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Sage Counsel

Refoel Pride

It’s a rare psychotherapist who can provide both emotional and spiritual guidance; and the same goes for many rabbis, who are often the first station in crisis situations which might call for professional intervention. Rav Mordechai Twerski, the Hornosteipler Rebbe, wants to make sure that rabbanim, often the “first responders” to families in crisis, receive the training needed to navigate today’s complex personal issues.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

“The wife was beside herself when she came to me,” recalls Rav Mordechai Twerski shlita, the Hornosteipler Rebbe ofNew York. “She told me her husband had stopped laying tefillin, stopped going to shul, and stopped davening altogether. She had lost all respect for him.

“I called in the husband to join his wife in a counseling session. When I asked him what had pushed him to such spiritual decline, he answered that everything he had been taught as he was growing up had led him to believe that Torah-observant Jews were always honest and upright, and goyim were always untrustworthy. Now that he was an adult with abundant experience in the business world, he said he could see that this wasn’t true. And he therefore reasoned that nothing he had learned was true — in his upbringing, or in yeshivah.

“I had to get him to peel away all the layers of assumptions and beliefs until we could reach a solid foundation from which to build. ‘Do you believe that Hashem gave the Torah to Klal Yisrael?’ ‘Do you believe that there is a G-d who created the universe?’ We had to work all the way back to the first perek of Derech Hashem. From there, we were gradually able to rebuild the foundations of his emunah — and his marriage.”

In this situation, Rav Twerski — the head of the 300-family Bais Medrash Ateres Shloime of Flatbush — was performing the role of what might be called a rabbinic “first responder.” The couple had approached him in his capacity as a rav — but the methods he applied in helping them resolve the crisis were shaped by his formal training in family therapy and his decades of experience in providing marriage counseling.

It’s a rare psychotherapist who can provide both emotional and spiritual guidance; and the same goes for many rabbis, who are often the first station in crisis situations that might call for professional intervention. This unique position that today’s rabbanim find themselves in highlights the critical need for them to be able to apply professional counseling techniques when called for.

And in fact, says Dr. Yisrael Levitz of the Family Institute of Neve Yerushalayim, a rav who lacks those techniques can unwittingly inflict tremendous harm.

“A woman who was beyond distraught contacted me,” he recounts. “Every single leil Shabbos her husband would become intoxicated at the seudah and then abuse her. She reached a point where she could no longer be responsive to him, and she became deeply depressed. Their problems worsened with time and they finally sought help from their rav. Being depressed and feeling hopeless, the woman sat passively as her husband dramatically professed intense devotion to his wife, and insisted that her attitude was the cause of their marital problems. The rav, impressed by the husband’s emotional plea, and not recognizing the woman’s passivity as depression, turned to the wife and said, ‘I want you to know that your behavior approaches the level of a moredes [rebellious woman].’ By the time she had come to me, she was suicidal.”

Dr. Levitz — who served as a community rav for six years before earning his PhD in psychology — counters with another story that demonstrates the good that a rabbi with the proper training can achieve.

“One of my students went on to serve as the rav of a shul,” he says. “He was once approached by a congregant who asked, ‘Rabbi, can someone who commits suicide be buried in a Jewish cemetery?’ The rav in this situation, thanks to his training, was able to read between the lines of the question. Instead of simply answering the sh’eilah, he responded, ‘That’s a very good question, and I’d like to hear from you what prompted it. Would you like to come into my office?’ It emerged from their discussion that this man was suffering from deep depression and needed professional treatment. The rav was able to make a referral for him that likely saved his life.”


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