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Rabbi Rafi Feurstein, a leading modern Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem and psychologist, urges that rabbis who give counselling services should be trained for this function and serve as "mediators" in bridging the ideals of Halacha and the practical problems of their congregants, rather than imposing their will on them.
Feurstein, vice chairman of the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential founded and chaired by his father, Israel Prize-winning psychologist Prof. Reuven Feurstein, was speaking to a full auditorium of 250 people at the Nefesh conference of religious social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Prof. Feurstein, a student of the famed Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and an innovator in treating Down syndrome children, was honored at the event for his life's work.
Feurstein noted that as Tzohar - the organization of rabbis he heads to make Orthodox Judaism palatable to secular Jews - aims to have Orthodox rabbis influence the community, he hoped they could be specifically trained for the complex task of advising congregants who have personal, emotional and family problems. Conceding that some rabbis have made errors and are not well-versed in these fields, Feurstein said that it was not enough to be an expert in Jewish law. "Rabbis have halachic authority, but they must be able to deal with post-modern life," he added.
While the beginning of the 21st century is the "most intelligent era" ever, the modern world's values "are back in the Stone Age, as if we haven't advanced at all," he said. "Rabbis have moral power regarded as binding by his followers in the community," but they must also be suited to the challenge of counselling in a relevant, sensitive way, he added. "I want to teach rabbis to be mediators, coming down to the congregant's eye level and creating a process in which he understands his feelings in accordance with ethics and Jewish law."
Meanwhile, in a workshop during the conference, haredi psychoanalyst Esther Hess discussed the unique difficulties that haredi Israelis have with therapy. "The haredi communities here," she said, "are much more insular than those abroad - with only haredi newspapers, no films or theater, no Internet and sometimes no computer.
"Anything newâ€š and strange like psychotherapy is regarded with fear," said Hess, who has a private practice in Bnei Brak. She added that this avoidance of psychotherapy was also spurred by concern that disclosure of an emotional problem in the family would affect chances for an arranged marriage.
Traditional psychotherapy was suspect, she said, because it promoted individualism, freedom, independence and self-expression while Orthodoxy stressed overcoming urges, being committed to God, family and community and having no doubts. Most troubled haredim prefer seeing haredi therapists (although there are not so many, and most of those here were educated abroad), while national religious also prefer therapists of their own kind.
She recalled the case of a haredi girl in a psychiatric hospital who was thought psychotic by her secular therapist - who was dressed in shorts and a low-cut blouse - because she refused to look at her. Hess explained the reason was merely the therapist's lack of "modesty," an ideal the girl had been taught all her life.
While many religious psychoanalysts claimed Halacha and psychoanalysis are compatible, she said, some rabbis had rejected therapy completely, while others insisted it could be done only by a religious professional because the process can encourage abandonment of observance. Indeed, some haredi women Hess treated began to question "givens" such as women always being happy about being pregnant or men always wanting to study in a yeshiva.
Haredim who come for therapy are usually seriously ill because they have tried everything else and reached professional help at a late stage, said Hess. "Even after years of therapy, they ask me if it is permissible. They have doubts about what they are permitted to say, if what they say is forbidden slander, if they can complain about their parents. Usually they say everything is God's will, that everything is OK. They are raised to care for others, but in treatment, they have to focus on themselves. They may feel guilty that money and time are spent on them rather than on the rest of the family."
Hess concluded that the psychological process of transference - the potentially beneficial emotional interaction between the therapist and patient - aroused fear, and that haredi women in particular developed strong transference, especially if they were emotionally deprived as children.