*CR and I wrote and pre-posted this yesterday.
Today is Tisha B’av, a major Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (as well as commemorates other tragedies throughout history). We are mourning for the Temple, and all it represents—true freedom, peace on earth, and spiritual connectedness. It is considered to be the saddest day of the year, when grieving is mandated.
Observant Jews abstain from food and water for over 24 hours as well as follow mourning customs usually reserved for the loss of a loved one. We’ll not discuss the other observances (as well as the nuances), of this day. Instead, we’ll focus on one of the features that has contributed to our psychotherapeutic outlook—that of the commandment to literally feel an emotion, in this case, grief.
This bears repeating: Jewish law requires not just behaviors and rituals, but actually asks of us to feel emotion. For example, we are commanded to love God, which begs the question: How do you “command” a feeling?
But it doesn’t stop there. “Love your fellow as yourself,” an ancient Jewish law from the Hebrew Bible, doesn’t just ask that we help our neighbor out. It doesn’t just give us a list of activities we can do to demonstrate that love (though throughout our teachings there is quite a long list). What it asks of us is that we actually banish from our heart feelings of hatred, jealousy and so on, and in their place, feel love. We must treat—and feel love for—our fellow as if he were a family member, or even self.
Jewish law doesn’t limit itself to requiring us to feel positive emotions. Tisha B’av requires us to mourn and feel grief. In fact, there is a broad range of emotions we are required to feel, as a matter of religious observance including awe and fear on the High Holy Days, joy on the festivals, and bliss and comfort on the Sabbath and more. Yes, these are actual religious requirements.
So how does this jibe with mainstream psychological thinking? It doesn’t. Feelings and emotions are generally believed to be beyond the individual’s ability to control—the history of psychology is bulging with philosophy that suggest we are at the mercy of our feelings. On the other hand, psychological thought encourages us to honor our feelings and even at times subjugate logic to them. In fact, in psychological thought, feelings and emotions are often considered to be evidence of the more authentic self than thought and logic.
Some schools of psychological thought believe it is bad to ignore or repress or deny your feelings at nearly any cost. No, of course not all schools of psychological thought agree with these concepts, but most do. Interestingly enough, the psychotherapies that these schools employ often channel intellect to change and develop healthier feelings and emotions, so the conflict is more one of ideology than actual practice.
However, we find it immensely empowering to operate from the viewpoint on feelings and emotion, as taught by Judaism. That is, not only are we able to control our behaviors but we are also able to learn to control our feelings and emotions. Naturally, this control is to varying degrees dependent on mental health, culture and background, education, and other factors. Still, by and large, living with this belief means that we see vast potential for each individual—you can actually learn to bring yourself to a higher place of feeling rather than be at the mercy of raging, storming, even overwhelmingly loving, emotions.
Immediately what came to mind while writing this are dear friends and colleagues whose commitment to Zen practices do, to a similar degree as Jewish observance, shape mind, feeling and emotion. However, the difference is that Judaism doesn’t recommend withdrawing or emotionally detaching from the world to find inner peace! In fact, just the opposite. That’s why there really is no Jewish ascetic movement and even celibacy is not recommended. Judaism says: Learn how to shape and strengthen your inner world so that you may immerse yourself in and engage with the outer world and try to make it a better place. You are going to find that that outer world is messy, noisy, smelly and generally all-around irritating—and that’s okay.