Title: Reimagining Repentance – Experiencing the High Holidays Through the Lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
By Dr. Matisyahu Shulman
While the fundamentals of Judaism are timeless, many aspects change with the times. So how does one approach repentance using both traditions of old and contemporary, novel, new approaches?
When it comes to repentance, which is in the air now in Elul and with Rosh Hashana days away; if we used the methods of years past, people would be rolling in the snow or other methods more closely associated with Opus Dei. Such an approach would not fly in 5783. And with global warming, even the snow is in short supply.
When it comes to psychiatry and psychology, what’s novel today is barbaric tomorrow. There are surgeons and psychiatrists alive today who performed lobotomies. Not long ago, the lobotomy was a mainstream procedure, as speech therapy and physical therapy are today.
Those who abstain from using newer methods will often cite the much quoted, and much misunderstood quip from the Chasam Sofer that chadash assur min haTorah – new is forbidden by the Torah. Yet the danger of using that approach is that they do miss out on the new approaches that do work.
In Reimagining Repentance: Experiencing the High Holidays Through the Lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Rabbi Dr. Matisyahu Shulman, MD, uses his experience in mental health to approach repentance in a very new and contemporary way.
As important as the High Holidays are, many people dread it. Long prayers in abstract Hebrew often leave them more uninspired as they exit the synagogue. The goal of the book is to see repentance as personal re-creation. It is an ambitious goal, and Shulman is the first to admit that there are no shortcuts. He tries to help the reader re-imagine the rituals of the High Holidays as psychologically informed steps to foster personal growth. And how they can act as the proper conditions to foster lasting change according to modern psychological theory.
Much of Jewish law in general, the High Holidays specifically, are seen as binary. There is mitzvah and aveira, good and bad, G-d and Satan. But that black-and-white thinking can often lead to psychological problems where a person who does an occasional wrong, may think that they are a evil person.
A key point Shulman makes throughout the book is that to create change, a person must be willing to be flexible in their thinking about themselves. This black-and-white thinking can distort a person into thinking they are a liar and phony. Here, he shows how cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can be used to treat the situation.
Mindfulness is meditation where the person focuses on being intensely aware of what they’re sensing and feeling in the moment. He shows how, when combined with the shofar, a mindfulness approach can be conducive to spiritual growth.
Occasionally, authors overreach and try to assert a point in an area they are not qualified in. Here, the author is a board-certified general and addiction psychiatrist, and eminently qualified to write on the topic, which he does so well.
One of the most important points he makes in the book, in dealing with people who have anxiety and compulsive disorders, is for them to ask themselves a simple question: Are you willing to live with uncertainty? In those areas, he details psychotherapies used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) such as Exposure and Response Prevention (ExRP).
Life has significant amounts of uncertainties. And in fact, there may be more uncertainties in life than certainties. But using the approach he details can be quite freeing, and conducive to true repentance.
Perhaps there is no greater example of this than Moshe who has 515 prayers go unanswered. But as Shulman writes the acceptance of the possibility of failed prayers is a deeper acknowledgment that G-d rules the universe. Repentance is not a one-and-done activity.
True teshuva/repentance, is a step we take on the never-ending path toward the Infinite creator.
Recent advances in mental health have changed everything we know about the mind, actions, and personal responsibility. What we now know about addiction and addictive behavior ties directly into how free will works. These advances have made the world a better place. And the approach this book takes can make the reader a much better person.