to Him.
He is found by every one who seeks Him, if he always goes towards Him, and
never goes astray.”
So—who is the “mystic”, and who “the
rationalist”? The notion that Judaism is riven by some chasm between the mystical
and the rational is not borne out, even by an examination of the Jewish “mystical
tradition” itself. Indeed, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (12) facetiously puts it,
“If anything, Jewish mystics are tediously rational.” The Habad school
of Hasidism epitomizes this fusion
of the mystical and the rational. Let us conclude, therefore, with yet another
example from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “the Rebbe”:
“A revered rabbi, when he was very near death,
asked that he be moved into the study hall where he delivered his discourses.
“I am going to heaven,” he told his follower, “but I am leaving you my
writings…” When his son heard these words, he began to weep. His father, weak
with illness, turned to him and said, “Emotions? Emotions? No. Intellect, intellect.”
From that moment on, his son remained steadfast, thinking only of the life of
his father’s eternal soul.” (7) (p. 120).
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