Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Enemy Within


In the wake of the new Star Trek movie, I've been watching some of the old series episodes, available through CBS' website. Yesterday I saw "The Enemy Within", where a transporter accident causes Kirk to split into a "good Kirk" and "bad Kirk".

Well, they start out talking about the good Kirk and bad Kirk, but further qualify it as the intellect vs. the emotions, or perhaps the superego vs. the id. Neither side can exist long-term without the other. The intellectual, compassionate side cannot command a starship without the drive, the ambition, the will to do what must be done even if it will cause pain or difficulty. Much of the show is devoted to showing the two sides, and trying to find a way to reintegrate them before the two split halves die.

Debbie sees it as the Yetzer haTov (will to do good for others) and the Yetzer ha-Ra, (will to do evil by gratifying selfish urges) both of which are necessary for a person to live. She further believes that all have an exact balance of Yetzer haTov and Yetzer ha-Ra. We talk of one yetzer or another being stronger, but if you look at the totality of Jewish literature, it seems that the two are in exact balance. Those who are great personalities, such as Yaakov or David or Shlomo, certainly have great Yetzer haTov, given how they live their lives devoted to greatness in God's name. However, they all are tested by an equally huge Yetzer ha-Ra.

David, with Batsheva, Shlomo with his wives and idolatry, Yaakov with Lavan and Esav, and all are found wanting in Rabbinic literature in the way they meet these challenges. While we are to say that "they did not sin", still, as David told his prophet Nathan, their actions are not uncensured or uncensurable. David did not technically sin, but he was greatly tempted and gave in to temptation.

Yaakov in dealing with Esav has to descend to trickery to ensure he gets the proper blessing, but is in turn tricked by Lavan repeatedly, and his life is made miserable as he is tricked by Lavan, tricked by his children, etc. He was blessed in that all his children, unlike his father and grandfather before him, went in the way of Torah - he was the only sole father of our nation. But he was also punished for his negative acts.

If one is granted a great Yetzer ha-Tov, internal drive to do good, one is also tested by a massive Yetzer-haRa, internal drive to slip up, do the wrong thing. In this, as in many things, there is and must be a perfect balance for the person to be a true servant of God, to have the power to choose rightly, and be rewarded by greatness, even if that is accompanied by the power to choose wrongly.

(updated: changed translation of YhT and YhR)

10 comments:

micha said...

I can't believe the YhT and YhR fit their kliteral definitions. That would give an absolute definition of "being bad", following one's YhR, which would do away with concepts like tinoq shenishba (clemency for kids raised by kidnappers and the like).

In Igeres haMussar, R' Yisrael Salanter identifies the YhR with the imaginative faculty, which in turn is more connected to emotions and impulse. In contrast to the nemesis which is called seichel (reason).

In Cheshbon haNefesh, the dichotomy is animal vs intellect. To the extent that R' Mendel Satanover takes lessons from elephant trainers to learn how to deal with the YhR!

Going outside of the mesorah for a moment, Ira Stone (rabbi of Temple Beth Zion - Beth Israel in Philly) teaches a kind of Levinasian "Mussar". He defines the YhR as the drive or energy, and the job of the YhT is to aim it constructively. (My physics background led me to think of it like a vector: YhR = magnitude, YhT = direction.)

Tangent: While Levinas's theology is totally non-mesoretic, bringing his whole focus on "the other" to mussar has major advantages. It eliminates much of the threat of middos work sliding into a religiosity that's all about me. How to get that advantage when it comes to BALC without losing the BALM eludes me, but hearing Stone speak was both very informative and downright frustrating.

-micha

thanbo said...

So the Cheshbon haNefesh sounds most parallel to the Star Trek premise. Isn't that the one that's based on the Autobiography of Binyamin Franklin?

micha said...

Yes, it was based on Ben Franklin's system. However, only the system, the 13 middos one week each table. The lists of middos overlap on 10 out of the 13. The descriptions of the middos that do overlap are different (RMS uses mesoretic sources), they're spun differently in connotation. And they're given as 13 examples, with other suggestions getting shorter mention at the end. Most signficantly to this conversation -- the preface piece about the value of mussar is entirely new. That's what I'm quoting.

The book isn't a rewrite or a plagerism, it's the application of Franklin's method to quantify a preexisting notion of Cheshbon haNefesh.

-micha

thanbo said...

I don't think Debbie meant it as a literal "pull to do good/bad", but more of a "superego drives us to work in society" vs. "id drives us to gratify urges". Since so much is about limiting our self-gratification, the YhT is that which limits the YhR, and thus is the thing which aligns itself with mitzvot. While the YhR is all about the self, so who cares about God or other people?

Like Kirk, David couldn't have commanded armies without a YhR, but the YhT channels the energy in constructive ways.

If we wanted a kabbalistic metaphor, the YhR is chesed, unlimited energy flow, the YhT is gevurah, restriction, and the balanced persona uses the one to channel the other, resulting in rachamim. Rachamim for the Jews can still involve killing a lot of Amalekites - the energy is channeled constructively.

micha said...

Personally, I thought of the superego as a product of Freud's attitude toward religion. Rather than posit that man has an innate need to "Search for Meaning" (as Frankel would later put it), he reduces the motivation for being good as a need for the payoffs of social acceptance.

That said, the notion that id is YhR matches the YhR as animal within.

Your energy vs channeling that energy sounds much like Stone's.

But if the YhR is self-interest, taavah, instant gratification, etc... (all of which could be called the animal within) -- it's not chessed. Chessed is an *outlet* of energy, it relates to other.

-micha

Garnel Ironheart said...

Big plot hole in that one. If the transporters aren't working, why not just use shuttlecraft to rescue the landing party?

Answer: Gene Roddenberry hadn't thought of making them yet.

thanbo said...

See, that's why we have to take a proper historical view towards the Ancient Texts.

Who knew about shuttlecraft/kitnios and when did they know it? Sometimes learning "About It" helps us better understand "It."

Mike S. said...

While the opinion of R. Shmuel bar Nachmani is well known, it is disagreed with by Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav. The halacha would seem to follow the latter opinion, as the 15th bracha of the Amida is "bonei Yerushalayim" and not "elokei David u-vonei Yerushalayim"

thanbo said...

Mike S.:

Huh? To what are you responding?

Anyway, 'twas not ever thus. In EY, before the Crusades, they did say one bracha for Yerushalayim and the Davidic restoration.

Anonymous said...

I just added you to my blogroll, since you think good thinks (and quoted my comment on hirhurim).
pierre