Thursday, August 17, 2023

A psychologist's role in religious change - is there one?

Case 1
Chassidim view that the rebbe's views are true and are based on ruach hakodesh. A chasid comes to a therapist and says he is unhappy, his wife is unhappy and so are his kids. He is following the views of his rebbe and his wife and children try their best to follow the guidelines of the rebbe. He has gone a number of times to the rebbe for guidance, but the rebbe says that his suffering is because of his yetzer harah and he just needs to try harder. However the chasid reports having no sense of fulfillment, spiritual accomplishment, emotional connection. There is no shalom bayis and the kids are depressed. There is no evidence of psychological problems being the cause of these complaints. The chasid reports serious doubts about the validity of his chassidus after he had a serious of discussions with friends who are Litvaks and different types of Chassidim. He yearns for intellectual independence and psychological space from the community and in particular the rebbe who he does not respect. He feels that he is trapped playing a role that for him is phony and hypocritical. He feels energized by immersing in different views and trying to clarify his own views of hashkofa. The therapist concludes that the problem is that the chasid and his families psychological and emotional needs are not met by this particular chassidus.

Case 2
A Litvak from a long line of Litvaks has it made and is the envy of his friends. He has mastered Shas, is a successful rebbe in a major New York yeshiva high school. Married the daughter of a well-known gadol who is a successful teacher in a seminary and a popular speaker. They have 5 kids who are doing well in yeshiva/Beis Yaakov. They have no health or financial worries. However collectively they are report that religion has become a culture and that they find nothing meaningful in what they do. While they are perceived as role models, they feel emptiness both spiritually and psychologically. Over the last year they have found a great attraction to Chassidus because of a couple they met Pesach at a hotel. He now yearns for the spiritual certainty and vibrancy he sees in chassidus – something that surprises him because he was raised to have disdain for Chassidus and rebbes. He feels a need to be a part of a community and to be able to be given guidance by a rebbe. The independence that a Litvak treasures, he views as alienation and distance from G‑d.

Case 3
The 17 year of daughter of a gadol finds it unpleasant living up to everyone's expectations of how a gadol's daughter should be. She would like a career which requires a college education. She wants to marry someone who is frum – but not a Torah genius who will spend the rest of his life learning 18 hours a day. She wants a husband who is a friend that she can relax with – not a revered figure that she must sacrifice her own needs to support and tend to. In short she does not want to be a rebbetzin who is married to the Chofetz Chaim – which is what her family expects of her. She really wants to have a comfortable existence and not the life of poverty that she grew up with sharing a 4 room apartment with her parents and 10 siblings. She came to the therapist because of migraine headaches, periodic bouts of depression and has recently started to cut herself (though she hasn't told her parents).

These cases are not really psychological problems but the result of a mismatch between the nature of the person and religious identity. Is it appropriate for a therapist to suggest a major religious change? If so how should he go about presenting the idea?


  1. "These cases are not really psychological problems but the result of a mismatch between the nature of the person and religious identity."

    This is an issue that must strictly be dealt with by ones religious pastor (rabbi).

    "Is it appropriate for a therapist to suggest a major religious change?"

    Absolutely not. Certainly not without direct guidance from the person's rabbinical authority.

    1. You missed the key point. The rabbinical authority in each case is insisting of more of the same and it is not working.

    2. Then at most the patient might be seeking new or additional rabbinical authority. He can't replace a rabbinical authority with a therapist.

      And this issue described is one that requires a rabbinical authority not a non-religious authority.

    3. Please explain why a rabbinical authority is needed? We are not talking about someone who wants to go off the derech. If the authority says the person can not change or that change is only permitted to something similar - - on what basis is the client required to listen to him?

    4. Because the very nature of what is being sought is a religious issue. (In fact even "mundane" issues are usually halachic; but in this case it is deeply a religious/Torah nature to what is being sought.)

    5. Ben Torah you just keep repeating yourself without offering any explanation. If you don't understand whether your tefillin are kosher - it is understandable why you should go to a posek for clarification.

      If a person wants a different type of Orthodoxy - on what basis is a religious authority who is committed to the views that the person wants to leave - be relevant. Or are you saying he should get a psak from a rabbi of the group he wants to join?

      In short if he asks his present religious authority it is unlikely he will be told not to change. If he asks the religious authority of the group he wants to joing - it is likely that he will be told to change. So what does he need a religious authority for?

    6. Truthfully speaking, a good Rov or Rebbe would also have the integrity to help his Talmid to find the right way, even if it is different to the general way of that Rov or Rebbe.

    7. "Wanting a different type of Orthodoxy" is a very deeply halachic/religious issue and question. It certainly requires rabbinic guidance.

      Flipping "types of Orthodoxy" (or recommendations on switching religions for that matter) is very far from being a question for a therapist.

      "If he asks the religious authority of the group he wants to joing - it is likely that he will be told to change."

      That is not factually accurate to assume he will likely be advised to change if he asks a rabbi from a sect or group he is considering.

    8. Not so fast - What's the halacha on this?March 20, 2014 at 3:30 PM

      "And this issue described is one that requires a rabbinical authority not a non-religious authority."

      Says who?

  2. Therapists don't present ideas. The individual has to come to it on his own. This is imperative, or else the 'therapy' isn't therapy but just another person telling him what to do, or at best, giving suggestions.

    The therapist should do some good listening - active listening. If this 'major religious change' is truly what the person needs, he is sure to come to it on his own, at his own pace, if the therapist is a good 'listener'.

    1. Agreed - but as noted to my comment to Ben Torah above - what happens if his rabbinical authority disapproves of the change. Should the therapist be working through these issues with the client?

    2. If you would be asking how to deal with a client who Ch'V wants to go OTD, then I understand the dilemma, but to follow different forms of true Hashkofo, I don't see the problem. Does anyone in his right mind believe that the message from 'HIS' Rebbe, Chassidus, Rosh Yeshiva, Mashgiach etc is the only kosher way, and all other Yidden are no good Ch'V? Let's remember, we are talking about someone is finding himself in order to be a true Oived Hashem.

      If he wants to change his hat, though, or code of dress, then he has a more serious crisis. It could be a sign of craziness or something else other than simply what you are describing. Because a person can be very broadminded in his Yiddishkeit without change of dress. Obviously, if the one asking this question is a competent therapist, he will know how to tell what's really going on.

      This is what I answer to the therapist who is asking, because obviously he thinks of himself as a competent therapist. But let me warn the individual seeking help, that there are therapists who have an agenda. For example, they attended college and are secular, so they might scorn anyone who is against it. This would not be the case with a good therapist. A good therapist does not try to project his Hashkofos onto his clients. He is a loyal aid to the client to find 'his' right way. Let me also suggest that if a therapist doesn't know if he can handle this correctly, he should have the integrity to leave it to another therapist.

  3. 1. In the cases mentioned above it appears that all people involved have considered an 'alternative' to their currently religious identity. Furthermore if the mismatch is the 'root' of the client's anxiety, depression etc then it has to be addressed and the therapist is duty bound to bring up the issue.
    2. As such it is appropriate for a therapist to explore the possibility with them. The therapist can ask as question, 'So if X,Y,Z gives you so much grief what stops you from leaving?;
    3. A larger question is what should be the appropriate response from family & community members if a person does 'move on'? Partisan politics, (the frame work of 'us vs. them') and peer pressure has contributed to people's fear of expressing their new found religious identity in the Orthodox world and has contributed negatively to the mental health of the community in general by it's coercive force.

  4. These are very important questions for our time and probably weren't relevant when communities were more homogeneous.

    A religion as generally defined would provide maximum information and allow the individual to decide. A cult would generally restrict information and make exiting the group as difficult as possible.

    I hope we are still a religion.

  5. Are you raising this issue from a halachik/hashkafic perspective, or a psychological one? If you asking from a psychological perspective, it is no diffrent to someone who has a mismatch between his nature and Torah Judaism in general. The professional will have to consider is should guide his client into a secular lifstyle.

    If you are asking from a Torah perspective the Rebbe might tell you that it is completly against halachah for the guy to leave his comunity. So the issue is a matter of how one views the change from a torah perspectivee?

    Or are you asking from a religious professional's point of view, who has to navigate the sometimes confliting worlds of human nature and Torah obeservance?

    1. halachic/haskafic perspective

    2. For case 3, you don't say whether the parents know of their child's long-term intentions. Do they intend to press their expectations no matter what? I know of gedolim who let their children be themselves.

      As for cases 1 and 2: while i do not think the therapist can say which derech to follow, the therapist has a right to say the truth- they have a right to choose which rabbinic authority to accept (In fact they are the only ones who can choose). The therapist can also guide them to cope with the fears involved in making changes if they are considering or have decided to make changes

      ben dov

  6. Regarding hypotheticals 1&2: The history of Chassidut is full of stories of Rebbes and big Chassidim who began as Mitnagndim and took a new path in opposition to their parents' wishes/orders.

    If it is parents, their authority is not absolute: a young man who thinks a different yeshiva would facilitate his advance in Torah may find it permissible go against his parents' wishes. It can be that a parent's wishes may not stand in the way of fulfilling the mitzvah of yishuv haaretz.

    In case 3 above, would it be an better outcome for the young woman to find a shadchan who would match her with, say, a young Modern Orthodox or DL man who follows a different hashkafa in which he might be an outstanding exemplar, and which she would then adopt even though her parents find it a suboptimal derech, or to find a balebatishe man within her "native" hashkafa – which would mean suboptimal within that world?

  7. Excellent post. Yes, I believe it is appropriate to suggest the possibility of religious change in some circumstances. You have to give the advice that you think is correct -- I don't think you have any obligation to defer to the authority of a patient's parents or rabbis. There is no law that someone must remain on the same derech and submit himself to the same rabbi he was born with. Everyone, including counseling professionals, have a right to their own opinion and to share it with people whom they believe could benefit from it (as long as the opinion isn't kefira or lashon hara or something).

    Of course, I am not familiar with all the details of these cases and these judgments may be wrong. But here are some initial thoughts.

    In the first case, the only solution seems to be to move away from this community. I would recommend that they move to another city, to a moderate neighborhood with a mix of Litvaks and dati leumi or chardalim, and that they enroll their children in moderate Litvak or dati leumi schools. This will give them the space and freedom to explore their own hashkafa, and they can join another chassidus later if they wish.

    In the second case, they need to explore other spiritual paths, until they find something meaningful to them, but unlike in the first case, they can probably do this privately, without necessarily making any change in their jobs or appearance or affiliations. Perhaps they could study the works of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov or the Bilvavi or the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and ask advice of a few living rebbes or spiritual mentors such as Rav Shalom Arush. It's not unheard of to remain a Litvak while privately studying chassidus and having some relationship with a rebbe and his chassidism. In fact some Litvish rabbis (the Steipler, R' Lopian, R' Dessler) have referred to some kinds of chassidus (like Breslov) to be good mussar that everyone should read. Perhaps you should show them these sources, or other sources about how each person has to find their own derech within Yiddishkeit.

    In the third case, it sounds like there may be some psychological issues as well, even if her personal desires for a different life are a major cause. In her case she should gently tell her parents how she feels, stressing that she wants to remain frum but pursue a career and marry a ba'al habos or normal shul rabbi rather than a "Chofetz Chaim". With G-d's help they will be open-minded and not reject her. That should ease her depression.

  8. "comic relief" if you will!?!?
    Case 2
    .....a well-known gadol who is a successful teacher in a seminary ..."

    i just find that detail amusing!!! i didnt know gedolim teach in girls seminaries

    1. I wrote: Married the daughter of a well-known gadol who is a successful teacher in a seminary and a popular speaker.

      Try reading the sentence again. It is the daughter of the gadol who teaches in seminary not the godol!

    2. This is an interesting post, in that is asks the role of the Psychologist. It could equally be a scientist or any other area of "secular" knowledge, which is so maligned in some quarters.

      This is essentially asking whether a non Rabbi, or even a Rabbi with secular training can be a catalyst for halachic / religious change.

      There are several drivers for halachic change. One is Horayot - if a matter was hidden from the lawmakers. The matter may be seen by someone outside of the lawmaker society, it could be a prophet, layman or child. The issue is whether the lawmakers are honest in recognizing their error.

      Another is if a takkana is too heavy a burden or that the reasons are no longer relevant. The Poskim may not realise this until information is given to them, and it may be the Psych who does this.
      A counter argument would be that it is only the gedolim who can decide halacha. that does not negate the possibility that they may learn from non-gedolim, eg when scientists tell them smoking is damaging to health.

  9. Recipients and PublicityMarch 18, 2014 at 11:18 PM

    The three cases, that are not just hypothetical, but can reflect multitudinous real-life scenarios like this, are actually vary fascinating in what they presage and portend, though not consciously or deliberately of course.

    Namely, the eventual dissolution of the old historical boundaries between Litvish-Chasidish-Modernish outlooks into a new organic, still crystallizing, whole. A shedding of the now-outmoded old skins that were good hundreds of years ago, or the old world of Eastern European shtetels.

    We now live in the psychological age, the Information Age, the pleasure age, in a time when people want and need self-actualization, where the "do as you are told" mentality just will not work.

    The need for HAPPINESS is now at a premium, as well as self-expression, self-actualization, each human's unique individuality, and recognition of the inner life.

    In a sense this is a more refined spiritual and mystical "new age" where Yiddishkeit can finally show its spiritual, humane, loving-kindness (i.e. true "chesed") and helpful side beyond any shadow of a doubt.

    By now we know too well that Yiddishkeit cannot be imposed Stalinist-style or Czarist-style by imperial or dictatorial decrees and fiat. God rules not man, not even a king, the age of human kings and elites who know what good for everyone is gone for good. Rather, individuals thirst and demand to be given room to develop and find themselves and be happy with who they are by dint of a more subtle and nurturing educational experience at home and at schools.

    If need be, psychotherapy can help, that is why today mental health is taken as seriously as physical and spiritual health!

    Just as the whip, flogging and stoning, physical torture and the death sentence have been thrown on the ash heaps of history in refined societies, which Torah society is in its best and most shining way, likewise the proverbial straightjackets and stockades and exiles and slavery and group think and scare tactics are all gone now.

    Instead there is now the sine qua non of persuasion, kindness, refinement and true freedom of choice to serve Hashem and do Mitzvos willingly and lovingly and not because of some great Litvak's scare tactics and impossible intellectualism or some Chasidic Rebbe's supposed hocus pocus and manipulations and cultishness.

    Welcome the dawn of the Messianic Age -- the true "new age" -- there is no stopping it !

    1. Interesting reflections. Just think -- if Yiddishkeit (just Orthodox of course) were more like a marketplace, and people could choose their community and derech based on what is attractive to them, and not based on what people will think of them if they switch, then imagine how pleasant and saintly and inspiring all the leaders of all camps would be (whether because of a change in approach, to be more attractive than the others, or the emergence of new leaders that draw recruits away). There's already a marketplace, of course, and has been for centuries, but local social norms impose high transaction costs....

    2. well said. though not necessarily the reality of people in binding situations.
      I would add that if religion and psychology were all we had to choose from, then we are in deep trouble.
      People can make choices and a man (or woman) does what he gots to do.
      If people want to self impose restrictions on themselves, that is there business. In all three cases, they need to find meaning in their lives and move on. Life is movement and choices. If the movement and choices need to be outside of how they perceive themselves, then maybe they could benefit from a psychologist.

  10. I would suggest that the therapist consult their own daas torah in each of those scenarios as to how to proceed.

    I am not certain that any of them would be benefitted by a radical lifestyle change. There must be a underlying trauma or timtum that needs to be addressed, and their own personal rov might not be the person they can really bare their souls to.

  11. If you need a psychologist then don't go to a Rabbi.

  12. Certainly a psychologist or any person for that matter may and should give advice to make a major religious change, where warranted. And that adviser, friend, uncle, psychologist or whomever,should understand fully the consequences , both positive and negative, to the person and to himself. IT SHOULD NOT BE DONE LIGHTLY. Or in a spirit of 'I'll show those so and so Rabbis'. If he helps- wonderful. If he hurts... Ultimately he will answer to the Almighty. And He knows what is really going on. Lifnei Iver is also about people on power trips. Rabbis or psychologists, it doesn't matter. A person should give this type of advice with the same attitude of a doctor who treats a deadly disease. A person must ask themselves - am I qualified? Do I really know what is going on? Is there someone better than me to handle this I can refer him to? Who should I consult with to deal with this? etc. Anyone who does this flippantly or in a spirit of defiance or casually - well I don't want to think of it...

  13. these are questions only chareidim would ask, even when someone wants to move within their community (intramural). a DL wants to learn chassidut? no problem, there are hesder yeshivot which do just that. a guy doesn't find his rav to be what he needs? so what, he'll find another one.

    and of course, you didn't even raise the possibility of someone raised in bnei braq who wants to go to mercaz or hesder.

  14. Eddie said: "This is essentially asking whether a non Rabbi, or even a Rabbi with secular training can be a catalyst for halachic / religious change."

    This is indeed DT's theme, in many posts.

    R.A.P. made the comparison to smoking - that the frum world needed the guidance of secular wisdom to get a handle on this problem.

    All the discussions on this blog about how to stop child abuse travel a similar route. Should we or should we not access secular authorities for reigning in this serious problem?

    WELL - my 2 cents on this topic is tho remind all the learned yidden who read this blog that as important as khazal teach it is that we have access to "khokhma b'goyim" as a major tool in managing reality, they also teach that we must stay clear from "Torah b'goyim".

    When it comes to guiding a yid about how to manage in the Torah world, how to find his spiritual niche, the ONLY guide must be masters of Torah.

    This distinction should never be blurred.

  15. The therapist's role is to help the client with 'problems of living'. Taking the case of the 17 yo girl clearly there is a mismatch between her and her parents or her perception what society expects of year .Taking collaborative problem solving/ SDT approach I assume the therapists has done a good job and got her input as to her concerns , perspectives or unmet needs. Clearly her basic needs according to Self Determination theory are not being met - 1.autonomy – her parents /school /teachers/peers are pressurizing her or she feels compelled from the inside to conform with their expectations and her concerns and needs are not being met,2. competence – she does not have the skill, plan or solutions to deal with her parents expectations and meet her own , 3.relatedness – she does not have a sense of belonging and support. Together they can brain storm solutions. A therapist who is familiar with what different communities or teachers have to offer would be helpful. Getting the support of her parents and helping them love her and accept her unconditionally would go a long way in helping her. Finding mentors , guides and community is also a must. The cases mentioned just show how problematic the ' one size fits all' approach is in religious communities

    1. with all due respect to Allan, your definition of therapy is not exactly the established, professional one, based on scientific research on the nature of psychic HEALING. You're essentially talking about social work.

      And as student v notes below, there is a difference between supporting what a client in therapy has made clear is his/her need, and suggesting what YOU believe might be their need. When it comes to religion, this is an extremely difficult tightrope to walk - ESPECIALLY if the therapist already subscribes to a certain shade of religious community.

      The emphasis in therapy must be facilitating the client to become clear about his / her needs for psychic well being, NOT solving his problems of living!

    2. A long time ago, a prominent psychiatrist named Thomas Szasz was as unenthusiastic about the term “mental illness” . He preferred a different term: problems in living. There are plenty of different therapies offered by psychologists. When a client has difficulty in articulating his concerns, the therapist can make tentative suggestions or use ' tabling' of concerns to help eliminate those that the client feels are not relevant. Being aware of his needs is most important , but why not help the client brainstorm solutions and follow through how they are working for him - solution focused therapy with the client being very much part of the solution

  16. In all the cases you described, the patient already made it clear, of their own accord, that they wanted something different and the major religious change would give them that something. I cannot comprehend how it could be that a frum therapist should not or could not encourage that change.
    The more difficult case is less straight forward, when the patient hasn't expressed this desire, but YOU think it might address some of their problems and YOU want to suggest it. Personally I don't see what's wrong but that seems like a less clear answer that could be debated.

    Some people here seem to confuse true religiosity with accessories and outfits.

  17. I think a therapist should act according to his know-how and deontology of a therapist and should not mix his personal religious feelings into the therapy relationship.

    So the patient's rabbi is no more relevant to you than the patient's priest if he was catholic... In a situation where you would recommand a catholic not to act according to his "conscience director's" will, you would recommand those patients not to act according to their rabbis' will.

    Or, the other way round: what would you do if you knew nothing about judaism? That's what you should. Your being jewish should not interfere in the therapeutic relationship.

  18. I'm surprised it took so long for DE to publish this post. This is basically the number one question of any Haredi therapist. Versions of this dilemma present all the time.

    I just want to point that the issue may run deeper and to the very core of a therapists identity.

    To some extent the role of the therapist is supplanting the previous role of the rabbi, which used to have no problem having total jurisdiction over personal matters. Today we live in a very complex culture, where specialization and compartmentalization are the norm. We don't just go to a doctor, we visit a specialist to target our issues. Same goes for Halacha, we dont just have one rabbi for all our issues, we visit a halachik specialist to address the issue we need help with.

    My view: The question is not so much an issue for the individual Hareidi therapist, he will choose to do whatever he feels is right and is comfortable with. The issue is more with Haredi society and culture. Do we think that we can develop a role for rabbis to become specialists and become equally skilled (they may have to go to college) and become trained therapists to deal with personal/psychological issues?

    If the answer is no. Then, well Chochma Bagoyim Tomin.


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