Judaic elements in psychotherapy

In a scholarly, yet readable book, a highly regarded clinical psychologist and an eminent historian show how Biblical stories can be of aid in psychotherapy

Biblical Stories for Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Sourcebook Matthew B. Schwartz, PhD, and Kalman J. Kaplan, PhD Routledge ,Taylor and Francis 218 pages; $29.95 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Biblical Stories for Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Sourcebook Matthew B. Schwartz, PhD, and Kalman J. Kaplan, PhD Routledge ,Taylor and Francis 218 pages; $29.95
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the Bible (II Kings Chapter V) we learn about Naaman, a successful and militarily victorious captain in Aram’s Syrian military. But Naaman was afflicted with leprosy. He is told of a healer in the semi-vassal state of Israel – the Northern Kingdom. The healer is the Prophet Elisha. Elisha communicates to Naaman, indirectly, that he should bathe seven times in the Jordon River. Naaman becomes angry. There are bigger rivers in Syria. Eventually he relents and bathes seven times in the Jordan. His skin becomes as healed and as clean as a “little child.” Naaman also came to believe in the God of Israel. In his commentary, Rabbi Joseph Hertz (Hertz Chumash, pages 466-468) sees the Jordan River as metaphor and points out that millions of people in distress turn to the Psalms and not to great world literature, although the Psalms have their origins in a small people.
Since millions of people turn to the Bible in times of trouble, why not use Biblical stories in mental health? Erich Wellisch advocated this in his 1954 book, Study in Biblical Psychology of the Sacrifice of Isaac—the Akadah. Kalman J. Kaplan and Matthew B. Schwartz, a psychologist and a historian respectively, were among the people who took up his call. In 1993 they published A Psychology of Hope: An Antidote to the Suicidal Psychology of Western Civilization. Kaplan and Schwartz have a long history of collaboration. Among the books Schwartz and Kaplan have co-authored is Politics in the Hebrew Bible: God, Man, and Government.
Dr. Kaplan is a brilliant scientific psychologist, a compassionate psychotherapist, and expert on suicide prevention. Dr. Schwartz is an esteemed historian. When I first met Kalman Kaplan in 1990, he outlined his views on the need for significant Judaic elements in psychotherapy and in the theoretical foundation of psychiatry and psychology. Dr. Kaplan subsequently pointed out that the first lines of defense for emotional problems in America are therapists and clergy people. But most clergy people do not have significant training in psychology. Also, while most Americans are religiously oriented, most therapists are not – in fact, many are atheists. Disclosure: I worked with Dr. Kalman J. Kaplan on several publishing projects.
Biblical Stories for Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Sourcebook has eleven chapters, plus an Introduction and an Epilogue titled “Freud, Oedipus, and the Hebrew Bible.” Kaplan has drawn contrasts between Judaic psychology based on the Bible stories, and Freudian psychology based on Greek foundation stories, as he draws a contrast between Greek fatalism and Jewish optimism. The chapters follow a pattern, such as Chapter 7 “Overcoming Family Problems,” which cites different Biblical episodes, including: “Forgiving Deceit: Rachel and Jacob,” “Covering a Family Problem: Achan” and “Overcoming a Bad Start: David and Bathsheba” and so on. At the end of each chapter, there is a part called “Clinical Implications.” The other chapters follow the same pattern.
The book offers intellectual insights and moving interpretations, for example, of the friendship between Jonathan and David. There is also a discussion of the psychology underlying the mission of Esther and Mordechai, who saved the Jewish people from Haman. The blessings Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob gave their sons is discussed, and Jacob also blesses two grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. To this day, on Sabbath eve, Orthodox Jewish fathers bless their boys with the hope that they will become like Menashe and Ephraim and the daughters are blessed with the wish that they may become like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Schwartz and Kaplan provide important subtext to the story of King Solomon and the two mothers fighting over a living baby. the authors state that King Solomon knew who the real mother was before he decided to test them by asking for a sword to “divide” the child.
Schwartz and Kaplan know that while it is obvious that people in families, and other social groupings, have different natures, these abilities must be nurtured in positive ways that do not impose on others. Thus, wise parents are needed to develop the varying abilities. These unique natures must be nurtured – but not so that people will be selfish; rather, so  they will use their abilities to help themselves and others. This wisdom can be gained from Biblical stories – including the story of Rebecca, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob. “Overcoming a Bad Start: David and Bathsheba” gives family therapists and couple therapists ideas in helping families or couples get a new start, if they had a bad start, or had difficulty at a certain time, which they have a problem overcoming.
The quality of rights in Torah law also can help put an additional compassionate face on the character of psychotherapy, especially for the many good and humane psychotherapists. What do these rights include?
The late great British Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz wrote that after the Ten Commandments, the first piece of civil legislation given by God to Moses concerned the rights of the least powerful person in society, the indentured servant, sold for debt or offense. He was supposed to be freed after six years. If he was struck he went free. There was nothing like that in the antebellum American South, in the worldwide abduction of Africans to be sold as slaves, or in Ancient Greece and the Ancient Roman Empire. The indentured servant in Ancient Israel rested on the Sabbath. The Children of Israel were commanded to remember that they had been slaves in the Land of Egypt. There were other unique Hebrew laws in the ancient world, including: the seventh year sabbatical for the land, the rights of the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger. You were supposed to love the stranger. The stranger had the same rights and obligations as the native born. There was the 50th year Jubilee when land was returned to the original owner or his or her heir. In the Jubilee year Israelites were supposed to “proclaim liberty throughout the land and to the inhabitants thereof.” In many ways Ancient Israel was more democratic than Ancient Athens – the birthplace of Western democracy. All human beings had rights in Ancient Israel.
There were also the six cities of refuge for the accidental killer. He or she also had rights. The unintentional killer would remain in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, the cohen gadol. According to Maimonides, any murder in Israel was a moral failure of the High Priest, the cohen gadol. He should have made murder a moral impossibility. Following the commentary of Samson Raphael Hirsch, Schwartz and Kaplan give a profound and cleansing explanation of the moral, psychological, and interpersonal meaning of the cities of refuge and the accompanying laws.
Schwartz and Kaplan explain that the reason therapists ask their patients about the patient’s first memory is that it explains much about their personality, ways, and life, whether or not it is an actual memory. For example, they say that a person whose first memory is a room with filth may help explain his compulsive neatness. A patient, whose first memory is seeing dogs fighting, may help explain his phobia of dogs. Likewise, say Schwartz and Kaplan, a culture’s foundation stories or myths may help explain the nation or culture. Greek mythology includes cases of infanticide, patricide, fratricide, and gods giving birth to unwelcome humans. In the foundation story of Freudian psychoanalysis, Oedipus kills his biological father and sleeps with his biological mother.
As Schwartz and Kaplan illustrate, the Bible has humanitarian foundation stories. A loving God creates humans; Abraham helps people at every opportunity; even Lot protects strangers in his house (he did not know they were angels); the Hebrew midwives defy Pharaoh’s order to kill Israelite baby boys; Moses protects Jethro’s daughters from aggressive shepherds; Pharaoh’s daughter saves the baby Moses and brings him up; Reuven saves Joseph from his brothers murderous intentions and wants to restore him to his father Jacob; and if you read Rashi’s explanation of why the Egyptians mourned for Jacob for seventy days, it was because when Jacob came to Egypt the famine ceased, and the waters of the Nile were blessed and started to irrigate the land. Rashi also told us that God persuaded Adam to enter the Garden of Eden with kind words.
In the Bible there are conflicts between brothers, even terrible conflicts. Yet brothers are reconciled. Isaac and Ishmael bury their father Abraham together. Joseph and his brothers are reconciled even though most of them wanted to kill Joseph. Jacob fled for his life from Esau, and Esau wanted to kill Jacob. The meeting of Jacob and Esau is preceded by Jacob’s fears, Jacob’s prayers, Jacob’s plans for his household to flee, and Jacob’s wrestling with an angel, at the end of which the Angel renames him Israel. When the brothers finally meet, Esau kisses Jacob, and Jacob tells Esau that looking at his face is like looking at the face of God.
Schwartz and Kaplan cite the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, Rashi, and other rabbinical sources. Judaism has a wealth of sources and the authors make good use of many of them, which make a good addition to the existing body of psychiatric and psychological scholarly sources.
There are many approaches in psychotherapy and various schools of psychology. Very often psychoactive medication is needed. Certain psychiatric syndromes need very specialized therapy. Several schools of psychology, and methods of psychotherapy, include psychoanalysis, eclectic therapy, behavior modification, cognitive therapy, rational emotive therapy, psychodynamics, primal therapy, the Adlerian school of psychology and its related child guidance movement, Reichian psychotherapy, and psychopharmacology. These methods, approaches and theories can benefit by significant Biblical foundation or input. 
Raymond S. Solomon is a book designer by trade. Although not a scientist or engineer, Solomon was a lay member of the Engineering Division of The New York Academy of Sciences