How did a nice psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, not to mention a neuroscientist get mixed up with the world of rabbis and wind up writing a book on pastoral counseling? Aren’t mental health professionals and clergy like oil and water? Don’t they embody the gulf between science and faith, between non-judgmental exploration and directed guidance? Do rabbis or any other clergy, for that matter, care what mental health professionals advise, especially if that advice contradicts a sacredly held value? Do mental health professionals respect psychological stances that are informed by religious practice?
We believe that the two can co-exist and even nourish each other. Perhaps blending the rigorous methodology and principals of mental health treatment with the wisdom of religion can create a healing experience that combines the best of both worlds – the yin and yang of a spiritually and psychologically satisfying response. Our odyssey started two decades ago when Michelle had the opportunity to bridge her professional and personal passions by organizing a conference on Jewish responses to anxiety and depression. This led to an invitation to be the pastoral counseling expert at four-day rabbinic conference. She was in for a big surprise. Perhaps the serene wooded setting of the retreat center encouraged trust and openness. As the days passed, participants increasingly shared painful and sometimes shocking vignettes that congregants disclosed to them on a regular basis. While these good rabbis did the best they could, they were often overwhelmed by their own anxiety and simply did not know what to do. Whether early on in their careers or many years out, these clergy felt alone and unsupported out there in the field. Their seminary years had prepared them to answer questions about Jewish ritual but not on how to listen and respond to stories of loss, betrayal and confusion.
Michelle left that retreat chastened. Clergy are first responders to the messy needs of their congregants. Unlike mental health professionals whose training include supervision and encourage personal therapy, rabbis rarely share pastoral challenges with their peers. She started doing one off programs here and there for rabbinic alumni groups and other organizations. Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Avi Weiss called her in 1999 and asked if she was interested in heading up pastoral counseling at the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. It sounded like an intriguing adventure. Because there was no template for a pastoral counseling program for rabbis, Michelle borrowed from her own psychiatric and psychoanalytic training programs and brainstormed with people she could engaged in similar work.
One of those people was Rachel. Rachel is a psychologist and neuroscientist who had by then developed several successful clinical treatment programs for trauma-related conditions at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, that included modules for training young residents and interns. These programs included the Specialized Clinic for Holocaust Survivors and their families. Rachel was by then serving on the Board of Directors of YCT. Michelle asked Rachel to teach rabbinical students how to deal with congregants in the aftermath of trauma and disaster.
The years rolled by and the pastoral counseling program at YCT flourished. One of the major teaching techniques to emerge was role-playing in which rabbinical students are given scenarios to play act with one student acting the part of the congregant and the other playing the part of the rabbi. Another was process group, where students met every week with a mental health facilitator and, in a confidential setting, talk through feelings and issues that emerge in their training. Other seminaries strengthened their own programs. Mental health awareness grew across the denominations. Both Michelle and Rachel were invited to speak at Jewish community programs across the denominational spectrum on post partum depression, psychiatric medications, sexual abuse, and how to respond to individual and communal trauma. E-mails and calls came from around the country from rabbis who sought consultation on tough pastoral situations.
It was time to write a book. The goal was not to create yet another informative, but dry, academic piece with a formulaic review of the literature, data charts and copious footnotes. Not another compilation of chapters about topics pertaining to mental illness that do not exactly provide guidance about how to navigate specific situations. Rather, it felt important to write a book that explored the feeling experience of the person who sat in the pastoral counselor’s seat and confronted human drama and raw need. To write for the rabbi who listens to people dealing with loneliness or marginalization, parents struggling to connect to their children, spouses whose marriages are falling apart, elders confronting frailty, and for the school principal or camp director who sees the boy or girl struggling with a difficult family, with sexuality, with Jewish identity. The goal was to share what had been gleaned over these decades of delivering mental health services on the one hand, and teaching rabbis at YCT.
So that is what happened. We created four fictional characters that go through almost 70 scenarios culled from our logs of practice and supervision. We crafted expositions on each scenario that explain basic principles of pastoral counseling from a Jewish perspective. Towards the end of the process, we read the book out loud to each other to pick up on awkward or confusing sentences. It feels great to offer this book that can help people in positions of spiritual authority listen wisely and well.
“The holidays are coming up and after the way my brother/sister behaved last year I can’t bring myself to ever spend time with them like we have always done. What should I do?”
One could imagine this question being directed to a rabbis or a therapists. Is there a difference between how a rabbi and a therapist would handle this question from a congregant/patient? Is there something to be learned from whether the person needing guidance turns to a rabbi or a therapist? Do clergy and psychotherapists have similar responses hearing the pain and confusion laced into such questions? What gets touched off in their own hearts, what memories do they have of conflict in their own past family life or what struggles do they face in the here and now? How does anyone’s personal history and experience affect their responses? Should their personal experiences affect their responses? And what kind of training do pastoral counselors get as compared to mental health professionals? These are some of the issues tackled in the book.
People turn to mental health professionals when they wish for therapeutic interventions that are value neutral. Therapists work towards symptom resolution and individual fulfillment. When therapeutic goals have been achieved, the relationship with the therapist comes to an end. In contrast, they turn to clergy for pastoral counseling under similarly distressing life circumstances when they wish to glean wisdom and support that connects them to their religious tradition. Going to talk to the rabbi may pose less stigma for many people than making an appointment with a mental health professional. The rabbi, unlike the therapist, is likely to know congregant and members of the family and to stay involved with them as long as they remain in the community. Further, unlike mental health professionals who bill for their service, clergy counsel free of charge. mental health goals are tailored to the individual patient’s cultural framework and personal agenda.
Despite these differences, counseling provided by a mental clinician or rabbi may be similar in many ways. Both share certain core values such as active, compassionate, non-judgmental listening. Mental health training is designed to hone therapists’ listening skills by teaching them theories of psychology, interview skills and how to reflect on their sessions with patients. Rabbinic training has not historically focused on developing these skills. However clergy require similar training to prepare them for their roles as pastors. Unfortunately, seminary training focuses more on intellect than emotion. The rabbi needs to resist the impulse to jump in with a similar vignette from his/her life, refrain from giving quick advice, and hear out the story. Like the therapist, as the rabbi listens, he/she quietly stays in touch with the anxiety, anger, or sadness that get stirred up while listening to a painful yet deeply human story. In contrast to mental health however, clergy represent the values of their faith tradition. For example, religious commitment often prioritizes community and family concerns about individual fulfillment. The rabbi may worry that non-judgmental listening implies that certain attitudes or actions, such as family rifts that contradict Jewish tradition are OK. However, when a caring listener finds a sliver of alliance with the teller of an offensive story, trust is generated, not necessarily approval.
One way for the rabbi to listen is to formulate questions about the material being heard. In the above example, it is not clear what the sibling’s objectionable behavior was, whether the sibling got drunk, was missing in action during a family member’s critical illness, questioned mom about the will or suggested conversion therapy for a gay family member. The simple direction, “Tell me more” coupled with quiet attention encourages the most turbulent souls to open up. As the rabbi listens, he/she can think of questions and generate hypotheses as to what is going on. The congregant fills in the story, “We needed financial help and my sister wouldn’t help…..my brother was staying with us during his separation and made a pass at the nanny….I was going through a rough time and he/she didn’t bother to check in on how I was doing…” The rabbi wonders if these slights started long ago or whether they result from something that the congregant did that provoked alienation. The rabbi may recall hurts in his/her family of origin. Sometimes there was resolution, other times not. Getting in touch with her own emotional pulse allows him/her to empathize with the congregant’s distress while also being clear that their life experiences and reactions are different. The rabbi might ask a few questions to clarify the picture and formulate a hierarchy of goals. In many ways, this is exactly what a therapist what a therapist would do, i.e. guide a patient in exploration and finding some kind of workable solution. The difference is the weight that clergy give to religious values and tradition. For example, if in the above vignette, aged parents or grandparents will be pained if the patient/congregant boycotts the holiday celebration, the rabbi might emphasize the value of honoring parents over personal comfort.
Sometimes people ask for a specifically religious answer, “Rabbi, what does Jewish tradition say about families?... or…isn’t it against the Bible to embarrass someone? “ Jewish tradition has much to say about family relationships and family conflict, about rupture and repair. The rabbi’s sense of tact and timing will determine whether offering a religious text feels formulaic or supportive. Often the congregant’s question is rhetorical in a sense that they are not seeking a religious ruling, but trying to get some heavy-duty support for their own feelings and opinions.
There is no one right answer to any of the above questions. A guiding principle for both rabbi and therapist might be to try and circumscribe the problem to the present moment and give the congregant permission to make a decision just for right now. “I hear that your relationship with your brother/sister has been difficult for quite a while. I find it’s more helpful to avoid words like ‘never and ever’. At this time you need to make a decision about this one holiday. After that, you can think about how that felt and what you want to do next.” This kind of response allows for a kind of pause after the gathering, time in which to metabolize whatever behaviors and feelings comes up on the holiday.
Pastoral counseling and psychotherapy have a great deal to learn from each other. Thankfully, the historic tension between the fields has lessened and we see books and conferences that explore connections between the two. Both explore realms of making meaning out of the human condition and larger issues of purpose and connection.
The book speaks to interpersonal dilemmas and needs common to all humans. The clear principles and practices that are presented can benefit pastoral counselors of any faith tradition because the focus is on the inner experience of the pastoral counselor. While our examples are from Jewish tradition, the reader is free to substitute beliefs and rituals from diverse religious backgrounds. Observant Jewish life is grounded in aspiring to sanctity through daily ritual practice that increase mindfulness and closeness to God. It is certainly possible for readers practicing in other faith-based traditions to transpose their religious precepts and counseling discourse into the teachings of this book.
Readers of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths
will learn about specific ritual practices in Judaism. However, the principles of pastoral counseling transcend the specific ritual practices and can be used in a variety of spiritual contexts. Readers will mostly learn how to analyze problems presented by congregants, including when to access the services of a mental health provider.
There is a great need to continue the conversation about pastoral counseling as it applies to clergy in a variety of settings. We hope to be able to take on even tougher cases in pastoral counseling that were presented in this book.
It is also important to provide core principals of pastoral interactions to other community leaders and first-line responders. Any professional involved in a vocation involving the provision of care to people requires the tools of engagement offered in this book. Difficult situations arise in the context of academic settings in which students are mistreated or faculty are affected by interpersonal issues; in legal context where lawyers and judges are overwhelmed by the material presented to them in the adjudication of law, such as how to resolve complex cases of custody of minors in family law, or psychological damages related to trauma in both civil and criminal court. Police and firefighters also require exquisite sensitivity and training in how to deal with persons who are challenged by criminal behavior or disaster, above and beyond providing law and order and extinguishing flames.
Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., is a psychologist and neuroscientist who has over the last 25 years conducted research on post-traumatic stress disorder and resilience. Dr. Yehuda has lectured in the Pastoral Counseling program at YCT, where she also served on the Board of Directors. She is currently Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine. She is also the Director of Mental Health at the James J. Peters Bronx Veterans Affairs Hospital.
Michelle Friedman, a daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland, was born in Liberty, New York, raised on a chicken farm in Divine Corners followed by two years of high school in suburban New Jersey. Her cultural odyssey continued with college at Barnard where she majored in religion and then medical school at N.Y.U. Her interest in narrative and meaning led her to pursue psychiatry. After an internship at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, she did a residency in psychiatry at Mt. Sinai followed by psychoanalytic training at Columbia.
Dr. Friedman has been involved in bridging religious life and mental health issues for over 30 years. She has spearheaded educational initiatives on a variety of topics, including religious identity, postpartum depression, and sexuality. In 1998, Dr. Friedman was invited to develop a pastoral counseling curriculum for YCT in order to prepare Modern Orthodox rabbis to meet the challenges of contemporary community leadership. Much of this book comes out of that teaching experience and her ongoing contact with graduates of YCT and other rabbinical seminaries.