‘Kosher psychology’ gives hope to haredim

There are "encouraging signs" haredi community undergoing a quiet revolution, says J'lem-based psychologist Naftali Fish.

By
December 24, 2011 22:26
Dr. Naftali Fish using hypnosis on a patient.

DR. NAFTALI FISH hypnosis haredi 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Members of the Israeli haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community – seemingly more self-isolated, vigilant in segregating the sexes and extreme in observance than ever – have emotional and psychological problems no less than the general population.

Although they are averse to basing their treatment on the wisdom of “secular” personalities such as the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, they would be well advised to meld and customize this valuable knowledge with a Torah-based treatment approach to promote psychospiritual growth and healing.

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So suggests Dr. Naftali Fish, an American- born clinical psychologist who came on aliya with his family in 1984 and has for the last 25 years developed such a treatment technique (http://nachatruach.com) in Jerusalem. Calling it the Nahat Ruach Treatment Model, Fish integrates “eclectic psychotherapy with the twelve-step orientation and faith in God based on Torah perspectives.”

He has just published an English-language book on his technique – which he abbreviates as NRTM. Titled Nachas Ruach: Torah-Based Psychotherapy and Tools for Growth and Healing, the hardcover book was published by Targum Press of New York, using the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation of the word for “satisfaction”).

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post after publication of the 309-page volume, Fish says NRTM is “the first approach to utilize Torah-based hypnosis therapy and meditation as a treatment tool when working with a broad range of clinical situations.”

These include the whole gamut of contemporary addictions, such as Internet addiction, to marital and family problems, from teens at risk to the psychological challenges facing those who are religious from birth and from penitent Jews to marital and family counseling and psychosomatic disorders.

Fish, who himself became religious at 21 and wears a large crocheted kippa, graduated from Pennsylvania State University and Yeshiva University in New York before settling in Jerusalem. In the mid-1990s, he founded and administered a full-time recovery rehabilitation program here that, he says, was the first framework to professionally address the issues of addictions within the Jewish community. Since 1998, he has had a private practice in the capital and also teaches psychology at Touro College- Israel.

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His mentor was and is Dr. Abraham Twerski, an ordained haredi American rabbi who graduated from medical school and specialized in psychiatry. The highly respected octogenarian founded in 1972 and was medical director of the private, non-profit Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pennsylvania and Ohio for treating drug addicts.

Twerski wrote an endorsement that appears at the beginning of the volume: “Due to the early influences of Sigmund Freud, who was an atheist, there is still an impression and fear that psychology and psychiatry are antagonistic to Yiddishkeit, so that many people who need psychological help refuse to avail themselves of it. Dr.

Naftali Fish’s book points out that contemporary psychology is more compatible with religion, and this is a positive development,” he wrote. “In addition, based on extensive professional experience, Dr. Fish has developed a unique treatment approach.... I believe [his] book makes an important contribution in furthering the understanding of psychology and psychotherapy for Torah-observant people.”

The haredi community, certainly in the US and now also in Israel, “is not immune to many sensitive contemporary issues, which can no longer be ignored,” says Fish.

“Yet sadly, some people who need psychological advice refrain from seeking it, believing that contemporary psychology and psychiatry are antagonistic to traditional Judaism.”

The book, which may not be followed easily by the ordinary layman or haredim with psychological problems, is meant, Fish says, for professionals in the field of mental health, rabbis, educators, educated laymen and psychology, medical and social work students. The Ashkenazi transliteration of the numerous Hebrew words and the prayer- and hassidic-oriented approach may put off some readers.

One wonders how many Israeli haredi rabbis would be able to comprehend it because of the English and the serious discussion of psychoanalytic and other theories and practices; in addition, while modern Orthodox and haredi American rabbis will understand the English, some may also have difficulty understanding the concepts.

A more likely audience are members of ATEM-Nefesh, a network of mental health professionals who discuss and answer questions related to professional topics as well as ethical and religious psychological practice issues in the Orthodox community.

It is both an international network and has a major Israeli branch, ATEM-Nefesh- Israel, headed by Dr. Judith Guedalia and social worker Leah Abramowitz, with annual symposia convened to promote community and individual welfare and mental health and present research.

A how-to book in English and a Hebrew translation would be advisable to reach a larger audience of haredim and other Orthodox readers.

The new volume stresses the importance of therapists’ having cultural competence and thus understanding of the haredi and religious way of life so they will not think rituals, observance and behavior in the community are themselves a psychological problem.

“Many mental health professionals – particularly until the end of the 1960s, when many established ideas began to be challenged in Western culture – typically not only failed to see that organized religion could help heal patients, but considered reliance on a Higher Power to be a dysfunctional way of coping because they thought it enabled people to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives. Such an attitude,” writes Fish, “which viewed religion as the ‘opiate of the masses,’ has long been part of the mainstream Western, liberal, secular world view, though its predominance has diminished somewhat in recent decades.”

Today, spirituality of all kinds has become very trendy, he adds in the interview.

“Even corporate leaders are looking for a higher purpose.”

By adopting the Twelve Steps – but in a religious Jewish version – Fish helps clients to benefit from the technique that was used since the 1930s by Christians in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The founders, who also remained anonymous, tried to go sober during America’s shortlived Prohibition of alcohol production and sales.

“They were not motivated by Freudian psychotherapy, even though it was in its heyday then,” Fish says.

Fish’s version of the Twelve Steps integrates belief in God and the Torah as a way of overcoming addictions and emotional problems. Abstinence preached in the Twelve Steps also fits in very well with Orthodoxy’s advocacy of abandoning addiction to the Internet, drinking, drugs, extra-marital sex and others, he says, adding that he has put thousands of haredim through his adapted version of the Twelve Steps. He would like to train other mental health professionals to use his NRTM.

The author provides a number of scenarios of people needing and benefiting from the eclectic approach.

One is a haredi woman in her 30s who has six children and is stuck in what seems to be a highly dysfunctional marriage. She even considers divorce, although she realizes that this status in a haredi community would eventually jeopardize her children’s marriage prospects.

A second scenario is a modern Orthodox professional man whose wife goes into shock and desperation when she discovers her husband is addicted to Internet use that has nothing to do with his profession. She learned of the problem after noting that he spending long hours alone in his study at home.

A third is a 27-year-old, unmarried penitent Jew who feels he is not as good at studying Talmud as he had thought and has gone out on 50 arranged dates without being able to feel a commitment to marriage, related to unfinished “emotional baggage” from his past.

The last one is an 18-year-old haredi youth who has constant fights with his parents about his using marijuana and abandoning part of his Shabbat observance, which is an example of the dilemmas that many religious adolescents face today.

Each of the four are analyzed extensively by the author using the NRTM approach.

“I tell patients to take one day at a time.

The challenge is to escape from the post- Sixties world of immediate gratification.

First they have to admit that they are powerless against addiction and then do footwork to turn to a Higher Power and ask to be helped.”

Fish, noting that “secular psychology has wisdom as well,” puts much credence in a number of Freud’s views, including the pleasure principle. The Torah, he states, regards pleasure as being from God.

“It sanctifies sex in marriage and other pleasures enjoyed in moderation. Christians, however, originally regarded such pleasure as sin.”

The haredi world, he continues, “is having a reaction to the loss of balance after the Holocaust. With so many haredi Jews lost, they became more separate and extreme so as to grow in numbers and retain members of the community. But insisting that everybody has to dress same way and learn Torah all day goes against the Judaism that existed before World War II. There is small elite capable of devoting all their time to Torah, but normative behavior is to work in addition to setting aside time to learn Torah,” says the psychologist.

“More moderation is needed. So many communities were destroyed that haredim developed a strong fear of the secular world in the Diaspora and in Israel.”

He says he uses Freudian thought together with Torah perspectives to heal the “inner wounded child” in adults.

“They are still dealing with the pain and limitations related to their past development and experience. This includes not feeling loved enough, smart enough, secure enough. While placing emphasis on the inner wounded child, the goal of the therapy is not to dwell on the past too much and remain ‘stuck here.’ Rather, the emphasis is to begin to view oneself more positively from [God’s] perspective.”

The clinical psychologist teaches meditation – even just sitting still and closing one’s eyes – as beneficial, a “natural and pleasant way to gain greater comfort with themselves and begin moving into a different mode of consciousness that can facilitate psychospiritual growth.” He advocates deep breathing exercises as well, as they help stressed people to relax.

Fish also utilizes hypnotherapy “as the foundation to build an adult’s healthy self as a Jew and as a person who has intrinsic value. I see the unconscious as important too.” Most people, he says, “can go under into a light to moderate relaxed open receptive state so they can let go and absorb new ways.” Many of his haredi patients arrive in his office “without adequate self esteem. Most feel they have not achieved enough.”

Fish concludes that despite the current wave of violent demonstrations, extreme practices not demanded by Halacha and efforts to keep women out of public places, “there are very encouraging signs the haredi world is undergoing a quiet revolution. There is more and more acceptance that the men go to work and support their families.”

It will be interesting to see which trend wins out in the coming decades as the share of the haredi community in Israel and the Diaspora continues to rise.

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