Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Emotional abuse in Jewish sources I: Reish Lakish

In order to understand the issue of emotional abuse - and how to respond and innoculate for it, it is also necessary to see examples of abuse and how it was dealt with in Jewish sources. This is the first of a series. I would appreciate your respectful comments.

A classic case is the relationship between Reish Lakish and his rebbe Rav Yochanon. The gemora relates how Rav Yochanon saved Reish Lakish from being a bandit leader and made him into an outstanding talmid chachom. They became study parters and their debates are cited frequently in the Talmud.  However we see that Rav Yochachon also destroyed Reish Lakish and this ultimately brought about his own death.

Bava Metzia (84a): One day R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Johanan] to him, ‘Your strength should be for the Torah.’ — ‘Your beauty,’ he replied, ‘should be for women.’ ‘If you will repent,’ said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.’ He undertook [to repent]; then he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not. Subsequently, [R. Johanan] taught him Bible and Mishnah, and made him into a great man. Now, one day there was a dispute in the schoolhouse [with respect to the following. Viz.,] a sword, knife, dagger, spear, hand-saw and a scythe — at what stage [of their manufacture] can they become unclean? When their manufacture is finished. And when is their manufacture finished? — R. Johanan ruled: When they are tempered in a furnace. Resh Lakish maintained: When they have been furbished in water. Said he to him: ‘A robber understands his trade.’16 Said he to him, ‘And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master.’ ‘By bringing you under the wings of the Shechinah,’ he retorted. R. Johanan therefore felt himself deeply hurt, [as a result of which] Resh Lakish fell ill. His sister [sc. R. Johanan's, the wife of Resh Lakish] came and wept before him: ‘Forgive him for the sake of my son,’ she pleaded. He replied: ‘Leave thy fatherless children. I will preserve them alive. ‘For the sake of my widowhood then!’ ‘And let thy widows trust in me,’ he assured her. Resh Lakish died, and R. Johanan was plunged into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar b. Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.’ So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by R. Johanan he observed: ‘There is a Baraitha which Supports you.’ ‘Are you as the son of Lakisha?’ he complained: ‘when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, "A Baraitha has been taught which supports you:" do I not know myself that my dicta are right?’ Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.
 =========================Explanation ============================
Etz Yosef: (Bava Metzia 84a): [Rabbi Yochanon said]a robber understands his trade - because when Reish Lakish was a thief he saw that the shine on the sword was the final stage of its processing. That is because a sword in the hand of thieves serves to intimidate and frighten the victim so he shouldn’t resist and therefore it is the shine on the sword which intimidates and frightens. Rabbi Yochanon did not intend with this statement to insult Reish Lakish and to remind him of his past. Rabbi Yochanon simply mentioned this to the students of the yeshiva   to explain why Reish Lakish’s view was correct since he had more experience in these matters then Rabbi Yochanon did. However Reish Lakish thought that Rabbi Yochanon intended to torment him and to insult him by saying that since he was a thief he was an expert about the tools used by thieves. As a result of the mistaken perception of an insult Reish Lakish replied, “Why do you insult me?” In other words he used the word hona’ah - the word used in the Torah prohibition against tormenting and insulting others. He thus stated, “Why are you verbally abusing me because even when I was a thief I was given respect that is as great as I get now as a talmid chachom. Because even then I was called master (rabbi) of the thieves as I am called master (rabbi) of the yeshiva. The reason that I repented my evil ways was not because of honor but for the sake of Heaven. Therefore it is prohibited for you to speak this way to me and mention my past deeds to me.” Unfortunately Rabbi Yochanon misunderstood his words and though he was saying, “What benefit (hana’ah) have you provided me.... That is why Rabbi Yochanon replied, “The pleasure that I provided you is the fact I brought you under the wings of the Divine Presence (i.e., observe the Torah). Thus Rabbi Yochanon was upset when he thought he heard Reish Lakish say “what benefit have you given me” (when he actually said, “Why are you verbally abusing me.”) That is because saying “what benefit have you given me” indicated that Reish Lakish didn’t value Torah or the fact that he had been brought under the wings of the Divine Presence.


  1. Are there any opinions that say nobody sinned in this matter, or that there was no disagreement?

    The way I understood this story is that the greatest amongst Chazal were human, with human emotions, and also severe anger and depression.

    What tops the story, is the prayer for euthanasia, ie for R Yochanan to be spared his misery. The get-out is that they prayed, rather than inject or physically cause his death, but since when can we pray for someone to die in order to spare his misery?

    1. Whose said anything about sin? I understand that is they way you read the story - but you are missing the point.

      Regarding prayer for death see the sources in the following:

    2. OK, here are the pertinent footnotes:

      "R’ Yochanan was unwilling to forgive Reish Lakish this [perceived ] offense because of its
      fundamentally destructive nature. If a student is disdainful of his rabbi, then he has removed
      himself from that rabbi’s care and guidance. Indeed, he has thereby brought about his own end,
      as the Midrash says (Vayikra Rabbah 11:8): The Jewish people without their elders is like a bird
      without wings. Thus, in a sense, the very existence of the nation was endangered by this act of
      contempt, and that was unforgivable (R’ Chaim Shnmuleuitz, Sichos Mussar, 5733 §13).
      12 He regretted causing Reish Lakish’s"

      On the one hand RL was disdainful of his teacher (artscroll not my opinion), and RY was unwilling to forgive him. RY then causes RL's death, which he later regrets (artscroll).

      Yet, you claim there was no sin or wrongdoing? So it is perfectly permitted to insult your rebbe, murder your student, refuse to forgive a Jew, and to cause oneself to be destroyed intellectually?

      This is your claim DT?

      but to hear a woman singling is a grave sin, yehareg v'lo y'avor?

    3. eddie you missed it:

      “I must therefore bow to your expertise in this area.” R’ Yochanan thus conceded that Reish
      Lakish was correct (Rabbeinu Channel). R’ Yochanan meant no disparagement whatsoever of
      Reish Lakish (Maharsha, Etz Ibsen. However, Reish Lakish mistook his words for a very personal
      Etz Yosef maintains that Reish Lakish really meant to say, “Why have you aggrieved me?” ( אַהֲ נתְּ
      from the word הוֹ נאָה .) Reish Lakish’s response is then explained as follows: Why have you made
      reference to my earlier evil deeds, which are a source of embarrassment to me? If it is because you
      deem my repentance to have been insincere, then you must think my continued presence here in
      the beis medrash is due to the prestige I receive; this is not so. I used to receive the same honors
      from my hand of thieves. If I am still here, then, it must be that I have severed all connections
      with the past and I am here for the Torah: Why then have you aggrieved me? (cf. Tosafos ד״האי
      .(הדרת בך כו׳
      Unfortunately, R’ Yochanan understood Reish Laldsh in this vein: What have you done for me?
      אַהֲ נַ תְּ ) from the word הוֹ נאָה .) I was a “rabbi” when you first met me and I am a rabbi now; nothing
      has changed! To R’ Yochanan’s ears, Reish Lakish was belittling the importance of all his
      teachings and the Torah itself. R’ Yochanan was thus compelled to make the obvious rejoinder.

  2. Recipients and PublicityFebruary 6, 2013 at 2:01 PM

    Very sad story. Maybe anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medication could have helped Rebbi Yochanan since it states that he lost his mind i.e. "he cried thus until his mind was turned" and then his "kind" colleagues would not have had to daven for him to die, as if they were putting down a wounded animal!

    There are so many morals in this story. One type of serious emotional abuse is the subjection and subjugation and suppression of BTs, like a Reish Lakish, who enter the FFB world and are made to feel like bad about themselves and are made to feel like perpetual second class citizens even though they often have good Yichus are as Halachicaly Jewish as any FFB, often coming from the same family roots and Jewish ancestry.

    The FFB world, like a Rebbi Yochanan, is often very resentful and ungrateful of the BT world and feels very threatened by its own successes in kiruv, after all Rebbi Yochanan mekareved Reish Lakaish himself, as if they have created their own "Frankenstein" and then try to "put it down" -- nebech this is what Rebbe Yochanan did even though Reish Lakish was married to his sister, yet he still showed no mercy.

    While sometimes there are cases of rotten eggs, but many BTs are successful and a lot of them are examples of the proverbial good citizens in the Torah world but the FFB is so afraid of them it forces them to be second class citizens and if they get too famous, like Reish Lakish did, they will take out the knives and put them down.

    This goes on ALL the time!

    But it does not even go that far, too many good BTs are just told to "go get a job" or given less choshuv functions or some such and are not allowed to rise to the top of the Torah world because of the FFB's nepotism, they will give shtellas to their own family dumkopfs but tell brilliant BTs to go fly kites, or to just join the board of directors and give DONATIONS $$$$$. Like any old regime it fears the rise of the new that they rightly feel will sweep away the old foggy ways.

    1. @RAP-You could not have written this better!I have seen this as well.I have seen FFBs just assume that they know more in yeshiva.They take out the Gemaras and the Bts learn them under the table!There is one group involved with Kiruv,in fact a relative is the international head. The last names of these rabbis are well known.All jobs go to members of fifty families.Among non-frum they are known but not their nepotism.My wife has a cousin who is a BT and he works for them on Long Island for chump change.They gave him a smicha and he works as a rabbi teach very simple things to mostly secular kids who attend the day school. He is really fronting because his father supports his family while the big bucks go to the rabbi in charge.The way this community seperates themselves from Baalei Tshuva is in education.The BT rabbi sends his kids to the school he teaches in.The FFBs send their kids to school in Brooklyn where they learn Yiddish as a subject and give shiurim in Yiddish. To me it is a form of segregation.Yiddish is used as an excuse to keep the BTs out.The BTs are people they made frum.

  3. Here is the English Artscroll - if you look at the footnotes it is clear that this tragedy was the result of a misunderstanding not because of deliberate desire to cause harm.,d.bGE&cad=rja

  4. I have a psychoanalytical perush on this matter, however, it do not wish to impugn the kavod of Chazal. I can screen it with yadMoshe first if that's ok?

    1. I am allergic to psychoanlytic expanations - but am willing to see it if you think it might shed light on the subject.

      BTW what did you think of the view presented by Artscroll that it was a tragic misunderstanding?

    2. Recipients and PublicityFebruary 6, 2013 at 5:10 PM

      "Eddie said...I have a psychoanalytical perush on this matter, however, it do not wish to impugn the kavod of Chazal."

      You are being too forthright and upfront and you negate yourself even before you give yourself a chance to have an opinion.

      Therefore, you should have been more subtle and and tried to provide just one point carefully.

      By way of analogy, any person we know or read about can be subjected to a psychoanalytical examination, including ourselves. So let's say one has read books on how psychoanalysis studies and views people and their actions, or we have courses or maybe even be psychiatrists trained in this field of knowledge, one would not greet anyone in the world or a patient with a confrontational "would you like me to spout a psychoanalytical interpretation of you or of person XYZ" that would utterly amateurish and outright foolish. The correct approach should be to use the the knowledge base and interpretative skills by taking in the picture, analyzing it internally, and then very carefully venturing an opinion that may evens even tangential bu tat is the required gentler approach in applying this volatile body of knowledge.

      To lunge at topics and personalities using and replying a psychoanalytic approach, and let's assume that it is valid body of intellectual and professional human science and medicine, is the equivalent of coming along with the mind-set and point of view of someone who wishes to impose a deeply Kabbalistic interpretation of people and events, it is simply something that is NOT done in the normal, rational and "ordinary" world we live in.

      In that regard HKB"H's Torah and the Chazal are wiser than humans when they state the principle that "dibra Torah belashon bnai adam" that the Torah speaks in the "[normal] 'language' of mankind" meaning that the Hashem and the Torah he gave the Jewish people and the Chazal who teach it do not rush to overwhelm us with either profound or esoteric knowledge that will only overwhelm us and shut us down. The average person cannot grasp and deal with "full-frontal" confrontations be it via psychoanalysis or via Kabbala or via any other form of deeply profound knowledge or manner of communication, since they are "hidden" forms of knowledge, one about the mind the other about the soul and both dealing with the human condition.

    3. Some very good points, so first let me test the water.
      Prior to their encounter, we accept that Resh Lakish was not frum, and in fact was a bandit?

      Next, yes, the artscroll says it was a tragic misunderstanding. ANd I agree 100% that it was tragic, and a misunderstanding. It has rather extreme consequences though that two of the greatest Torah scholars and leaders of their time end up dead as a result.

      And RAP, thank you, actually you enlightened me with your comments, since I often see certain patterns that agree with a theory, and others who may even have "allergies" to that theory are not happy to hear it.

      The artscroll actually teaches us a very good lesson, that sometimes we can misunderstand someone's statement, and take it the wrong way. This could be due to bias, language differences, self esteem issues, etc.

      I will develop my theory soon, bli neder.

  5. this looks like strong and repeated abuse of the sister by the borther... How come this johanan is viewed as a zadik?

    1. How come you insist on making this interpretation which is not supported by the gemora or commentaries?

    2. Recipients and PublicityFebruary 6, 2013 at 8:14 PM

      "zwrz...this looks like strong and repeated abuse of the sister by the borther... How come this johanan is viewed as a zadik?"

      First of all we see that he cared for his sister. So much so that he had the power to find her a "macho" Tzadik like Reish Lakish who was strong in both mind and body. So he gave her a great deal to start out with. Now as you know, human relationships, especially family dynamics are not predictable nor are they pre-determined, they quite often "unfold" and then we are called upon to choose. Sometimes those choices and responses may be good and pay off and other times they do not and we pay the price.

      This is obviously a story that the Talmud is trying to teach us. The final editors of the Talmud could have suppressed this tale and we would never have heard about it again. But they chose to include these events, in all their details, and from that the normal scholarly conclusion is that this entire scenario is meant as a lesson for all time, in the spirit of when your Dad tells you "Do as I tell you but not as I do" you know that even though your Dad did some "wrong" you are still obligated to take his advice to heart.

      Perhaps on some level the discussion was not even "real" or "literal" -- do you really think the sages of the great Babylonian academies had "recordings" of all the trivial discussions that every last sage had with his siblings over hundreds of years? It could be that what they conveying is the "metaphysical dialogue" that took place. It could be that everyday they all smiled at each other as they ate three meals a day together and spent Shabbos and Yom Tov together. But up and above beyond all of this, as always there are hidden "psychic" and "non verbal' yet very "real" discussions that are taking place all the time between people and that if they were to be VERBALIZED and ACTUALIZED that is what they would look like.

      Thus, what is revealed is that in spite of Rebbi Yochanan being a good shadchan for his sister and taking Reish Lakish as a brother in law and teaching him Torah, yet there remained the same rivalry underneath it that must have been true when Reish Lakish was competing physically with others because Reish Lakish never gave up, he was focused and competitive and rose to great heights. Now they come to a point of dispute in Torah and unfortunately the mental signals and "ayin horas" they started giving each other knocks them both out. That is how strong they are. And the unfortunate "victim" is the wife of Reish Lakish who is the sister of Rebbi Yochanan, she was left "holding the baby" as a result of the cruel competition between her brother and husband.

      An important lesson is that this depicts the heights and seriousness of "milchamta shel Torah" how Torah is a very serious life and duel to the death so to speak between scholarly and spiritually powerful rivals, who need to be very careful how they think about each other and the consequences of their thoughts, intentions, words as well as psychic, emotional and physical powers that are all connected.

      Notice how the story starts with Reish Lakish losing his PHYSICAL powers but really exchanging them for greater SPIRITUAL HOLY powers of Torah learning that he becomes endowed with, that Rebbi Yochanan already had. Two titans sparring and in the process they damage themselves and cause a loss to the Jewish people in the process. This is not meant for rejoicing nor is it meant for finger pointing at anyone, it calls for attempts to understanding it ! Hope this helps you.

    3. It is a famous gemara. I think the moral of the story is that it takes a split second to utter really painful words.Sometimes the pain is too hurtful to forgive.I knew a guy in yeshiva (the yeshiva is huge) who was known for being very caring and sweet. I saw him in the street a few years after I left the yeshiva and he said that I had really aged!I was so bothered by the comment because it came from him.I never wished him ill over it.Oddly,I had seen him a few months later and his hair and beard turned from brown to frosty white. He was in his early thirties.

    4. it seems obvious to me that r. yochanan did not respect the human rights of his sister:

      1) He promised R' Lakish she would marry him without asking for her consent first.

      2) He had no pity for her children

      3) he had no pity for her widowhood

      4) He promised he would provide for her and her children, but in the end he died himself, so he could not provide for them himself.

    5. "How come you insist on making this interpretation which is not supported by the gemora or commentaries?"

      Its a question and you are dodging it, with an implied ad hominem.

  6. I am always struck by R. Jochanan being inconsolable because all the substitutes for Reish Lakish weren't challenging him. In a frum world which is increasingly conformist, the spur for real thinking and rethinking has to come from outside and often does in the form of Baalei Tshuvah.

    Yet, the least difference still can lead to terrible misunderstandings. To me this also has echoes of the tanur of achish, where the insiders, the majority, prevails because Torah lo min hashomayim, and we go after the majority, but disaster ensues in the form of deaths and natural calamities.

    Another plausible reason for R. Yochanan's deep sorrow was the realization that he lost a window on the truth because his insider's view was not being tempered by the challenge of an outsider and a vigorous one at that. Paradoxically he valued the perspective of a bandit leader but inadvertently insulted that very background.

    These days, insults of the secular world, and even factions a tiny bit to the left, are epidemic.

    Moreover, as white collar banditry is no longer an obstacle to relgious stature, it is the baalei tshuvah who more often come to the dialog without the taint of monetary sin. It is the BTs who are accused of chutzpah when they invoke moral standards of monetary honesty which often leads to fractures, very painful to them.

    1. "It is the BTs who are accused of chutzpah when they invoke moral standards of monetary honesty which often leads to fractures, very painful to them."

      Same goes for intellectual honesty...


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