Wednesday, August 16, 2023

How to explain Torah & Psychology to kiruv rabbis?

I was recently asked by a major kiruv organization if I would be willing to write a 20-30 page pamphlet dealing with Psychology - for kiruv rabbis. This is an important issue - but it is complex. It requires discussing not only psychological theories but their correlates in Torah, explaining among other things - the scientific method, positivism, empiricism, reality, validity and statistics. I need to document all my assertions.

We have talked about using Torah values to guide and provide boundaries in the use of psychology - but this has to be condensed into a page or two. My concern also is that these kiruv rabbis really don't have a decent secular background to understand the subject properly. Nor are they likely to have a broad enough understanding of Torah dynamics and halacha.

If you are in kiruv or are a congregational rabbi -  what issues are important to you or are causing you problems. If you refer people to psychologists - let me know about the difficulties you have experienced.


  1. Don't worry, most seculars don't have a decent secular background to understand the subject properly.

  2. If you're interested in the issues I'm working on, you can contact me next week at

  3. This is very interesting & perhaps (-halevay!) will bring about bs"d a thorough comprehensive Torah approach to psychology in theory & PRACTICE. Unfortunately it seems many frum therapists need this more than the clients realize.The Torah approach does not only pertain to halacha but also & perhaps even more so to the torahs description [found in the seforim] of the nefesh , neshama midos etc.Even a person well versed in halacha does not make him an appropriate person to give authoritative opinion & advice in these areas .

    1. emes:
      I agree with you 1000%. I'm still not sure if DT is ready to take the plunge and live with the results of where a comprehensive Torah approach to psychology may lead.

    2. i believe there are some books out there on the subject.The name dr. shulem comes to mind.anyone have more info.?

    3. Dr. Shulem is a big name therapist in Israel and is a good friend of my brother.

  4. I think the challenge is that "Kiruv Rabbis," are not fluent in psychology nor Torah, yet they represent themselves as experts in both. They are often BTs themselves who spent a couple of years in a BT "Yeshivah," studying a watered down curriculum and mastering the new age psychobabble they produce. They also learn how to missionize, proselytize, brainwash, and program. These "Rabbis" are often handsome, charismatic, and savvy - just don't ask them a shaylah in Yoreh De'ah.

    What you, Rabbi Eidensohn, can give them is tochein - real substantive content. Expose them to some difficult questions that are relevant to Kiruv and show them material - teshuvos, articles. The most important thing you can teach them is how little they know. That will humble them and make them realize they better learn. The pop psychology that they call hashkafah or mussar is not the be all and end all of Judaism.

  5. I'm not certain that a paper of that size/scope would be useful.

    It seems to me that a work on this topic that would be useful would cover:

    An Introduction to "scientific method"/Philosophy of Science.

    A discussion of they history of psychology and its challenges...with a particular focus on the potential. An emphasis on the importance of research based conclusions and treatments as THE alternative to a theory driven approach (rather than merely substituting theory's based in our own world view). This can be highlighted and re-enforced with examples of classical psychological paradigms which many would consider at odds with a Torah perspective (e.g. ALL gender differences are nurture not nature) and how they have been challenged by research (broad, carefully executed, peer reviewed, and replicable studies).

    How to think critically about psychology. When do moral/religious considerations demand a person behave contrary to what psychology has deemed (via research or otherwise) in a person's "best interest"? More importantly, perhaps, is to critically analyze the implication of research that seems to support our world view. I recall one study that found to the effect that couples who cohabited were less likely to marry and was subsequently cited as proof of the superiority of a traditional approach. It wasn't at all clear from the study, however, that the actual implication wasn't that couples who cohabited were less likely to get stuck in unhappy marriages (yet if what?). A warning about reporting on psychology and medicine in the media would be in order, with a focus on what the actual topic of the study was and not how it is being spun and whether the study being reported has been corroborated. A survey of major publications/journals with a recommendation of a couple of reliable one's written for a more general audience that can be subscribed to.

    Major religious change is a difficult and socially awkward experience and it would seem to me (=theory based rather than research based) that selection bias would lead to an over representation of emotionally vulnerable (or even simply unstable) people being encountered by a Kiurv professional. Strategies for recognizing special needs in this area would be useful as well as a survey of professional ethics on balancing the desire to help such individuals materially and spiritually with the obligation not to take advantage of their compromised state. Advise on finding personal contacts in the mental health community as well finding what local resources are available for mental health and addiction.

    That's my first thought on the matter anyway....

  6. I have to say I'm a little confused. I worked as "kiruv rabbi" for quite a number of years, and, as far as I know, I never had to have any kind of formal knowledge of psychology. Exactly what kind of knowledge of psychology is necessary for "kiruv rabbis" more than for any other person?

  7. I would agree with some of the critiques of the Kiruv movement -

    eg *Kiruv - Lying to make someone religious?

    Very often the Kiruv rabbis are very similar to people in Scientology, with the exception that they hold semicha.
    They also use fancy brainwashing techniques, and purport to be in the "personal growth" industry, whereas they are usually not qualified in psychology or therapy.

    They distort what is written in the Torah, and have a cultish atmosphere, which is not like mainstream yeshivot.

    They are also blatantly dishonest. Perhaps this could also be due to the fickle nature of Haredi orthodoxy, which doesn't knwo what it believes in one day from the next. So science used to be good and part of Judaism, which encourages knowledge, as did Maimonides. Then suddenly you get bans on books about Torah and Science.
    But the objective is not to be honest with people, but to get as many adherents to Orthodoxy, or sub-brands of Orthodoxy, as possible.

    For example, Chabad kiruv, is largely based on the personality of its false Messiah.

  8. You should speak about ethics of psychology, what psychology can do, what it can't do, what it should do, what it should not do.

    Some people do kiruv without being aware of the repercussions that a change of lifestyle can have on people's professional and private life (relations with family and friends). So it is important that they are aware of the kind of responsibility they can or cannot take on... I'm not sure I would want to take responsibility for someone quitting a job so as to stop working on shabbat, without having a new job behind it. Same goes for kashrut and family relations (people stopping to go to their families for holydays, specially pessach, because it is not kosher enough)...

  9. Probability that "Comfortably Numb" is not "Eddie": <0.00001%

  10. ohh Chaim, you blew my cover!
    You must have great ruach kodesh!

  11. I’d like to offer strong support to Yirmiahu’s post (@February 7, 2014 at 6:54 PM). I think the issues he mentions can be an excellent starting point for serious discussion of this extremely important matter.

    I’ll try to synopsize the points I took out of his post, with slight changes (perhaps based on my own inherent biases?):

    He mentions some of the things that should be covered:

    1) An Introduction to what the "scientific method" means.

    2) A discussion of the history & challenges of psychology, with a particular focus on its positive potential.

    3) An emphasis on embracing research based treatments (EBT’s) as opposed to theory driven approaches, Facilitating “#3” by; 3a) Highlighting examples of classical psychological paradigms which should be viewed with suspicion because they seem to be at odds with a Torah perspective. 3b) Accentuating many of the examples of classical psychological paradigms mentioned in “3a” which have been challenged by GOOD research (defined as studies which are “broad, carefully executed, peer reviewed, and replicable”).

    4) Critically evaluating conclusions based on psychology, regardless of whether such conclusions support or contradict what would seem to be a Torah view. Included in such an evaluation would be; 4a) whether a positive outcome of a specific study can properly be considered as endorsement of a certain behavior which would seem to be a logical outcome, or if certain factors that mediate such resultant behavior are being ignored. 4b) Awareness of how popular media often (willfully?) misconstrues the results of scholarly research & some good guidance concerning which media are more reliable than others . 4c) the illegitimacy of basic decisions on uncorroborated and unreproducible research.

    5) Specific to Kiruv professionals: Strategies for recognizing the special needs of what may be an emotional vulnerable population, including 5a) practicing professional ethics, by balancing the desire to help such individuals with the obligation not to take advantage of their possibly compromised state. 5b) A databank of appropriate MH professionals & local resources available for mental health and addiction treatment.


    If you would like to develop the concepts further, please COUNT ME IN!

    My email address is noted above.

    1. Thank you both for very helpful feedback.

      What I am trying to find out now is whether the purpose of this essay is to educate kiruv rabbis as to how to deal with psychologist and therapy of students and thus teach them to be more aware of practical issues and their own limitations or whether it is to focus on how psychological insights are part of our mesora and thus focus on "we knew about it 2000 years ago"

  12. I’ll attempt to advance the argument that solid psychological insights are part of our mesora and that they should be used in clinical practice for treating clients diagnosed with mental illness. In doing so I’ll keep in mind Yirmiahu’s 4th point – that ANY conclusions must be critically evaluated.

    I am basing my argument on a combination of several factors:

    Firstly, authoritative Hashkafic sources inform us that the Torah offers a solid avenue for emotional wellbeing. I believe that the main argument made against using Torah as a major foundation of content in clinical practice has been that these Torah sources are not meant for treatment of biological and/or genetic illness.

    However, I believe that the position that Torah should not be used to treat mental illness is weakened by various factors that have recently come to light:

    a. Emerging conceptualizations of mental health cast considerable doubt on the view that what is commonly characterized as mental “illness” is a distinct manifestation of pathological factors, whether of organic / biological or genetic nature. Instead, an emerging consensus of scholars sees MI diagnoses as being more utilitarian in nature; as a means to informing the most effective treatment, rather than as a description of fact.
    A sizeable number of scholars have embraced a dimensional approach to the diagnosis of mental illness, where mental illness is seen as a continuum of mental health, and not something distinct.

    b. Among treatment modalities with a strong evidence base, cognitive-behavioral therapies stand out as having a strong research base of efficaciousness. This should strengthen the argument that cognitive-behavioral strategies contained in Hashkafa should be used in therapies, because;
    1) the Hashkafic cognitive-behavioral strategies correlate highly with secular cognitive-behavioral strategies, and hashkafic CONTENT should therefore be no less useful.
    2) A major source of secular cognitive-behavioral strategies is ancient philosophy, and since the theories which were promulgated by the ancients for enhancing the wellbeing of “healthy” people of ALL walks of life have been found to be successful for treating mental illness, Torah Hashkafa which shares many similarities should be no different.

    c. Researchers have identified various areas of weakness in many evidence based treatments, including cognitive-behavioral approaches. A careful analysis of the shortcomings of various treatment strategies can lead an informed observer to the conclusion that Torah Hashkafa can resolve such shortcomings.

    Therefore, even using a purely utilitarian approach to the choice of treatment modality, Torah Hashkafa should be the treatment of choice.

    I believe that each of the statements I mentioned here can be properly sourced, thus allowing for critical evaluation of their validity.

  13. If understood correctly, DT mentions two possible purposes in the dissemination of aforementioned essay: a) to educate kiruv rabbis concerning their own limitations in properly dealing with the practical issues of dealing with their students unmet emotional needs, or, b) to focus on how psychological insights are part of our mesora and that "we knew about it 2000 years ago".

    Here’s מה שנראה לפענ"ד. I would choose neither of the two stated options, specifically because BOTH are true, and satisfactory alternatives are not readily available at this point in time.

    Point “b” is true – Not only are “psychological insights are part of our mesora”, but in many cases, Hashkafic guidance based on original texts trumps modern psychology in both clarity and detail. However, an overarching issue not mentioned here is that many of these Masoretic “psychological insights” are currently almost absent from the public “Chareidi” discourse of MH, thus rendering them almost inaccessible.

    Point “a” is also true. Kiruv rabbis are often ill-suited to deliver MH services. As a group, trained clinicians most surely have an edge in their knowledge of the proper DELIVERY of services. As mentioned in the last paragraph however, NEITHER most clinicians OR Rabbis are currently well versed in the CONTENT of successful interventions that would bring the “added value” - and effectiveness - of properly using the psychological insights of our mesora. The dismally low success rates of therapy should act a spur to action for thoughtful people concerned with our future.

    Additionally, an even greater area of concern is the troubling CONTENT that both Kiruv rabbis AND therapists convey, which CONTRADICTS mesora.

    Therefore, the short answer would be: Explain to kiruv rabbis & ask them to convey to their students that the BT’s willingness to undertake an extreme lifestyle change and embrace Torah DOES have the potential of offering emotional relief. However, also convey that at the present time, clinicians are better suited in the delivery of such therapeutic services than kiruv rabbis are (where serious MH issues are suspected). Also convey that the proper aggregation & organization of psychological insights of mesora that should inform therapy, or at least not contradict mesora, is still “a work in progress”.

    Disclaimer: The aforementioned statement concerning current limitations reflects my limited knowledge and inability to find proper content that’s authoritative, well-sourced and well organized. I hope I’m wrong…


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.