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Extending the Self


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Tur, Even HaEzer, Introduction quotes the words of the Ra’avad who explains that God’s creation of Adam and Chava reflected an essential distinction between males and females in the animal kingdom and sexuality as it pertains to human beings. By informing us that Chava was created from a part of Adam’s being, the Torah is telling us that a wife is really a part of her husband’s very being – in more politically correct terms, a spouse is inherently part of the other spouse’s very person. In the animal kingdom, two separate entities connect to accomplish a specific purpose, i.e. to create and, in certain cases, raise an offspring. With human beings, it is very different. In the creation of a child, in the formation of a family, even in the very process of life, in the actions of husbands and wives, two parts of the same entity connect to further the goals and aspirations of the one integrated entity.

Throughout Shas we find the statement ishto k’gufo, that one’s wife is like one’s own body or being. Tosfot, Gittin 45a, d.h. D’Lo presents a most powerful application of this principle as it applies to the relationship of husband and wife. The gemara: is discussing the limits that should be applied in the negotiations with kidnappers lest generous ransom payments lead to more kidnappings. Tosfot contends that such limitations cannot apply to a ransom to be paid by a husband for a wife even though such discussions of limitations can be applied to other family members. His argument is ishto k’gufo and in the same way that we cannot tell a person not to pay even all his wealth to save himself, we cannot tell him not to pay all his wealth to save his wife. The powerful force of the relationship is not of one relating to another. It is the force of relating to self. The marital unit is one being; each spouse powerfully cares for the other because the other is really part of self.

In general thought, a battle is perceived to exist between concern for self, i.e. the ego, and concern for the other. Evil is deemed to be connected to the former while the good is deemed to flow from the latter. A good person, as such, is perceived to be one who, motivated by selflessness, ignores the self to care for the other. It is marked by giving, specifically giving at the expense of self. Within this perspective the truly good person would seem to be the Mother Teresa type who totally ignores the self in order to take care of others. A moral system built, however, solely on the dichotomy of concern for self in conflict with concern for others can be problematic in numerous ways. For example, the giver can be seen, in certain ways and/or at certain times, as actually fostering moral weaknesses in the receiver by reinforcing the receiver’s concern for self. See, further, my The Evil of Chesed, Nishma Update 5757-1. In addition, within a moral perspective that demands development and, as such, places responsibility for growth, both individually and collectively, upon a person, concern for self is a necessity.

Clearly Torah has such a perspective. This is not to say that selflessness has no value; selfishness indeed also has its moral limitations. A different understanding of our moral structure, such as one built upon the Tur, is, however, to be welcomed. Many years ago, this concept was explained to me as the true basis of the Torah view of caring. This individual maintained that, according to Torah, our giving to others was not built upon a denial of self but, rather, a concept of the extension of self. We are part of greater organic units. As we assist the other, we are also, inherently, strengthening this greater unit of which we are part. Our very interest in sustaining and furthering ourselves, thus, should also, inherently, motivate us to extend ourselves beyond our narrow perception of the self to give and assist the greater whole of which we are part. Chesed, caring for others, thus flows from this recognition of this greater and broader understanding of ourselves, i.e. that we are all interconnected, all part of a greater whole. We give not because we deny ourselves in favour of the other – choose selflessness over selfishness – but rather because we extend ourselves, and our very definition of self, to include the other. (See, also, Tikva Hecht, The Ascetic, The Zealot and Trust: An Alternative Approach to Gemilut Chassidim, Nishma Introspection 5769-1.

The concept of ishto k’gufo obviously supports this perception, at least as it applies to a married couple. Indeed, the ideal model of the husband-wife relationship is often used, though, as a basis of our understanding of the ideal model of society. Many, for example, who focus on selflessness as the basic attribute we should apply in our societal relationships, attempt to also argue that this attribute is also the key to a good marital relationship. It is not, thus, inconceivable that the definition of a marital unit as an extension of self could offer a further basis by which to view all interactions. The concept of ishto k’gufo, though, may challenge this; after all, the proposition is that one’s wife is like one’s own body, not that everyone is. Yet, an overview of Halacha in regard to how we see others may reinforce this idea of extension to some extent. In the laws of tzedakah, it is well known that one’s family comes first (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 251:3). This is in contradistinction to some other ethical/moral systems which maintain that giving to family members is a lesser form of charity precisely because one finds personal, emotional benefit in assisting family members; in other words, it is not pure selflessness as there is a selfish satisfaction in helping family. The very fact that Halacha demands the assistance of family members to be of a higher priority would appear to precisely reinforce this greater feeling of closeness and responsibility to family members. What emerges from this Torah perspective is a value of the extension of self through a specific process that begins with certain stronger connections and then extends out to include all.

The key to the Torah understanding of life is creative responsibility and duty, specifically to God. Within the concept of tzivui, command, life is a Divine mission presented to human beings and it is our task to attempt to fulfill this mission. This order is placed, initially, upon each of us individually and, as such, as stated in T.B. Baba Metzia 62a, chayecha kodem, one must see his/her life as having priority. My first duty must be to ensure that I am able to meet God’s directive to me, to meet my responsibilities of self-development and self-growth, as is commanded of me by Hashem. It is within this context that I must understand that even as I have personal, individual responsibilities, I must also act, as part of greater organic groups, to further ensure that the group fulfills its mission as well. I must care for the group and, by similar extension, the individual members of the group. This extension of self, however, is graduated in that it develops through different groupings, with greater responsibilities to closer groupings. As such, the first extension of being is to include one’s spouse and it is to this grouping that one has a first priority. The extension of self is also most extensive within the concept of ishto k’gufo. The circle of groupings then extend outwards with closer groupings having priority over outer groupings but not, of course, to the exception of these outer groupings. Thus from the marital unit, we extend our being out to immediate family, friends and extended family, community, klal Yisrael, and humanity in general. We give not in order to deny our selves but because we extend our understanding of self by recognizing that the other’s needs are actually part of my very needs.

Of course, this model must be ordered and the correct determination of how we balance the needs of the more limited group, including the personal self, with the needs of a broader grouping is often most difficult. In a certain way, the structure of a selfish-selfless dichotomy may still have a valuable role within our consciousness if now framed within a context of balancing the needs of the variant aspects of self. We are often driven to focus on narrower definitions of self and lose sight of the broader recognition of our being as part of a greater organic whole. Yet, even as we do respond to the drive of chesed that pushes us to see the broader picture, we cannot forget that there is still value in meeting personal needs because we still have Divine responsibilities to meet in regard to ourselves and our closer groupings and we must ensure that we have the ability to meet them. Yet we also cannot forget that these Divine responsibilities to self include furthering the ability of the broader groupings of which we are part to meet their objectives.

In Avot 1:14b, Hillel says: Im ein ani li, mi li? U’k’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? I if am not for myself, who is for me? Yet, if I am only for my individual being, what am I? These words reflect this concept. If I ignore my needs – which include the resources that ensure that I am able to meet God’s demands of me – who can meet this responsibility? I must meet my duty to personal self. Yet, if this is my only concern, what does this say about me? Do I recognize as an important aspect of self that one is part of greater organic wholes? I have a duty to the collective, and to the other members of the collective, for this is part of my very definition of self. This recognition motivates us to help others and to give, with recognition of the greater context that we are all, essentially, interconnected.

The populist Jewish world has taken the term tikkun olam out of its classical definition (See Gittin, chap. 4) to apply it as the Hebrew term for what is generally referred to as social justice. The application of the phrase within this context, though, still reflects this most significant Jewish understanding of our role in assisting others in the broadest context. It is to “repair the world.” We are all one entity and we must assist each other with recognition of this value of making the entity vibrant. Our focus is on the furtherance and the development of the grouping of the world of which we are all part.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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