Photo Credit: Naomi Sprung
Artwork by Naomi Sprung for The Jewish Press.

While there are elements of Elliot Resnick’s recent critique ( ISSUE INFO     ) of the field of psychology to which I agree, there are serious flaws with numerous assumptions, facts, and perhaps most importantly, the tone, which warrant a response. Historically, there has been noted opposition between psychology and religion in general, and Judaism in particular. However, in recent decades, a more sensitive, robust, and ultimately fruitful dialogue and interchange has formed. Instead of painting an antagonistic picture between Judaism and psychology, it would be more constructive and advantageous to find opportunities for synthesis.

To summarize my understanding of Resnick’s argument: (1) religious people have been valuing psychology over Torah; (2) psychological and Torah values are generally at odds; (3) psychology as a field is extremely flawed, Torah is not; therefore, (4) people should consult Torah to help deal with their problems and be happy, not psychologists.

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Consult Psychology And Torah

We will address each of these in reverse order, starting, most importantly, with my conclusion: People who are suffering from mental illness should seek out the professional help of a licensed therapist.

It is unclear whether Resnick would agree with such a statement; from the tone of his article it appears that he would not. Consequently, my primary goal, in response, is to make it clear that from a Torah (and psychological) perspective one should obtain psychotherapeutic treatment to help alleviate mental suffering. I also highly recommend consulting Torah texts and spiritual advisors to supplement and enhance the process of therapeutic growth.

 

Psychology Is Flawed

Within his argument, Resnick relates a few substantive critiques of the field of psychology, several of which I would endorse. Yet, the critiques need to be contextualized. By understanding them within their proper place, we can see why they are not as devastating to the whole enterprise of psychology as he seems to indicate.

First, it is important to point out a lack of conceptual clarity within Resnick’s argument. He seems to conflate different subfields of psychology, assuming that a critique of one would automatically spill over to others. Concepts such as happiness, “serious problems,” therapy, Freud, and social psychological studies are all lumped together.

For instance, Resnick points to many psychological findings that failed to be replicated in follow up studies. To be clear, I agree wholeheartedly that people should not make life-changes based on unreplicated psychological studies. However, putting aside the substantive academic responses that Resnick fails to mention, it is important to note that the studies called into question were relatively minor findings from the subfield of social psychology. They were not relevant to how to treat depression, OCD, alcoholism, anorexia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illness. Anyone looking for psychological treatment should look for treatments that are evidence-based and have held up to more rigorous scientific testing (see div12.org/treatments for examples).

Relatedly, Resnick goes on to critique many of Freud’s theories. Here I strongly agree. Fortunately, so does most of the field of psychology. Even though, as Resnick correctly noted, psychology is not considered a hard-science like physics or chemistry, the field generally strives to be as evidence-based as possible. Most of Freud’s theories have not held up to the test of even soft-science, and have therefore been adapted, refined, or just discarded.

You would be hard-pressed to walk into a therapist’s office in the 21st century who practices a purely Freudian psychoanalysis. The therapy I practice, for example, is a type of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which has nothing to do with Freud, is primarily based on philosophical wisdom (including some of the philosophers Resnick mentions approvingly) and has been thoughtfully packaged into a therapeutic model that has withstood the test of experience and replicability in scientific studies.

Does that mean that therapy is an absolute, guaranteed equation or formula like a chemistry experiment? No, and no therapist would ever make that argument. Human nature is messy and complicated. But there are techniques and approaches that generally work for many people when done by trained professionals. It can be outright damaging to brush therapy off because some social psychological studies were not replicated or because Freud said outlandish things a century ago.

 

Psychology and Torah Values

Toward the end of his article, Resnick references a study that 65% of academics in psychology are atheist or agnostic and asks, “Do you really want to put your mental well-being in the hands of these people?” Here again, Resnick seems to be melding together disparate categories, as most academics are not therapists, and most therapists are not academics.

More importantly, however, putting aside the fact that there are plenty of well-trained therapists who can provide religiously sensitive therapy even if they themselves are not religious, I find it odd that Resnick doesn’t acknowledge the thousands of non-atheists, and in fact G-d-fearing, Torah observant therapists, who work tirelessly within a Torah framework to help alleviate the suffering of their clients. Nefesh International, a network of Orthodox mental health professionals that I am proudly a member, has many prominent rabbis from across the Orthodox spectrum to offer support at conferences and answer halachic questions when they arise. Apparently, psychology and Torah can manage to fit together.

Yes, Resnick is correct that the field of psychology is not Torah. There can be explicit or implicit philosophical underpinnings and outlooks that do not resonate with Torah values. It is important for Torah leaders, religious psychologists, and consumers of psychology to be aware of potential conflicts. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, was fond of quoting Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, and Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy.

Tamra Wright, writing in Radical Responsibility, an important volume of collected essays presented to Rabbi Sacks for his 65th birthday, charges educators and leaders to take Rabbi Sacks’s lead and design a “New Musar,” which incorporates positive psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy, and Torah ideals. As part of the process, she argues, Torah leaders would need to fully analyze any potential conflicts with a Torah worldview and articulate the differences cogently.

While the process is ongoing, the work in this direction is fully underway. If so desired by a client or therapist, therapy can (and perhaps should) be infused with Torah ideals. Based on a Cognitive-Behavioral model of therapy, Dr. David Rosmarin and colleagues, in consultation with Torah authorities, developed and tested a therapy that incorporated “Trust in G-d” concepts taken from Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda’s Chovot Ha-Levavot to help alleviate anxiety.

I have written and spoken about how to incorporate other biblical and rabbinic works within a similar CBT model called Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). Joey Rosenfeld, LCSW, following in the footsteps of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, zt”l, serves as a paradigm for therapists that utilize the teachings of chasidic masters to help with the treatment of addictions and other mental health struggles. Drs. Rona Novick and David Pelcovitz serve as prime examples of well-respected psychologists who fuse the wisdom of our tradition with psychological findings to help improve happiness, character development, and social-emotional growth.

 

A Real Trend?

Resnick starts off his article by pointing to a trend he has observed that claims that when a serious problem arises, people don’t seek rabbis for advice, but instead seek only psychologists. As someone embedded firmly both within the rabbinic and psychological world, the new trend he references is not at all apparent in my experience. If anything, rabbis are inundated with consultations regarding serious problems.

The trend I see, and agree with, is for the consulting rabbi to note their limitations in treating mental illness and serious family discord, and correctly refer to a therapist. Ideally, the rabbi can and should continue the consultation with the person/family and the therapist, creating a united front in treatment and support.

I end where I began. Torah should be consulted for psychological struggles, but so should a therapist. Instead of antagonism, psychology and Judaism can and should be synthesized to help alleviate suffering and help people flourish both psychologically and spiritually.

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Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman is an assistant professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, the assistant rabbi at Kingsway Jewish Center, and a licensed psychologist practicing in Brooklyn. He can be reached at PsychedForTorah@gmail.com and on social media @psychedfortorah.