Stifling Emotions in Judaism
Shayna and Yisrael’s Predicament
Shayna and Yisrael have been married for several years. They live in Woodlake, New Jersey, where Yisrael studies in Kollel (an advanced Talmud study program) and Shayna is an office manager. Their marriage seems happy, stable, and fulfilling, with one significant presenting issue. When people say hurtful things to Yisrael, he absorbs their comments and doesn’t respond. He puts up a stiff upper lip, then smiles and continues with his day.
Shayna is concerned about Yisrael’s lack of emotion. She believes that it is “fake” or “unnatural.” Furthermore, Shayna notices that for a few hours after the insulting comment, Yisrael seems like he is more on edge. Even though he is smiling and looks cheerful, he is often more irritable and easily disturbed. She thinks that his emotions seem to be still pent up inside him. Shayna explains that two points put a strain on their own relationship. Firstly, she feels like Yisrael is not being honest emotionally and not being candid with her. Secondly, he often is harder to relate to after someone says something negative to him.
Yisrael explains that he is trying consciously not to react to critical or negative statements. He elaborated that he formerly learned in a well-known, established, pedigree yeshiva in Israel. During his years there he absorbed an approach that emotions should be subdued and not readily expressed. The yeshiva’s modus operandi was to be halachic and to examine all situations solely from a legalistic standpoint. Yisrael was now trying to adapt the worldview of stoicism. Although he is not “there yet,” he is aspiring to integrate that perspective into his own life. Yisrael explained that, theoretically, if he could sue his insulter in a beis din (court) for defamation or slander, he might do so. But absent any direct halachic/ legalistic response, he remains silent and squelches any response on an emotional level.
The Perspective of the Sefer HaChinuch
The hashkafa (religious perspective) of emotions and their expression is a complex and ancient one in Judaism. There is no unilateral, all-encompassing answer and there are different approaches taken by different leaders and parts of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), both historically and currently. At the same time, it is valuable to examine the words of the Sefer HaChinuch (The “Book of Education” – 13th Century Spain) regarding the prohibition of Onaas Devarim – verbal mistreatment of another person. The Torah prohibits one from saying anything that causes distress to another. This includes name calling, insulting, or reminding someone of her unsavory past. What if someone violates Onaas Devarim? What should be the reaction of the offended party? The Sefer HaChinuch (338) elaborates that a response is both appropriate and not included in the prohibition of verbally distressing someone. He explains:
According to what it seems, it can’t be possible that if one came and began to be wicked to pain his fellow with his bad words, that the listener should not answer him. For it is not possible for a man to be like a stone that cannot be overturned, and what’s more, that he will be in his silence like one who admits to the insults. And in truth, the Torah did not command for a man to be a stone, silent to those who insult him like to those that bless him…it is proper for a wise person that he will reply to him in a roundabout and pleasant way, and not become exceedingly angry, because “Anger rests in the heart of fools (Koheles/ Ecclesiastes 7:9)”.
The Sefer HaChinuch adapts an approach of reality. He acknowledges that it is typical to be insulted at another person’s hurtful or spiteful comments. If it were ideal for one to simply ignore another person’s negative comments, the Sefer HaChinuch would have penned a different approach. Perhaps he would have advised the insulted to toughen up, trust in G-d, and ignore the meaningless comments someone else uttered. Rather, the Sefer HaChinuch recognizes that emotions are part of the human condition. It is natural to react to another person’s statements. The Sefer HaChinuch even considers anger a valid reaction to insult – as long as one does not become “exceedingly angry.” The valiance of man is not to ignore but to try to temper his reaction and to not explode.
What About the Sun?
The Sefer HaChinuch adds a caveat. He concludes that those who are consummately in love with G-d strive not to reply to those that insult them:
Yet – there is a group of people for whom their righteousness rises so much that they do not want to bring themselves into this leniency to reply something to those who insult them – perhaps anger will overpower them and they will become involved in the matter more than is enough, and about them they of blessed memory have said: those who are insulted but do not insult back, who hear their shame and do not reply, about them the verse says: “And those who love Him are like the sun emerging in its strength (Shoftim/ Judges 5:31).”
The Sefer HaChinuch says that those who love G-d and are exceedingly righteous do not respond directly to their detractors so that they will not respond too strongly. At the same time, the Sefer HaChinuch acknowledges that even the most righteous can feel hurt by the words of man. It is important for them to be emotionally honest with themselves and to acknowledge the feeling. Sometimes, it might be beneficial for them to discuss them with someone else, too. Emotions are often very authentic expressions of who we are as humans.
The imagery of the strength of the sun beginning to shine that Chazal (our Sages) use is beautiful and precise. Since people are expected to respond emotionally to insults, it takes extraordinary internal strength not to respond directly. It is important not to confuse that with stifling one’s emotion altogether.
Implications for Yisrael
The presenting issue that Shayna and Yisrael had can be indicative of his upbringing, past experiences, and their relationship. One area for Yisrael to explore might be his approach to emotions and their expression. It is possible that he feels more comfortable stifling his emotions because of pain he has experienced in the past that he would rather not allow to come to the surface. Alternatively, it might be that his upbringing, in addition to his Yeshiva, demonstrated or valued shrouding or inhibiting emotion. The issue is ripe for discussion and might be helpful in exploring more about who Shayna is, who Yisrael is, and underlying strengths and challenges in their relationship.