Conflict and Paradox: Balancing Emotion, Intellect, and Neo-Hassidut


The following is a response to the Volume 10, Issue 1 Symposium. Click here for the symposium prompt and links to other responses. 


When one approaches a piece of the Rav’s writings, the reader must be aware that in that context he may not be presented with the full picture. This is because the Rav zt׳׳l often dealt with paradoxes, or “tarti de-satri’s,” where there are two conflicting, distinct, or paradoxical sides. The Rav was an

incredible thinker and teacher, and was able to describe or elaborate one side of a paradox in one context and leave the other side for another lecture or article.

With regard to this specific question, the paradox here is between the role of the emotion versus the role of the intellect, a major issue in Judaism. In Halakhic Man, the Rav emphasizes the intellectual part of Judaism, and the shofar story accentuates the intellectual side very well. This side of the paradox emphasizes strict observance of halakha, and not letting emotion become dominant. However, in the Rav’s other writings, you see that he also has a heavy emphasis on the role of emotion in his religious philosophy. Particularly in Al Ha-Teshuva, you find a lot of emotion in the Rav’s derashot, and he talks about concepts like emotional teshuva. Furthermore, in U-Vikashtem, the Rav very much emphasizes the emotional side of the search for God.

I think most of the year the Rav emphasized talmud Torah and the intellect, but during certain periods like the yomim noraim, and the chagim, he spent more time emphasizing the emotional side. He claimed that the emotional side of his observance was just as important as the intellectual, but he just had a hard time displaying it and teaching it.

More broadly, the Rav stressed that the Torah accepts tarti de-satris lihatkhila; unlike Aristotelian logic, where there are only the categories of truth and falsehood, Judaism presents a reality in which both sides of the paradox are true and right. The Rav had two approaches toward exploring tarti de-satris. One approach was that of “separate domains,” where each side is deeply explored on its own, within its own category. For example, the Rav often stressed the role of emotion within the context of tefilah, and the role of intellect within the context of talmud Torah.

The second approach toward exploring a tarti de-satri is accepting that the two sides of the paradox cannot be simply categorized into separate domains, but rather are inextricably connected, and in constant dialogue with one another. Thus, though the Rav emphasized the role of the intellect within talmud Torah, at the same time, he also acknowledged the role of emotion in the talmud Torah experience. The Rav often described the experience of learning Torah as a “rendezvous with Hashem.” As a student of the Rav, one could feel the Rav’s love and emotion within his talmud Torah, even though it wasn’t otherwise so publicly displayed by him. In fact, the Rav once discussed Rambam’s writings on “Keter Torah” in Hilkhot Talmud Torah, as important because of their emphasis on the emotional connection one should have when learning Torah.

With regard to my own avodat Hashem, I believe that the intellectual and emotional aspects of Judaism are equal pillars. My intellectual experience is based on my twenty years in the Rav’s shiur which produced my intellectual style of talmud Torah. I learn in the manner the Rav taught us. Moreover, I have published seforim of the Rav’s shiurim, which is both my intellectual expression, and what I consider my life mission.

However, in terms of the emotional side, I also have a Galicianer Hassidic background. My grandparents and great-grandparents were Hassidim so it is in my genetic spiritual personality to have an emotional part of Judaism. Galicianer Hassidim are pure emotion.

An example of where I diverge from the Rav regarding the interplay between emotion and intellect is in Zionism. The Rav, despite the fact that he was a religious Zionist, wasn’t an emotional religious Zionist, but more of an intellectual religious Zionist. He saw intellectually that religious Zionism was a good thing, but emotionally, as he said many times, he didn’t connect to it. For me, religious Zionism is a very emotional attachment. Having love for Eretz Yisrael goes back a number of generations in my family, and my mother was an ardent religious Zionist who put in every effort to visit Israel countless times.

In YU, I was one of the pioneers of neo-Hassidut. The reason why I helped start this movement was because I felt that YU was too intellectual, and sorely lacked an emotional outlet for talmidim. I was concerned about our group of roughly a thousand boys: where was the passion, the singing, the dancing, the crying on Yom Kippur? I tried to bring that emotional side of Judaism to YU for the benefit of the klal. For close to ten years, we had a Thursday night program where we learned Hassidut, followed by singing and dancing. I am very happy that the movement took off, and glad that Rabbi Weinberger and Rabbi Weinberg are currently guiding many talmidim.

Yet, I am a little disappointed that there is not more emphasis on rigorous intellectual talmud Torah, and particularly a focus on the Rav’s teachings in the Yeshiva. I don’t necessarily blame one on the other, but it is a very disappointing phenomenon. Many talmidim leave the Yeshiva knowing very little of the Rav’s Torah. Today, with all the neo-Hassidic events that take place, we need to ask how many of the boys practicing emotional Judaism should also be practicing an intellectual style of Judaism with a greater emphasis on high level Torah study. Perhaps, the movement has been too successful, or in a way not successful enough. It is hard to know what the right numbers are, and how far it will go.

One possibility regarding how to view these developments is that people have different neshamot as a result of birth or upbringing. Some people have more of an intellectual structure and some have more of an emotional one. The people who are into Hassidut may have more of an emotional component. The people who are into advanced talmud Torah, maybe their souls are more intellectual. God doesn’t make people of the same makeup. Thus, simply put, an individual in one group may not be the right candidate for the other group. Personally, I belong to both groups and love them equally.

While it was a revolution to help bring neo-Hassidut to YU, on a deeper level it made perfect sense because there is great overlap between Hassidut and Modern Orthodoxy both emotionally and intellectually. They both see opportunities for avodat Hashem in every area of life. Hassidic philosophy is all about the notion of  be-khol derakekha de’ehu, serving God in every area of life. Indeed, that is very similar to Modern Orthodoxy, where there is a similar way of serving Hashem, in which you try to find the spiritual value in all areas of life. Thus, Hassidut is actually a seamless fit with Modern Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Hershel Reichman is a rosh yeshiva of RIETS and has authored six volumes of the Rav’s shiurim on various masekhtot.