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INTELLECT & EMOTION - IN MEMORY OF RABBI SACKS Z"L


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, was a master at employing modern psychological research to shed light on concepts from the Torah. His writings often read like an Intro to Psychology textbook, not just quoting household names like Freud and Frankl, but also referencing pioneering developmental, behavioral, social, cognitive, and positive psychologists. He wrote about the psychology of happiness, gratitude, emotional intelligence, mindset, altruism, evil, conformity, shame, grief, among others. His affinity to the ideas of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and one of its founders, Aaron Beck, is apparent in many of his works. Perhaps one of his favorite ideas emerges from neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, whose work helped shift the way we view the relationship between intellect and emotion and also serves as a paradigm to help us better understand an important part of Rabbi Sacks’ legacy.


Based on various philosophical traditions, there is a common conception that rationality is a totally divorced process from emotional experience. Damasio argues that this dichotomy between thinking and feeling is false. In studying patients who incurred lesions to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex, Damasio noticed that the patients were able to reason perfectly but were unable to feel emotion. Yet, even though they were able to rationally analyze choices, they were unable to come to conclusive decisions. Damasio outlines his neuroscientific research in his book Descartes’ Error, where he contends that our brains make decisions by integrating both emotional and rational components. Our thinking requires feeling.


Rabbi Sacks utilized Damasio’s research as a springboard to highlight the connection and integration between intellect and emotion within Judaism, explaining the importance of the non-rational chukim (Chukat 5777), the connection between the two goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur, which also explains the two personalities of Yaakov and Esav (Acharei Mot 5779), and perhaps most importantly, to accentuate the importance of cultivating the affective domain, primarily through music and song, to guide us in our religious decision making (Vayelech 5775). While, to my knowledge, he does not make the following connection in his writings, I would add that we can identify this idea in Avraham’s reaction to Sarah’s death in this week’s parsha, as well.


After hearing about her death, “Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her” (Bereishit 23:2). Notice that there are two components of his response: a eulogy (hesped) and weeping (bechi). Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, whom Rabbi Sacks identifies as a paradigm for a Jewish thinker who focused both on the rational and the emotional (Ha’azinu 5779), distinguishes between weeping, which is an emotional response of “spontaneous, overwhelming and uncontrollable grief,” and the eulogy, which is “rooted in logical judgement” and serves as a clear analysis of the disastrous event and its consequences” (Out of the Whirlwind, p. 31).


The question that several commentators deal with is that the order seems to be reversed. The psychological expectation, as well as the indication from other verses (see Bereishit 50:3-4) and the Talmud (Moed Kattan 27b), is that weeping precedes the eulogy. Doesn’t the emotional response come first and then the rational? Why does Avraham eulogize and then weep?


Perhaps the answer goes back to Damasio’s research. The question assumes that these are two distinct processes: logic and feeling. Perhaps for Avraham the two were integrated. The logic and the emotion blended together. It wasn’t an either/or proposition. His thinking impacted his feelings and his feelings impacted his thinking. Perhaps this is how Avraham was able to transition from loss to rebuilding so quickly. He did not suppress the emotion, nor get stuck in it. He was able to move forward with planning for the future by securing land, finding a wife for Yitzchak, and having more children.


Rabbi Sacks himself epitomized this integration. His towering intellect was infused with input from his moral emotions. His religious and philosophic rationality was suffused with spiritual sentiments. Using his own terminology, he was both “Halakhic Man” and “Aggadic Woman,” he was both the priestly voice of analyzing, and the prophetic voice of justice and compassion. He was someone who preached so eloquently, but more importantly, demonstrated what he preached through his personality. To continue this aspect of his multifaceted legacy, we are charged to develop both our intellect and our emotions, and integrate them in the service of God and humanity.

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