Bible stories help cope with emotional problems
A veteran American-Jewish clinical psychologist who promotes the use of biblical psychology is in Israel on a Fulbright fellowship.
Prof. Kalman Kaplan Photo: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich
More Americans – but few Jews – go to their clergymen for counselling about their emotional problems than to psychologists.
Many of the Jews’ ancestors in Eastern Europe went to their rebbes not only to consult regarding religious practice and belief but also as a kind of therapist. Now a Jewish clinical, social and developmental psychologist in Chicago is using stories – from Noah to Job – from the Book of Books to provide help to patients of all backgrounds, whether they are believers or atheists.
Prof. Kalman Kaplan of the departments of psychiatry and medical education at the University of Illinois is one of the advocates of the field of biblical psychology and believes the technique can provide powerful therapy to many people seeking help for their problems: An ordinary person’s woes, for example, look small compared to the afflictions of Job.
Kaplan is visiting Israel as a fellow of the Fulbright program, the US government’s most prestigious and widely-known academic exchange programs, whose local participation has been managed by the USIsrael Educational Foundation since 1956.
In the years since its establishment, more than 1,200 Americans and 1,600 Israelis have participated in a variety of Fulbright student and academic staff exchanges. The late US senator William Fulbright initiated the global Fulbright program in 1946 to strengthen the foundations of peace by promoting understanding between the American people and the peoples of the participating nations around the world.
In a interview this month with The Jerusalem Post, Kaplan said he had been to Israel many times before and even lived here for 18 months between 2005 and 2007, working at Tel Aviv University’s psychology department. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychology and Judaism, a fellow of the American Psychological Association and corecipient of the Alexander Gralnick Award for outstanding original research on suicide and schizophrenia.
He has also authored or co-authored a number of books, including The Family: Biblical and Psychological Foundations;A Psychology of Hope: A Biblical Response to Tragedy and Suicide; Living with Schizophrenia;Biblical Stories for Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Sourcebook and The Fruit of Her Hands: Biblical Woman and Her Sense of Purpose.
Kaplan also teaches at Chicago’s Spertus Institute, which was founded in 1924 as his native city’s College of Jewish Studies, which today offers an innovative, nondenominational array of specialized and public programming, grounded in Jewish thought inspired by Jewish values.
Earlier this year, he taught with a colleague an integrative, 12-week, online continuing- education course on biblical psychology organized by Spertus in conjunction with the University of Illinois’s College of Medicine. The course discussed religion, spirituality and mental health and encouraged students to compare biblical and classical Greek perspectives on a number of mental health issues.
The founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, always said he was against religion, said Kaplan, but “he was very much involved in the ancient Greek religion.
Nowhere in medicine has the dependence on Greek thought been more apparent than in psychology and psychiatry – the very word ‘psyche’ is Greek and the main psychoanalytic concept of the formation of character and neurosis was based on the Greek myth of Oedipus. Freud didn’t have such a positive Jewish identity, but I suppose that at that time, he couldn’t have done much better.”
The man originally credited with developing biblical psychology was Dr. Eric Wellisch, medical director of Grayford Child Guidance Clinic in England more than 50 years ago, Kaplan recalled. “Wellisch was a Viennese Jew who unfortunately died soon before his book on the subject was published.”
The Chicago professor’s courses, which attract psychology and theological students, social workers and others, can benefit everybody who looks to Bible stories as a guide to try to resolve everyday conflicts and relationships in non-tragic way.
“Mental healthcare has been based on an ancient Greek orientation to life – which carries a tragic world view that people can’t change things, that everything is inevitable,” he says. “This is so antagonistic to Judaism, which is much more optimistic.
We are a people of hope. Whatever happens to us, we rebuild again and again. A hopeful view of life can overcome tragedy; in Judaism, God is everywhere and humanity is here; there is always a dialogue, a wrestling match. It’s a healthier relationship.
In Islam, there is submission, and in Christianity, there is rebellion,” said Kaplan, who went to Hebrew school and studied Bible informally.
His favorite characters include the biblical Abraham, David, Ruth and Job.
“David was so human!” he said. “Even the ones I like have flaws. Parts of David I didn’t like, like the way he got Bathsheba. But the characters have such full personalities.”
“Greek thought sees self and other as fundamentally opposed, while Biblical thought regards them as working in harmony. The Greek Narcissus cycles between selfinvolvement and enmeshment – he ultimately idealizes his own face in the brook and commits suicide. But Jonah shows psychological development and ultimately learns the message of (repentance and divine mercy. He can reach out to another without losing himself.”
Biblical psychology, Kaplan continued, “addresses the question of obedience versus disobedience. If one’s god is Zeus, one should and indeed must rebel; if it is the biblical God, one may benefit from obeying.
Consider the two flood stories: Prometheus must steal the blueprint for the ark from the capricious Zeus. But the just and God-fearing Noah is freely given the blueprint for the ark by God.
“The ancient Greek understanding of the world sees Nature as preceding the gods. In the biblical account of Creation, God precedes nature. The biblical creation stories do not subordinate man to nature or focus on an Oedipal conflict between father and son or antagonism between man and woman.”
In a famous Greek story, Pandora is described as a curse to man. But, Eve – the mother of mankind – is described as a blessing to Adam and a helpmeet, said Kaplan. In the Greek view, attachment to a woman is seen as opposing man’s autonomy, while according to the Bible, attachment to a woman is seen as positive to achieving autonomy, he explained.
Relationships between parents and children are constant themes on the psychiatrist’s proverbial couch. The story of Abraham carrying out God’s order to bind his son Isaac to the altar to test him before he sacrifices him provides an alternative to the Greek legend of Oedipus to understand the relationship between fathers and sons. The biblical story “suggests an unambivalent resolution of the father-son relationship that is based on a covenant of love and shared purpose between parent and child.”
The Hellenistic culture often deals with castration and the mother as seducing her son. But ritual circumcision in the Bible “can be seen as a non-injurious alternative to castration, transforming the father into a teacher and the son into a disciple. The father wants the son to both succeed and surpass him. The basis of morality is thus not fear but a covenantal relationship between God, father and son. The son does not need to rebel against the father because he already has his father’s blessing,” Kaplan pointed out. “The Greek mythological characters wanted to live forever. But in the Bible, people become parents, which is part of the human condition. The child will one day inherit the covenant, so you won’t block him. It shows we are linked in a chain for one generation to follow the previous one. It’s natural and has implications for parent/child relationships.”
A father’s blessing appears in the Bible to resolve conflict in the family. Originally the source of sibling conflict, Kaplan said, such a blessing may work to achieve some level of reconciliation between offspring, as does Jacob’s blessings to all his sons. But in Greek mythology, a father never blesses his children.
Instead, family conflict tragically becomes angrier in each succeeding generation until the family self-destructs, as did the family of Oedipus.
The Book of Ruth provides an alternative to the Greek legend of Electra to understand the relationship between mothers and daughters, again based on a covenant of love and shared purpose rather than a compromise based on threats of abandonment.
Unlike the ancient Greeks, who approved of suicide because it “led to liberty,” Jewish thought is clearly against killing oneself as much – or even more – than murder.
“I’ve used Jonah often to treat patients who have attempted suicide. Jonah shows how to integrate self and other. I compare him to Narcissus, who could never integrate the two and kills himself. I receive patients with various types of problems and try to fit biblical stories in. I recall teaching a story when a non-Orthodox rabbi came in. He told me he had been giving a sermon on David and Bathsheba. A man in the synagogue audience said after the service that he felt terrible, because he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife. After hearing the sermon, the man said, he was thinking of killing himself. The rabbi referred him to a suicide-prevention specialist.”
But Kaplan thought the rabbi had made a mistake.
“Why didn’t he stay with the troubled person and prove to him that David tried to atone for his actions? David felt guilty but didn’t want to commit suicide. The unfortunate man could have learned from that,” Kaplan recalled. “I see a lot of patients who live in nursing homes, maybe 20 each week.
My therapy using biblical psychology is paid for by Medicare. It works very well.”
Jews come to him for help, but “not that many, because most non-Orthodox American Jews are not biblically literate. It’s absurd. Being treated by biblical psychology usually makes Christians more positive about Jews. They don’t regard Jews as being biblical. You don’t hear many Jews in America talk about the Bible.”
Biblical psychology could become a very dominant movement, the professor said.
“It could be the next phase of psychology, after psychoanalytic, then behaviorist, humanistic and multicultural. Biblical psychology somehow combines all of them,” suggested Kaplan. “It is psychodynamic and concentrates on behavior, not just feelings. I don’t argue for any religion, but just make use of relevant Bible stories.”
As a Fulbright scholar now in Israel, Kaplan has tried to arouse interest in his field.
“Most secular Israelis don’t have any conception of how important the Hebrew Bible was in Western civilization. Just look at Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. You weren’t considered educated in previous centuries if you didn’t know the Bible. In general, that isn’t true today either in the US or even in Israel.
But still, in the Republican-voting states in the center of the US, there still is an awareness of the Scriptures.”