Psychology or Chassidus?


There seems to be a raging controversy within Chabad about the function and purpose of therapy. There are those among us who strongly believe in the healing power of a good therapist, and enjoy adding select self-help books to our knowledge-base of personal-growth strategies. And, there are those who really only want to steep themselves in Chassidus, and are particular that any “soul-healing” should come from pure Torah sources.

There is a third type of approach — one which pits Chassidus against Therapy. For some reason, the premise is that the two practices or beliefs, or teachings, are somehow “competing”. Rabbi Simon Jacobson appears to fall into this third category. In a recent Op-Ed article on Parshas B’Shalach, entitled “Are you Damaged Goods”, Rabbi Jacobson weaves a sad tale of an abused man who, after sharing with him all his traumas, expresses much anger and frustration that his therapist has yet to “fix” him, and what’s worse, has left this poor man with the impression that he may never fully recover from his emotional traumas. Rabbi Jacobson proceeds to call the therapist, discuss this patients case, and then opine about the state of the therapy profession. I suggest that Rabbi Jacobson is “weaving a tale” only because, as attorney Bonnie R. Benitez explains in her summary of  Confidentiality and Exceptions for Therapists, that without risking one’s license, profession, and perhaps some jail-time, no therapist would ever discuss a client’s situation with a stranger without tons consent-paperwork and signed-documents.

Therapy = Waste of Time; Therapists = Dishonest Swindlers

Rabbi Jacobson goes on to conclude that because the therapist surmised that his client may have to deal with the effects of his trauma for the rest of his life, that somehow the therapist relegated his patient as “Damaged Goods”, and considers this person less than desirable. Further, that even though this person is irrevocably damaged, and will never heal, the therapist is continuing providing treatment to his “paying clients” for shady reasons. Finally, Jacobson stoops so low as to then generalize his negative, wild assumptions (therapists believe that people cannot heal, and therapists consider people damaged goods, and they are not honest with their “paying clients”) onto all therapists by suggesting that we now “question” the entire profession. All this based off of one phone conversation with one therapist who, in his professional opinion, didn’t think this man would ever fully recover from his trauma.

A simple Google search on “good therapy” brings up Noah Rubenstein’s site, where Rabbi Jacobson could have easily uncovered some foundational principles of therapy. In an article titled Elements of Good Therapy, Rubinstein defines some extremely basic, universally held beliefs and practices pertaining to the profession, including:

Non-Pathologizing: Viewing a person as greater than his or her problems is the hallmark of non-pathologizing therapy…one does NOT view the problems as the whole person (i.e. – not “Damaged Goods”)

Empowering: Therapists who empower their clients maintain the belief that people have the capacity for change and are equipped with the inner resources to do so… (i.e. – client can heal)

We believe a good therapist never gives up hope that a person can heal in this lifetime (i.e. – the worth in continuing therapy)

And specifically regarding trauma, quite contrary to Jacobson story, quotes trauma-specialist Suzanne Dillmann:

Through the assistance of a trained professional, one can heal from the consequences of a trauma.

Noah Rubentstein’s rudimentary, universally accepted summary of a good therapist flies in the face of Rabbi Jacobson’s understanding of therapy, and his conclusions about the profession. Don’t forget – google is your friend.

What does Chassidus say?

But what does healing actually mean? Pitting Chassidus against Therapy (“May the best man win”), Rabbi Jacobson eloquently describes a process whereby the G-dly soul of a Jew somehow transforms and heals the characteristics, elements, and trauma of one’s psyche:

Our faith and connection to the core gives us the strength to overcome these overwhelming forces and discover the unscathed soul within.

But is this possible? Does Chassidus, like Rabbi Jacobson suggests, say this is possible? The Alter-Rebbe, author of the Tanya, suggests not. In Chapter 14, the Alter-Rebbe teaches us that while this may be possible for the few (as a gift from heaven), for most of us, the discord between our psyche and our soul will be a lifetime’s work, to be rewarded in the next world, not this. Referring to the epiphany from above, “love of delights”, required to enlighten one’s soul to truly eradicate all internal evil, trauma, suffering, and discord, the Alter-Rebbe states:

Not every person merits this [higher revelation] because it is only a gift from above, to be received, not taken

The Alter-Rebbe goes on to explain that for the vast majority of us, we will never receive this gift. Struggling with the trauma suffered in this world, eradicating internal evil, and purifying our psyche will be a lifetime’s work. And, what’s more, is that this is actually the reason you were created — this struggle, this cleansing process, is the engine that drives the world to perfection. Interestingly, the diagnosis of Rabbi Jacobson’s therapist sounds very much like the holy words of the Alter-Rebbe — that we may be afflicted with our imperfections till our last breath.

What does it mean to heal?

If true healing in it’s purest, holiest form, may never be possible, than what can we hope for? Chassidus teaches us that service of Hashem is founded on the principles of EsHapcha — transforming the dark into light — and the deeper the darkness, the greater the transformative light will be. In terms of healing, although one may be haunted by the memories of a trauma for life, that energy can be transformed for good. The story of holocaust-survivor-turned-philanthropist Sam Boymel is a wonderful example. Although Mr. Boymel may never truly shed his horrifying memories of Turisk, Poland, he can still use that energy and create something positive. Or, here in Chicago, we have the “Race against Hate“, dedicated to ending baseless violence and hatred that killed Mr Ricky Byrdsong. Although the widowed Mrs. Byrdsong may forever cry herself to sleep, the healing process has brought much awareness and education on hate-crimes to a new generation.

Chassidus vs Psychology

With all due respect to Rabbi Jacobson, there is no reason to pit Chassidus against psychology. Certainly, the Rebbe didn’t, but rather encouraged individuals needing help to seek out professionals, not versed only in Tanya, but rather versed in Chassidus and psychology. The good news then, is that there is no competition. Even if the scars of trauma accompany somebody to the grave, Chassidus always gives a Jew their guiding light, the deepest sense of hope and inspiration. For many, psychology can be used as a tool to live by that hope, and bring it in to one’s everyday life.

-Dovid Feldman


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