Wednesday, August 24, 2011






You are the children of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves [lo titgodedu], nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.  For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be His own treasure out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.(Deut.  14:1-2).

The Sages ascribe two radically different meanings to the phrase lo titgodedu.  You shall not divide yourselves into different groups.  For example, if there were a single Bet Din [rabbinical court] in a city, half of its members should not rule according to Bet Shammai and the other half according to Bet Hillel.” (BT Yevamot 14a). In contrast, other authorities asked:  what does lo titgodedu mean?  You shall not injure yourself physically [in mourning] the dead.” (BT Yevamot 13b). 

Apparently the first authorities cited, who believed the injunction was against forming divisive, competing groups, held that the phrase lo titgodedu would have been lo tagodu if it meant one thing only.  Accordingly, they felt comfortable in offering an interpretation that clearly did not reflect the simple meaning of the text. 

The injunction against divisiveness has long been a pulpit favorite.  It has provided preachers with a useful peg on which to hang their sermons about the importance of unity and harmony.   It presented ample opportunities to deride the infighting that has through the ages characterized Jewish communities and, indeed, all human societies.

But as attractive as this interpretation of our text is, it gives it a meaning completely out of the context in which it appears in the Torah.   Maimonides is adamant in his insistence that the essential meaning of our text relates to cutting and injuring oneself in reaction to the loss of a loved one.  Therefore the interpretation of lo titgodedu as the prohibition of disunity is nothing more than an asmakhta—a homily loosely supported by the Torah text. (Sefer ha-Mitzvot: Prohibition 45). 

People react in various ways to the death of a loved one.  For some, the loss is experienced as intensely personal.  It is as if a part of themselves is now missing.  Some are so grieved that they wish that they themselves had died instead of the deceased. In either case the reaction is self-flagellation.  The blood from the self-inflicted wound represents the loss of a part of themselves.  Blood symbolizes life.  By shedding their own blood, they act out their desire to die rather than to live with loss.  To be sure, self-flagellation is symbolic even though it is painful.  Cutting oneself does not really represent a significant loss of self.  It certainly does not represent actual loss of life. But symbol represents reality.

Powerful reaction to loss is well nigh universal. It assumed elaborate ritual expressions among the Australian Aborigines. On Ashura, the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammad, many Iranian Shia in the holy city of Karbala still practice bloody self-flagellation.   

The halakhah prohibited this self-destructive response to loss.  Some might argue that our practice of rending our garments when a close relative passes is merely a sublimated form of cutting our bodies, a less self destructive, more civilized but yet powerful way of expressing our personal experience of loss.  I would agree that rending garments is rich in symbolism, but it is not essentially a kinder, gentler, less barbaric form of self-flagellation. It symbolizes, instead, our attitude to the death of the body.  The body simply clothes the soul.  When the soul departs, the body loses this function, and is as useless for the soul as a tattered suit of clothing is for the body.  Rending makes it useless, ready to be discarded.

Jewish tradition validates the need to express grief.  The stages of bereavement are psychologically inspired.  The initial shock and paralysis is expressed in aninut.  Before the interment, close relatives are not expected to have the mind or desire to perform positive mitzvot.  The seven-day period following interment, the shivah period, encourages friends and relatives to comfort the mourners, while allowing them to silently lick wounds and neglect personal appearance. The integration of the bereaved into society begins after shivah, with the lifting of restrictions on movement and gainful employment.  When the thirty days after burial [sheloshim]  are over, even restrictions on personal grooming are relaxed.  Twelve months after burial all restrictions on the bereaved children of the deceased are lifted.  The process of normalization is gradual and thoughtful.  It hastens full and guilt-free assimilation into every day living.  There is no hint of self-flagellation anywhere in the halakhic process of mourning. 

The classical commentators variously explain the prohibition of self-hurt. For example, as children of God we are never completely orphaned, since their heavenly Father is still with them (Sforno). For those who believe that death is but a transition point in the soul’s journey, our loved ones enjoy conscious life beyond the grave. Death is not the final frustration. It should not provoke self-inflicted injury (Ramban).

The prohibition of self-inflicted wounds is located in the context of the holiness of the Jewish people.  Our text emphasizes that this prohibition sets Israel religiously apart from other people: For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be His own treasure out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Deut.  14:2).  Self-mutilation was widely practiced in the ancient world as a religious ritual.  Faced with Elijah’s challenge to them on Mount Carmel, the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al prayed fervently to their deity to consume the sacrifice on their altar.  But when Ba’al failed to respond to their prayer, Elijah mocked them, urging them to raise their voices to rouse their slumbering god.  So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, according to their custom, until their blood flowed.” (I Kings 18:26-28). 

Violent masochism is still practiced as an act of self-sacrificial devotion.  The deranged priest at the center of Dan Brown’s best selling novel The De Vinci Code is a practitioner of this rite.  Brown describes the self-injury and the searing pain it brings in graphic, almost too graphic detail.  Although the story is fictional, the practice is not, and so the Torah inveighs against self-injurious pagan religious ritual.

Because this simple rendition of our text is so obvious, there is a tendency to overlook an even more universal implication of the prohibition.  It should not be limited to unacceptable mourning and religious practices.  It applies much more generally in our lives by forbidding self-inflicted injury of all kinds. 

A story from my clinical files explains what I mean. A young person came for relief of her obsession with her worthlessness. She had committed a terrible indiscretion after partying with college friends.   Intoxicated by alcohol, she had lost control and was sexually intimate with a number of frat boys.

 This behavior was completely out of character.  She had grown up in a very religiously observant family, had participated in all local church activities and had preserved her virginity.  This was the first time she had permitted herself to be pressured to join in the drinking.  After her sexual encounter, she was filled with remorse and self-loathing.  She felt weak and worthless. To make matters worse, she soon had a herpes outbreak.  Her pastor had been unable to help her cleanse herself spiritually.  Her obsession with her worthlessness had produced profound reactive clinical depression.

 I sensed that her depression was self-inflicted punishment.  Her herpes symptoms were controlled by medication, but there was no magic bullet for her self-loathing. The infection, God’s punishment, was not sufficient. She was so bad that she deserved even worse. Her depression, which totally deprived her of joy and happiness, was a far more effective punishment.  Because she was so religious and a daily reader of Scripture, her therapy included a discussion of the universal implications of our Deuteronomy text.

We hurt and punish ourselves in myriad ways.  Neglect of health is a self- inflicted wound.  Overeating and under eating and other addictive behaviors cause wounds that can be fatal. Irrational, neurotic guilt is a destructive way of beating ourselves up.  Our inability to forgive ourselves for costly errors of judgment cuts more deeply than the sharpest razor. 

We can profitably apply the prohibition in a multitude of psychological contexts.    God forgives mistakes. Why should His children refuse to do the same—even if they themselves have acted in error? You are the children of the Lord your God. You shall not hurt yourselves [lo titgodedu].              

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