(See the entire God in Therapy series by clicking here). We hesitated. Should we share how Jewish beliefs are part of my clinical outlook? Then C.R. pointed to blog posts by Pavel G. Somov, PhD who eloquently shares a variety of Eastern spiritual and religious influences in his writings. Thank you, Dr. Somov!
We could begin by making “Jewish guilt” jokes or jokes about neurosis a la Woody Allen, but the truth is that the fundamentals of psychoanalysis, psychology, psychotherapy have very strong connections with very ancient teachings of Judaism. In fact, they go back as far as Adam and Eve!
In part that’s because character analysis and character improvement are a way of life in traditional Judaism. There is a densely interwoven theme of self-knowledge and self-improvement in ancient—and modern—Jewish commentaries on the Bible (aka Torah). These topics are also overtly discussed in Kabbalah, numerous ancient ethics manuals, and numerous other sources. There are several schools of thought and different approaches and virtually every major scholarly work either focuses on or touches on the subjects of what it means to be human and what it means to work on one’s character.
Because all these teachings are regularly studied by observant Jews today as they have been for thousands of years, they are ingrained in our outlook.
Of course, psychology itself has Jewish roots. Others have commented on this, but we’ll leave that to Freud’s biographers and the many authors, both Jewish and not, who have written volumes on this subject.
I find it natural that the deepest of Jewish teachings as well as common-sense life lessons of Judaism inform my clinical work but then again, they inform every sphere of my life, just as being male, being born in America, and being very tall do, too. It’s hard to dissect and pull out what is the Judaism and what is the Richard, but there are several Jewish concepts that really do keep cropping up. We’ll start with one, “teshuva”.
Teshuva means “return” (though it is often translated as repentance). Judaism teaches that when one errs or does something harmful, one is able to “return” to the state he or she was in before the error. This return is ideally a return to one’s true self.
This return will necessitate the use of various processes including but not limited to: confession (to God and self—not through intermediaries), honest reflection and assessment, self-education, sincere regret, apology—if another was harmed and if appropriate–prayer, implementing practical courses of reparative action, and resisting repeating harmful future actions.
In fact, sincere teshuva can bring a person to a higher spiritual state of being than before. According to Jewish teachings, teshuva can literally transform the actual harmful deed into a positive event. In other words, through corrective action one can actually change reality. There is even a saying that what a true penitent (one who achieves a rectification of his actions and himself), achieves spiritually, a saint (one who has done no wrong), isn’t able to achieve.
I find that sharing this general concept, especially when working with substance abusers or those who have harmed others or themselves, to be incredibly powerful. To believe that one has the power to change and repair not only himself but the world itself is a theme that to me is worth emphasizing in virtually every course of psychotherapy or addiction treatment.
Does this minimize the harmfulness of actions that have hurt others? No. It does not because there are consequences to one’s actions and teshuva does not generally negate consequences. But it does transform self.