The Density of Destiny

The Powerful Lesson of the Long Neck

We recently discussed different ways one can approach and encounter change. A method of acceptance and adaptation is outlined and illustrated in Who Moved My Cheese. An additional technique is to challenge and actively modify your situation and environment, as highlighted in I Moved Your Cheese. In the most recent post, I discussed that both attitudes might be valuable and complementary. It is integral to consider your specific life situation as you explore which of the models to internalize.

In a related vein, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a foremost contemporary Orthodox scholar and philosopher, addresses this broad issue in his essay entitled “Kol Dodi Dofek” – Listen – My Beloved Knocks. In that beautiful composition, those same concepts take on deep meaning in dealing with suffering and evil. Rabbi Soloveitchik contrasts two approaches to evil, fate and destiny. Rabbi Soloveitchik articulates that the suffering of righteous people has been a question which the greatest of prophets, including Moses himself, queried of G-d.

Rabbi Soloveitchik expounds that Judaism provides an approach, not an answer. The approach urges one to differentiate between man being an object or a subject. An individual who faces a hardship can sometimes see himself as an unfortunate person acted upon by the unpleasant and unsavory events of life- an object. His reaction is to see the evil as his fate, where he is helpless, shocked, pained, and crushed. When one sees negative events as suffering that he is to endure passively, the result can be tremendous mental anguish, which may result in unanswerable theological or philosophical questions, anger, anxiety, or depression.

On the other hand, Rabbi Soloveitchik continues, Judaism advocates a different approach to evil, one which is silently heroic. A man might not be able to alter his situation. Yet, within the confines of his circumstance, he can aim to understand, plan, and regulate his actions and reactions, and perform within his situational boundaries, becoming an active subject. He can master his own behavior, calculate his behavioral responses, and analyze what the situation demands of him, transforming pathetic fate into majestic destiny.

The primary intent of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s philosophy is to explain that Judaism often mandates specific behaviors in response to emotionally difficult experiences. In his view, a Jewish man of destiny does not seek to modify a situation that he cannot, but examines what behavior the Jewish faith demands of him at the time. On occasion it can be introspection so that he improves his behavior, the recitation of the required brachah (blessing) on negative tidings, or observance of rites of mourning. One can rise to majesty by remaining steadfast in his religious beliefs and actions, and creating his own spiritual destiny within a physically immutable situation.

This approach can be broadened outside the realm of halachically (Jewish legally) demanded actions to explain a general response that one can espouse when he is faced with a struggle such as insufficient finances, poor educational opportunities, or difficulties in relationships. If the situation is incontrovertible, he must maneuver within its margins to accept it, deal with it, and create a best case scenario. In other circumstances, his most appropriate effort might be to challenge his circumstances and attempt to change them.

Sometimes, a man’s persistence and optimism demonstrate both his acceptance of change and his defiance of its supposed limitations. Consider this majestic manifestation of destiny, discussed by Dr.Viktor Frankl in a postscript to Man’s Search for Meaning (Postscript 1984 – The Case for a Tragic Optimism):

Jerry Long, to cite an example, is a living testimony to “the defiant power of the human spirit,” as it is called in logotherapy. To quote the Texarkana Gazette, “Jerry Long has been paralyzed from his neck down since a diving accident which rendered him a quadriplegic three years ago. He was seventeen when the accident occurred. Today Long can use his mouth stick to type. He ‘attends’ two courses at Community College via a special telephone. The intercom allows Long to both hear and participate in class discussions. He also occupies his time by reading, watching television and writing.” And in a letter I received from him, he writes: “I view my life as being abundant with meaning and purpose. The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn’t break me (note the play on words making a potential object into a subject –SM). I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others…”

If [suffering] is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause. For unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude. Long had not chosen to break his neck, but he did decide not to let himself be broken by what had happened to him (again the object – subject change – SM).

After reading Frankl’s book and contacting Frankl, Long became a friend and then a colleague, of Frankl. You can see Dr. Jerry Long, Jr. and Dr. Viktor Frankl discussing some of their experiences together in this moving video. Long accepted that his cheese was moved, yet might be considered to have broken free of the maze that the cheese was in altogether, transforming what some might have seen as a confining, miserable fate into a heroic, magnificent, destiny.

A Tale of Two Mazes

How do you navigate life’s changes? Accept them? Modify them?
See what Arielle did.

 

In two recent posts, Can You Spare Some Change and Don’t Be So Amazed, I discussed two approaches to change. Spencer Johnson, MD, in his Who Moved My Cheese, uses a powerful allegory to remind us that change is inevitable. Dr. Johnson maintains that instead of fighting it, it is most beneficial to acknowledge it, accept it, and adapt to it. He uses  a parable of people in a maze, who rely on cheese for their sustenance. Once the cheese is moved from its usual place, it is prudent for them to adapt to that change and search for cheese in another location.

In contrast, Dr. Deepak Malhotra, in his I Moved Your Cheese, argues that it is more helpful to handle change differently. Analyze the change, ask why it happened, and marshal your own strength to create a situation where you are in control of the change instead of being manipulated by others. In his counter-parable, he discusses a mouse that is in a maze and leaves the maze, where he is able to maneuver the cheese around the maze at will. He leaves the confines of his situation and becomes master over his own destiny.

Which approach works for you? Have you noticed that you feel more comfortable with one or the other? Perhaps part of a successful personal and professional life calls for using both approaches and knowing which perspective to apply to which situation.

The maze in Dr. Johnson’s parable might be seen as representing a circumstance where one is faced with change and does not want to exit. Resisting change might lead to anxiety, depression, diminished heath, and reduced functioning. Therefore, it is advisable to accept change as inevitable and adapt to it to survive and succeed.

On the other hand, Dr. Malhotra adds that it is often advisable to examine a situation carefully. Depending on factors such as the timing, one’s resources, or state of mind, one might realize that it is within her ability to approach change differently. She can analyze the change, contest it, or exit those particular circumstances.

Arielle Flumenstein (a pseudonym) discovered how to use both of these approaches while navigating a difficult experience that she faced. Arielle was an Orthodox Jewish woman who started dating for marriage at 19, as is typical in her culture. As she matured, she set her goal as finding a husband who would learn in kollel (an advanced Talmud study program) for at least a decade after their marriage. She did not want to be supported by either of their families, and was assiduous at finding jobs through which she could support her family. When she dated, she discussed her goals with her potential mates. They were impressed both with her dedication to her religious ideals, as well as by her work ethic. Within a few months of dating, she met Shimi. She noticed that he was extremely serious about his Talmud study and that he had life goals that were similar to her. A few weeks after their initial date, they got engaged. A few months later, they were married (these are accepted time frames for their culture). Arielle was content living her life dreams. She was working hard, but she felt satisfied that she partnered with a husband who was attaining their mutual religious goals.

A few months into their marriage, Shimi did not seem to be learning as well as he had been. He started waking up late, did not seem as energetic, and was difficult to have pleasant conversations with. Arielle spoke to an advisor that she was close to who advised her to encourage Shimi to make an appointment with a psychotherapist. After a few meetings with Shimi, the psychotherapist explained to Shimi that he was suffering from a disorder called dysthymia, a mild form of depression. Together with a psychiatrist, the psychotherapist and Shimi created a plan to deal with Shimi’s disorder. The treatment plan included both medicine and psychotherapy.

At first, Arielle found it difficult to swallow her situation. She could not imagine her husband needing to take medicine daily. She also found it hard to believe that he was making weekly psychotherapy meetings. She had not included that in her budget, schedule, or life plan. She made an appointment to speak to Shimi’s psychotherapist. As she talked with him about it he helped her understand that she was suffering from “cheese-itis.” She and Shimi had undergone a life change, which she was finding hard to accept. In several, subsequent meetings, some of which included Shimi, they explored why it was so hard for her to accept the change, and how she could deal with it.

In that scenario, it seems like it was important for Arielle to accept or adapt to the change. It would probably not have been beneficial for Arielle to simply question why Shimi contracted his disorder or leave her marriage. Indeed, Arielle accepted her and Shimi’s new life situation, and they became sources of mutual support together as their marriage flourished.

Fifteen years later, Shimi was still learning in kollel, and his knowledge and understanding of Torah had grown exponentially. He was no longer taking medication, but maintained biweekly appointments with his therapist. He was pursued for a position of Rosh Kollel (dean) in a local community kollel. Based on a response from his posek (rabbinic legal advisor), he discussed his history of a previous mental health disorder during one of his meetings with the board. One member of the board was outspoken about that history undermining Shimi’s candidacy.

Shimi was disappointed and returned home to Arielle to share what happened at the meeting with her. Together, Arielle and Shimi decided that they were going to prepare a presentation for the board about how common dysthymia is, and how it can be diagnosed, maintained, and approached. A theme that they were going to convey was that dysthymia and depression are not weaknesses, but diseases like the flu or heart disease. With professional help, they can be managed, monitored, and sometimes relieved.

Shimi met with the board again. At the beginning of the meeting, a growing number of members of the board were incredulous about Shimi’s candidacy. But, by the time he finished his presentation, he was offered the position on the spot. In this situation, Arielle and Shimi did not merely accept that the cheese moved, they “took the bull by the horns” and became masters over their situation.

Through life’s vicissitudes and psychotherapy, Arielle (and Shimi) learned that sometime one has to move with the cheese, and other times, one has to move the cheese itself!

Don’t Be So Amazed!

Aharon doesn’t like spare change

Not So Moving

In a recent post, we met Aharon and Shabsi. They are chavrusos (study partners) in Yeshivas Torah Lishmah. Their rebbi (rabbinic teacher) had to take an extended absence in the middle of the z’man (semester). Aharon and Shabsi and their entire shiur (class) moved to a different shiur. Aharon and Shabsi both resented the move and their learning and moods suffered. Then Shabsi changed his mindset by reading Who Moved My Cheese, a book that suggests that change is inevitable in life and it should be embraced and dealt with, instead of denied and resisted.

Aharon thought long and hard about Shabsi’s new approach. Although he saw that the lessons of Who Moved My Cheese resonated with Shabsi, it was still hard for him to swallow. Something about accepting change and adapting to it did not sit well with him. He could not elucidate what was bothering him, but he felt an uncertainty within.

The Antithesis

After a few days of thinking about what was concerning him, Shabsi was in the waiting room of his doctor’s office and spied a book with an interesting title. It sounded similar to the book Shabsi had told him about. He inspected it more carefully and saw that this book was called I Moved Your Cheese. He was curious and became even more intrigued when he saw the subtitle – For Those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze. The author was Deepak Malhotra, a professor at Harvard Business School. Shabsi picked up the book and started reading it. As he read the pages, he noticed that the points of the book resonated with him deeply. Professor Malhotra lucidly stated why Who Moved My Cheese had been hard for Shabsi to swallow. Dr. Malhotra explained that he wrote the book because he had noticed that there were many people that internalized a wrong message from Who Moved My Cheese. They understood that life requires a person to accept change and to adapt to it. Malhotra added that

a key to happiness in life is for a person to have a two part response to change. It is necessary for him to muster internal strength to ask why a change happened and then to ask how he can now conduct his life to master the change –  and his destiny.

These two steps allow him to face change actively instead of being a passive recipient.

Deepak Malhotra used another parable to illustrate his point. He described a mouse named Max who lives in a maze where all the other mice indoctrinated the lesson of not questioning change and accepting it. Max was different. He resolved to figure out who did move the cheese, why they did it, and why the maze was the way it was. Max set out on a journey which took him years and included exiting the confines of the maze. Eventually, Max realized that the maze was a tiny part of a huge research lab where experimenters frequently moved the cheese to measure the reactions of the mice in the maze. Next, Max figured out a way that he could also move the cheese like the experimenters. Max explained that he was then able to redesign the maze and control the other mice by moving their cheese. The next time he heard a mouse exclaim, “Who moved my cheese,” he was going to plainly declare, “I moved your cheese.” Max was able to control the daily activities of his compatriots. But, Max continued, if a single mouse decided that he was going to focus on another goal than cheese or that he was going to leave the maze, Max would have no control over him.

Max’s powerful discovery highlighted the fact that sometimes, people are resistant to change because they feel like prisoners in their life situation. Max would argue that often, the best way to deal with change is to realize that one has the power to change his own circumstances altogether. One might focus on a different goal, or leave the organization or situation that constrains him. Dr. Malhotra’s powerful point is that sometimes it is dangerous to see change as inevitable. Often, it is merely a hurdle that one can muster the internal fortitude to sail over and to succeed.

Shabsi’s Move

I Moved Your Cheese resonated deeply with Shabsi. Although he understood that his chavrusa (study parter) Aharon, was able to adapt to his new shiur, Shabsi felt differently. He reasoned that if he appreciated the specific Talmudic approach of his rebbi, Rav Shlomo Eichenstadt, it might be better for him to find a different arrangement than to adapt to the new learning environment of Rav Leibel Grossbard.

Shabsi began an inquiry among the students of Rav Shlomo that were now in Rav Leibel’s shiur. Nine of them echoed Shabsi’s feelings that it was difficult for them to appreciate the scholastic approach of Rav Leibel. Shabsi asked if they would consider creating their own chaburah (study group). The students were very excited about the idea. First, they approached R’ Elimelch Cohen, a respected man studying in kollel (an advanced Talmud study program), who was one of the foremost students of Rav Shlomo Eichenstadt, and asked him if he would consider being their rosh chaburah (informal study group head) for the month. R’ Elimelech gladly accepted. Next, Shabsi met with Rav Leibel and respectfully explained their situation. Rav Leibel understood that they were only learning in his shiur temporarily and were looking forward to returning to the shiur of Rav  Shlomo. Rav Leibel encouraged them to pursue creating their own chaburah (study group) with R’ Elimelech.

By the end of the week, there were ten students studying in the new chaburah (group) with R’ Elimelech. The energy and excitement was palpable and the hasmadah (intensity of study) was reaching new heights. A few days later, at lunch, one of the talmidim in Yeshiva asked the other about the new group,

“Who moved the chevra (group of students) to the new chaburah (study group)?” Shabsi smiled to himself and thought “I moved the chevra!”

What Moves You?

Which approach to change to do you feel more comfortable with, the ideal of adapting to change, espoused by Aharon, from Who Moved My Cheese, or overcoming change, as accomplished by Shabsi, from I Moved Your Cheese? Perhaps neither works for you, or maybe you feel that both are necessary. What are your thoughts?

 

A Disorder Makes Order Out of Disorder: A Follow Up to Disappointed in the Appointed

Did “Disappointed in the Appointed” resonate with you?

Points People Pondered

My previous post, Disappointed in the Appointed: Grasping How Orthodox Leaders Can Lead Unorthodox Lives, discussed the recent scandal of a formerly respected Torah teacher who abused, some directly, and a whole community of coreligionists by extension. The post seemed to have resonated with people. Many reached out to me with feedback. Most of the responses I received were enthusiastically appreciative, positive, or supportive. Some were critical.

There are five main critiques that people have had about my article:

  1. Giving a name or diagnosis to an abhorrent behavior or string of behaviors does not:
    1. resolve religious questions about how G-d could let this happen or how He creates people that have such challenges.
    2. remove the legal or religious culpability of a person for his decisions or actions.
  2. It is not good practice to diagnose a person that you never met clinically – let alone at all (viz. the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule”).
  3. Reducing people to diagnoses can serve to cover over and simplify the complexities of their interactions and of a long standing set of circumstances.
  4. Naming a disease does not remove culpability to “the establishment”, including other rabbis, teachers, administrators, supervisors, and superiors for not ameliorating the situation.
  5. Most poignantly, giving a diagnosis does not assuage the unspeakable anguish, pain, torture and grief of even one victim. In fact, labels can sometimes seem to broadside and whitewash their emotional pain, torment, and suffering.

Two additional points that no one expressly stated are that:

  1. Highlighting possible warning signs might make victims second guess themselves and create guilt that they had not seen those signs sooner.
  2. A diagnosis, whether it is speculative or comprehensive, full or partial, never discusses etiology – the causes for the disease. It is merely descriptive of symptoms that are presented.

Approval of the Disapproval

I agree with those lines of reasoning. The points are valid and powerful. Some of those ideas are much broader than this specific context. They lie at the core of the raging dispute about how to write a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for mental health (which describes, delineates and codifies the symptoms and thresholds for mental diseases and disorders) and if there should be such a manual altogether. Other points involve a larger discussion about the reach of a plea of “insanity” in a court of law or in Judaism or how to best support those that suffered most.

The Objective Objective

In my article I strive for a greater understanding of the broad areas of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and narcissism. I believe that it is an important area for people to be aware of and consider in the context of this situation. What can an increased knowledge and consideration of the interaction of a mental health disorder do?

Perhaps it can facilitate understanding that:

  • There are certain people that are more prone to this behavior than others, possibly mitigating a sense that stressors are constantly present (but not communicating to people to diminish their vigilance).
  • There might be a greater concentration of them in situations of leadership, including the Orthodox rabbinate.
  • The existence of warning signs can help people be more in touch with what to notice in the future.
  • There are therapists that are aware of such behavior and versed in interventions to assist individuals and the community.
  • Torah does not usually change an individual’s personality when it has pronounced deficiencies.
  • Create a sense of order out of disorder, stability out of chaos, and harmony out of deep confusion.
  • Find a common thread and language to describe many situations that people may see as disjointed, yet are linked by similar presentations, factors, and conditions.

Disillusion and Confusion

A colleague expressed to me that one might see this situation as creating two groups of traumatized victims that are both very different, yet similar: those directly abused, and those that “suffer from a shattering of their former conceptualizations” of Torah, leadership, and religiosity. I include myself in the second category. As Elihu ben Berachel said while discussing his friend Job’s travails and suffering (Job 32, 20), I speak that I might find relief.

I pray that it come to all those that suffered from this situation and those like it.

Disappointed in the Appointed: Grasping How Orthodox Leaders Can Lead Unorthodox Lives

Another scandal. What does that say about Orthodoxy? Rabbis? Me?

What a Shame

A brilliant talmid chacham (Torah scholar), who taught Torah to thousands both in person and through shiurim (classes) on several websites, was recently discovered to have violated several extremely serious Torah, Rabbinic, and ethical prohibitions which lie at the very core of Orthodox Judaism. People discussed with me that they are upset, shaken, shocked, or hurt by the recent unmasking of that scandal. Unfortunately, it was not the first violation of its kind by prominent rabbinic figures and, it will probably not be the last, rachamana litzlan (G-d protect us). For many it causes personal, religious, or ethical difficulties, or a combination of those.

How are you reacting to that news? Perhaps you have found yourself asking questions like these:

How could it be? I just don’t understand it. How could a person so involved in Torah also behave in such a way?

 

My seminary hired him and clearly made a serious error. How can I trust any Torah or hashkafah (religious outlook) that I learned in my seminary altogether?

 

He probably was crazy. Geniuses are sometimes like that. He was just in space. It’s a shame he needs to be dragged through such a scandal. Nebach (pity).

 

Must be lashon hara (slanderous speech). I am not mekabeil (I don’t accept its veracity).

 

How can I trust any rabbanim (rabbis)? Why should the one I have a religious relationship with be any different?

 

If that is how rabbis and scholars act, then why am I religious?

The issue is complex and multifaceted. An important issue to examine in this situation, and those like it, is a mental health condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder and a personality trait often known as narcissism.

Personality

Each one of us has habits, traits, and long-standing patterns of behavior that are with us from youth and throughout life. We describe that cluster of behavior and interaction as “personality.” Some people tend to have more “anxious personalities,” others “cheerful personalities,” and some “introverted personalities.” Personality does not only describe how a person usually acts, but often gives a hint as to how she will behave in the future. An “anxious personality” might take finals time harder than her friends. A “cheerful personality” might not mind his bad date as much as his friends do. An “introverted personality” possibly prefers a quiet Shabbos afternoon with a book. Personalities are not really so simple or so predictive, but we often think about ourselves, and others, in terms of personalities. “That’s SOO your type!” is a common refrain in contemporary language.

Sometimes, one’s personality includes a pattern of behavior that seriously impedes his function or his interaction with others. In mental and behavioral health, those are sometimes termed “personality disorders” to indicate that the individual has patterns of behavior that, without intervention, are probably going to obstruct his life performance. Individuals with personality disorders might be very successful in general, but will usually fall short in at least one area, such a relationships or societal function.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

One type of personality disorder is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Features of this disorder include an inflated sense of self, arrogant behavior, and an inability to empathize with another person. In addition, narcissists are often so caught up with their sense of self that they sell themselves very well. They often have magnetic personalities, charm, charisma, and a winning sense of humor. Part of NPD as currently defined (APA, 2013) means that the individual suffers from impairments in interpersonal functioning in the realm of empathy or intimacy. Deficiencies regarding empathy include difficulty recognizing or identifying with the feelings and needs of others. Impairments regarding intimacy include having relationships that are largely superficial or that exist to serve self-esteem regulation but contain little genuine interest in others. In addition, it is common for a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) to become extremely irate or even dangerous toward a person or group that threatens his superiority.

Almost everyone has features of this personality on occasion. Yet, if these traits are severe, long lasting, and severely impede an area of functioning, they might be termed Narcissistic Personality Disorder. NPD, like other personality disorders, does not need to inhibit all functioning. It describes and forecasts significant impairment in some aspects of life. Some individuals that might have had NPD went down in infamy, such as Joseph Stalin. Others, such as Steve Jobs, became fabulously famous. Yet both of them had significant feelings of grandiosity that undermined their abilities to have secure, meaningful, healthy relationships that were not based on mass murders or tantrums.

It is fascinating that the Talmud (Yevamos 79a) highlights three traits which the Jewish tradition prizes over all others: being merciful, bashful, and kindheartedness. Narcissistic Personality Disorder cuts at the heart of all three of those ideas. One that has it is usually unempathic, unnaturally bold, and uncharitable.

The Spectrum of Personalities

Personality disorders express extreme levels of personalities and traits. Yet, it is helpful to look at personality as a spectrum. Most personalities are a mixture of positive and negative traits. The negative aspects, if taken to an extreme, would qualify as one of the several clinical personality disorders. Yet, if these traits do not severely impede functioning, they do not meet the threshold of a diagnosis. Correspondingly, many people have some aspects of narcissism in their personality, but not enough to severely impair their functioning. It is sometimes commonly accepted to call those with some narcissistic tendencies or traits “narcissists,” but there are no universal or objective criteria for that term.

Narcissism and Leaders

On the flip side, some level of narcissism might be both positive and beneficial. Narcissists can usually succeed better in some interpersonal interactions. The inhibitions, self-doubts, and shyness that might mitigate or inhibit some from socializing present less issues for narcissists. They tend more to the side of grandiosity, self-assuredness, and boldness, which can help them function well socially. Some even suggest that aspects of narcissistic personality are really the true manifestation of one’s strength and positive ego attributes, helping to fight criticism and self-doubt, which are not truthful.

Narcissism can especially be helpful in creating a leader. The literature is replete with studies suggesting that narcissists often become CEOs, leaders of organizations, and leaders of countries (Rosenthal and Pittinsky, 2006). Yet, narcissism can be a double edged sword and can sometimes border on NPD or share commonality with it. If it is too pronounced and deep seated, narcissism severely inhibits a person’s functioning. Narcissists that are leaders can see their organizations and all those in it as self-serving, can ignore the personal needs of others around them, and truly believe that everyone else is there to serve them.

One current way of thinking suggests that narcissism in a leader is helpful, as long as he does not use narcissistic leadership, which is personally self-serving and severely compromises the rights of those under him (Stein, 2013). A slightly different way to see it is that a leader with some aspects of narcissistic personality can do a great job, but if it is severe and inhibits his ability to lead equitably then it is inhibiting, similar to NPD.

Narcissism and Religious Authority

Correspondingly, religious leaders such as rabbis and teachers can have some aspects of narcissistic personality. For some, it might be what drew them to a position of religious leadership in the first place. For others, it might dictate how they lead. For some more, it might be both. This does not mean that their narcissism is bad or that they are leading shleo lishma (with religious insincerity). It might be that their narcissistic tendencies are what allowed them to overcome self-doubt and permitted them to emerge as leaders. Furthermore, the positive aspects of narcissism could also be what motivated them to succeed in learning or to weather the vicissitudes of the rabbinate.

It is intriguing that the Talmud (Sotah 5a) suggests that a Torah scholar possess a small amount of hubris. Rashi (the foremost medieval commentator) explains that this trait is necessary so that indolent people would still accept his rulings and leadership. It is clear that a certain amount of self-assertion is necessary for scholar and guides. In situations of leadership, one might argue that this Talmudic principle condones the leader manifesting some aspects of narcissism.

Narcissism and Wrong Behavior

If you examine several of the rabbinic figures that were unmasked as having engaged in inappropriate relationships, you might notice signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or severe manifestations of narcissism. Some were noticed to be arrogant, self-serving, or dominating. In addition, relationships that they had with students or congregants were usually marked by a supreme one-sidedness. Also, their charm and wit was sometimes energetic – and almost limitless.

The fact that many rabbinic figures that acted unfittingly displayed aspects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or narcissism does not pardon them, but it can provide warning signs for women and men to look out for in a rabbi, teacher, or leader. If you suspect a person that influences you religiously of having narcissistic personality traits it can serve as a forewarning that interpersonal relationships with that person should be approached with extra caution.

How They Got Their Jobs

Narcissistic Personality Disorder might also explain why yeshivos, seminaries, and shuls sometime hire narcissists. It is possible that their wit and charm blinded administrations. Countries sometimes elect narcissists, and shul boards or yeshiva administrations can, indeed, make mistakes. More commonly, though, those individuals might possess the ideal traits for the position. If narcissism is tempered, it can sometimes produce quality leaders.

The Rest of Orthodoxy

In addition, Narcissistic Personality Disorder might help some mellow the aspersions that these rabbis cast on other rabbis or Orthodoxy, in general. The fault lies more with their personalities than with their religious beliefs. Even if one is extremely devout and dedicated religiously, it is very hard to escape the clutches of a personality disorder without assistance from a therapist. Rabbis with Narcissistic Personality Disorder should probably not be in their positions, unless, perhaps, they are concurrently in therapy. Similarly, those with narcissistic tendencies might need extra maintenance to help them stay within the framework of law, religious or governmental. Absent those precautions, their self-assuredness might cause them to disregard the needs of others, including their superiors, congregants, or students (Maccoby, 2000). It is possibly their responsibility to regulate themselves, and perhaps the duty of their organizations and community to assist them if they do not succeed.

Ramifications

Life is complex, and many people you interact with might have some aspects of narcissism. If you notice that a rabbi, teacher, or leader frequently berates you or others, seems to disregard other’s feelings, thinks very highly of himself, manifests magnetic charm, or demonstrates superficial, one-sided relationships, it is advisable to proceed with caution. That does not necessarily mean that you should cease all interaction with that person, but it is important for you to be on your guard when you deal personally with him. If you feel that you are being taken advantage of, discuss that with someone you trust. You owe it to yourself, your fellow congregants or students, and the larger community. As we say daily in our prayers, may G-d speedily return our leadership to the unadulterated wholesomeness of past days and remove grief and misery from society.

Postscript

Are you having a strong reaction to this article? Many people did. In my next post, I discuss some of the most common reactions people are having. Click here to read it now.

 

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). DSM 5. American Psychiatric Association.

Maccoby, M. (2000). Narcissistic leaders: The incredible pros, the inevitable cons. Harvard Business Review78(1), 68-78.

Rosenthal, S. A., & Pittinsky, T. L. (2006). Narcissistic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly17(6), 617-633.

Stein, M. (2013). When does narcissistic leadership become problematic? Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers. Journal of Management Inquiry, 1056492613478664.

 

Can You Spare Some Change?

Aharon and Shabsi were flourishing in Yeshiva until…

The Announcement

Aharon and Shabsi were two yeshiva students who studied together in Yeshiva Torah Lishmah. They were both extremely successful in their learning. The hours of the seder (study period) seemed to pass rapidly as they probed the depth of the Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos (Talmud and central commentaries) then moved to the other Rishonim (medieval commentaries) and, if there was time, to some of the Acharonim (later commentaries). When they got to shiur (class), their comprehension was excellent, they retained what their rebbi (teacher), Rav Shlomo Eichenstadt said, and they used some of the concepts he presented to enrich the next day’s studying.

Toward the middle of the long winter z’man (semester), Rav Shlomo made an announcement. He told the students that, unfortunately, he had to schedule emergency back surgery. The surgery was going to take place in two weeks, but he had to stop giving shiur in exactly a week so that he could make the necessary preparations, including going for tests before the surgery. His eyes teared as he made the announcement, because he felt pained at leaving his beloved students. He added that the recuperation was scheduled to take at least a month. During that time, he suggested that the students move to a parallel shiur, given by Rav Leibel Grossbard. The students were visibly concerned for their rebbi and expressed that to Rav Shlomo. He thanked them for their concern and assured them that, with G-d’s help, everything would be alright.

That day after the shiur, during lunch, the dining room was abuzz. Students were upset that their rebbi was leaving, and were unsure what to expect when they moved to Rav Leibel Grossbard. The students in Rav Shlomo’s shiur came to a consensus that they would all move together to Rav Leibel’s class.

The Move

A week later, after a sorrowful parting, all Rav Shlomo’s students moved to Rav Leibel’s shiur. Both the students and Rav Leibel made an extra effort to be welcoming and considerate of Rav Shlomo’s students and they began to learn as once large chaburah (group). Within a week, Aharon and Shabsi noticed that they did not understand Rav Leibel’s shiur as well. He had a different style of learning than Rav Shlomo and he focused on different nuances in the Talmud and commentaries. Aharon and Shabsi noticed that their difficulties in shiur affected their studying during seder, as well. Both of them observed a decreased drive in their learning the entire morning. Seder seemed longer than ever. They also noticed that their comprehension was decreasing. They did not have the same havanah (comprehension) as they had before and they barely got through the Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafos during seder. To make matters worse, as their learning deteriorated, Aharon and Shabsi started becoming less enthusiastic and a little down, in general. They saw that they didn’t come as on time for shacharis (morning prayers) and they were not as punctual as they usually were for any seder during the day.

Aharon’s Change

Aharon went home for Shabbos and his mother suggested he read a short book called Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson, MD. I was a quick read and it made Aharon feel much better. He came back to Yeshiva reinvigorated. His learning got back on track and he began to feel his excitement return. He even became better at understanding Rav Leibel’s shiur and became more and more successful.

Shabsi, who was still in his rut, noticed the change that his chavrusa (study partner) underwent. He asked Aharon what had happened and he told Shabsi about the book he had read. Shabsi gave Aharon a brief summary.

A Bit Cheesy

He explained that the book is a parable which explains different reactions that people have to change.  There are four characters in the book, Sniff, Scurry, Hem, and Haw. Sniff and Scurry are mice, and Hem and Haw are little people. They all live in a maze and are nourished by a generous amount of cheese in Cheese Station C. They return to the cheese station as often as they like and eat until they are satiated. One day, the characters arrive at Cheese Station C and notice that the cheese is gone. Immediately, Sniff and Scurry, unanalytical mice, go through the maze to find an alternate source of cheese. Hem and Haw, who are thinking individuals, are amazed at the injustice they just experienced. They cannot believe that the cheese, the standard they always relied on, was moved. They commiserate in the unfairness and mourn their unfortunate situation. Hem sadly exclaims, “Who Moved My Cheese?” They both bemoan the fact that things are no longer the same. After a while, Hem and Haw discuss trying to find alternate sources of cheese. But they conclude that is too risky to venture to other parts of the maze. In addition, there is no guarantee that they will succeed anywhere else either. They return to Cheese Station C day after day, hoping that the golden days of plentiful cheese will return. They still bemoan how unfair it was that someone moved their cheese, and get hungrier and hungrier. One day, Hem decides that he has no choice but to venture away from Cheese Station C. He gingerly takes a few steps at a time into uncharted territory. After searching for a while, Hem finds other cheese stations, but sees that they, likewise, have no cheese. Yet, the fact that other cheese stations exist gives Hem renewed confidence that it is only a matter of time until he finds more cheese. After a while, Hem finds Cheese Station N, which has even more plentiful amounts of cheese. He is elated and looks back at the road he traversed. He notices that he learned several important lessons, which he writes on the wall of Cheese Station N. These include:

Change Happens: They Keep Moving the Cheese

Adapt To Change Quickly: The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, the Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese

Change: Move With the Cheese

Enjoy Change!: Savor the Adventure And Enjoy the Taste Of New Cheese!

Shabsi explained that the book helped him realize that many people are resistant to change. They analyze it and conclude that it is unfair and that they don’t like it. This causes them to be resistant to the inevitable change and holds them back from succeeding in life. Shabsi continued that he realized that the change from Rav Shlomo’s shiur to Rav Leibel’s shiur was like his cheese. He was upset he had to move and reluctant to accept the new circumstances. His adherence to the way things were inhibited him from embracing his new situation. With this insight, he decided that he could adapt to Rav Leibel’s shiur. Even though the rebbi’s style in learning and explanation were different than what he was used to, he tried to appreciate Rav Leibel’s shiur for its own benefits and began to enjoy it and grow from it. His new insight infused him with more energy and he noticed himself succeeding more throughout his day.

Life Changes

Like Shabsi, many people report that they have gained from Who Moved My Cheese. Tens of millions of copies of the book have been sold, and it has spent years on the New York Times bestseller list. The New York Times acclaimed it as “brilliant in its simplicity” and Time Magazine called it “The bestselling business book of all time.” It was lucidly summarized and made into an animated video, which is publicly available on Youtube.

The book’s demand demonstrates that the predicament faced by Hem and Haw are shared by so many. Changing shiurim is one of the many examples of change people undergo. Sometimes the changes are in the social situation of a yeshiva or seminary, such as changing rooms or moving locations. Other times the changes include moving from singlehood to marriage, from kollel (full-time, advanced Talmud study) to the workforce, or from couplehood to parenthood. We all face changes in our lives and often tend to hem and haw about them. It seems that the more quickly we embrace those change, the better life can be.

Not So Simple

Aharon appreciated Shabsi’s explanation and insight and left their conversation deep in though. He understood Shabsi’s points and thought about integrating them into his own life. What do you think about the book’s point? Does it strike a chord within you? There might be reason to say it should – like it did for millions of others. At the same time, the solution might not be as simple as it sounds. There are other perspectives to use to understand the students’ reactions to their situation. Those approaches could take into account other factors, including Aharon and Shabsi’s families, prior experiences –  in general and in yeshiva – and how they view themselves.

Let’s visit Aharon in a post next week to hear some of his reactions to Who Moved My Cheese. We will also explore the students’ experiences further. Meanwhile, are you going to keep the change?

The Sun Will Come Out Today

Stifling emotions is causing trouble for Shayna and Yisrael

Stifling Emotions in Judaism

 Shayna and Yisrael’s Predicament

Shayna and Yisrael have been married for several years. They live in Woodlake, New Jersey, where Yisrael studies in Kollel (an advanced Talmud study program) and Shayna is an office manager. Their marriage seems happy, stable, and fulfilling, with one significant presenting issue. When people say hurtful things to Yisrael, he absorbs their comments and doesn’t respond. He puts up a stiff upper lip, then smiles and continues with his day.

Shayna is concerned about Yisrael’s lack of emotion. She believes that it is “fake” or “unnatural.” Furthermore, Shayna notices that for a few hours after the insulting comment, Yisrael seems like he is more on edge. Even though he is smiling and looks cheerful, he is often more irritable and easily disturbed. She thinks that his emotions seem to be still pent up inside him. Shayna explains that two points put a strain on their own relationship. Firstly, she feels like Yisrael is not being honest emotionally and not being candid with her. Secondly, he often is harder to relate to after someone says something negative to him.

Yisrael explains that he is trying consciously not to react to critical or negative statements. He elaborated that he formerly learned in a well-known, established, pedigree yeshiva in Israel. During his years there he absorbed an approach that emotions should be subdued and not readily expressed. The yeshiva’s modus operandi was to be halachic and to examine all situations solely from a legalistic standpoint. Yisrael was now trying to adapt the worldview of stoicism. Although he is not “there yet,” he is aspiring to integrate that perspective into his own life. Yisrael explained that, theoretically, if he could sue his insulter in a beis din (court) for defamation or slander, he might do so. But absent any direct halachic/ legalistic response, he remains silent and squelches any response on an emotional level.

 The Perspective of the Sefer HaChinuch

The hashkafa (religious perspective) of emotions and their expression is a complex and ancient one in Judaism. There is no unilateral, all-encompassing answer and there are different approaches taken by different leaders and parts of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), both historically and currently. At the same time, it is valuable to examine the words of the Sefer HaChinuch (The “Book of Education” – 13th Century Spain) regarding the prohibition of Onaas Devarim – verbal mistreatment of another person. The Torah prohibits one from saying anything that causes distress to another. This includes name calling, insulting, or reminding someone of her unsavory past. What if someone violates Onaas Devarim? What should be the reaction of the offended party? The Sefer HaChinuch (338) elaborates that a response is both appropriate and not included in the prohibition of verbally distressing someone. He explains:

According to what it seems, it can’t be possible that if one came and began to be wicked to pain his fellow with his bad words, that the listener should not answer him. For it is not possible for a man to be like a stone that cannot be overturned, and what’s more, that he will be in his silence like one who admits to the insults. And in truth, the Torah did not command for a man to be a stone, silent to those who insult him like to those that bless him…it is proper for a wise person that he will reply to him in a roundabout and pleasant way, and not become exceedingly angry, because “Anger rests in the heart of fools (Koheles/ Ecclesiastes 7:9)”.

The Sefer HaChinuch adapts an approach of reality. He acknowledges that it is typical to be insulted at another person’s hurtful or spiteful comments. If it were ideal for one to simply ignore another person’s negative comments, the Sefer HaChinuch would have penned a different approach. Perhaps he would have advised the insulted to toughen up, trust in G-d, and ignore the meaningless comments someone else uttered. Rather, the Sefer HaChinuch recognizes that emotions are part of the human condition. It is natural to react to another person’s statements. The Sefer HaChinuch even considers anger a valid reaction to insult – as long as one does not become “exceedingly angry.” The valiance of man is not to ignore but to try to temper his reaction and to not explode.

What About the Sun?

The Sefer HaChinuch adds a caveat. He concludes that those who are consummately in love with G-d strive not to reply to those that insult them:

Yet – there is a group of people for whom their righteousness rises so much that they do not want to bring themselves into this leniency to reply something to those who insult them – perhaps anger will overpower them and they will become involved in the matter more than is enough, and about them they of blessed memory have said: those who are insulted but do not insult back, who hear their shame and do not reply, about them the verse says: “And those who love Him are like the sun emerging in its strength (Shoftim/ Judges 5:31).”

The Sefer HaChinuch says that those who love G-d and are exceedingly righteous do not respond directly to their detractors so that they will not respond too strongly. At the same time, the Sefer HaChinuch acknowledges that even the most righteous can feel hurt by the words of man. It is important for them to be emotionally honest with themselves and to acknowledge the feeling. Sometimes, it might be beneficial for them to discuss them with someone else, too. Emotions are often very authentic expressions of who we are as humans.

The imagery of the strength of the sun beginning to shine that Chazal (our Sages) use is beautiful and precise. Since people are expected to respond emotionally to insults, it takes extraordinary internal strength not to respond directly. It is important not to confuse that with stifling one’s emotion altogether.

Implications for Yisrael

The presenting issue that Shayna and Yisrael had can be indicative of his upbringing, past experiences, and their relationship. One area for Yisrael to explore might be his approach to emotions and their expression. It is possible that he feels more comfortable stifling his emotions because of pain he has experienced in the past that he would rather not allow to come to the surface. Alternatively, it might be that his upbringing, in addition to his Yeshiva, demonstrated or valued shrouding or inhibiting emotion. The issue is ripe for discussion and might be helpful in exploring more about who Shayna is, who Yisrael is, and underlying strengths and challenges in their relationship.