Rabbi Israel Chait —






The philosophers referred to the “rape of the mind by the emotions.” Is it possible for the emotions to coerce and subdue the mind and cause a person to act against knowledge? In other words, if we say that perfection of man is only through knowledge, is it possible for a drunkard to recognize that his life is being destroyed and continue to destroy himself? On the surface, one would say yes because every drunkard knows that he’s ruining his life, and yet, he continues to do so. This would suggest that the mind is powerless in the face of the emotions. On the other hand, we do notice that before one returns to his bad habits, his mind will always tell him, “This one time I need this drink.” Meaning, one rationalizes and loses his previous knowledge of his self-destructive activities. This means that no human being can contradict what his knowledge tells him is true [explaining the rationalization]. One might then suggest this drunkard’s weakness is regarding his ability to retain previous knowledge. Therefore, to attain perfection it is clear that in addition to knowledge, something else is required to ensure that one does not lose that knowledge; one requires control over losing his knowledge. Thus, emotions can overpower the mind, but not directly. There is some method through which the emotions operate.

There is an interesting Chazal regarding Joseph the tzaddik:


And he [Joseph] came to the house to do his work (Gen. 39:11)


Rashi: Rab and Samuel differ as to what this means. One holds that it means, his actual housework; the other that it means to associate with her [Potiphar’s wife], but a vision of his father appeared to him and he resisted [sexual] temptation and did not sin (Sotah 36b).


Chazal say this refers to Joseph giving in to the urge to sleep with Potiphar’s wife. At that moment, Joseph experienced an image of his father which told him that if he sins, his name will not appear on the high priest’s breastplate alongside his brothers’ names. This stopped Joseph from sinning. Joseph was overpowered by the forceful emotion of love, which carries with it a narcissistic satisfaction. Love elates a person due to the feeling of acceptance by one’s partner. Joseph thought to himself, “This powerful emotion of acceptance [by Potiphar’s wife] will cause me to forfeit an even stronger recognition: the ultimate recognition through my name appearing on the breastplate.” Viewing the bigger picture, not having his name on the breastplate is a great net loss. Chazal say that once Joseph realized that loss, he was able to refrain from sin. A very interesting commentary and advice is contained therein.

This advice is not limited to the particular case of Joseph and the breastplate. But in every person’s life, there is a “breastplate.” When involved in sin, for that momentary pleasure, one forfeits that same objective [recognition], but on a grander scale in the future. It need not be the breastplate, it could be recognition through people or otherwise [that one forfeits when sinning]. Chazal say that had Reuven known that the Torah would record of him “and he saved him [Joseph] from their hands” [when he was thrown into the pit], Reuven would have carried Joseph on his shoulders to save him. Chazal say that every person’s life is “written.” Every person has a “sefer Torah” being written about him: the sefer Torah of his life. This refers to an ultimate reality of every person. If one would think into a sin, he would feel that it’s not worth it: “What will people say about me in the future?” It is not so much people’s recognition per se, but the recognition of the truth. Shallow people seek any form of recognition, paying off others to receive a big dinner in their honor and they do not care how they gain that recognition. But a more realistic person values a true recognition of himself, as it reflects reality. The value comes from the reality reflected in that recognition by others.

What Chazal teach is that this is not just a case of Joseph the tzaddik, but every person has his own breastplate. What saved Joseph wasn’t philosophical knowledge. When in the grips of an emotion, one’s ability to philosophize is impaired. But within the framework of the emotion itself, if one can realize the net loss of sin, that can save him from sin. Again, in sin there is a momentary satisfaction or recognition. But if one realizes the net loss in the future [through either public ridicule or philosophical imperfection], that great loss can stop one in his tracks. This method of reflecting on the loss uses the emotion [of recognition] itself but forces the person to abstain from sin.

Although already in the grips of the emotion and too late for philosophizing, as reflected by “and he came to the house to do his work,” and although Joseph wouldn’t be alive to see his name on the breastplate, he realized an ultimate reality. One can’t ignore this stark reality: one’s name on the breastplate is an eternal recognition on an eternal entity. Maimonides’ method was never to take a Chazal and say that it solves a philosophical question. So, we must investigate Chazal’s words ourselves.

Returning to the question of the emotions controlling one’s mind, one can say that we have provided no proof that the mind can be subordinated to the emotions. This is because the drunkard who realizes the damage of drinking, doesn’t realize the philosophical damage to his soul; he is not a philosopher. The only realization that he has is based on instinctual: he sees that his instinctual life will be destroyed. He will lose his wife, home, children, and his job if he keeps drinking. He has no philosophical insight. Thus, he has no knowledge of why drinking is bad.

The instinctual desire that is close at hand exerts greater power [it is far more appealing] than a future satisfaction. That is how the emotions operate [instant gratification]. When he has the bottle in front of him, the desire is very powerful. It’s like one philosopher said, “Whenever one sins, he is suffering from nearsightedness.” The immediate pleasure obscures the pain in the future. Therefore, this case is not a battle of emotions versus knowledge. If, however, one recognized philosophically how an improved life [without drinking] will elevate his existence to a greater plane, he would never sin. But this drunkard isn’t a philosopher. He is merely in a tug-of-war between two emotions. One will thereby conclude that there’s never a case that displays the emotions overpowering the mind.

Alternatively, one can suggest that even the drunkard’s mind tells him that it’s illogical to keep drinking [thus, he is using his mind]. However, it might be true that he is following logic, but he is not following knowledge, and only knowledge controls the soul. Soul is subordinated only through knowledge, and without knowledge, the soul is not moved. Therefore, while it is true that it is not logical to continue drinking, the soul is uninvolved in that decision. He has no knowledge of why drinking is detrimental [he is only acting on the fear of the effects: losing his job, his wife and kids, etc.]. The soul is moved only by knowledge, and without it, the soul is uninvolved. Therefore, the emotions can overpower this person as the soul is uninvolved. But the moment than one attains true knowledge of the harms of drinking, nothing can budge a person from that knowledge.

The difference between logic and knowledge is that logic is a consistency in a certain framework [a framework isolated from reality with a set of rules. In chess, for example, it is logical to protect the queen. But this logic is limited to the framework of chess. Outside of chess, protecting the queen is irrelevant. But knowledge differs from logic: it refers to an objective apprehension of reality.] With knowledge, nothing can separate the soul from that knowledge. No matter the emotional strength, the soul will always remain rigidly fixed embracing that knowledge.

To review the argument, let’s imagine the soul talking:


Soul: Do I really know that drinking is harmful? I do not. I have no position on this question.


Therefore, there is nothing to move the soul. But there is another position one can take. The only way man can control his passions and live virtuously is through knowledge. Let’s say the drunkard is somewhat aware of the harm of drinking on a practical level. Even though he is overpowered at the moment before he decides to drink, I would say he is overpowered due to a lack of knowledge: not philosophical knowledge, but psychological knowledge. The world is trying to support an argument for the drunkard that willpower exists; another force necessary for one to attain perfection. I disagree; there is no other force. Intellect/reason is the only force. However, for reason to work [succeed] there cannot be any blind spots. Here, reason is adequate to determine the foolishness of drinking. But the drunkard has no self-knowledge regarding why he is drawn to drinking. And if he would understand his own emotional forces, his emotions could not exercise any control to make him drink.

Action requires two things: knowledge of the objective good, and how to apply oneself to that good. But the latter requires knowledge of the self. If one understands their emotions and why one is driven by a specific emotion, that knowledge of the self can help control the emotion. [But without self-knowledge, one can fall prey to one’s emotions, even though one has knowledge of the objective good.] This is because performance or human action requires both: ideas and “you.” Inasmuch as one his ignorant of how he functions, he is unable to change his behavior.

Chazal state that a tzaddik must know himself. They say that one must be aware of the instincts’ subtle workings. That is part of the milchemmes hachaim, the battle of life. Chazal had intricate knowledge of the workings of their minds; they did not maintain that philosophical knowledge is sufficient.

In summary, a blind emotion can overpower the mind. But the mind, when understanding the emotion, can undermine it. To review, the mind is overpowered because it does not have true philosophical knowledge. But as the mind has some kind of knowledge, why should it be overpowered? The answer is that the mind functions in two different realms. Sometimes it functions in the service of the emotions and instincts, and other times it functions in its own world. In most people’s lives the mind is merely used in the service of the instincts. Otherwise, one would have to say that a rasha is an intellect as he uses his mind to obtain his desires. But in truth, a rasha’s thoughts and plans for his desires use his mind unconnected to his soul. His mind is used solely to service his instincts. But when we speak about the soul, we speak about the mind functioning on its own as a free agent. That is a different kind of human function. And as long as one’s a driving force is the instincts, you cannot speak about mind. When we say the mind can’t be overpowered by emotion, we refer to the function of the mind, the agency of the mind. The mind [in the capacity of] a functional agency, is only when the mind is operating on its own energies. That is a different functional entity compared to when a person uses his brain to service his instincts. The latter is a different energy system [than mind when engaging in reality]. In one case, energy flows freely to the mind and the mind determines where it goes: investigating different areas based upon its desire for truth. [In this function or capacity, mind cannot be overpowered by emotion.] Energy is used under the drive and quest for knowledge. But when one thinks about how to kill someone, he is not using his mind, but his brain. A rasha uses his intelligence, but it is not as a function of the soul; his instincts harness his intelligence and the soul is not functioning.

Let us clarify the second argument. If one’s mind had true knowledge of how the emotions work, he would not be overpowered by the emotions. But we said that one still possesses some knowledge and yet he is overpowered [that knowledge being the loss of his family and work]. But with increased knowledge of the instincts, one can ward off the instincts. How does this work?

As long as one is unaware of what the instinct is truly after, the instinct will always succeed. This is because the instincts must have an outlet. There is no way to restrict the instincts. The question is how possessing knowledge changes this. There is only one answer: When one possesses knowledge, the instincts have an outlet through the knowledge itself. Meaning, when one knows what the instinct truly desires, that itself is the outlet and one does not need to perform the action. But when one does not know the object of his desires, the instinct forces one to action because he has no way to vent the energies. But with knowledge, one can vent his energies through his mind, which is what Torah tells us. When thoughts enter one’s mind, the sinner is the one who does the performance. But the thoughts of sin are not sin: “God does not consider an evil thought as action” (Kiddushin 39b). If a person thinks that he wants to kill someone, that is not his fault. But if that thought puts into process a system of attack, a plan, that’s already an evil thought, but even at that stage we say God does not view it as action. As long as one refrains from action, he is not considered a sinner. If a person desires to kill his friend but is unaware of his desire, his friend is in serious danger. But if the person is aware of his desire, his friend is safe, for the awareness itself vents the energy. But if the energy cannot reach the mental apparatus, the energy is not free, it must express itself, so it will express itself in action. The drunkard doesn’t know why he is drinking. Meaning, that he is drinking for some reason, to gain some satisfaction that he is completely unaware of, and he has no way of venting. Drinking is the only way he can vent this desire. We are positing that one does not drink for drinking sake.

 “Thoughts of sin are worse than sin itself” (Chidushei Agadot on Yevamot 63a, Rabbeinu Bahya, Devarim 29:18:2). Thoughts of sin are worse in the sense that one degrades the faculty that God gave man for the higher sphere [pursuit of wisdom] by using it for the lowest sphere [instinctual fantasy]. Thereby, one channels valuable energy through thought, whereas the act of sin itself merely occurs only in the physical realm.

The question is, if one’s mind tells a person one thing and his emotions tell him something else, can the emotions overpower the mind? This depends upon free will. For if we say that the mind can never be overpowered by the emotions, there is no free will. And if we say that the emotions can overpower the mind, again there is no free will. Judaism holds that neither of these possibilities are true. Judaism posits that man has free will. Free will is not when one chooses one food over another; that’s merely a tug-of-war of the emotions; the stronger emotion will win. The same applies to one who chooses to stay at home and not go to work due to the rain. Free will is when the philosophical mind sees reality clearly and the emotional tug is still present. One has the knowledge of the mind’s free activity together with the pull of the emotions. What happens is like this. There is a soul which is attracted to both the mind and the emotions in two ways. When the soul sees the world of ideas and reality, the soul is attracted to it; it seems correct. On the other hand, when the soul sees the world of the emotions, it is attracted there as well. Free will means that man can determine which world he will follow.

When Joseph “went to the house to do his work,” he made a poor decision and failed: he wished to sleep with Potiphar’s wife. But at the last moment, he saved himself through a different kind of argument, based upon the emotion itself. He used his mind to show that the emotion itself was in contradiction [he sought recognition through romance, but simultaneously Joseph recognized that through this romance, he would forfeit recognition of his name on the breastplate; a far greater recognition]. We must say that Joseph used his free will, since due to this abstention, he is viewed as one of the greatest tzaddikim. Joseph’s free will was to [choose between] attaching himself to that rationality, or following the instinct of the moment. Joseph attached himself to the values his father taught to him [his name on the breastplate] and that is why he was a tzaddik. The attachment to a rational system, even within the framework of the emotions [desiring one’s name to be on the breastplate] is an exercise of free will. Perhaps you will ask: “How is this free will, since Joseph used his mind in the service of his emotions?” The answer is that Joseph was not using his mind in the service of his emotions. He was not saying that his desire to be on the breastplate was greater than his desire for Potiphar’s wife. If that were the case, it would not be free will. Joseph did not lose philosophical knowledge. Joseph supported that knowledge with a rationale of the destruction that results intrinsically from sin. That is the mind functioning [not the emotions]. Joseph’s recognition that following the emotion is self-destructive is an extension of the philosophical. His mind was not operating in the service of the emotions; his mind utilized the emotions in the service of reason. That is why this case is an exercise in free will. Joseph was able to remove himself from the emotion. Joseph may not illustrate the ultimate in terms of how to conquer the emotion because the ultimate is through knowledge itself. But he is the ultimate in terms of the dynamics of the situation. Joseph demonstrated the greatness of man, to control his forceful emotions, as he did.