The question is an ancient and important one. We are bringing it up again because scientists claim that there is new evidence that sheds light on the subject. What is more important, the intellect or the emotions? Digging a bit deeper, what exactly is man? Are we primarily a function of our drives, instincts and sentiments, or are we essentially a brain with extensions? Last week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review (January 16, 2022) featured an evaluation of Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. Originally a theoretical physicist, Mlodinow draws upon recent studies in neuroscience to come to original solutions to the problem.
One of the things that called the book and its review to my attention was something in the author’s background similar to my own. Dr. Mlodinow’s parents were survivors of the concentration camps and related stories that are familiar to many of us of the so-called Second Generation. He compares his father’s liberation from Buchenwald by the United States Army in 1945 to that of his father’s friend Moshe. This is his story: “The American soldiers generously handed out fresh water, cigarettes, chocolate and food to the starving prisoners. While his friend Moshe couldn’t stop eating, and ended up consuming an entire salami, Mlodinow’s father managed to control himself. Within a couple of hours, Moshe suffered from intense intestinal distress. He died the next day. The author’s father survived thanks to his restraint.”
The reviewer, Prof. Frans De Waal, a primatologist and psychologist, concludes that “the story serves to introduce impulse control and why we so often fail at it, such as when we get addicted to gambling, smoking…and foods that are fatty and sweet.” I reacted somewhat strongly to this assessment, because my father, too, was liberated at Buchenwald. Furthermore, years ago, when I was a rov in Cleveland, one of my congregants spoke at seudah shlishis, revealing that he had been a GI liberator of Buchenwald. I will never forget how he cried bitter tears of teshuvah when he remembered that he, too, had unknowingly probably hastened the death of survivors by doing the same out of mistaken rachmonus.
I’m at the moment in the middle of helping one of my grandchildren with a report on Churban Europa and our family’s personal saga. My take on the author’s assessment of the two survivors is a bit different. Emotions had little to do with what happened to both the soldiers and survivors. The soldiers were young and unprepared for the horrors they witnessed and had to deal with. The survivors were starving and doing what came naturally to emaciated skeletons who had been dehumanized by the Nazi beasts. This was not a phenomenon of intellect versus emotion as much as the natural and correct instinct of the human soul to live. If anything, the posuk that lived in every brain and heart was vochai bahem – “live” and “do not die,” as our sages added to the Torah’s mandate. Those who held back and those ate cannot be faulted. The only ones who should be criticized in any way are the Nazi murderers.
However, that being said – and I had to both write and publish it – we may move on and analyze the question itself. What, indeed, is man? Interestingly, Prof. De Waal begins his review with a quote from “one of the greatest physicists of the last century, Paul Dirac,” who “had no use for emotions.” He declared that “my life is mainly concerned with facts, not feelings.”
If I may, I wish to take the liberty of contrasting and comparing his statement with that of my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l. As early as 5681(1921), Rav Hutner wrote of the confluence of the intellect and emotion in his life. He later (see Sefer Hazikaron Pachad Yitzchok, page 67) said of himself that “the root of my soul is the trait of daas which represents the convergence of the heart and intellect.” In his private journal from Sukkos 5706 (1946), he wrote, “I feel that through my involvement with Torah suffused with the joy of the mitzvos of Yom Tov, these two pillars [of intellect and soul] have been unified in my essence.” He later shared with his family that “many gedolei olam – Torah giants – had worked successfully to unify the thread of halachic analysis and mussar-type thought into one” (For more on Rav Hutner’s view of the intellect, see Rav Eliakim Willner’s article in the Yated, January 14, 2022.)
One of the Kadmonim, an early mussar work, the Orchos Tzaddikim, makes a surprising analogy. At the beginning of his Third Gate, the Gate of Shame, he asserts that “Intellect is shame and shame is intellect.” At first, we may be surprised at this declaration, since we generally think of the intellect as a function of the brain and shame as a function of the emotions. Yet, the Orchos Tzaddikim goes on to compellingly prove that both flow from the same source. He explains that when harnessed properly, “the trait of shame is a great fence and an iron barrier against all of the transgressions.” A contemporary author asks in the title of his book, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?” Since the answer is sadly “not much, if ever,” the fence and iron barrier have long since fallen into disuse and disrepair.
However, the question of intellect versus emotion still stands, because we all know instinctively – indeed perhaps more in the gut than in the brain – that even for the wisest and most brilliant, emotions are important. My rebbi, who was universally acknowledged to be a towering intellect, did not ignore the power of his emotions. In a letter from Chevron when he was quite young, he wrote to a friend, “The past two years…all the impressions have combined and joined…to the point where [what I have gained] is so beloved to me that it has brought me to tears.” Much later, when he emerged from the house where he sat shivah for his rebbetzin, he noticed a blossoming tree. “At the moment,” he noted, “it seemed to me that this tree had been planted here just to console me.” There are many more examples of how the rosh yeshiva converted a moment of personal emotion into a lesson and opportunity for spiritual growth.
Perhaps this is the lesson, too, of the Orchos Tzaddikim’s equation of shame and intellect. An emotion left alone can be destructive or purposeless. But when shaped and molded into a positive segment of the human experience, it is upgraded into a new creation formed by the noble intellect of a tzelem Elokim. This is something that neither neuroscientists nor secular psychologists understand. Indeed, Prof. De Waal asserts at one point that “since mind, brain and body are one, it’s impossible to disentangle our vaunted rationality from our emotions.”
Our approach is diametrically opposed to this view. Rav Elchonon Wasserman (Kovetz Maamorim, No. 1) writes that the reason Aristotle and other brilliant people could write passionately about morals but live immoral lives is that they could not or just did not overrule their emotions, drives and desires. However, as human beings, Hashem has given us the absolute ability to do so. It may be difficult and few may actually access this power, but everyone can do it. Just as gedolim appropriated their emotions of joy, amazement (hispaalus), envy, zeal, worry and – yes – shame, so can we all, if we just try. Reb Elchonon makes clear that the failure of many philosophers and brilliant intellectuals to live the lives they preached was their perceived inability to take advantage of the glory of being human, which is the power of free will.
One of the tefillos attributed to the Baal Shem Tov (Iggeres Hageulah with approbation of the Ozerover Rebbe) urges us all to ask of Hashem: “May I always follow the ratzon, lev, seichel, hergesh…maaseh [which is incumbent upon me].” In other words, our mandate each moment of the day is to have the proper desires of the heart, intellect, emotion and action. None of these are contradictory in any way and in fact must work together for a spiritually healthy and proper life. Rav Leib Chasman (Ohr Yahel 1:150) teaches that “one who defiles the emotions of his heart has no path to teshuvah.” He cites many proofs that while wrongful actions can be overcome, once someone has ruined the sanctity of his G-d-given emotions, it is extremely difficult to recover. Thus, the emotions must be protected from our toxic surroundings. Even if someone sins for a moment, he must not rationalize or distort the truth, because, as Rav Elchonon taught us, then he has ruined his humanity itself. In this case, it is the emotions that must be guarded even more than the intellect.
So the answer is that man is indeed the combination of emotion and intellect. Each must be activated at the proper time and place, but both are necessary for us to fulfill our glorious role in the universe. It is not the mechanics of neuroscience nor the prattling of philosophers that determine what a human being can be and do. As the Medrash says, with the explanation of the Pachad Yitzchok, the letters of man’s name and title Adam also spell me’od, meaning “very.” Man can be anything he wants to be, as long as he follows the guidance given by his Creator to emulate Him at all times.