Monday, July 21, 2008

follow your heart - musings on a noam elimelech

The Noam Elimelech on Parshas Pinchas (available online here) asks an important question:
There are two categories of people: There are wicked people who become jealous of true tzadikim and instigate fights with them and demean them, but claim they are acting out of religious zeal and piety. And there are tzadikim who act of true religious zeal and piety and fight against evildoers. How can one tell which camp is which?
Apply as you like (at your own peril) to whichever groups you choose in the current political scene. In everyone’s mind there are the good guys who stand for truth, justice, and all that is good, and there are the other guys whom we feel free to castigate as misrepresenting all that is holy and pure. Except the other guys think exactly the same thing! So how does one tell the difference? The Noam Elimelech continues:
Whoever’s words penetrate to the heart of the listener speaks truthfully and is a true tzadik, as only words spoken from the heart [i.e. with pure intention] will enter another’s heart.
When I got to the answer I experienced a let down. Is it just me, or does this strike you as na├»ve or simplistic, with all due respect to the Noam Elimelech. “Just follow your heart” is something that sounds like a Disney movie, and I don’t think it’s just the fact that we have been tainted with too much cynicism that causes us to recognize that the heart is not always the best detector of truth. In fact, I think a good argument could be made that most trouble is life is caused by following the heart instead of the brain. So much for the Monday morning musings of a cold Litvak…


  1. Was he using the scriptural "heart"?

    On a more serious note, how do you understand "devarim Hayotzim min halev nichnassim lalev"? Would that not encourage demagoguery?

  2. Anonymous6:35 AM

    Litvak-Just got zapped!?

  3. Perhaps your too-broad application of the initial part of the lesson resulted in your lack of satisfaction in the final part of the lesson?

    The Noam Elimelech didn't say that you could figure out which political candidate to put your trust in based on "following your heart."

    [first, you assume that one of the political candidates may be a tzaddik (?!?)]

    He explained that when there is machloket on a tzaddik, if you pay attention to the words that enter your heart you will know who is the tzaddik, and who is the rasha who is trying to interfere with him/her.

    In scriptural terms the heart is the organ that understands, not the brain...

    You are taking the western view of the heart as the seat of emotion and trying to apply that understanding to the Noam Elimelech, and you know better than that.

    Why would you take the Noam Elimelech so lightly, when you would delve into and explore every possible intimation and permutation of a gemara?

    The Noam Elimelech was a tremendous Talmid Hacham.

    If the brain is what's really important, how come HaShem wants our hearts? (Rachmana liba ba'i)

    Your intellect is usually more impressive than what is presented in this post..

    Perhaps the better question is, why aren't the words of the Noam Elimelech entering your heart, since he is a Tzaddik and speaking from the depths of his own heart?

    If you were a hasid, so you would pray that HaShem open your heart to receive the words of the Reb Meilech, but as a litvak, I guess perhaps you need to analyze it and come up with a satisfactory answer?

    You could also rephrase the question like so: (lehavdil from the earlier phrasing) How is it that the words of the tzaddik don't enter the heart of his opponent??

  4. Nothing you have written really explains the N.E., it just reassures us that he is a "real" tzadik (I guess his words enter your heart?) and that somehow this means even if incomprehensible, the fault lies in us, not in his words. The N.E. is certainly a big tzadik and a sefer worth studying in detail, but learning Torah means criticially examining sevara and nuance, not blindly accepting an approach just because it is given over by a great authority (see R' Chaim Volozhiner on the Mishna in Avos of 'havei misaveik'.)

    >>>Why would you take the Noam Elimelech so lightly, when you would delve into and explore every possible intimation and permutation of a gemara?

    You are comparing an 18th century chassidic work with Tanaim and Amoraim?!

    Secondly, aderaba, precisely because the N.E. is worth paying attention to is it worth thinking about a strange line like the one I quoted.

    >>>The Noam Elimelech didn't say that you could figure out which political candidate to put your trust in based on "following your heart."

    Nor was I referring to political candidates - rather, to the political debates among "tzadikim". If you lived in the 18th century, would your heart be open to the words of the GR"A or the Besh"T? Is your heart open to the words of Rav Kook or the Satmar Rav? Rav Shach or the Lubavitcher Rebbe?

    I don't see how one avoids a dangerous slippery slope with this appraoch. I assume I don't need to give a list of obvious historical examples where people were swayed by charismatic leaders whose appeal to emotion (the heart) overcame what more rational consideration would have been suspicious of.

    Nor I assume do I need to point out the many religious fanatics and cults that reject the need to rationally justify anything they do and instead appeal to emotion. Just yesterday at the train station a group of missionaries were distributing literature designed to convince me that if I just look in my heart I would find G-d, and it's not the one you (or I) currently believe in!

    How exactly do you distinguish these phenomenon from the "words of the heart"? The followers of these movements are just as convinced as you are that their heart has led them to the truth. (I know... but you have the "real" truth, and their heart is not listening carefully... you probably can figure out what they would answer to that one.)

    Saying we should just open our hearts to words of tzadikim is circular - the question is who are the tzadikim and who are the resha'im? I don't see a satisfactory answer to that.

  5. >>>On a more serious note, how do you understand "devarim Hayotzim min halev nichnassim lalev"? Would that not encourage demagoguery?

    I take it in the same vein as "divrei pi chacham chein". You hear a nice shiur and enjoy it - it's nichnas el halev. There is definitely an element of enjoyment to intellectual argument that has a certain appeal.

  6. I wasn't at all trying to convince you the Noam Elimelech was a Tzaddik, naturally I was assuming you agreed on that particular point.

    Nor was I saying that he was tantamount to the Amoraim.

    What I was saying is that a talmid hacham of his stature, being thoroughly informed of the nuances of Torah, would be saying something of equal complexity and subtlety, for if the point were a simple obvious one, it wouldn't bear stating at all.

    I agree with your assessment that at face value the statement is very troubling.

    I was voicing disappointment with the lack of intellectual precision you usually bring to bear on divrei Torah.

    You rejected what could not possibly even be the pshat rather than attempted to understand how it would actually make sense; what light it might actually shed.

    That was my only claim.

    I don't pretend to have the years of wisdom or the sharp mind that you do. I wanted to hear what the Divrei Chaim really had to say about this when it was fully digested.

  7. >>>You rejected what could not possibly even be the pshat rather than attempted to understand how it would actually make sense; what light it might actually shed.

    I totall don't get your comment. After thinking about the N.E., it made little sense to me and I don't have any explanation that works. "Intellectual precision" also includes recognizing what is difficult and not accepting fuzzy thinking at face value.

    OK, so the N.E. is a big tzadik and he must have meant something really deep - either tell me what that something is, or else you are in the same boat I am and are stuck with a really difficult idea to accept and no way out.

  8. Strange, to hear that from the NE. There is a theme in chasidus that one is born with a tafkid, and that one way to discern that tafkid is to assess which paths are the hardest, which attempts are constantly running into barriers and stuff-- That's your tafkid. On the other hand, the Netziv says the opposite, that you should trust your predilections and experience, and assume that the path of least resistance is where you were meant to go. So I would have thought that the way to tell who is right, according to the NE, would be the one that sounds completely off-base.

  9. Anonymous2:03 PM

    That would explain how some people made their choice in the time of the Besht and the Gaon.

  10. Anonymous12:26 PM

    I think people are having diffuculty with the NE because they are understanding it too broad a manner.Not always is a guy speaking to the heart correct.The question is lets say have (e.g.)some Loshen Horah blogger who insists that he is doing it L'Sem Shmoyim.If indeed you see all the people who read his/her blog are positivly influenced you may believe it's L'shem shmoyom, if not stay away.

  11. That's doesn't work because the N.E. is discussing comparing 2 sides, not evaluating one person's conduct or influence.
    If you have two bloggers with different viewpoints, do you determine who is right/wrong based simply on whose words enter your heart?

  12. Anonymous4:41 PM

    If the Noam Elimelech ZY"A was describing reality from experience, namely, that his heart could detect which disputant was correct, we may be able to understand his point better. For one's heart to begin to function with his heart's refined level of intuition, one must do an enormous amount of spiritual homework.

    In a nutshell, the Rebbe was speaking to those who took spiritual preparation and personal midos seriously. If his advice doesn't appear to work for us, it shows that we have work to do.

  13. By that token, I could say wearing my special glasses (available for only $29.95 if you call in the next three minutes) allows you to see spiritual beings hovering all around us. If you buy a pair and don't see what I see, well I guess its because you lack the proper spiritual preparation and need to just work harder. Logically, all such claims are irrefutable and hence without validity as a test of anything.

    You have also renedered the N.E.'s lesson impotent. If truth can only be detected from faleehood by someone who has passed some obscure list of spiritual hurdles, than the bearer of falsehood can claim always his view is superior if only the masses were yet on a higher level and ready to receive it.

    The N.E. is addressing you and me and everyone else who are looking for a way to detect truth from falsehood. The ability to make such a discrimination is not a function of our spiritual level (he never says such a thing), but is a function of truth itself, for only a message of truth inherently has the power to enter the heart, while falsehood does not (which is exactly what he says).

    The N.E. did not live in a time of slick Madison Ave. advertising or propaganda. I don't think we who are exposed to these phenomena need to ignore their effects.

  14. Anonymous6:51 PM


    We're not talking here about some arcane, unknown forms of preparation available only to a limited circle. We're talking about one's grounding oneself in the essentials of Yiddishkeit to an attainable level.

    Bearers of falsehood will always have something superficially plausible to say. A superficial audience might buy it.