Can Judaism Replace Therapy?

Dangers lurk when one becomes religiously observant in the hope of relieving psychological distress.

Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico
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Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico

On November 22, Haaretz ran an article by Gili Izikovich about the new Israeli television series “Mekimi,” based on the novel of the same title by Noa Yaron-Dayan. In the article, the author’s husband, Yuval Dayan, is interviewed; he tries to explain his highly liberated version of outreach to those who are remote from religion. For him, it turns out, teshuva − becoming religiously observant − comes from love.

“One thing I am agog at,” he is quoted as saying, “how is it that people can stand and argue over what the Holy One Blessed be He wears? What difference does it make, a shaven head or shtreimel? It’s subjective. I give you and everyone the respect to allow you to be himself. To believe in his beliefs, prefer his preferences. I do not permit or not permit? who made me ruler and judge?”

I don’t really buy the hey-let-everyone-do-whatever’s-cool-for-him image that Dayan wants to project. But even though he is less liberated than he lets on, he is certainly very different from return-to-Judaism proselytizers like Amnon Yitzhak or Uri Zohar. It’s not by chance that the word “subjective” crops up in Dayan’s remarks. The article also quotes me, in an attempt to differentiate succinctly between different waves of the back-to-religion movement:

Since the 1990s, the “Bratslav Hasidic movement has provided an answer for people who are seeking a process of becoming religious that is more emotional and spiritual. This contrasts with the return to religion of the 1970s and 1980s, which was more rational, based on persuasion that God exists and a decision to be as scrupulous regarding observance of a minor mitzvah as with a major one.

“What we see today is not like [former entertainer] Uri Zohar’s return to faith, which cuts you off from your previous life. Here, the quest is different, a quest for emotion, experience and expression. For example, what characterizes those who become religious with Bratslav is that they go on creating. You don’t get a total separation from general society and a move to Mea She’arim or Bnei Brak, but rather openness to the general public, to art, music and literature.”

In other words, had Uri Zohar found religion in the 1990s, we would have seen a few more films from him. Undoubtedly they would more closely resemble “Ushpizin” − a film about the insular world of ultra-Orthodox Jews, written by and starring Shuli Rand, another actor who became religiously observant − than Zohar’s “Metzizim” ‏(“Peeping Toms”‏); but Zohar’s adoption of ultra-Orthodox Judaism would not have ended his contribution to Israeli culture.

There are a number of processes at work that are combining to bring about this change ‏(such as the dissolution of the sharp boundaries between different public circles in Israeli society, and the rise of the importance of feeling in our lives as a source of meaning‏). The result is definitely a significant transformation in the Israeli religious arena.

Jewish psychology, psychological Judaism

Further evidence of this transformation, also showing another of its aspects, can be found in Yifat Erlich’s impressive investigative article in the newspaper Ma’ariv/Makor Rishon last month. Her report was about the Shakuf ‏(Transparent‏) workshops being held under the tutelage of Gidi Dabush. The picture that emerged was quite a gloomy one: group dynamics of the voyeuristic / humiliating kind under Dabush’s leadership. The expose is important, even if none of us is likely to fall off his chair when he reads the details. What caught my eye was the response to the article of Zvi Yehezkeli, who apart from being the Arab affairs correspondent of Channel 10 News, initiated the workshops − along with his rabbi, Erez Moshe Doron − after he became religiously observant.

Yehezkeli’s remarks are fascinating, and shed much light on the status of teshuva in particular and religion in general in our time. “Five years ago,” he said, “a few friends got together for a conversation, all of them new fathers and newly religious. In the room were a physician, a journalist, a pilot, an erudite rabbi, artists and musicians who asked themselves: How is it that we became religiously observant yet are still angry? Why is there no true relationship with the wife and kids? Why am I scared like a child? Gidi explained, after thousands of hours of listening to Jews, that all of us lacked attentiveness that comes from an open, clean heart. We have no one to listen to us. We just don’t have a heart.”

Open and frank, Yehezkeli tells us about his distress, which he shares with his brothers in repentance: anger, insularity, fear. Above all, he tells about the disappointment he and the others felt when their observance of the precepts failed to eliminate that distress. Yehezkeli here enables us to grasp an important point: for him, and for many others like him, the turn to religion is perceived as therapeutic in character, as embarking on a route of therapy. Something between a spiritual path and a Thai massage. We observe precepts not as a derivative of an ancient covenant between God and his chosen people, nor as determined obedience to the Lord’s unequivocal desire, but as a way to look after ourselves, as part of our care of the self. Naturally, then, if after we start to put on phylacteries and observe the Sabbath we are “still angry,” it’s a disappointment.

I don’t know if the reader finds this important or trivial. I find it highly significant. What we are witnessing is a comprehensive change of form in the inner logic of the Jewish religion. From a national religion, existing as a covenant, whose ritual takes place within the framework of acts and prayers, it is evolving into a personal religion, which exists as a spiritual path whose ritual takes the form of an inner therapeutic process ‏(which the precepts are supposed to abet‏). This constitutes a shift of the focal point of the religious drama from the nation to the individual, and from the outward to the inward, with its meaning morphing from realizing divine history to healing our personal psyche. True, Yehezkeli did not invent all this, and it’s not as though there has never been anything like it before in Jewish history. But the blatancy, the self-evident character of this approach, together with the public scale of its popularity are, in my opinion, revolutionary.

I have already written extensively about the cultural impact of this transformation ‏(as this is one of the subjects that interest me most‏). Here I want to say something about the distress experienced by Yehezkeli and his friends. As we saw, they are disappointed in the medical-psychological capabilities of the halakha, Jewish religious law. They discovered, after becoming religiously observant, that the precepts are not a substitute for a psychologist or for a probing spiritual path. From their perspective, the heart might be drawn by the acts, but only ahead of repeating those acts over and over, not in the direction of a deep, positive psychic shift. “We just don’t have a heart,” Yehezkeli says − as in “The Wizard of Oz,” he discovers that even the object of all his hopes, Torah and precepts, cannot really give him a heart.

Seemingly, if the group is so interested in mental care, they could simply see a psychologist ‏(or, on a different track, attend a meditation course‏). But no: they decide that they will get the change that is not beginning inwardly from their friend Gidi Dabush, who will start holding a “workshop.” According to the Lev Hadvarim website ‏(the site of Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron’s organization‏), we learn that the workshop is based on “the marvelous treasures of the great physician, Rabbi Nachman from Bratslav, may his virtue stand us in good stead.” These treasures “reveal golden channels filled with vitality, advice and counsel for the members of this generation: how to be cured of their sadness, loneliness, lack of trust and despair.” Those are big words, but it turns out, according to Erlich’s article, that what is involved is no more than basic principles of popular psychology and group dynamics ‏(sincerity, self-inquiry, confession, transparency‏). I don’t know if I am about to reveal a huge secret, but Rabbi Nachman never held workshops for his followers.

Rabbi Nachman’s doctrine is today at the forefront of the adaptation and acculturation of the Jewish tradition into contemporary psychological fashions. The roots of this development can be found as far back as the 1970s in the interpretation of his teachings put forward by popular spiritual leaders in the United States, such as Shlomo Carlebach and Aryeh Kaplan, and since then the process has been gathering momentum. The doctrine of the just man from Bratslav bears a saliently existentialist thrust, stressing the affective world, but at the same time is sufficiently flexible and unsystematic to be shaped according to need. ‏(This should not be taken to mean that I think it is not legitimate to shape his teachings according to need.‏)

Psychology for Moses from Sinai

The problem begins when the updated Bratslav doctrine is presented as a serious therapeutic method. According to the Shakuf website, the workshop “will accord the participant, with the aid of heaven, a way of inner coping, of deep and meaningful growth and change.” When that way of inner coping is the fruit of the development of one person ‏(worry not: with the approval and supervision of his rabbi‏) who lacks any professional training, the danger is great. What we are getting, in the end, is a person without professional training and without professional experience inviting men and women in distress to place their psyche in his hands, under the pretense of according it therapy based on the Scriptures.

This last element only heightens the danger by leaps and bounds. On top of the lack of training and lack of experience, there is an inability to be attentive. With a doctrine of mind originating from on high, it is absolutely and definitively clear to us where and how the supplicant is meant to arrive. His different conditions of life, his particular personality and his idiosyncratic needs − all are brushed aside in the face of the light of his soul which seeks to burst forth, which is always one and which we know in advance how to channel and where to steer. Rabbi Benny Lehman, a clinical psychologist, sums up the subject in an interview with Roee Horen: “When you identify your religious heritage with Western schools, you are effectively expropriating them from the scientific sphere and turning them into axioms that are not amenable to critique. The Western parallels never pretended to be the a ‘Law for Moses from Sinai,’ and they are ready to stand aside if found mistaken or ineffective. The moment one sanctifies a theory, a danger arises.”

The identification drawn between religious heritage and Western schools of thought takes place because the halakha never purported to give anyone psychological therapy − there is no choice but to resort to an existing format. However, it is not enough that the modern interest in the psyche is appropriated; it is also stamped with the seal of the Lord, thereby greatly limiting possibilities of control and independent examination. It was in this spirit that the clinical psychologist Dr. Baruch Kahana ‏(who is himself engaged in developing “Jewish psychology”‏) took issue with the approach of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburgh: “Dialogic listening is the very essence of therapy. Such listening is precisely what is absent in Rabbi Ginzburgh’s doctrine. ... Anyone who is familiar with and knows the ideal inner reality does not need a dialogue with the external reality.”

In a case like this, even if the therapist’s intentions are benevolent and pure, on the one hand the method used does not rely on experience or research, and on the other it promises to bring the word of God down to earth. The paucity of training is matched only by the scale of the pretension, the height of the sanctification by the difficulty of being attentive.

None of this should be taken to mean that I don’t think the Jewish tradition has anything to contribute to psychological therapy ‏(as evidenced by the work of Mordechai Rotenberg, Yair Caspi and Baruch Kahana‏). However, it cannot make the contribution without deep study of the insights of Western psychology. An example of productive cooperation is the enrichment afforded to Western psychology by the Buddhist traditions. Their dialogue has been going on for many decades, to the benefit of both sides. Western therapists are happy to learn from Buddhism ‏(and vice versa‏), but not without relying on the experience and discoveries which have arisen and continue to arise from the Western therapeutic field.

For various reasons ‏(having to do with points made above‏), it is far easier to make connections between the traditions of Buddhism and Western psychology, but those who seek to forge a method of Jewish therapy cannot exempt themselves from this challenge. The alternative is described in the article by Yifat Erlich.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews symbolically casting off their sins into the sea in the Tashlich ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, 2013.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen



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