Who is in your driver’s seat?

One of the challenges we often face in life is balancing our three major “drivers”: faith, intellect and emotions.

Should we make decisions based on what we believe to be right, understand to be right or feel good about?

Are these three criteria mutually exclusive? Complementary? Or parallel and independent of each other?

I would like to explore here the role of the intellect and its relationship with its non-rational alternatives, faith and emotions.

I will attempt to do so based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s analysis of G-d’s conversation with Moses (1) after he transmitted G-d’s message to Pharaoh and the conditions of the Jewish People’s slavery worsened.

When Moses questioned the adverse results of his transmitting G-d’s message to Pharaoh, G-d admonished him by saying that the Patriarchs never questioned Him, even when things were totally incomprehensible or even illogical.

G-d’s message to Moses was that he should emulate the Patriarchs who were outstanding in serving G-d with their emotions rather than their intellect.

The question is: why sideline the intellect in our relationship with G-d? Isn’t the intellect superior to emotions? Are we even capable of ignoring the questions of our intellect? Would it even be honest to do something in spite of understanding that it should be otherwise?

*  *  *

Chassidic teachings explain that faith, intellect and emotions each play a different role and can be synergic. The ideal situation is where one employs the strengths of each of these three powers so that the outcome is the strongest, most balanced one possible.

To be sure, each one of these drivers can work both as a stand-alone, or as part of a seamless, integrated system. The ideal is when they are part of an integrated system.

In order to understand the different possible dynamics and interactions we must first understand the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of each one separately and then we will be able to understand how they can complement one another in order to obtain optimum results.


Faith, or Emunah, is often misunderstood and therefore undervalued. It is often understood to be a crutch for the feeble-minded who are incapable of understanding things critically and therefore rely on what others tell them to believe. That may be true in certain cases, but it is an overly generic, superficial and simplistic view. It does not take into account the true potential and value of healthy faith. It is like saying that tasteless water is for people too weak to eat more tasty food. Although it is true that people too weak to eat are given water, it would be a gross misstatement to say that water is only for unhealthy, weak people who cannot eat. Not only is water necessary even for those that can eat, it is a vital need without which the ability to eat would be rendered useless. The same is true for the roles that faith and intellect play, as we will see.

What is true, healthy faith?

To be sure, there are several types of faith. Faith, by definition, is not rational, intellect based. There are, however, two types of non-rationality: infra-rational and supra-rational.

Infra-rational beliefs are beliefs in false things that can be disproven by the intellect, such as the bogeyman hiding under your bed. Supra-rational beliefs are beliefs in true things that cannot (yet, or perhaps ever) be explained or proven by one’s intellect (2), such as the nature of G-d’s existence.

How do we determine if a belief is supra- or infra-rational; if it is to be accepted or rejected? How do we determine what we should believe in and why?

Chassidic teachings define Emunah as “training” or activating. Our beliefs stem from our very core and essence, but need to be cultivated in order to blossom. Ure’eh Emunah. One must nourish our innate, unconscious faith until it becomes conscious. Our core and essence transcends the limited reach of our rational intellect and is therefore free of the limitations that intellectual perception imposes. The intellect is merely one of our faculties through which we can understand that which is understandable. Not everything is understandable, though. When faced with inherent or circumstantial limits of the intellect, we can still determine the existence of something, connect to and be motivated by it through our Emunah, or faith, that stems from our core and essence.

How do we identify what our core and essence believes? How do we nourish our innate belief so that it blossoms and becomes conscious and tangible? Through “learning” Torah and fulfilling the Mitzvos. The source of the G-dly soul is G-d’s essence as is the source of the Torah and they therefore “speak the same language”. The Torah serves as the articulation of the beliefs emanating from the soul as it looks to reconnect to its source (3). By studying Torah we come to understand and nourish that faith and by behaving according to its dictates, we activate and express it, making it more tangible. When the Jews were offered the Torah by G-d they famously accepted it by saying: Naaseh Venishma, “we will do and we will hear”.  This does not only mean that we will fulfill G-d’s commands even before understanding them, but, also, that in order to truly “comprehend” them, one must experience them. (4)


Our intellect allows us to understand things and to determine if something is verifiably true or not. It is our ability to define reality objectively.

The greatest drawback of the intellect, however, is when it does not understand something. It does not allow one to proceed until his question is answered. Another challenge that the intellect poses is that one may become satisfied with the great pleasure of understanding something without feeling the need to actually do something as a result of his understanding. The Rebbe many times illustrated this point through the story about Aristotle who was caught doing something immoral and said “Now I am not Aristotle”. Great intellect does not necessarily imply great behavior.

According to the Rebbe’s explanation of the aforementioned exchange between G-d and Moses, these were the issues G-d was addressing when admonishing Moses for being too intellectual. “Be like the Patriarchs who did not get stuck by the limits of the intellect! Learn from the Patriarchs who were action-oriented and did not take refuge in their intellectual Ivory Towers, divorcing themselves from practical reality,” was the essence of G-d’s message to Moses.

There is an additional point here: G-d was telling Moses that the revolutionary approach to attaining truth that the Torah was going to introduce to us at Mt. Sinai is an intellectual approach that is based on faith and therefore freed from the shackles of the limitations inherent in the human intellect. Intellect cannot determine supra-rational truths; it can only endeavor to understand them once defined by supra-rational faith.

In truth, any intellectual system is based on non-provable (“self-evident”) axioms.

This has very important implications. Many people tend to shun faith because they believe themselves to be rational and critical beings and therefore in no need of it. This is simply a false argument. All rational systems are based on non-provable premises. One simply chooses – irrationally – which non-provable premises he or she believes to be “self-evident” and then goes on to build a rational system of values or “truths” based on those premises.

For example: is it good to heal the sick or protect the weak or is it better to let them succumb to the course of nature? Is the respect for all human life a supreme value or is “survival of the fittest” the supreme, purest, law of nature?

Choosing one or the other is not a rational, logical decision. Either one can be defended rationally and logically. Exhibit A: Enlightened Germany in WWII and their Final Solution.

The choice of the non-provable foundational axioms will determine the truth of the structure built thereon. One can be very sophisticated and yet wrong, while someone else can be very simple but right.

So, counterintuitively, true rational understanding depends on correct non-provable beliefs, rather than frees one from them.

Building our intellectual structures upon G-d given foundations is what affords us the ability to connect with Truth in ways impossible otherwise and unprecedented before G-d’s revelation at Matan Torah. (5)


What place do emotions play in our spiritual development? Are they to be expressed? Repressed? Ignored?

At first glance one might think that being that the main thing is to do what’s right, not what merely feels good, why pay any attention to subjective emotions?

There is nothing further from the truth.

Emotions are what define us. Emotions are what make us move. The emotion of love serves to attract and move us closer, the emotion of fear serves to repel and move us apart. The intensity of the emotion will determine the intensity of the movement towards or away from the object of desire or fear.

The character of a man is not determined by what he understands (that merely defines his intelligence), but by what he likes, dislikes and fears. (6)

One must therefore cultivate healthy emotions and eradicate unhealthy ones. It is our (faith-based) intellect that helps us decide which is which and how to accomplish what needs to be done.

So, are these three drivers compatible?

They should be. The objective is to align one’s beliefs, understanding and emotions so that his or her behavior will be driven by all three in a harmonious way.


If I believe that helping others is a virtue, and I understand how best to help them, and love to help people, then given the opportunity to help others, I will be a very happy person. If, however, I believe that helping others is a virtue but do not know how to do so or even if I know how to do so but do not like to do it, I will be plagued by guilt for not doing what I believe to be right or be unhappy for being forced to do that which I do not like to do (unless I believe it to be a virtue to do that which I should even though I might not like it).

So, Faith tells me where I should go, Intellect tells me how to get there, and Emotions tell me to actually get moving.

There is another interesting aspect to faith, intellect and emotions and the distinct roles they each play in our relationship with G-d:

In Jewish mystical parlance, there are three levels to G-d’s manifestation, known as: memale kol almin, or “permeating the worlds”, sovev kol almin, “surrounding the worlds” and Atzmus or “essence”. In simple English what this means is that we can relate to G-d either by feeling his presence in an inner, personal way or by understanding the fact that he transcends our capacity to comprehend him. Then there is the essence of G-d that transcends any level of comprehension or even lack thereof, to which we can relate through Faith and obedience.


So, in the final analysis, Faith is not necessarily a substitute for understanding; it functions on a different plane and connects us to a different dimension of reality. It is oftentimes the logical conclusion of the honest intellect itself: I can only reach a certain point and there is more – infinitely more – beyond my reach.

It is interesting to point out also that emotions do not necessarily depend on the intellect. One can become emotionally excited by faith alone. Sometimes we need the intellect to develop and guide them; sometimes we need the intellect to simply get out of the way and let us express who we are, far beyond the limited who or what our intellect allows us to understand ourselves to be.

Moses was a great intellectual but did not understand the truest nature and role of the intellect until G-d explained it to him. Now, after the Rebbe has explained their conversation to us, we can all choose to put our Faith, Intellect and Emotions in their proper places, and thereby live a fuller, truer, more satisfying life, with less inner conflict. We have the power to leave our internal, repressive exile where things are not functioning as they are meant to and graduate into a liberated world of Geulah, where every one of our powers functions to its fullest potential, to the benefit of all.

Based primarily on Likutei Sichos vol. 3, 854-864

1. Exodus, 5:22,23; 6:2,3.

2. By the same token, neither can they be refuted by it.

3. The Zohar (vol. 3, 73a) states that there are three knots that are interconnected, Israel, the Torah and G-d.

4. See introduction to Sefer Hachinuch regarding the purpose of the physical aspect of Mitzvos as a means to cultivate spiritual understanding, feelings and instincts. (Being that all (partial) truths are contained in the Torah somehow, might this, perhaps, be the original spiritual source for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?)

5. How does one integrate and relate to these non-provable G-d given truths so that they become his or her truths? Through experience. The more one experiences these non visible truths, the more real they become.

Imagine offering a $100 bill to an indian in the Amazon jungle in exchange for some food… He will never understand why you would expect him to give you a pound of potatoes in exchange for a useless piece of paper. Any child in western society “knows” its value naturally. It is not necessarily because he understands how the monetary system works, but because he has “seen” it in action and it has become as real to him as the potatoes to the Amazonian.

The same is true regarding the truths of Torah and Mitzvos. The more we experience them, the more real the truths that they represent become. Of course, one might argue that any falsehood can also become “real” by getting used to it. Although true, that is not the point I am trying to make here. Something does not become true just because I am exposed and used it; a truth – determined by whatever method truths are determined – becomes real and tangible to me the more I am exposed to and practice it.

When one trains, one does not acquire anything new, one just discovers and expresses that which has hitherto been innate. The same is true for Emunah – faith. Making faith real is through exercising it. Use it or lose it.

6. Independently of his character, his merit is determined by his behavior. If he is someone that loves to talk badly about others, his character is rotten. If, however, he controls his instinct and does not speak badly, his merit is great, for overcoming his character.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zi"a, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. Has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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