Can emotions be Jewish? Congregation Olam Tikvah considers feelings

Rabbi Viktoria Bedo of Congregation Olam Tikvah will explore how emotions manifest in Jewish tradition. Photo by Jonah Fisher

Are Jews any more emotional than anyone else? What did love mean to the rabbis of the Talmud? How did it feel to escape slavery in Egypt? Can emotions be Jewish?

At Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Assistant Rabbi Viktoria Bedo this week began teaching a four-week class, “Tell Me How You Really Feel: Emotions in the Jewish Tradition.”

The class will explore how emotions manifest in Jewish tradition and analyze how feelings and emotions come up in the Tanach and Talmud. The goal, she says, is for the Jews of 2022 to better relate to the Jews of the long past.

How did you get the idea to cover this topic?

I took a class in rabbinical school with Dr. Sarah Wolf called “The Emotional World of the Bavli.” The class concentrated on the Babylonian Talmud. Every week we looked at different sections and stories, specifically focusing on the different types of emotions. She introduced me to the idea of what it looks like for us to think about something modern — the conversation and discussion around emotions and the inner world — in a traditional context. What does it look like to take something that is quite natural for us — talking about our feelings of love and fear and anger — searching for them in Jewish texts.

Based on that class, I developed an idea for looking at different emotions. We’ll be focusing on a different emotion every class, looking at different texts from the Talmud and the Bible. We’ll be looking at love, grief, joy and anger, so we’re covering what people consider both positive and negative emotions.

What are you excited to teach?

With love, one of the questions that we’re going to be looking at is, what does it mean to be commanded to love in the book of Deuteronomy? In the book of Deuteronomy, we are commanded to love God. How can God command us to love? Is love supposed to be an emotion? Is love supposed to be an action? Is it a behavior? Is it a feeling? How can you command somebody to feel something? Because we think about love as a feeling, but maybe for the Tanakh and for the writers of Deuteronomy, the commandment to love isn’t about emotion, it’s about behavior.

Who might join this class?

I really hope the topic is interesting and broad enough that it appeals to people who usually don’t come to adult education classes or people who don’t think of themselves as Torah learners. Even though we’re going to be looking at Jewish texts, it’s a topic that really applies to everybody. Everybody has emotions. Everybody has feelings. So I think that it’s a very good way of relating ourselves as individuals to the people who have come before us and the people who are part of our tradition. I think it’s a very good way of actually connecting ourselves to the Jewish tradition.

My number one goal isn’t for people to learn more verses of Torah or stories from Talmud. My main goal as a Jewish educator is to make the Jewish tradition relevant to the Jewish community today.

What would you say to someone who wants to learn more about emotions in Jewish tradition but can’t attend your class?

Reread the stories you already know. What are the emotions that are going on here? For example, when Avraham goes up to the mountain to sacrifice his child, Isaac, and then he comes down, what is he feeling? Is the Torah telling us? Is it not telling us? Are we imagining it, making our own midrash to fill in blank spaces? Read texts on a base level and relate them to emotions.

What would you say to someone who has never taken a Jewish class before but is thinking of it?

Just do it! Come, join the class. There’s fear and anxiety around entering Jewish study spaces for people who don’t have formal Jewish education. What if I don’t know enough, what if I asked the wrong question or what if I don’t have enough foundational knowledge? I really, really try to design my classes in a way where you don’t have to have a strong base knowledge. If I say something that you don’t understand, just ask. Good Jewish learning spaces are not a space of judgment, they’re a space of welcoming and inclusion.

And if you don’t know anything coming in, all the better, hopefully you’ll walk out of this knowing more.


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