Thursday, June 9, 2011

Looking for the Religious True Self

The NYT has a blog post asking what is a person's true self? To sum up a long article (Though I suggest you read the entire thing) the question being tackled is what is a person's "true self"? are they his thoughts or his emotions?. The example used in the article is of a gay preacher (Mark Pierpont) - who teaches that being gay is a sin. Is his true self the belief (thought) he has that being gay is a sin, or rather the attraction to men he feels?

Yet, though there is a great deal of consensus on the importance of this ideal, there is far less agreement about what it actually tells us to do in any concrete situation.  Consider again the case of Mark Pierpont.  One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden.  If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”
But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values.  If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”
From a religious perspective the question is quite acute. Every time I sin - do I really express my true self or am I acting against my true God loving Torah believing self? Is every sin really revealing a deeper lack of belief?

A Talmudic sugyah that comes to mind is the discussion on forcing a man to give a "Get" (divorce) to his wife. Halacha necessitates that the Get can only be given willingly, however there are certain conditions when the Beit Din can force a husband to give a get. How then can we claim that a man who is literally being beaten until he says "I want to give the Get" is really expressing his true self? Maimondes gives an answer that has become classic:

Why is this get not void? For he is being compelled - either by Jews or by gentiles - [to divorce] against his will [and a get must be given voluntarily].
Because the concept of being compelled against one's will applies only when speaking about a person who is being compelled and forced to do something that the Torah does not obligate him to do - e.g., a person who was beaten until he consented to a sale,54 or to give a present. If, however, a person's evil inclination presses him to negate [the observance of] a mitzvah or to commit a transgression, and he was beaten until he performed the action he was obligated to perform, or he dissociated himself from the forbidden action, he is not considered to have been forced against his will. On the contrary, it is he himself who is forcing [his own conduct to become debased].55
With regard to this person who [outwardly] refuses to divorce [his wife] - he wants to be part of the Jewish people, and he wants to perform all themitzvot and eschew all the transgressions; it is only his evil inclination that presses him. Therefore, when he is beaten until his [evil] inclination has been weakened, and he consents [to the divorce], he is considered to have performed the divorce willfully. (Rambam Mishne Torah, Gittin chap 2 Hal 20)

In other words the Rambam believes that a Jew's true self is a wish to obey Halacha, and the beating he is recieving is nothing more then a helpful medium to overcome his meddling evil yetzer. There have been many attempts to explain this stance, but I think that it correctly portrays Jewish religious thought. Judaism believes that god gave us commandmants, and that we all wish to follow them. The true Jew, really wants to fulfill god's will. As such Jewish thinkers are likely to always claim that at the deepest level man's true self wants to fulfill God's will. (There are obviously many more posts needed to give this claim even superficial justice).

What about a non religious perspective? The blog bigthink has this to say:
In secular life today, this religious notion (become yourself!) has been unmoored from obligation and fatalism. The "true self" still comes clothed in sacred rhetoric—"I was born to do this"; "I guess it was Fate"; "I am as God made me"—but our culture depicts the discovery as a pleasure and a relief. That means we've kept religion's language but turned its meaning inside out. Religion's "true self" diminishes the consumer-self that seeks satisfaction and ease. (You want to be a happy merchant? Too bad, you have to give it all up and lead the faithful in war.) In contrast, the modern secular notion expands the self that wants to be at ease.
The older, metaphysical concept offered certainty. It might not feel right or be in accord with your desires, but you can be sure that a self is true if it aligns with the cosmic Plan. When we invert the idea of true self, though, we lose that assurance. When the map is, instead, your own changeable feelings, it's much harder to know what you're doing. Emotions, satisfactions and the encouragement of other people—these experiences are so fleeting and changeable that it's hard to use them as a guide. Are we our true selves when we're exuberantly expressing and exploring our sexuality? Sometimes we feel we are; at other times we don't. How we feel about ourselves, then, isn't a reliable way to find that "true self."
I'm not quite sure I agree with all I Bigthink wrote, but there is an intersting idea here. For some reason modern culture thinks that expressions of true self bring about happiness. Bigthink seems to think that the religious expression of "true self" is duty centered and not happiness centered. I.E a good Jew expressing his true self isn't necessarily a happy one.

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