‘Attached’: A guide to connecting with God - review

To say this book is about attachment theory and God is a bit of a misnomer. It is so much more.

 Rabbi Yakov Danishefky (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Yakov Danishefky
(photo credit: Courtesy)

After World War II, the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) studied child development by observing orphans. He noticed a phenomenon that all the theories of child development at the time could not explain. Namely, even children who were given adequate medical care, nourishing food and shelter were not thriving. Some even died. 

In trying to explain why some children flourished while others given virtually the same circumstances perished, Bowlby eventually developed his groundbreaking theory of attachment. Based on ideas from evolutionary biology, ethology and social psychology, attachment theory proposes that because human beings are born helpless, they are “programmed” to search for and to attach to a caregiver or multiple caregivers, for survival. 

Crucially, the nature of the relationship between caregiver and infant makes all the difference in the world. In accordance with how the caregiver provides the infant’s physical and emotional needs, the infant will learn whether to rely on and feel safe with the caregiver. The infant-caregiver relationship, in turn, shapes the infant’s brain and instills within it an implicit set of beliefs and expectancies about future relationships as well. 

Attachment theory and our relationship with God

Attachment theory has become one of the most heavily researched areas of psychology. There is a great amount of literature showing how our earliest interactions with our caregivers greatly color our future relationships with romantic partners, friendships, coworkers and even teammates. Yet, one of the most understudied areas of attachment theory is how our earliest attachment schemas impact our relationship with God. Rabbi Yakov Danishefky’s Attached seeks and succeeds at filling this gap. 

As a rabbi and licensed clinical social worker, Danishefsky is uniquely qualified to not only elucidate the concepts of attachment theory within a religious framework but to show how these concepts were always embedded in Judaism itself. Danishefsky creatively articulates this concept before the book is even opened; the book’s cover contains the Hebrew subtitle, u’ledavka bo from the verse, “And to Him [God] you shall attach yourself (Deut. 11:22).” 

 DOES GOD exist, and if so,  how does He interface with the universe?  (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)
DOES GOD exist, and if so, how does He interface with the universe? (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)

“It’s quite amazing,” writes Danishefsky, “that the Torah’s choice of word for connecting to God is literally the Hebrew word for attachment, deveikut.”

Danishefsky impressively quotes from a wide range of Jewish sources, such as the Talmud, the Zohar, Maimonides, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, within the narrative of his book, to elucidate his points. Although many of his sources appear ideologically worlds apart, the author succeeds in demonstrating their common denominator in a clear and concise manner.

However, to say this book is about attachment theory and God is a bit of a misnomer. It is so much more. Danishefsky introduces a diverse range of other psychological concepts and research and explains how they can be used to enhance our relationship with God. For example, the author cites the research of Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman, who found that, fascinatingly, the question that offers the best predictor of a satisfying relationship is this: When I’m with this person, how do I feel about myself? 

Danishefsy then relates this to our relationship with God: “How do you feel about yourself in the relationship with the God you currently engage? Do you feel loved, accepted, wanted, able to make and own mistakes, confident enough and motivated to expand beyond your comfort zone, and happy being in your own skin? Do you feel that you can be you – without putting on an act?” 

In a particularly fascinating section of the book, the author cites the research of marriage therapist Gary Chapman who identified five primary ways in which people express and feel love: their “love language.” 

Danishefsy ingeniously shows how these five love languages can be present in our relationship with God as well: “Words of affirmation” can be found in our prayers and blessings; “quality time” can be linked to Shabbat, the Jewish holidays and the halachicly specified times present in each day of the year; “gifts” and “acts of service” correspond to fulfillment of hukim, the mitzvot that seem to lack a rationale; and “touch” closely mirrors the physicality present in many of the mitzvot. 

There are many other researchers and theorists that the author explores and it is only towards the end of the book that he gets into the thick of the different attachment styles and how they too are manifested in our religious life. In this way, a second subtitle of this book, “A Jewish Psychological Approach,” is aptly fitting. Attached is more about how a diverse range of psychological research on the nature of relationships can inform and enhance our Judaism in ways hitherto unarticulated. Attachment theory is just one of the concepts discussed. When reading the book I couldn’t help thinking of the blessing that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai gave his students before his death: “May it be His will that the fear of Heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood (Berachot 28b).” 

Although not the simple understanding of the blessing, perhaps what Attached teaches us is that not only should the fear of Heaven be comparable to the fear of man, but that the fear of Heaven and by extension our relationship with God, should be informed by our understanding of human relationships. 

Yet, what makes Attached truly enjoyable is that it isn’t written from the perspective of a researcher sitting in an ivory tower, but by a therapist who sees the issues discussed in this book in real life on a daily basis. In a sense, Danishefsky follows in the tradition of the works of famed psychiatrist Irvin Yalom by introducing the reader to his clients’ stories and the struggles they are going through. 

To provide just one example: We are introduced to Avi who, despite being highly skilled and diligent at learning Torah in his youth, drops learning altogether when the responsibilities of married life make it difficult for him to maintain the rigorous learning schedule he expected of himself. Eventually, Danishefsky pieces together that Avi’s upbringing reinforced the idea that learning Gemara was the sole way to achieve praise and attention from his family and by extension, God. When Avi wasn’t able to learn Gemara in the same way he was used to, he assumed God wasn’t interested in any of his religious observances. 

While giving the reader a glimpse into the lives of his clients, Danishefsy also follows the path of Lori Gottlieb, veteran psychotherapist and best-selling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by disclosing personal details of his life’s journey as well. These anecdotes are raw and emotional, but greatly enhance the book’s readability and relatability. Everyone, including rabbis and therapists, struggles with their marriage and with periods of depression. By including these poignant personal examples in the book, the reader perceives Danishefsky as someone who “gets it” and as a person worthy of giving insight and advice. 

Relatedly, it’s interesting that Danishefsky does not include the existing research on attachment theory and God in Attached. For example, research has found that individuals who hold a secure attachment to God are more engaged in theological/existential exploration and are curious about and tolerant of alternative views while subscribing firmly to their own beliefs. A secure attachment to God has been found to correlate with lower psychological distress and prospectively predicts increases in self-esteem and optimism over time. While it may have been helpful for these points to be included in the footnotes, I believe that in omitting them from the body text Danishefsky follows the path of Shimon HaAmmassoni who said, “Just as I received reward for the interpretation, so I shall receive reward for my withdrawal (Pesachim 22b).” Including more psychological jargon and research in the body text would, in my opinion, take away from the goal of the book which is summarized by a third subtitle of the book, Connecting to our Creator. 

What’s clear from Attached is that it is not meant to be an authoritative and exhaustive work on a topic; it is meant to serve as a self-reflective and practical guide to cultivating a relationship with God. This thought-provoking book certainly succeeds at fulfilling that goal.  ■

Marc Eichenbaum is a doctoral student in Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology’s Clinical Psy.D. program and a fellow in the Sacks Graduate Fellowship for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He received his rabbinic ordination from RIETS and has worked for Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought and the Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls.