What Makes Shrinks Tick; or, Why Do Rabbis Go Tock Tick?
By Rabbi Ephraim D. Becker
Issue No. 3
December 4, 1997
A Reader Writes:
I have gotten the feeling that very few Talmidei Chachamim [Torah scholars
- ed note] know how to apply Mussar to the current generation - either they
give "textbook answers", or they view the world from a vantage point of the
My questions are:
1) Why is it that the therapist (in my situation) succeeded where Rabbonim
[Rabbis - ed note] did not (and were sometimes unwilling to concede it)?
2) As above, but on a global level: If Torah has the true answer to what
makes a person tick, why are only "professionals" (Psychologists) able to
treat many cases? Even Rabbonim refer cases to the "shrinks" - even the
Rabbonim that I implicitly criticized in my introduction!
Please answer me if you can. B'vircas ha'Torah.
I'll let you tell me if I can or cannot. ;-)
Your question touches upon an important fundamental of mussar-psychology.
Permit me a word of introduction:
The Torah was written for and given to an audience, namely the Jews, at a
particular moment in our history, the Revelation at Mount Sinai.
Nevertheless, there is an assumption that the Torah has a message for all
Peoples and is relevant at all times. Still, there are those who are more
or less the audience of the Torah. A person who, for example, has just
committed some serious moral (or immoral) offense will not be able to
"hear" the words of Torah being transmitted at a shiur (class) the same way
that the same person would be able to "hear" the Torah had they not
succumbed. Similarly, one who has perfected some of his or her character
traits (middos) is a much more able audience for the message of Torah than
one who has yet to embark on the difficult road of self-improvement.
We might say then, that there are many characteristics which will determine
a hierarchy of audiences. Our mission, should we (or should we not) choose
to accept it, is to become, progressively, more so the "audience" to which
the Torah is given. I would suggest an analogy to the connoisseurs of
opera versus those who cannot wait for the final bell, however the analogy
fails since there is no particular mandate to become the audience for such
productions, unless one wishes to travel in certain circles and is afraid
to admit their boredom. In the case of the Torah, we are called upon to
study the Torah in order to better understand how to become the audience to
which the Torah was ideally directed.
One of the features of the ideal audience of the Torah is well-centered
emotional good health. Again, this is not to imply that the Torah has
nothing to say to, or about, the absence of such good health, but it is
safe to say that the Torah is expecting us to strive towards emotional good
health in order to more completely receive the Torah's message.
It might be said that the mission of the psychotherapist is to help the
client become the audience, and the role of mussar is to make the student
still more ideally the audience to which the Torah speaks. And so, on and
on, until prophesy.
It is only a short step from there to say that those who have immersed
themselves successfully in Torah over an extended period of time have
become so accustomed to this aspect of the Torah's audience that they do
not think outside of the "box" and cannot successfully reckon with the
"pre-introductory" nature of certain types of therapies. It is not for
lack of caring that the Rabbis sometimes do not deal well with emotional
neediness on the part of their students. I haven't thought through all the
implications of this analogy, but it feels a bit like calling Leonard
Bernstein in to give your child his first piano lessons. Not knowing Mr.
Bernstein, I would nevertheless imagine that he would have great difficulty
if he could not hand the youngster the score and begin waving his wand
while the youngster "read" the piece. The youngster would surely feel that
the composer/conductor was incompetent. However, I do not think that most
people would be able to teach chopsticks and compose accompaniment to
Tchaikovsky on the same day.
Now, what have we now said about therapists??!!!
Perhaps we might say that a good therapist has become an expert in helping
people gain the toe-hold for future growth. I don't know if therapists
would agree with the statement that their role as therapist has to be
carefully balanced with their personal Torah growth to monitor for the
point where the hand that they hold out for the client is too far away for
the average client to reach. Does this involve a certain amount of
self-sacrifice? A "burnout" phase for a growing therapist? A selection
process whereby therapists are relating to those clients who are "with"
them? I cannot say. In general, it has been extensively written that
Torah education is a delicate separation of the personal growth of the
teacher (carried out in private) and the effort to make Torah accessible to
the student, when the teacher is focused entirely on the ability of the
students to comprehend his message (Rav Wolbe, shlita, quoting the Tomer
Devorah). So maybe I cannot answer you, after all.