There was even a famous song, which declared that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
(Shame on that songstress. As a non-Jew with a church background, she should have known that learning to love God is the greatest love of all. But Hollywood corrupts everything. Oh well.)
Self-love & self-esteem were supposed to go hand-in-hand to cultivate a positive self-image, thereby making you a better person.
Yet as time went by, many “experts” realized that self-love did not actually lead to the good behavior they’d predicted. And many bad people (narcissists, for example) possess a falsely positive self-image and esteem themselves too highly.
So “experts” started talking about self-compassion.
That was better, but I still couldn’t help noticing that the concept of self-love (self-esteem, self-compassion, etc.) didn’t seem to exist within all the millennia of scholarship contained within Judaism.
Yes, there is ONE passage commonly lifted out of Gates of Teshuvah to promote self-love & self-esteem. (Basically, it explains something like how low self-esteem can lead a person to compensate by puffing up himself with fake attributes and arrogance.)
But it seemed that if self-love was an essential part of self-growth, Chazal would’ve mentioned it somewhere – and somewhere easily found.
And no one ever quoted the Gemara about self-love.
If self-love is essential to teshuvah, why isn’t it anywhere in the Gemara?
That omission alone should tell us something.
At the very least, in the entire book of Gates of Teshuvah, Rabbeinu Yonah should have mentioned it more than once if it was so important.
It's the Well-Meaning Bull's-Eye Artists Once Again...
Eventually, I chalked it all up to a common practice among many well-meaning frummies: They shoot their arrow and then draw a bull’s eye around the arrow so it looks like the arrow hit the target.
Likewise, these very well-meaning people grab an idea from modern psychology and then search through Chazal until they find a verse that supports their treasured currently fashionable idea.
They honestly don’t realize what they’re doing.
And while such a method may help temporarily (if it didn’t help at all, it likely never would’ve made it into the annals of pop psychology), it ultimately will not do the job because it’s not completely true (if it’s true at all).
That’s still not self-love of the non-Jewish world.
It’s more along the lines of self-compassion & self-esteem & a positive self-image, but it’s still not the same idea as promoted in the non-Jewish world.
Anyway, why did Rebbe Nachman so strongly push this idea?
What’s the motive behind it?
First of all, it's true.
Furthermore, I believe he pushed it because people who do a very sincere & deep cheshbon hanefesh come up with all kinds of unpleasant realizations about themselves.
Even very good people end up discovering all sorts of not-so-pious motivations behind their acts of piety and chessed.
(It’s exactly this kind of self-awareness that keeps our Gadolei Hador and our tzaddikim so humble, despite their genuinely elevated qualities and, in some cases, their global fame.)
So the whole point of self-azamrah (finding at least one good quality in yourself) is to save the profoundly honest & relentlessly self-probing people from despair & emotional paralysis.
Along these lines, it’s impossible to miss Breslov's constant encouragement to uncover your flaws before Hashem, pouring your heart out about them in hitbodedut in order to polish them. (In Words of Faith, Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender emphisizes several examples of this.)
Which, again, is the whole reason for the necessity of self-azamrah.
I don’t know if you need to go digging around for at least one good point in yourself if you’re not doing some kind of cheshbon hanefesh. If you have no serious regrets and you feel pretty satisfied with yourself, then what is the point of self-azamrah? After all, you already see plenty of good points in yourself!
In other words, Azamrah facilitates cheshbon hanefesh & teshuvah.
That's its purpose.
So really, self-azamrah is not the self-love or self-compassion promoted in pop psychology either.
To see a classic short story from Rebbe Nachman describing the Azamrah process, please see:
The Tzaddik Who Fell into Sadness
What is the Torah's Definition of a Positive Self-Image?
It's Not "I'm Okay, You're Okay."
It's More Along the Lines of: "Maybe I'm Not Really NOT Okay...But My Neshamah is Absolutely Brilliant!"
Your job is to clean up the rest of you and actualize your pristine and holy core.
We're Still Not Through Yet: Where is the Love?
Ahavat Hashem/Love of God: THIS idea is just all over the place in Chazal. It’s in Tanach. It’s in every book on mussar or Chassidus. You can’t get away from it.
So then I realized that the goal is actually to love Hashem…and to know that Hashem loves you too!
In fact, Hashem loves you much more than you could ever love yourself.
This is talked about in Torah classes. But why the need to also introduce self-love and self-esteem and self-this and self-that?
I think it’s because the idea of such a relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu feels very far away, very difficult to attain.
And that’s to be expected.
But that’s doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it our goal.
A far-off goal doesn't mean we should dilute it with non-Jewish ideas in order to seemingly bring it closer.
It's Not Too Far Away
Every spiritual act you do MEANS something.
Even if you become a completely rasha tomorrow (chas v’shalom), you can never erase any of the good you did.
That’s why terrible people often live it up in This World. Somewhere, they’ve done something good. And Hashem gives them their reward for it now.
(But they sure will pay for it later!)
So we shouldn’t allow the loftiness of the goal to dissuade us.
Unfortunately, people who automatically (and often unconsciously) dismiss this goal can end up teaching, and writing books and articles in the frum community, which is why you’ll hear about all these pop psychology concepts within frum venues.
So as good-hearted as these people are and as passionately as they want to help others, they can’t because they don’t have the right hashkafah themselves. And they honestly do not realize this.
Placing Bogus Limits on God (Who is Limitless) Leads to Really Bad Things
This human-imposed "limit" on God's abilities forms the basis for declaring a son of God who is also divine, and then using that "son of God" imagery as a medium for prayer.
Combine this with a rejection of the paradox that really horrific things happen in the world, yet Hashem is a Wholly Compassionate Creator Who does everything for the good...and you have what you have in the world today as far as a major religion goes.
So for them, God feels too distant to access, plus they need someone to blame for all the bad stuff and the harsh judgements.
So they make the human representative the “god” of love and accessibility, while they make the actual Creator the source of whatever they perceive as bad and punishing.
Actually, it goes back even further.
Much avodah zarah rests on this idea that God is too far away, too busy, too overwhelmed, too exalted, too paradoxical, and thus we need an intermediary (chas v’shalom).
(In contrast, very early avodah zarah derived from the idea that people should praise the King’s servants—i.e., the planetary bodies—which led to actually worshiping them.)
The point is: We should not limit Hashem.
(Needless to say, we can't actually limit Hashem. But we can fool ourselves into thinking so.)
That always leads to trouble in the end.
We can strive to nurture a personal relationship with Hashem, and cultivate love for Him while at the same time, making every effort to feel His Love for us.
So it’s not that you need to love yourself, but that you need to maintain a constant awareness that HASHEM loves YOU.
Even when you’ve been bad, Hashem is right there loving you and waiting for you to return to Him.
But that still wasn’t the end of it.
Oh-Ho! I Found Self-Love in Judaism After All...
So what’s going on with that?
First of all, the preceding and first chapter is Ahavah L’Hakadosh Baruch Hu – Love for the Holy One Blessed Be He.
That right there tells us something.
The very first sentence of the entire masterpiece is:
Love for The Holy One Blessed Be He: There is no better virtue than this. For from this follows all the service of Hashem Yitbarach and all of Judaism.
True self-love does not exist on its own, nor is self-love in and of itself considered a virtue in Judaism.
In Love of Oneself, the Pele Yoetz immediately states that self-love in an integral part of Divine Design, explaining that a person loves himself more than anything else and will give away everything in order to save his own life.
Then he immediately dives into the concept of self-destruction – which he exhorts against as the opposite of self-love.
Basically, genuine self-love leads to good physical & emotional function, which leads to continued service of Hashem in mitzvot & good deeds.
And that’s the whole point of self-love: avodat Hashem.
A person who transgresses, a person who lives a physically and emotionally unhealthy life? That person is not expressing genuine love for himself.
The Pele Yoetz categorizes such a person as being exploited by the Yetzer Hara, as having fallen into an “evil sickness,” and calls him a fool.
Such a person can even commit suicide, notes the Pele Yoetz, God forbid.
Whether a person injures himself or others, that injury is an act of cruelty.
The Pele Yoetz lists behaviors that do NOT show self-love, but rather self-hatred:
- Excessive drinking of wine
- Excessive eating, especially of red meat or delicacies.
- Excessive intimacy with your wife
- Lengthy vacations and holidays
- Working just to increase your bank account when you already have enough for your needs
- Endangering yourself just for the money (going on dangerous journeys, as sailing in a ship once was, or to dangerous areas, not taking body guards).
- Not being watchful with things that cause physical harm
(You can see that excessive intimacy with one’s wife or lengthy vacations do not clash with the idea of self-love in the non-Jewish world. So as long as you work by the non-Jewish self-love paradigm, you won’t reach the Jewish ideal of self-love, which is based on making yourself a vessel for continued service of Hashem.)
These behaviors DO show self-love:
- A willingness to eat parched bread in peace & serenity rather than compiling a vast fortune accompanied by anxiety and toil
- In the case where you are doing well financially, you use your funds to afford more physical comfort, but do not labor simply to increase profit.
- You avoid indulging in wine.
- You avoid indulging in meat.
- You avoid consuming delicacies.
- You do not overeat.
- You avoid lengthy vacations.
- You avoid excessive intimacy with your wife.
- You stay away from hazardous places.
- You stay away from hazardous journeys (sailing across the sea, for example), unless absolutely necessary.
Again, the non-Jewish world glorifies people who engage in dangerous treks to beautiful yet risky places. Furthermore, it sees nothing wrong with excessive marital intimacy or lengthy holidays.
(In fact, lengthy vacations, ocean-crossings, and adventurous treks are even goals for many people.)
So living your life according to even the best intentions of the non-Jewish self-love/self-compassion/self-esteem proponents will not lead you to the Jewish ideal of self-love.
Self-Care in Service of Hashem Only
But again—what is the root of self-love, according to the Pele Yoetz?
The primary motivation for his love of self, body, and soul must emanate from the love of his Creator.
The body and self are “tools for serving the Master.”
They should not be sullied or broken.
So basically, you’re good to yourself—especially your physical self--so that you have the strength and ability to keep serving Hashem and doing mitzvot.
There’s no other reason.
Sounds like a tall order?
It is. But we should still try.
As long as we make the effort, the Pele Yoetz reassures the striving individual with this final note of encouragement:
Hashem will be his help and his might.
In a Nutshell: The 3 Basic Torah Ideas of Self-Esteem, Self-Image, and Self-Love
Healthy self-esteem means:
- You know Hashem loves you (and is always ready to accept your sincere remorse & willingness to change).
- You know your core neshamah is pristine and holy.
You can maintain the above knowledge even if you know that you (outside of your neshamah) are actually not so great.
You might think there is a heck of a lot wrong with you.
You might even think you're very bad.
That's okay as long as you know the following:
- You need to be secure in Hashem's Love & the exalted potential of yourself emanating from your deepest level of soul: your neshamah.
I can't repeat this enough: I simply never found the pop psychology ideal of self-esteem in any authentic Torah sources.
A positive self-image means:
- Knowing your neshamah (your deepest level of soul) is pure and unsullied.
- Because of your neshamah, you have the ability to be a tremendously great person. (Yeah...it sounds unrealistic for me too. But this is what the sefarim say.)
- Taking care of your physical self in a way that enables you to serve Hashem in the strongest & healthiest way possible for the longest time possible.