How to be Emotional in 5781: The Legacy of a Hasidic Educational Master

By R. Jon Kelsen, PhD

A quick look at the papers, glance out the window, or moment of introspection reveal one the emotional turmoil being activated on all levels of social and political life during these extraordinarily trying days. The US just concluded a tumultuous presidential election, revealing a country with still profound political division. Anti-racism protests and efforts continue to rock the nation, bringing old fissures in the national fabric to the fore. And, not least, as the days get shorter and winter approaches, the nation experiences record-breaking rises in new Covid cases. It has been and, it appears, will be, a year of uncertainty.

These stimuli and circumstances arouse tremendously taxing emotions, which themselves have enormous impact on who and how we are in this world. Our emotions are being constantly triggered – emotions like anger, fear, disgust, hate, as well as love, joy, compassion. This reality challenges us, as citizens and humans, to learn how to work with those feelings. Especially during these days, we all must learn how best to deal with our emotional life.

The question is not, therefore, whether or not we are emotional; it is, rather, how we are emotional. How might we learn to gracefully encounter and challenge all of our emotions? What does it mean to “do well” with our feelings? What does the learning and practice of wise emotionality look like?

The teachings of R Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro (1889-1943), the Piacezner Rebbe, offer a rich starting point for considering a Jewish approach to these questions. R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, while perhaps more well known as the unofficial ‘Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe’ and what we might term anachronistically as Holocaust theologian, was a prominent educational and rabbinic figure in prewar Polish hassidism. His pre-war writings include sustained and pragmatic focus on spiritual praxis, including instruction in meditative techniques and general development of religious consciousness within the context of a community of practitioners, partly conveyed within a remarkable series of hasidic educational works.

R. Shapiro’s educational vision included an intense focus on the cultivation of the emotions of the young, would-be hasid. At the center of his vision of realized spiritual potential is an individual who is conscious of his emotional dynamics, and who has learned to incorporate those emotions towards spiritual ends. The hasid, under his literary tutelage, is to practice hitragshut [the practice of experiencing and cultivating emotionality] and hitlahavut [the practice of amplifying emotions into intense levels of passion]. This point itself is worth amplifying: One is to actively practice feeling emotions. These emotions include not only joyous ones, but also feelings of heart-break, which we often are tempted to suppress or distract ourselves from. For R. Shapiro, on the contrary, these emotions should be focused upon, amplified, as key expressions of our souls.

As Professor Don Seeman writes, “the hasid’s emotions are manifestations of the inner dynamics of the soul … Emotional experience is … conceived as a kind of divine substance, sacred at its core…through attentiveness to emotional life and its source, human beings can attain privileged access to their own hidden continuity with divine subjectivity.” (Don Seeman, “Ritual Efficacy, Hasidic Mysticism and” Useless Suffering” in the Warsaw Ghetto.” The Harvard Theological Review 101.3/4 (2008), pg. 470)

This point, too, is important to stress: Rather than secondary to our core nature, rational faculties, or social acumen, it is our emotions which constitute our essence, which give us access to our ‘hidden continuity’ with the divine roots of our emotions. To be a fully realized Jew [or, I would say, human], then, is to be an emotional person.

The young hasid is charged by R. Shapiro to acquaint himself with his emotional life, to become aware of its movements, and in doing so, access the conduit to the divine. Further, R. Shapiro, who emphasizes the connection between soul and body, urges his reader to experience emotions viscerally. He gives his young reader visualization and meditative techniques for experiencing his emotions fully, for quieting the mind and softening the heart, and focusing his mental concentration on events, mitzvot, and sacred moments which one finds emotionally moving.

These tools can be used to induce desired emotional states, reawakening, for example, the awe experienced during the high holidays, and the joy of Simkhat Torah. As he writes, “One who experiences emotions but not at his choosingwho does not have the ability to deliberately activate them – this is better than one who is cold and dry … but it is insufficient … How will his emotional states [only] once a year, on Yom Kippur ... purify and sanctify him throughout every moment and second of the [rest] of the year?” (Hakhsharat haAvreikhim, Chapter Three. Translation mine-JK).

In other words, our emotional education can, and should be continuous. The opportunities to explore these emotions fully cannot be left for when we happen to chance upon them. These states, R. Shapiro teaches may and must be deliberately cultivated to infuse our entire lives.

Yet again, the importance of learning to make wise use of emotions is not restricted in this model to ‘positive’ emotions (joy, love) but extends as well to emotions such as heartbreak, and, I would add, anxiety, stress, and worry. Applying these teachings, and learning to more fully experience these emotions – to feel them, work with them, and utilize them wisely – will be key to our ability to navigate the upcoming months.

Hasidism has always focused on the emotional experience of lived Jewish life. R. Shapiro took on the challenge of authoring a systematic, educational series as to how to achieve a rich emotional life. Along the way, he grasps his reader by the hand, instructing him how to grow emotionally, step by step and rung by rung. Imagine a 2020/5781 in which we – children and adults alike– learn these tools and in which we practice how to feel more wisely. How different a world that might be!

Jon Kelsen is the Dean of YCT Rabbinical School. He earned his doctorate at NYU, where he studied as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and where he wrote his dissertation on the educational philosophy of the Piacezner Rebbe.