We cannot always rely on the voice of reason

The rabbis regarded sinful behaviour as a form of madness but they understood the limits of rationality, too.


By Naftali Brawer, October 6, 2011
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Why did they do it - some of the rioters on UK streets this summer could not explain their action

Why did they do it - some of the rioters on UK streets this summer could not explain their action

This past August at the height of the London riots a 24-year-old university graduate named Natasha Reid stole a flat-screen TV from the Comet store in Enfield. What made this particular story remarkable was not that she had a university education and came from a comfortable home but that no sooner had she brought the looted TV home, she began to bitterly regret her rash action.

Her mother was quoted in The Times as saying, "She didn't want a TV. She doesn't even know why she took it." She added that her daughter already had a 27-inch television hanging in her bedroom.

Natasha was later reported saying to a close family friend, "I don't get it, auntie. Why did I do it?"

To her credit she turned herself in to the police the next morning.

What are we to make of this extraordinary story? What possess an otherwise intelligent sensible young woman to commit such a senseless act of robbery?

Perhaps the wise observation of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish is pertinent (cited in the Talmud Sotah 3a).

The rabbi, who was a brigand in his youth, states that "a person does not sin unless a spirit of folly enters into him". What he means by this is that all sinful behaviour is the result of a suspended sensibility or sort of temporary insanity. If one were able, at all times, to soberly weigh the consequences of their actions, they would never sin.

Sin is the result of veering off the sensible and logical path of behaviour. In fact, the Hebrew "Satan" shares the same root the word for folly, shtut, which is understandable since Satan's role is to draw the individual away from sensible thinking into rash behaviour.

In his seminal text of Chabad Chasidic thought, the Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) reinforces this idea by asserting that the only reason we could even contemplate sinning is because we fool ourselves into believing that our sinful behaviour will not negatively impact on our connection to God. If we were only able to think clearly and realise that how through sinning we distance ourselves from God, we would never sin, as Rabbi Shneur Zalman firmly believes that no Jew would ever willingly jeopardise his or her bond with God.

The antidote to the muddled thinking that leads to sin is to assert our critical faculties by imposing clear thought over impulsive behaviour - one of the basic tenants of Chabad (Lubavitch) philosophy.

Sometimes, however, rash behaviour can be a positive thing. Rabbi Shneur Zalman's great-grandson, and fifth Chabad Rebbe, Shalom Dov Ber (1860-1920) developed the idea of "holy folly" (shtut dekedushah) as distinct from negative or impure folly (shtut deklipah.) While both types of folly override sober intellect leading the person to act irrationally, the lower shtut deklipah is pre-rational which can only lead to negative consequences, whereas the higher shtut de-kedushah is trans-rational, opening the way for positive possibilities.

Sometimes logically weighing consequences can hold one back from great achievements. Name one radical thinker, philosopher, inventor or scientist who at some point in his career was not deemed insane by his more sober colleagues. Great creativity sometimes calls for impulsive, reckless even, behaviour. The rational is an important baseline against which to measure our behaviour but there are times when one must transcend its limitations.

On Yom Kippur we reflect on our foolish behaviour of the past year, impulsive behaviour that might have cost us in terms of our relationship with God and with others. We make amends and resolve in future to think carefully before we act. This, in essence, is the theme of this holy day.

Yet at the same time, we ought to consider engaging in the coming year in some trans-rational behaviour, in some shtut dekedushah. You may be aware of a damaged relationship that, at least logically speaking, appears too broken to ever be mended. This Yom Kippur reach out and try to fix it anyway. It may seem insane to start wearing a kippah to work or to start leaving early on Friday. This Yom Kippur resolve to do it anyway.

Perhaps you would really like to get married or have a child but think it unreasonable because of the commitment involved. This Yom Kippur resolve to propose to the one you love or decide to bring a new life into the world anyway.

This is the kind of trans-rational behaviour that enables us to discover our deepest potential and achieve things we never thought possible, drawing us closer to others, to ourselves and to our Father in heaven.

Rabbi Dr Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation

    Last updated: 11:10am, October 6 2011