GB: Jews have played major roles in the founding of major branches of psychology. A partial list of contemporary Jewish psychologists includes: personality psychologist Alfred Adler, Polish Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch, facial expert Paul Ekman, ethicist Carol Gilligan, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, linguists and authors Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, and positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Why do you think Jews have played such a large role in shaping the field of psychology?
DSG: I think that there are a couple of reasons why Jews have played such influential roles in psychology. As a developmental psychologist, I think one of those reasons is that Jews, even non-observant Jews, are raised surrounded by symbols. I think that growing up in that atmosphere of symbolic thought leads some people into broader, more creative, and more abstract ways of thinking. Immersion in a Jewish world can lead people to view the world completely differently.
Certainly when you look at Vygotsky,[i] who I know wasn’t an observant Jew, you can see a nice overlap between his thinking and Jewish thought. The whole Jewish Zeitgeist, the Jewish way of living, is a very rich, abstract, and symbolic environment.
Also, many Jewish psychologists, such as Freud,[ii] had viewpoints that probably run counter to Judaism. Some psychologists who grew up in Jewish environments come up with certain theories to reject their past and their history; their psychological theories are rebellions against their Judaism.
Finally, many people, simply because of their life experiences, whether that’s unique to Judaism or not, come up with psychological insights. I think the two most striking examples of this are Bruno Bettelheim[iii] and Viktor Frankl.[iv] They came up with their approaches in response to their personal experiences in the concentration camps during the Holocaust.
GB: If we were to discuss a Talmudic framework for conceptualizing human psychology, we might mention the idea of the yetser ha-tov and the yetser ha-ra. Do you find the idea that individuals embody productive and destructive instincts helpful in your own practice as a psychologist?
DSG: No, not really. I think in my practice, in working with the people I’ve worked with, I personally find that identifying individual strengths is a much more productive way of helping people grow. The idea that you need to overcome the yetser ha-ra is not so beneficial for people coming to me with concerns.
Keep in mind that psychologists have a self-selected population. The people who are coming to you are coming because they are already concerned. However, if you want to use the yetser ha-ra and yetser ha-tov to teach mitsvot or middot, that kind of framework might be helpful. But when people are coming to you with needs and challenges, starting from a framework of “overcoming” the yetser ha-ra is not helpful.
GB: According to Peter Langman, author of Jewish Issues in Multiculturalism, “Jews differ from many cultural groups in that they place less value on self-reliance and are less suspicious of taking their problems to professionals.”[v] In your professional experience, do you agree with this statement?
DSG: In many ways I find this to be true. In my own experiences in working with the Ultra-Orthodox population (where I spend much of my professional time), I find that, despite the stereotype, they do seek out professionals. They do take advantage of resources that are available to them.
GB: Following up on that question, many observant Jewish communities have been slow in incorporating the insights of psychology into their communities. Many communities seem to be in denial about childhood eating disorders, issues of sexual identity, issues of child abuse, and predatory behavior. Do you think this is the case? If this is the case, why do you think that is and how can this be changed?
DSG: I think this might have been the case in the past, but I think things have really changed drastically over the last few years, primarily because the social ills that you are referring to simply cannot be ignored.
Everyone knows someone with an eating disorder. Everyone knows someone with a child with specialized needs. Everyone has a family member who might be experiencing a challenge that, in the past, people were able to say that the community “simply doesn’t have.” These things are so pervasive now that there is no honest way to deny them.
Also, even Ultra-Orthodox people are putting more stock in education, and getting educated in many more areas, which might account for a greater openness to professional psychology.
Rebbetzin Perlow a”h, the first wife of the current head of the Agudah, had a Masters in Psychiatric Social Work. There are people like R. Dr. Abraham Twerski who are straddling both worlds. There are a lot of role models out there.
I often work with families who will see me and then consult with their rebbe and I often have people who consult with the rebbe and then consult with me after the rebbe guides them to a professional. A meeting of MASK (Mothers Aligned Saving Kids), which is an organization started in Brooklyn to address the issue of at-risk youth, had over 500 people in attendance. The Ultra-Orthodox community is becoming much more open about addressing certain issues because these issues simply can no longer be ignored. Everyone knows someone impacted by them.
GB: Jews have traditionally sought out the rabbi for counseling. What are the pros and cons of this reality? Should professional psychologists take over the pastoral role traditionally reserved for the rabbi?
DSG: I don’t think psychologists should take over the pastoral role traditionally reserved for the rabbi and I don’t think rabbis should feel obligated to take over the counseling role traditionally given to psychologists. There are excellent rabbis who have great insight into human behavior and are skilled at helping people overcome psychological challenges. Some of them are professionally trained in various areas of mental health and some of them have gained insight from years of Torah study and community work. But, not everyone with semikhah would make a good therapist, just like not everyone with semikhah would necessarily make a good teacher or principal. There is more than one way to solve a problem. For some challenges, taking to a rabbi might be the best solution. Sometimes, though, it’s best to reach out to a psychologist.
GB: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah places emphasis on pastoral care. Rabbinical students take pastoral counseling courses for the entire four-year curriculum. Should Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary’s rabbinic program expand its pastoral counseling program?
DSG: For full disclosure, I have to admit that I am one of the psychologists that Yeshivat Chovevei Torah calls every year or two to talk to the rabbinic students about topics in Halakhah and psychology.
It’s a good idea to have pastoral counseling if for no other reason than the fact that people go to their rebbeim for just that purpose.
I would think you either need to give some training to rabbis in this area, or you have to teach rabbis to say, “No, I’m not qualified to do that” when people come to them for this service.
GB: Have you ever experienced a conflict between Halakhah and the practice of psychology?
DSG: No. What I have experienced is working with other people, some psychologists and some not, who do see a conflict and who make decisions based on that assumed conflict. Then I, as a member of a counseling team, must speak up from the perspective of someone who believes in the coexistence between Halakhah and psychology.
GB: Have you ever dealt with someone who had a psychological issue directly related to that person’s approach to an aspect of Judaism? What do you think is the root of that conflict and how did you approach the issue?
DSG: What I would say is that one of the reasons that I chose developmental psychology is that I wanted to study morality. It just turns out that developmental psychologists are the people who do that. So that came from my own personal conflict in looking at certain halakhot that might, on a surface level, conflict with secular morality, and seeing people who, on their surface appear to be observant Jews, and yet behave immorally. It was those kinds of conflicts that led me to the particular branch of psychology that I find myself in. My dissertation is on religion and moral development. I guess the answer to your question is that I’m the person you are asking about. I spent many years awake in bed thinking about the interplay between Torah and morality and, in the end, I got a doctorate for it.
GB: Earlier in April, psychiatrist Bob Spitzer made headlines after heretracted his controversial 2001 study proclaiming that “highly motivated” gay and lesbian people could change their sexual orientation, he also made an unprecedented apology to both former patients of reparative therapy as well as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.[vi]
At the same time, the “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality,” signed by a few noted Yeshiva University Roshei Yeshivah, states emphatically that LGBT people can “overcome their inclination and desire” and advocates for reinforcing the “natural gender-identity” of individuals.[vii] As a psychologist and Orthodox Jew, what do you make of this tension?
DSG: I would say that people interested in the question of the appropriateness and effectiveness of reparative therapy should read Rabbi Rappaport’s book Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, and also look into Freud’s theory of innate bisexuality.
GB: You talked about changes over the years in acceptance of professional psychologists in the Ultra-Orthodox world. Have you noticed a change in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community’s attitude toward the psychological needs of its members?
DSG: Certainly in terms of addressing certain learning disabilities and specific learning needs of students, there are many more resources now than in the past. I used to work as a guidance counselor in a yeshivah high school in the 1990s. My own children are in high school now and the difference between the resources that they had earlier and those they have now is astounding. The idea that certain individuals have specialized learning needs that might not be a learning disability is just one of the different ways that the Modern Orthodox community continues to change.
People are beginning to open up to seeing learning styles as points on a continuum and the black and white distinction between those who are “disabled” and those who are not has greatly diminished over the years. The idea of melamed ke-darko, teaching according to need, is actually being taken seriously. The same is true with addressing non-learning psychological needs in the schools, such as eating disorders and bullying.
GB: What is, in your opinion, an important psychological insight in the Torah?
DSG: Pirkei Avot says, “keneh lekha haver,”[viii] which is traditionally translated as “acquire for yourself a friend.” But it can also be translated as “purchase for yourself a friend.” So that might be a heter for talking to a psychologist.
Dr. Stephen Glicksman teaches at Yeshiva College and at the Ferkauf School of Psychology. He is a licensed developmental psychologist at Women’s League Community Residence in Boro Park, Brooklyn; the consultant psychologist for the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence in Lakewood, NJ; and has a private practice in Teaneck, NJ.
Gavi Brown is a sophomore at YC majoring in English, and is the design editor for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist, credited with founding the discipline of cultural-historical psychology.
[ii] Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist, and founded the highly revolutionary discipline of psychoanalysis.
[iii] Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) was an Austrian-born American child psychologist and writer. During the Holocaust he was placed in Dachau and Buchenwald, and he emigrated to America after he was released in 1939. He became the director of the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. He wrote many books on normal and abnormal child psychology.
[iv] Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian doctor who introduced the term logotherapy as a form of Existential Analysis. In 1942 he, along with his family, was deported to Theresienstadt. Although he survived the Holocaust, his family did not, and his bestselling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is an account of his experiences, based on his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even difficult ones.
[v] See F.M. Herz and E. J. Rosen, “Jewish families,” Ethnicity and Family Therapy (1982): 364-392, at p. 370.
[vi] See “Robert Spitzer, Psychiatrist Behind Retracted ‘Ex-Gay’ Study, Apologizes To Gay Community, Patients,” Huffington Post (April 25, 2012), available at: www.huffingtonpost.com.
[vii] Available at: www.torahdec.org.
[viii] Pirkei Avot 1:6.