Meta-Reflections

Does the Torah Care About Your Feelings?

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Josh Yuter

Conservative political pundit Ben Shapiro is known for his famous mantra, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” The point, as I see it, is this: when it comes to understanding the world, we should defer to objective reality as opposed to relying on how we feel about it. We also should not expect those who do rely on objective data to alter their thought processes in order to conform to our personal preferences.

I have heard similar sentiments expressed in the context of Judaism, especially in relation to Jewish law. In fact, when Ben Shapiro spoke at Yeshiva University in 2016, the introductory speaker remarked that a rabbi in a Judaic Studies class once answered a question with a variation of Shapiro’s mantra: “The Halakhos don’t care about your feelings.”

Not having been in this class at the time, I cannot comment on the context in which this statement was made. However, I believe it is important to critically evaluate the role of emotions in Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism. As we will see, the categorical statement “Halakhah doesn’t care about your feelings” is simply incorrect and can even lead to distortions of Torah.

On the other end of the spectrum, a halakhic ideology that frames decisions entirely through the prism of emotions would be equally problematic. An emotional approach to Halakhah can provide a needed corrective, but as we will also see, it is no less susceptible to its own distortions of Judaism.

Concern for Other People’s Feelings

While obvious and hopefully uncontested, we must still acknowledge that Halakhah demonstrates concerns for people’s feelings in interpersonal relationships. Embarrassing another individual is a particularly grievous transgression, so much so that it is even compared to murder (Bava Metzia 58b). Someone who embarrasses his fellow in public, even if he has Torah and good deeds, has no portion in the world to come (m. Avot 3:11, Sanhedrin 99a). This principle against humiliating someone even applies when rebuking someone who has committed a capital offense (Bava Metzia 59a, Sanhedrin 107a). Humiliating another in public is so severe, we learn, that it is “better [for] a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace and not embarrass his friend in public” (Berakhot 43b, Ketubot 67b, Sotah 10b).

We also find a related concern against honoring oneself at the expense of another’s humiliation in Megillah 28a. R. Yosi b. Haninah similarly states that one who does this also has no share in the world to come (y. Hagigah 2:1 77c).

Aside from the warnings against public embarrassment, we also find a prohibition against ona’at devarim, “afflicting with words,” based on Leviticus 25:17. Under this prohibition, one cannot tell a penitent person to “remember your earlier deeds,” nor can one tell the son of a convert to “remember the deeds of your (gentile) ancestors” with an intent to shame. Similarly, one cannot tell someone who is suffering that they are only suffering due to their sins. The Talmud continues that verbal affliction is even worse than monetary affliction. R. Shmuel b. Nahmani goes as far as to say that unlike monetary affliction, verbal affliction has no restitution (Bava Metzia 58b).

I will conclude this section of examples where Jewish law is concerned with other people’s emotions by citing Hillel’s formulation, “That which is hateful to you―do not do (to another). This is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn” (Shabbat 31a). Alternatively, as R. Eliezer puts it, “The honor of your friend should be as dear to you as your own” (m. Avot 2:10).

Halakhic Accommodations for People’s Feelings

A more interesting question to ask is this: to what extent does Jewish law accommodate people’s feelings or even change the standard practice in response to people’s feelings? Here, too, we find several examples.

One instance of a ritual being modified for inclusive purposes is the practice of women laying their hands on a peace offering before the sacrifice. The Talmud states explicitly that women laying their hands on the animal has no legal or ritual significance, but it was done for the sole reason of making the women happy (Hagigah 16b). Here we are presented with a case of halakhic neutrality―there was no requirement to allow women to participate in this act, and there were no adverse halakhic consequences to allowing their participation either. Thus we find no issue with a personal accommodation in such a case.

In addition to permitting an accommodation, we also find positive decrees enacted in order to prevent or alleviate a person’s mental anguish. We do not inform a sick person of a loss in the family lest his mind be disturbed, which presumably would interfere with his own health (Mo’ed Katan 26b). A condemned person on his way to execution is given a special potion for the purpose of relieving his anxiety (Sanhedrin 43a). Jewish law is thus even concerned with the mental state of someone who has committed a sin so grave that it necessitates capital punishment.

Sometimes the concern for people’s emotional states can even override established Halakhah. Under normal circumstances, there is typically no acquisition of property on Shabbat; however, there are exceptions (e.g. Gittin 8b). One such example can be found in the case where someone is dying and cannot properly distribute his possessions. The Sages decided that his will should be carried out, even on the Sabbath, so that his mind will not be further disturbed and worsen his already weak condition (Bava Batra 156b).

We also find accommodations for physical discomfort, as in the case of someone who is an istinis (in a delicate state). This is why Rabban Gamliel bathed on the first night after his wife passed away, even though he was in mourning (m. Berakhot 2:6). R. Sheshet fasted on the day before Passover, which the Talmud attributes to his delicate digestive system (Pesahim 108a). R. Yehoshua b. Levi ruled that a delicate person could wear slippers on fast days due to their condition, a dispensation that would not be applied to healthy people (y. Yoma 8:1 44d).

We also find exceptions where people may decline to fulfill an obligation because they feel it violates their kavod― that is, it is beneath their dignity. Deuteronomy 22:4 commands that one must return a lost object, but the Talmud qualifies that an elderly person for whom returning the lost object would be undignified is exempt (Sanhedrin 18b). Rabbinic sages also balance their honor with their obligations. For monetary cases, the honor of a sage exempts him from testifying when the judge is inferior to him in wisdom. However, he is obligated to testify in a case involving a religious transgression because, as it says, “No wisdom, no prudence, and no counsel can prevail against God” (Proverbs 21:30), and “Where there is a desecration of God’s name, we do not consider the honor of the rabbi” (Shevuot 30b).

I cannot provide a formula for when a person’s honor may override a religious obligation. However, the fact remains that discrete examples exist such that we cannot dismiss such accommodations as a halakhic impossibility either.

Commanded Emotions and Emotional Regulation

Thus far, we have seen several examples where the Torah demonstrates concern for people’s emotional discomfort. These examples range from prohibitions against causing emotional distress to accommodations and dispensations from following strict Halakhah. The latter category may give the impression that the Torah views emotions as fixed characteristics to which Halakhah must adjust. However, we also find examples where the Torah either commands one to feel certain emotions or at least demands one to regulate particular emotions.

There are Biblical commandments to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:1), to love converts (Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19), and of course, to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). This final commandment immediately follows an emotional prohibition against “hating your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17).

Whether these commandments truly mandate how a person must or must not feel is the subject of a classic debate summarized by R. Baruch Gigi:

There are essentially two main approaches to the question of commanding emotions. The first approach argues that it is possible to demand that a person alter and control his emotions; the second approach argues that this is impossible, and any discussion regarding a command of this nature must shift to the realm of behavior and actions.

According to the second approach, we do not control our emotions, but we can control our actions. This interpretation would even apply to the prohibition against hating your fellow “in your heart.”

Independent of this philosophical and exegetical debate, the Talmud records several statements indicating that emotional regulation is a critical requirement for the religion.

The Divine Presence is said to only rest upon those who are not melancholy[1] or too happy with levity, but only those who experience the joy associated with fulfilling commandments (Shabbat 30b). Further, the Sages teach that people should not pray unless they are in this ideal emotional state (Berakhot 31a).

Emotional regulation applies to both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. When certain sages became too joyous at weddings, another sage had to intervene in order to reset his colleagues’ emotions. R. Ashi broke a white glass at his son’s wedding in order to keep the merriment from getting out of hand, and in a similar situation, R. Hamnuna Zuti reminded his excessively joyful colleagues of their mortality (Shabbat 30b-31a). On the other end of the emotional spectrum, we learn from Reish Lakish that anger causes wisdom to depart from the wise and prophecy to depart from the prophet (Pesahim 66b). The gemara directs us to an example in the Torah where the prophet Elisha, experiencing a state of anger, needed a musician to play for him in order to ready himself for prophecy (2 Kings 3:14-15).

Managing Feelings as a Religious Imperative

Almost every worthwhile endeavor requires a degree of discipline to set aside one’s feelings and impulses in order to achieve a desired goal. In a secular context, the self-discipline needed to overcome short-term desires is virtuous. But for Judaism, self-discipline is a foundational religious requirement. Living a life dedicated to observing the commandments requires the discipline to set aside one’s immediate desires in order to perform certain actions or refrain from others.

We find several Biblical statements which contrast personal desires with fulfilling the will of God. In the commandment to affix tzitzit (fringes) on cornered garments, the Torah explains that these fringes serve as reminders to fulfill the commandments and not merely “follow your heart and eyes” to fulfill lustful urges (Numbers 15:39). Through the prophet Jeremiah, God complains, “They have not listened to my voice, and they have not followed it. [Rather,] they followed the stubbornness of their hearts and followed the Ba’alim, as their fathers taught them” (Jeremiah 9:12-13).

The second verse juxtaposes the stubbornness of prioritizing one’s desires over God’s will with committing idolatry. We find a Rabbinic analogy between idolatry and acting out of the emotion of anger. According to R. Yohanan b. Nuri, someone who rends garments, breaks vessels, or scatters money out of anger should be regarded as an idolater (Shabbat 105b). He warns: “Such is the way of the evil inclination. Today he says, ‘do this,’ and tomorrow he says, ‘do that,’ until he says, ‘worship idolatry,’ and he does so.”

R. Avin finds a scriptural basis for this idea in Psalms 81:10: “There shall be no strange God in you.” From this, R. Avin derives, “Who is the strange God that resides within a person? Say this is the evil inclination” (Shabbat 105b).

Here we see the evil inclination described as its own “strange God” standing in opposition to the genuine God. Whereas God is worshipped by humans following His commands, this “strange God” is satisfied by humans prioritizing their own emotions over their obligations. Conversely, prioritizing one’s personal desires over God’s desires is considered a form of idolatry because it shifts the focus of the religion from God to the individual.

Two complementary Rabbinic statements illustrate this point. Commenting on Psalms 1:2, R. Yehudah ha-Nasi teaches, “A person can only study that which his heart desires” (Avodah Zarah 19a). In context, this exposition refers to pursuing one’s intellectual interests. R. Yehudah ha-Nasi recognizes that emotional connection to material is critical for engagement and retention. He acknowledges that people will have different affinities and aptitudes toward different subjects, and he affirms (even encourages) these emotional preferences.

On the other hand, having a personal emotional preference toward one area of Torah study does not imply a right to evaluate the content based on one’s feelings. Responding to a teaching that R. Yehudah cited in the name of Shmuel, R. Nahman proclaimed, “How great is this Halakhah!” and regarding another he criticized, “this Halahkah is not great.” Rava rebuked R. Nahman by citing an exposition of R. Aha b. Hanina on Proverbs 29:3, which says, “He who keeps company with harlots will lose his wealth.” R. Aha b. Hanina interprets this verse to mean, “Anyone who says, ‘This teaching is pleasant, but this is not pleasant,’ loses the value of Torah.” Upon hearing this, R. Nahman subsequently retracts his previous statement (Eruvin 64a).

The Talmud is full of disagreements where one sage rejects the teachings of another. These disagreements occasionally lead to debates becoming heated. By contrast, Rava objects to R. Nahman bypassing the normal rules of Rabbinic rhetoric in favor of subjecting teachings to his own emotional judgment. R. Aha b. Hanina’s comparison to prostitution is apt because in both cases, the pursuit is predicated on personal gratification.

This does not imply that overcoming one’s impulses is an easy or trivial task. Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is strong? The one who can conquer his inclination” (m. Avot 4:1). Rabban Gamliel teaches two approaches to this challenge. His first approach is: “Make [God’s] will your will.” I understand this to mean that one should work to change their own will to align with God’s so that their innate desires will not stand in opposition. Rabban Gamliel continues with his second approach: “Nullify your will to [God’s] will.” I interpret this as if the first approach has not manifested―if your desires conflict with God, you must still put God’s will first (m. Avot 2:4).

Conclusion

Returning to our initial question, “Does Torah care about your feelings?” the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Where things get complicated, however, is that the Torah “cares” in different ways. We have seen examples of the Torah caring about people’s emotional well-being through protective laws and halakhic accommodations. We have also seen examples where the Torah cares that people feel or do not feel in certain ways (or at the very least, that people manage their emotions enough to not act on them).

These conflicting sources challenge halakhic frameworks based on emotions. One cannot take the position that the Torah does not accommodate people’s feelings, nor can one contend that the Torah must always conform to satisfy emotional needs.

If I were forced to issue a categorical statement regarding the Torah’s attitude toward people’s feelings, I would say this: while the Torah sometimes accommodates people’s emotions, people should not expect, let alone demand, the Torah to conform to their wishes. We have seen examples demonstrating where Halakhah adapts to emotions, and we have also seen examples where Halakhah expects people to prioritize obedience over their personal feelings. My formulation reflects both the reality of halakhic complexity as well as the ideal religious attitude expected of practitioners.

In my rabbinic experience, people make their own decisions about how they will or will not observe Judaism. Sometimes people sincerely inquire about dispensations and will accept an honest answer, even if they personally do not like it. Others seek dispensations to validate their feelings or practices in order to continue doing as they wish without feeling the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

The practical difference between these approaches is what people do when the answer is “no.” The theoretical difference is whether people view religion primarily as something people are supposed to serve or something which is supposed to serve the people. The Rabbinic Sages recognized this dichotomy as well when they taught, “The wicked stand in the domain of their hearts … but the righteous have their hearts in their domain” (Genesis Rabbah 34:10).

Judaism is neither an anthropocentric religion which places the feelings of people as its primary goal, nor is it entirely callous to people’s emotions. Exploring the nuances of emotional accommodation and whether or not it is possible is a worthy endeavor. But, in my opinion, framing the Torah through the categorical context of emotions―either for or against emotional accommodations―only distorts this complicated and important question.


[1] C.f. Ps. 34:19.

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Rabbi Joshua Yuter served as the rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul on New York’s historic Lower East Side from 2008-2014. He is currently a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (co-chairing the Ethics Committee), and the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. An award-winning blogger, in 2012 Rabbi Yuter was acknowledged by the National Jewish Outreach Program as one of the Top Ten Jewish Influencers for “creative and strategic use of social media to positively impact the Jewish community,” in 2014 was named one of PC Magazine’s Top 100 People to Follow, and in 2018 the Jewish Telegraphic Agency listed Rabbi Yuter as one of the top 50 Jews to follow on Twitter.