The interplay between Torah values and psychological/societal ethics has always been an interest of mine. I find beauty in the challenge of trying to straddle the fence between the two worlds. At one point in history, the field of psychology was dominated by Sigmund Freud’s (often considered to be the “father of psychology”) ideas of sexuality and determinism (technically, that we do not have free-will). The world of Torah rejected most of Freud’s views and thus rejected most of the world of psychology. Besides, the Torah world viewed most mental health issues as being Hashkafic or religious issues and so they were reticent towards sending people to therapists and not Rabbonim to deal with issues.
But the divide between psychology and Torah was not only because the Torah world rejected psychology. Oh no, psychology had very few pleasant things to say about religion in the early days. Although Jewish, Freud rejected religion as being a form of neurosis (or a mental disorder) for most of his life. Many psychologists in the early and mid-twentieth century (and some until today) often tried convincing their patients that religion was either a symptom of a mental disorder or a major contributor to their mental health problems.
Boruch Hashem we live in a world where the field of mental health is much more congruous with Torah. The last fifteen years has seen an explosion of frum mental health professionals. There are therapists who work across the spectrum of frumkeit and there are Rabbonim in all communities who refer their constituents to therapists when needed.
However, there continue to be issues in the mental health world that challenge frumkeit. The current most publicized controversial topic is how we as a community handle situations of child molestation. Licensed mental health professionals have a legal obligation to report situations of abuse to the authorities. Mental health professionals usually advocate this point of view. Many Rabonnim and frum institutions do not agree that this it is right to report these allegations to the secular authorities and, at the very least, limit reporting in some way due to socio-religious values.
Another very sensitive topic where modern psychological thinking conflicts with Torah views is the issue of homosexuality. The Gemarah in Kiddushin (82a) indicates that homosexuality is not something that Jews have to deal with because “Jews are not suspect to be homosexual”. In fact the Rambam (Issurei Biah 22:2) uses this Gemarah as a basis for a Halachik ruling.
On the other hand, Freud has suggested that all people, by nature, are created with some inherent homosexual desire. The world today is filled with gay rights activists (many of them mental health professionals), frum ones as well. So, how do we understand this Gemara and Rambam in the light of the many people who present to therapy struggling with this issue? How to understand the divide between the Torah’s values and what the secular world suggests, quite vehemently, as being the only way to look at things? It is an issue that unfortunately causes so much pain and suffering in our community and is often completely misunderstood by many people. More significantly, it is an issue that is being raised more frequently in mine and my colleague’s offices. In writing this article, I hope to raise awareness that therapy can help people who struggle with homosexuality.
While I do not work solely with people who struggle with homosexuality, the following are some vignettes of the types of situations that present themselves in my office. I have fabricated these cases to protect the anonymity of the people I actually work with but they accurately reflect the content of my work. Shloimy is a 16-year-old boy who was found to be acting on his desires with a peer in Yeshivah. He has been admonished by the Mashgiach in the past but this has not stopped Shloimy’s behavior. The Mashgiach has involved Shloimy’s parents and suggested that Shloimy discuss things with a therapist to help him better understand his sexuality. Shloimy agrees.
Dovid is a 25-year-old Yeshiva bochur learning in a prominent Yeshivish Yeshiva. He has been going out on Shidduch dates with different women for the last two years. He has recently told his Rosh Hayeshiva that his anxiety connected to dating has to do with his years of confusion about his sexual attraction to other men. Although Dovid has rarely acted on these desires, the sheer fact that he has them causes him significant uncomfortability, you see- Dovid has no feelings of attraction to women.