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Chapter 1: PSYCHOLOGY AND SPIRITUALITY: THE BRIDGE
THE FAILURE OF THE PSYCHOLOGICAL REVOLUTION
A century of clinical psychology has made therapy a household concept in the Western world. More people than ever before have experienced psychotherapy. More methods for achieving psychological well-being are available. Miracle drugs alleviate depression and relieve anxiety. Gadgets of every description make household chores and business administration less tedious and more efficient. More time is available for relaxation, entertainment, continuing education, and personal growth.
These advances should have produced a happier and more fulfilled generation. But people seem to be no less troubled and no more relaxed and fulfilled than they were prior to the psychological revolution. What has gone wrong?
What happened to Sheila, Jeremy, and their extended family helps answer this question.
SHEILA AND JEREMY’S STORY
Our synagogue was launching an ambitious outreach program. We thought that High Holy Day services for young adult “beginners,” with lots of explanations and opportunities for asking questions, might be a good way of attracting people who had been turned off or never turned on. In addition, we were offering home hospitality.
I received a call from a young man asking if he and his friend could spend the High Holy Days as my houseguests. This was the beginning of an experience that would prove to be transformative in more ways than I could imagine at the time.
Jeremy and Sheila arrived a few hours before the evening service. I learned that Jeremy was a professor at a local university, and that Sheila had been his student in another city. They had begun to talk about building a future together, and religion was the only issue that seriously troubled them.
Jeremy was Jewish by birth, but was an atheist. Both his parents were mental health professionals, and he had embraced their contempt for religion. His father was a professor of psychiatry with an international reputation for his research and clinical skills. His mother was a licensed clinical social worker who taught at the same university as her husband. Jeremy’s father had been trained in Vienna before the Second World War, and had been persuaded by Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion that religion was a collective neurosis. He was convinced that God did not exist and that the concept of the Divine was a human invention to serve social and psychological needs. Jeremy’s mother shared her husband’s beliefs. There were no Jewish observances or even Jewish symbols in their home. I was not surprised to learn that Jeremy had had no Jewish religious education.
Sheila, on the other hand, came from a religious home. Her parents were sincere believers and had given their children a solid Christian education, but Sheila had some reservations about religion. The threat of hellfire and damnation for religious noncompliance and the negative attitude to other faiths by the family pastor troubled her deeply. However, she knew that her life needed to be spiritually centered and wanted to find an alternative to the religious values and experiences she had encountered.
Jeremy had tried to persuade Sheila that her quest for spirituality made no sense, but she told him that it was a vital part of her being. She pointed out that Jeremy had never been exposed to religion and suggested that his rejection of something he had not experienced was unreasonable. Jeremy reluctantly agreed to give religion a try. Sheila thought that Unitarian Christianity might be less objectionable to Jeremy than the Christianity of her childhood. She hoped, too, that it would do something for her. So Jeremy and Sheila had attended services at a Unitarian church near the university, but left uninspired. Then she had suggested that they go to services at a Reform Jewish temple. The services in that ultraliberal synagogue did not seem very different from the disappointing worship experience in the Unitarian church. It was at that point that the couple had relocated to our city.
Jeremy and Sheila were moved by their High Holy Day experience and decided to attend the beginners’ service on a weekly basis. Sheila asked me for literature on Judaism. She was an avid reader and devoured every book I recommended. Jeremy spent many hours in the library reading up on Judaism and confided to me that he had discovered hidden hungers. After about six months, they came to see me about Sheila’s converting to Judaism. I told them that they would both need to take classes and become involved in the other spiritual activities of the community. They were ready to do so and enrolled in the conversion program. They continued to read voraciously, mastered Hebrew, and made changes in their lifestyle that reflected their growing religious commitment.
Shortly before Sheila’s conversion, I asked them about their wedding plans. They said that they wanted to marry as soon after the conversion as possible, but that their wedding plans had brought Jeremy into open conflict with his parents. His parents approved of Sheila, but resisted the couple’s request that their wedding be catered kosher. They felt it was a rejection of their beliefs and of the way they had brought up their son. They saw me as the villain responsible for undermining everything they had done to disabuse their son of religious superstition. To put it mildly, they detested me.
However, a kosher wedding was eventually held and Jeremy’s parents attended reluctantly. Over the next few years, Jeremy and Sheila had children and introduced them to the beauty of Jewish practice. I had no contact with them for several years. Then, one day, I received a phone call. “Rabbi,” a voice said tentatively, “do you remember me?” It was Jeremy. “I need to ask you a huge favor,” he said. “My dad has a brain tumor. He wants you to come and see him in the hospital.”
All kinds of thoughts raced through my head, mainly that the old psychiatrist was finally going to let me have it for ruining his son and his grandchildren. I thought it was one of the last issues he needed to tie up before he died. Somewhat nervously, I asked, “When would he like to see me?”
“How about tonight?” Jeremy replied.
That evening, prayer book clasped in hand (perhaps more to comfort me than him), I knocked on his father’s door. A German-accented voice invited me in. We were alone in the room. “You asked to see me,” I said.
He fixed his gaze on me. “Is it okay for an old man to say he’s been a fool?” he asked. I could not believe what I was hearing. What did he mean? He answered my question before I asked it. “You know who I am, what I teach, and what I have believed. I was trained in Vienna. In high school we used to mock the rabbi whose classes we had to attend later in the day.” He mimicked the rabbi’s eastern European accent. “Mi-she-bayrach, Mi-she-bayrach, Mi-she-bayrach. We thought this was a witch’s incantation. After all, everything Jewish was supposed to be crude and primitive. These feelings were reinforced at medical school and became central to my beliefs. That’s why I so bitterly resented your influence on my son.”
“What happened?” I asked. “What made you think you’ve been wrong all these years?”
“Spirituality did not fit any of the accepted categories of the life and mental health sciences,” he told me. “but I finally did discover spirituality at the Sabbath table in my son’s home. The prayers and hymns resonated with a part of my soul I had completely disowned, and the radiance in the faces of my grandchildren transported me to another dimension.”
“What happened after you made this discovery?” I asked.
“I decided that I needed to learn more. I began by asking my son to tell me what Mi-she-bayrach means.”
“What did your son tell you?” I asked.
“He told me that Mi-she-bayrach is the beginning of an ancient Jewish prayer for blessing and healing,” he answered. “And I’ve another confession. I have been attending your public lectures over the past few years.”
“I did not know . . . ,” I began.
“How could you? I did not introduce myself. I was not sure you would want to know me after what you had heard about me.”
“Nothing would have given me more joy than to hear of your personal transformation,” I replied.
“You’re probably wondering why I wanted to see you,” the old man said. “It was not only to tell you I had been a fool, and a very stubborn fool, at that. It was to ask you to do something for me. I’m about to have surgery to remove my brain tumor. Would you say a Mi-she-bayrach for me?”
This story is a dramatic illustration of the failure of the psychological revolution. The hidden hungers Jeremy had discovered pointed to an innate need for spirituality. Even the old Viennese professor had to admit that the traditional model was wrong, because it overlooked the universal yearning for spiritual fulfillment.
My first encounter with the study of psychology was in 1956. Six hundred freshmen were crowded into a large lecture hall at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. None of us had any previous exposure to psychology. We were all eagerly awaiting the introductory session, which had been listed as “An Overview of the Science of Psychology.” The instructor, a tall and very imposing man, wasted no time in laying all his cards on the table. “I’m going to disabuse you of three myths,” he declared. “There is no God; there is no soul; and there is no mind. If you can get that archaic nonsense out of your heads, you’ll be ready to study and practice psychology seriously.”
Every undergraduate psychology course I took during the next several years proved his point. Experiences of transcendence and of spirituality were beyond the scope of psychology. Sigmund Freud had, after all, described himself as “the personal enemy of God.” Spirituality was the problem, not the solution to people’s problems. The psychiatric Bible is called Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–DSM for short. Therapists usually make their diagnoses according to DSM criteria. Until very recently, almost every reference to religion in the DSM was linked to pathology. Neurophysiology, learning theory, and experimental psychology had joined Freud in removing the soul from psychology.
Because God and soul were fundamental to my personal beliefs and way of life, I decided not to become a psychologist but to try another way of helping people to heal and grow. And so, after graduation, I enrolled at the local rabbinical seminary, eventually going to New York for my doctoral work on the writings of the great kabbalist Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague (1512—1609). My study of his theory of psychology and ethics was my segue into the literature of the Kabbalah. At last, I had found my spiritual home.
After I received a Ph.D., I became a full-time rabbi. Kabbalah was still outside the bounds of mainstream Judaism, and the time was not yet right for me to publicly proclaim my kabbalistic convictions.