Jewish Education: Teaching Emotional Intelligence

by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

For centuries there has been an ongoing debate as to where ethics are grounded as universal attributes in the human condition. The philosopher Immanuel Kant grounded ethics in reason, whereas David Hume looked toward emotions such as sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Today, neuroimaging may offer a new way to resolve this issue.

Brain scans reveal that when participants are engaged in moral reasoning, there is significant activation in areas crucial to emotional processing (a circuit running from the frontal lobes to the limbic system). This supports the argument of researcher Martin Hoffman that the roots of morality are located in empathy. Thus, people learn to follow certain moral principles when they can put themselves in another’s place. These findings also bolster the ideas of educational reformer John Dewey, who taught that lessons are best learned by students when taught not via abstract lessons, but through real life events where emotional literacy is acquired.

If we know that emotional development is a key part of moral development, then why is Jewish education so cognitive-based? We teach for text mastery, intellectual reasoning skills, and memorization (all of which are important), but too often leave aside the cultivation of empathy, understanding of shame, actualization of mercy, and control of anger.

Teaching prayer, Torah study, and ritual performance should all embrace a pedagogical approach that is sure to lead to cognitive and emotional development. But even more, it is through volunteerism that the necessary altruistic virtues are cultivated. More than just leaving our students and children in a two-hour chesed project to fulfill menial tasks, we must be sure that the right emotional experience is cultivated. Since most of our emotional lives exist beneath the surface of the conscious mind, we must engage in deliberate processing conversations to make sense of our feelings before, during, and after crucial activities. We must ensure that service-learning projects aren’t merely about task completion but also that they further the cultivation of compassion and empathy among other emotional virtues.

Rav Kook made the case for how intellect is deficient without emotion and the dangers of neglecting emotional cultivation: “Man cannot live with intellect alone, nor with emotion alone; intellect and emotion must forever be joined together. If he wishes to burst beyond his own level, he will lose his ability to feel, and his flaws and deficiencies will be myriad despite the strength of his intellect. And needless to say, if he sinks into unmitigated emotion, he will fall to the depths of foolishness, which leads to all weakness and sin. Only the quality of equilibrium, which balances intellect with emotion, can deliver him completely” (Scholem, Devarim be-Go, 326-327). Rav Kook emphatically stressed the importance of emotions in education.

As Ecclesiastes teaches, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to wail and a time to dance” (3:2-8). To live fully, we must embrace it all. In A Theory of Emotions, Rabbi Soloveitchik made the case for the importance of the totality of emotional experience in religious life: “Judaism has insisted upon the integrity and wholeness of the table of emotions, leading like a spectrum from joy, sympathy, and humility (the conjunctive feelings) to anger, sadness and anguish (the disjunctive emotions). Absolutization of one feeling at the expense of others, or the granting of unconditioned centrality to certain emotions while denoting others to a peripheral status, may have damaging complications for the religious development of the personality.”

While all emotions must be tended to in moral development, the emotional choices we make are crucial. In a lecture on “Morals and Education,” Donald Winnicott shows how many religious systems of morality actually harm development. His primary example is the overemphasis on sin and shame over love and trust. Education of the emotions must not only be deliberate, but also carefully measured.

When we properly cultivate compassion, we promote good citizenship. When we give space to reflect upon anger, we teach self-control. When we start conversations about fear and shame, we foster humility and self-awareness. When we talk about personal suffering and loss, we inculcate empathy and care. When students are asked to cultivate moral imagination, the most complex emotions can be actualized.

Modern neuroscience teaches us that many moral decisions we make bypass the prefrontal cortex (the rational brain), creating instinctive patterns of behaviour. It is crucial that parents and teachers educate children holistically to produce an ethical personality. These are not mere thought experiments. The Greeks used drama to teach emotions, the Jews used real-life experience. We must expose our children to life, “the real world” of poverty, suffering, and struggle, and foster the necessary concomitant emotions of sympathy, empathy, compassion, and love. Through this we can actualize our full service in this world: “b’chol levavecha” to man and G-d.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.