Getting Emotional About Our Feelings

Chaya Feuerman, LCSW-R and Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R

Reprinted from the Jewish Press

People filter reality all the time. What we think about what happens or does not happen to us affects how we feel. Our expectations and beliefs about the world, what we consider we are entitled to, all go into what makes us feel or not feel certain ways. This cognitive set sifts and filters whatever we allow to penetrate our consciousness. For example, if young men are brought up to believe that they are “sissies” if they admit emotion and vulnerability, they will tend to experience less emotions about events they experience. If young women are brought up to believe that to be assertive about their needs or wants is considered brazen and disrespectful (even about a concern that would be considered normal for a male to demand), then they will tend to minimize the feelings they have in regard to those matters, to the point where they may not feel them. Some of these attitudes are cultural, and some of them may be legitimized by standards of modesty. The point of these examples is not to critique them but rather to simply illustrate how a cognitive set of beliefs will affect the way a person feels as an individual, and that often cultures and societies strongly affect this cognitive set.

A particular cognitive set that frum people wrestle with is the role of emotions. Emotions are scary because they are amoral and powerful. The word amoral should not be confused with immoral; “immoral” means “not moral”, but “amoral” merely means not based on morality. Emotions are physical and psychic sensations and processes and have as much to do with morality as one’s tastebuds. True, if one is a glutton his hunger is driving him to immoral excess, but the hunger itself is not immoral -- it merely is a sensation. So too, emotions that a person feels may indeed drive a person toward sin, or for that matter toward goodness, but the emotions themselves are neither sin nor mitzvah. Because emotions can overtake a person, there is a tendency to mistrust them and even try to eliminate them. There is no question that it is important for a rational and ethical person to learn skills of self-control and not be ruled exclusively by his initial emotional reaction. Indeed, Mesilas Yesharim (ch 9) warns that a person who indulges himself in the end becomes enslaved by his habits and his needs, and Chovos Halevavos (Sha’ar Haperishus, ch. 2) speaks of the importance of the intellect having dominion over the desires. However, note two important phrases in the prior sentence: “ruled exclusively” and “Initial emotional reaction.” Meaning, emotions should have influence and are important guides for motivation and behavior; we just should not allow them to control us without also using our G-d given frontal lobes to discern and judge when it is appropriate to become reactive, and when it is wiser to hold back. That is what makes us different than animals. However, what we do share with animals are our emotions, which initially are involuntary. As Koheles (3:19) tells us, and we recite daily in our pre-shacharis prayers, “There is no difference between Man and beast.” One powerful halakhic source that supports the idea that initial emotions and thoughts cannot be controlled comes from the Ezer Mikodesh (found on the daf of Shulchan Aruch E.H. 23:3.) He points out that thinking sexual thoughts is not forbidden, only lusting and fantasizing is forbidden. Additionally, the Gemara considers forbidden sexual thoughts to be one of the three sins that a person cannot fully save himself from (Bava Basrah 164b).

Here is an example of how emotions and intellect operate in daily life: We see a beggar on the street. It is natural and normal to feel empathy for his pain and wish to give him charity to alleviate his suffering. We then may use our intellect to weigh and measure how much to give, if he is authentic and if it is safe to take out a wallet in public. We may have conflicting emotions of pity for his suffering and fear of being robbed if we stop to pull out money. Whatever the case may be, emotions will always be present, and a healthy emotionally balanced person will use his intellect to moderate emotions but not eliminate them.

Yet, there is a disturbing trend amongst some segments of frum culture to see emotion itself as a bad thing. There are even several biographic accounts of great sages throughout history who praise them for their ability to focus on Torah study to the extent that they severely neglected family members and loved ones, notwithstanding the far more numerous accounts of other great sages showing unusual kindness and care for people. We are specifically not mentioning the names of these figures, although they are several well-known examples and span many generations, because we do not want to disrespectful. The point we are trying to make is that the relationship that frum culture has with the validity of emotions is complex, nuanced and has historical roots. The problem is, if some frum people are brought up with unrealistic ideas and beliefs about how a normal human being should experience emotions, it can lead to unsatisfactory relationships, disrupted family life and possibly emotional disabilities such as depression and compulsive behaviors.

A newly married young man or young woman may discount basic emotional needs, despite being utterly overwhelmed by them, as any normal newlywed would feel. Perhaps the young man is confused because he feels anxiety about his ability to be a good lover, friend, parent and breadwinner. If he has been taught to mistrust his emotions, instead of being humble and sharing his vulnerability with his wife so they can learn and grow together, he may trivialize his and her emotional needs, labelling them as “gashmiyus” or “bittul Torah.” A young mother may feel overwhelmed with childcare challenges, even feel a degree of revulsion toward her child or a wish to never have any more children, but be afraid to admit it to herself or her spouse, leading to shame, guilt and depression. Yet, the Gemara (Niddah 31b) understands full well that at the moment of childbirth, the pain can lead to all kinds of irrational thoughts and resolutions. There is no reason to assume that this is but an example of how normal humans can experience all kinds of emotions that indeed are ugly if acted upon, but are actually very commonplace and typical -- and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

In regard to gedolim biographies that extol the virtues of sages who utterly ignored their children so as not to waste any time from learning, if there is a rationale for such behavior, it certainly does not apply to normal people. In fact, The Chovos Halevavos (Introduction to Sha’ar Avodas Elokim) speaks of how G-d naturally imbued an irresistible love from father to son, allowing for all kinds of impossible sacrifices to seem easy. Additionally, Yalkut Shimoni (Tehilim 92, Yalkut 846) speaks positively of the typical silly behavior that fathers do when playing with their children. When the stories about reclusive persons are told over as if they are behaviors to admire and emulate, it is a disservice to the community and inappropriate pedagogy. We are not robots; and the Torah certainly does not expect us to be so.

There are historical and philosophical roots in Jewish thought that speak to the relative validity as well as mistrust of emotions. In particular, attitudes toward the emotion of love, even love of G-d, are complex and varied, depending on the rishon’s perspective. For example, while it is safe to say that all Jewish authorities see worship out of fear of punishment or expectation of reward to be primitive and retrograde, and the ultimate purpose is to worship G-d out of love (See Rambam Hilchos Teshuva Ch, 10), there are subtle but nonetheless key differences in the ideal form of worship between the Rambam’s philosophical approach and the Chasidei Ashkenaz of the 12th and 13th century. (Some key figures in Jewish history from the leaders of the Chasidei Ashkenaz are Rav Yehuda HaChasid and the Rokeach.) For according to the Rambam, the highest level of worship is a process of refining the soul from dross materialism to achieve attachment to the divine source of intellectual energy and enlightenment, as described at length in the palace metaphor in the conclusion of the Guide for the Perplexed and in Hilchos Teshuva (chapters 9 & 10). However, according to the Chasidei Ashkenaz there is a more relational flavor in respect to love of G-d. Meaning, the ideal is to spend one’s life expressing love of G-d through attachment to him by following his commandments, and withstanding personal tests in order to make sacrifices to show love and devotion. The Chasidei Ashkenaz added the notion that the fear of somehow betraying the love of G-d was considered primary. Not because the soul would miss out on some kind of attachment in the abstract philosophical sense, but because, plain and simple, it would be a betrayal of a loving relationship between man to G-d. While the Rambam would no doubt agree about the importance to love G-d as he describes in Yesodei Ha-Torah (4:12), for the Rambam it is an intellectualized love, a recognition of inherent facts, but for the Chasidei Ashkenaz it is romantic love, even to the point of erotic symbolism. Compare these two statements about love of G-d:

Rambam: “When a person meditates on these matters and recognizes all the creations, the angels, the spheres, man, and the like, and appreciates the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in all these creations, he will add to his love for God. His soul will thirst and his flesh will long with love for God, blessed be He.

He will stand in awe and fear from his humble, lowly, and base [nature] when he compares himself to one of the great and holy bodies, how much more so when comparing himself to the pure forms which are separate from matter and do not share any connection with it. He will see himself as a vessel full of embarrassment and shame, empty and lacking. (Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:12)”

Also Maimonides in the Guide (III:51) speaks of a love for G-d that can only be developed with the waning of the passions of youth:

“The philosophers have already explained how the bodily forces of man in his youth prevent the development of moral principles. In a greater measure this is the case as regards the purity of thought which man attains through the perfection of those ideas that lead him to an intense love of God. Man can by no means attain this so long as his bodily humours are hot. The more the forces of his body are weakened, and the fire of passion quenched, in the same measure does man's intellect increase in strength and light; his knowledge becomes purer, and he is happy with his knowledge. When this perfect man is stricken in age and is near death, his knowledge mightily increases, his joy in that knowledge grows greater, and his love for the object of his knowledge more intense, and it is in this great delight that the soul separates from the body. To this state our Sages referred, when in reference to the death of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, they said that death was in these three cases nothing but a kiss.”

Compare the above to what R’ Elazar of Worms wrote in (his introduction to Sodei Razya):

“To love God, to the extent that the soul is filled with love and bound by feelings of love and extreme joy. This love drives away from his heart any need for physical pleasures and enjoyments of this world. The love grows and becomes stronger in his heart until all he can think of is how may he fulfill the will of the Holy One Blessed be He. Spending time with his children or his wife is considered as nothing compared to his love for his Creator. This love will be even more than a young man who has not been intimate with his wife for many days, and feels a strong desire burning in his heart to be sexual with her and is finally be able to fulfill his desire and forcefully climaxes. Even that experience is nothing in comparison to his wish to fulfill the will of his Creator and to bring others into this worship, to make himself holy and lovingly give himself over to G-d.”

Both schools of thought might concede, in essence, man can never truly comprehend G-d, and all these expressions of love are anthropomorphic. Yet, from the above quotes, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the Chasidei Ashkenaz in practice had an emotional and romantic attachment to G-d far in excess of the Maimonidean school. And it runs deeper than that. Because when the Rambam speaks of worship of G-d for its own sake out of love, he really means an intellectual apprehension of the intrinsic value of the mitzvos and how they elevate the character and soul. However, according to the Chasidei Ashkenaz, worship of G-d out of love is truly an act of love. It is about the relationship and no different than the devotion that a lover shows for his beloved. For the Rambam, love of G-d is a metaphor for a pure recognition of the lofty and important need to cleave to G-d for intellectual and thereby spiritual attainment and salvation. For the Chasidei Ashkenaz it is not a metaphor -- it is true love.

Without fully realizing it, Western society, and so much of learned Torah discourse has been heavily influenced by the Rambam’s approach -- mistrusting physicality, emotionality and love -- yet we see there are other legitimate Torah perspectives.

According to the Iggeres Hakodesh (which some believe to be authored by the Ramban), this perspective of the Rambam, mistrusting the body and its natural emotions is not authentically Jewish. The Rambam wrote in the Moreh Nevukhim (III ch 33) “One of the intentions of the Torah is purity and sanctification. I mean by this renouncing and avoiding sexual intercourse and causing it to be as infrequent as possible. Consequently, it states clearly in the Torah sanctity consists of this.” Contrary to this, we find Iggeres Hakodesh (“Derekh Ha-Rishon”) states: “The matter is not as Rabbi Moshe said in his Moreh Nevukhim. He was incorrect in praising Aristotle for stating that the sense of touch is shameful for us. Heaven forbid! It smacks of unintended heresy -- for if one believes in the creation of the world by an intelligent Creator then everything is made with intent and value.” (The teachings of Aristotle referred to here, are most likely Nicomachean Ethics, III:10.)

Also, consider what the Mesilas Yesharim describes as the ideal state of holiness, and notice how it does not involve absolute abnegation, but rather a co-opting of the physical sensations in service of G-d. In the final chapter of Mesilat Yesharim, he describes a person who achieves the level of dvekus (attachment to G-d). This dvekus has two dimensions: (1) Intellectual mastery of G-d’s nature, particularly the mystical Kabbalistic secrets of His nature; (2) A constant mindful attachment to G-d, to the point of absolute disengagement with the material world - even when engaged in apparently mundane tasks:

“The effort that a man must put toward this goal is to completely separate himself from the material world,…and to continuously, at all times, attach himself to his God… However, since it is impossible for a man to fully put himself in this state, because ultimately he is still made of flesh and blood. That is why I say that in the end holiness is a gift… if he should attain this level, even his physical actions will be truly holy. By way of comparison, consider when the cohanim eat the sacrifices and fulfill the positive commandment, our rabbis tell us that the owners of the sacrifice achieve their forgiveness…Now allow me to explain the difference between someone who has achieved purity versus holiness. A person who has achieved purity will engage in the material and physical needs of this world as a matter of necessity. Through this he will elevate himself above the malignant aspects of physicality and he will achieve purity, but not yet enter the stage of holiness. This is because he considers physicality as a necessary evil, but would avoid it if he could. However, a person who achieves holiness, by virtue of his consistent intellectual attachment to G-d through love and fear, is as if he walks in the heavenly domain while here on earth...He becomes a Temple, a Tabernacle and an altar of G-d and the Shekhina rests upon him. Even as he eats, their food is considered an Olah burnt offering to G-d...Every object the Tzaddik uses in this world becomes a holy object.” (Mesilat Yesharim, ch. 26.) (As a fascinating aside, this statement presaged the Baal Shem Tov by three hundred years, and yet seems like a page out of toras chassidus. Though in his lifetime, the Ramchal was a controversial figure, ironically the chassidim and the misnagdim both consider him to be their forerunner. In fact, because his Hebrew was so beautiful and he composed poems and plays (google it! It’s a matter of historical fact!) the maskilim considered him as well to be the father of modern Hebrew literature.)

We conclude with a fascinating source about the necessity of experiencing basic human emotions, and that true as it may be, that the ultimate goal is to transcend to higher spiritual states, there are still no shortcuts. One must be an authentic, feeling human being:

The Reishis Chochma (Shaar Ha’ahava end of Ch. 4) tells the following story:

A man was smitten by the sight of a beautiful princess. He called out expressing his deep wish to be with her. She told him, “We will be together at the cemetery.” He thought she meant she would meet him there for a romantic interlude. However, of course, she merely meant that only in the world to come would there be a possibility of the two ever requiting their love, as only there are there no boundaries of rich or poor, royalty or peasant.

In any case, he misunderstood and waited, day and night, night and day. He spent his time meditating on her beauty and anticipating when she might finally join him. In time, the faculties of his intellect and imagination developed to such an extent that he began to transcend his physical existence. In fact, in time, his soul became so refined, he gave up his original love object and now became attached to G-d. This man eventually became a great holy man, and people from far and wide sought his blessings, because he had profound abilities of prayer. This story comes from Rav Yitzchok de-Min Acco (1250-1340), who commented on this: One who felt no desire for a woman is as if he were a donkey -- or less than that. This is because through experiencing feelings, we can then truly discern the correct way to serve G-d. [Meaning, by understanding experientially human love, we can then begin to fathom how we must intensely love and cleave to G-d.]

This source from one of the most revered mussar authors and one of the greatest kabbalists is a no-holds barred, full endorsement of the basic value of human passion. Passion is the engine that drives us all, and we cannot be spiritually successful, let alone materially successful by disregarding, disrespecting and downplaying our basic human traits. To have passion for Torah and mitzvos, one first must have passion period. Model for your children and your family how to be a full human being by expressing the full range of human emotions, with due humility and respect, and your home will be a place to develop leaders and great Jews.




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Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool.)