How open to be, how much of our private lives to share with others in the public sphere, is a question that looms larger and larger in our culture today. Confessions, on the one hand, and personal revelations on the other, have become daily occurrences. Negotiating between the private and the public is something that various streams of Jewish tradition have wrestled with. One such stream that can make a contribution to our thinking on questions about privacy and disclosure is “Mussar.” The “Mussar” movement took hold in the 19th century under the leadership of Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant (known as Yisroel Salanter). For Orthodox Jews across Eastern Europe, he turned a wealth of mystical-ethical literature into material to inspire a more rigorous practice aimed at achieving ethical perfection. He taught the importance of interpersonal behavior and that mystical union with God was achieved by perfecting one’s ethical traits. Thus, the “Mussar” movement — its writings and teachings — were aimed (and continue to enjoy a revival of interest today) at helping people live more deeply ethical lives attuned to the divine.
“Mussar” insists on the practice of cheshbon hanefesh, “accounting of the soul.” In a culture where the demands of openness compete on a daily basis with the need for privacy, only thoughtful reflection carried on as a regular practice can serve as a mode of spiritual action. Although one may be susceptible to self-delusion when practicing cheshbon hanefesh, sharing one’s private reflection — opening it to the critique of the other — is a large part of what makes it potentially successful. Open and closed remain in dialectic even as one struggles to choose between them in individual moments.
According to our talmudic sages, the world was created with this letter. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a 16th-century kabbalist living in Safed, explained in his mystical treatise, Tomer Devorah, The Palm Tree of Deborah, that the area inside the walls of the Hebrew letter “hay” is filled with ruach, or spirit, and this is the stuff with which God created Adam, the first person. Nefesh, the soul of a person, is heavy, and so its weight — the temptations of self-aggrandizement and ego — make it easy for the individual to “fall” from the wide open bottom of the “hay” into a life forgetful of neshama, the spark of the original goodness.
Cordovero goes on to explain that should individuals want to return, through penitence, through the larger opening at the bottom of the hay, it will not work.” Rather, such persons must constrict themselves in order to fit through the much smaller opening at the top of the “hay.” This act of contraction changes the dynamic between nefesh and neshama, growing the latter and shrinking the former. About such persons, Cordovero says: “The Holy Blessed One prefers them even more than perfect tzaddikim who have never been drawn out of the ruach of the hay.”
In this genealogy of the soul and geography of penitence, Cordovero’s teaching serves as a warning and guide for the contemporary conversation about privacy and the limits of openness. The question in its technologically fueled guise of today certainly was unimaginable to the masters of “Mussar” — but their concern with some of the issues Cordovero references can be instructive.
Thus, in the beginning, there is pure goodness within the “hay.” Next, a “being” takes shape by virtue of a soul, or nefesh. This nefesh, by necessity, is “equipped” with a yetzer ha-ra, an inclination toward self-preservation and defense that, uninterrupted, can lead to self-aggrandizement and perversity. Into this “being” is inserted a neshama, a breath of the original goodness. However, the “weight” of the nefesh tumbles us out of the “hay.”
In a world in which privacy is threatened with extinction, one of the chief causes is the rampant sense that everything “I” do is important enough for everyone to know about. The disappearance of privacy, therefore, is something being done not to us, but by us in our own self-aggrandizement, empowered by the new tools available to us.
In addition, Cordovero hints that closedness is inferior to the openness he critiqued. The perfect tzaddik, or righteous person, who never experiences the journey through the open bottom of the “hay” is held farther from the divine source. Privacy, we may say, when it degenerates into incommunicability, results in an impoverished world. Rather, self-control, or self-contraction, is required; both being in the world and withdrawing from it, understanding the necessity of both the width and the narrowness of the opening.
Thus, from a “Mussar” perspective, judging the legitimacy of privacy and openness is always based on the question of where one’s self-interest lies. Where self-interest reigns, constriction is needed. Where constriction inhibits the legitimate needs of self-esteem, openness is called for.
Perhaps even more important than these two principles is the need to be prudent in evaluating the situation on a case-by-case basis. Thoughtful reflection is a prerequisite to moral decision-making.email print