I was sitting in group supervision recently when a psychotherapist colleague mentioned that one of his female patients had, unannounced, come over and sat down on his lap.
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Someone else shared the revelation that one of his female patients intimated a desire to see him without any clothes on.
The therapists admitted to being a little taken aback at these moments, and sought reassurance about the ways they had responded. The group members were overwhelmingly supportive and understanding, and a healthy discussion ensued as to how we psychotherapists handle these difficult professional moments. Everyone agreed on two things: on the inevitability of these things happening and on the dangers of not speaking about them.
As I participated in the discussion, the penny dropped for me: this was what Rabbi Barry Freundel must have been lacking.
Neither in his training nor in his ongoing professional development, I imagine, had he been required to sit with his colleagues in a non-judgmental atmosphere and talk about the sexual dimension of his work.
The erotic provocation in leading a prayer service or delivering a sermon may not be immediately obvious. But matters quickly complicate when people turn to rabbis at moments of intense need and vulnerability, thrusting the rabbis uncomfortably into the role of counsellor, mentor and spiritual guide.
When a young and attractive woman comes to a rabbi at a life-changing moment, her emotions in a storm, the sensitive rabbi will respond with humanity and compassion. Without realising it, he often has his own bearings upended by this tempest.
This is what should happen, we certainly don’t want rabbis who lack empathy, who respond with cold or legalistic indifference. But the rabbi needs to have been prepared for this moment, to have undergone training that taught him about the highly charged nature of deep interpersonal work. His teachers should have help him foresee and manage the way dormant parts of him might be triggered in certain encounters.
This experience of being triggered is known as “countertransference,” and is one of the most valuable yet destabilising tools in the therapist’s armoury. Therapeutic engagement requires allowing oneself to be drawn into the emotional climate a person carries with them, whilst at the same time being able to watch what is happening and analyse it. One must be caught in the wake of another person, but be neither drowned nor submerged by their force.
In the Freudian tradition this is understood as one of the most challenging parts of the work, and a good deal of the training is about preparing people to understand and manage the variety of strong reactions they will feel. This is why trainees must endure years of personal therapy and supervision.
Rabbis, too, need to learn something about themselves and their sexuality, and spending their training cloistered away in a single-sex institution isn’t necessarily working to their advantage. It seems inevitable that rabbis will emerge with some anxiety and discomfort in the face of sexual provocation; that the erotic will not be within their comfort zone.
Some might claim that this is unrealistic, that religion necessarily rests upon the sublimation of the libidinal into the spiritual. There may be some truth to this, but as Freud might have said, you can’t sublimate all of the sex all of the time.
As well as undergoing a course of personal development similar to therapists, trainee rabbis might also engage differently with relevant Jewish texts, some of which are frighteningly censorious. Encouraged to re-read them with more modern eyes, trainee rabbis might find more room to respect the diverse currents of sexuality that run deep in human nature.
This might involve a historical study of why certain sexual taboos arose in certain periods and how they came to be enshrined in religious law. Simply taking them at face value, as the absolute and inscrutable Word of God, only heightens the tension and stores up problems that will come to light later.
Having fundamental sympathy with sexuality is not the same as endorsing every vogue of promiscuity, but it does involve taking the sting and demonisation out of some very human impulses. It is about grasping the differences between desire, fantasy and action, and seeing that in certain circumstances a safe form of fantasy could actually be a safeguard against actions of grave consequence.
This thought seems to have been intuited by Rabbi Shlomo Kluger who, in his 19th Century commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, ruled that is permitted for a man to masturbate if it prevents him from having full-blown sex with a “forbidden” woman.
If we want our rabbis to be truly capable of spiritual leadership and to able to blend the best of tradition with the demands and developments of the modern world, then their education and training must reflect this complexity. Spending years immersed in the minutiae of Jewish law cannot be the only requirement; they must also be given the philosophical tools to understand their world, and the psychological insight and support to manage their libido.
Elie Jesner is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London, and an educator at a variety of communal institutions. He has a background in philosophy and Jewish thought, having studied at Cambridge University, The University of Warwick and Yeshivat Har Etzion. His website is thinkingpsychotherapy.com and he blogs at thinkingdafyomi.com.