It Was No Freudian Slip That This Rabbi Became a Psychotherapist

Yehoshua Engelman, 54, talks about the conflict between faith and therapy and the greatest challenge facing Judaism today.

Ayelett Shani
Yehoshua Engelman.
Yehoshua Engelman.Credit: Gali Eitan
Ayelett Shani

You are a rabbi. How did you get involved in psychotherapy?

I studied and taught in yeshivas and within other frameworks. I studied Gestalt therapy, and as the rabbi of a congregation, I felt I needed more training if I was going to help people. That’s how I came to psychotherapy. I always had a tendency to ask questions and deal less with answers.

Do you treat mainly religiously observant people?


How does religious faith square with the psychodynamic theories you draw on? There’s no divinity in Freudian theory.

I too do not believe in the same God that Freud didn’t believe in. That is a God who commands, who imposes rules. What psychoanalysis and religion have in common is the search itself. The search is divine. The Torah is a search engine. The psychoanalytic concepts are meant to be tools to help a person learn his own distinctive story, just as all the Torah’s elements are tools through which a person is meant to get to know his soul, which is divine, infinite, singular.

But, psychodynamic theories lack a spiritual or transcendent dimension. Freud attacked religion harshly.

Because he saw the influences religion had on people, the way it limits them. Most religions, including Judaism, have a tendency to emasculate people, force all kinds of patterns [of behavior] on them, bring about a situation in which they lead a false life, managed by rules that don’t allow a person to truly know himself.

Freud dealt with conflicts. Conflicts exist in the depths of Judaism, too – between the evil instinct and the good instinct, or between the flesh and the spirit. The divine is “merciful and gracious,” and speaks, in the same verse, of “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” These things exist within every person. Freud told people: Confront your bad sides, don’t repress them. The Talmud says that a person should not say, I can’t eat pork; on the contrary, let him say, I want pork, I am dying to eat pork, but I am prohibited. Confront these conflicts and you will be a healthier person. Someone who says he has no appetite for anything, that all he wants to do is to recite the morning, afternoon and evening prayers, is a liar.

Not to admit that there is conflict, not to cope with it – that is a faith that is not living. It contains no tension.

Freud met people whose whole consciousness was “need, need, need.” Possibly, if he’d met other people, such as a Sephardi who told him he enjoys getting up at 4 A.M. for Selihot [penitential or propitiatory prayers], he might have looked at religion differently. Most religiously observant people – and I too grew up like this, of course – are told: Do this and do not do that. If you are good, all will be well; and if you do something not good, you will feel guilty. There is a definite ranking of what is alright and what is not.

Therapy challenges this. If someone enters therapy because he is frustrated at not being the best in tennis, he’ll be asked why he thinks he should be a good tennis player – maybe he’s meant to be a violinist. But the religiously observant person is taught: You have to be religious, you have to be saintly – instead of being told that these are tools by means of which one can search.

The precepts and the rules as tools for self-search.

Yes. Precepts and rules will only take you so far. In the end, no one can tell you that you are alright. What’s important is for you to make an effort and for your intentions to be good. “When You hid your face, I was terrified,” King David says. God’s face-hiding comes when I feel that I am bad – it is not something external. A great many people lose God not when they hear about atrocities being perpetrated somewhere but when something bad happens to them, when they suddenly grasp that they are capable of hating and being angry and feeling hostility and resentment.

How would you define faith?

Faith cannot be truly defined. It’s like a bird in the hand: Hold it too powerfully and it is suffocated, relax your hold and it escapes. We spend our whole life searching for what it actually is, and that search is what defines humankind, not the answer. The world to come is a mirror. A human being faces himself; judges himself. When he’s asked if he believes, he will have to look himself in the eye and ask: Do I believe? That’s a difficult question. God will not provide the answers. There’s no report card at the end.

Maybe this is a bit romantic on my part, but I always perceived faith as a safety net.

No. In the best case, it gives one the strength to live with the questions. There will always be suffering and torments in life.

So said Buddha.

And the Torah. “That which has been is that which shall be,” Ecclesiastes says. The Midrash says, “From mortar and bricks they are coming, to mortar and bricks they are going.” In other words, life is a drag, always has been and always will be. Seemingly, all the religions afford no hope and no security. God does not afford security and is not meant to afford security. It’s people who want security and are searching for it.

If not security, religion certainly gives meaning: very clear boundaries and a framework for existence.

I think that most people confuse meaning and framework. We all love a framework, but that does not accord meaning. The true religious thinkers lived in chaos. In the dark night of the soul. They lived it and they knew there is no escaping it. They knew that meaning is something one is always searching for but that it has no specific answer, it only makes it possible for one to continue searching. Faith is strength, it allows one to face up to what is most frightening of all: doubt, the unknown.

Is living with doubt your ideal?

Yes. And it’s difficult to live like that, because it’s difficult to remember that God is neither merciful nor compassionate nor forbearing – those are only epistemological concepts that describe our experience, our projection. It is truly impossible to say anything good about God: He is not alive and does not exist and he does not want and he is not wise. The revolution of Maimonides passed over the heads of most religious people. Buddhists can identify very closely with these things. The truth cannot be uttered in words.

‘Who is a real French person?’

The current discourse in Israel revolves around identities and the attempt to appropriate them: Who is really a Zionist, really a Jew, really an Israeli.

The very question shows that our society is sick. I’ve never known of a French person asking, “Who is a real French person,” or a Scandinavian asking who a Scandinavian is. That question doesn’t occupy them. [The French philosopher Jacques] Derrida says that a Jew is one who asks: Who is a Jew. Preoccupation with the question of who is an Israeli is odd, it should be self-evident, and in this regard the left and the right make the same mistake. Both are speaking in terms of exclusion, hatred and animosity. None of the sides asks himself where the need to feel that he is better than someone else comes from.

Both sides define themselves from a negative standpoint, perhaps because we have lost our common denominator.

Indeed, and therefore perhaps precisely the religious vision can work – a vision that says we do not define ourselves by the past, but rather that we are a society that defines itself via aims or ideals. Perhaps it’s possible to find a common denominator between the segments of society stemming from a commitment to values of good-heartedness and mercy. Yes, I know it sounds utopian, but that is why God chose Abraham. To create a new society, unrelated to race or gender, to create healthy people who define themselves from the standpoint of the good and not the negative.

That may be the religious vision, but it’s certainly not the religious discourse.

No. It’s not the discourse of anyone.

But you think it should be the religious discourse.

Correct. The religious discourse that says: We want to forge a society in which people will be good to one another and things will be good for the whole world. How is it possible that people will not want things to be good for other people? How is it possible not to want things to be good for the Arabs, for example?

Obviously, it is possible. In fact, across history, religion has been evoked as the grounds for hatred and dispossession of the “other.”

Maybe because people are threatened. A person thinks that if those others have it good, he will not have it good. But the goal must be for things to be good for every person in the world. If not, redemption will not come. No good ever came from war. If people will think that they want things to be good for everyone – for Muslim, Jew and Christian – there will be a resurgence of God in the world.

No religious stream says that.

The Sufis, for example, talked about compassion.

I meant, in Judaism.

Hasidism talked about that.

Those principles were lost in the translation into politics. If anything, Judaism is becoming increasingly racist.

The feeling that we are better is simply screwing us. There is no other word. It is destroying Judaism from within. It is creating a Judaism in which, effectively, I do not have to improve as a person. After all, every religion shares this underlying idea: that a person should strive to be better.

There is the almost racist outlook that says, “The fact that I was born a Jew means that I am alright,” no more is needed. A great many people think in those terms. That it’s enough. I think it should be different; that what’s to be understood is that I am chosen only to the degree that I choose, and my question at every moment should be whether I love enough.

There is no meaning to my loving God if I don’t love human beings. To believe in God but not in humankind is not true belief. Racism is a serious problem, one of the most serious in the country today. And it is imprinted in our DNA. The Jew’s feeling of superiority because he is a Jew.

Because “I chose you from among all the nations.”

Yes, but what does “I chose you” mean? We chose, too. When I choose God, he chooses me. You love your daughter, no matter what she says or does. That is the need of all people, to love, to feel a commitment. A person who loves someone doesn’t say, “I love her, but there is someone prettier next to her.” He doesn’t see anyone else. And if someone tells him, “There is a prettier woman,” it will not interest him in the least. From God’s point of view, it is meaningless that he chooses me if I do not choose him. It is a narcissistic utterance, it is pure narcissism for a person to take pleasure in being loved by God.

So narcissism is what is diverting Judaism from its course?

Yes. One’s need to feel that one is better than other people, instead of understanding that standing tall and true integrity derive from being a person who loves. The thought that I am better [than others] because God said something 3,000 years ago, is very bad. People are happy when they are in harmony with what they are doing. Religion and psychology try to steer them in that direction. A person who is occupied with something that fills him does not lapse into narcissism or into making comparisons. I dream of a language of doubt, of humility.

What, then, is the greatest challenge facing Judaism now?

A radical change of language and aims. What exactly are we looking for while carrying out the precepts? The prevailing Orthodox approach is that humankind is a machine and the precepts are the operating instructions. That is disdain for the image of God. I cannot think that I am a Jew because my grandfather was a Jew. That’s not relevant. It’s like saying that because my grandfather belonged to a golf club, I should belong to a golf club. We need a goal. Perhaps there will be disagreements over the path, but the aims have to be shared.

What should those aims, those values, be?

Mercy. Justice. Charity. Compassion. The understanding that there is divinity but not God. If a person does good, God is in his heart. Everyone can choose his path to compassion. For one, it’s enough to be vegetarian, but he shouldn’t think that someone who eats meat has less compassion in his heart than he. I don’t eat meat, and I don’t attribute goodness or badness to myself because of that. Maybe there is someone who is much more good-hearted than I am and eats meat? Maybe he is more mindful than I, even though he does not observe the Sabbath? We all meet amazing people who are intentioned toward the good – both people who observe the Jewish precepts and those who do not. What they have in common is the presence of all those things the prophets talked about: mercy, justice, charity, compassion.

Do you think religion and state should be separate?

I think that would only make most things better. People would have to choose. Orthodoxy defines people by what they do, not by their essence. It could be that many more people would go to pray, precisely because it would not be institutionalized. In my synagogue in Tel Aviv [Engelman was formerly the rabbi of the Yakar Center in Tel Aviv], many people who do not observe Shabbat came to the Sabbath service, because they understood that we had no interest in making anyone religious or in looking at who’s religious and who isn’t, so they could feel they belong.

A Jew is someone who only chooses all the time. If Judaism were defined as an aspiration for something far greater, things would be different. Most people who do not uphold the precepts are swept up into incitement and play the wrong game, instead of saying: We want a larger, higher and more sublime Judaism. The Zionist thinkers had a utopian vision – everyone can increase knowledge and goodness – and that must be our dream.



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