Between Torah & Psychotherapy

“Blessed is the person who finds wisdom and the man who attains understanding, for
it is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold” (Mishlei 3:13-14).
“Wisdom is preferable to gold because in financial exchanges, if you exchange gold for silver your gold is gone, but when a person says to his friend, ‘Teach me your chapter and I will teach you my chapter,’ each one obtains fresh knowledge while holding on to the old, so that afterwards each one has two chapters” (Rashi ibid., loose translation).

The esteemed visitor this morning in Ami’s offices is Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Weinreb is widely respected for his broad knowledge and uncanny ability to bring a fresh perspective to familiar teachings. But my connection to him is more personal. Chazal tell us that “One who learns from a person a single chapter [of Torah], a single law, a single verse, a single statement or even a single letter must treat him with honor” (Avos 6:3). Having listened to quite a few of his engaging and edifying Tishah B’Av webcasts and having read some of his writings, I’ve learned from Rabbi Weinreb more than just one chapter in Torah.

Like Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, who was one of the first to teach Kinos instead of merely reciting them, Rabbi Weinreb sits in shul for hours on Tishah B’Av focusing on the tragic side of Jewish history. That he is nonetheless not a talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik is particularly refreshing, as it has enabled him to explore subjects and cite sources that many of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s talmidim, who are under the shadow and spell of their master, do not. There is no doubt that he is an independent and original thinker who has made an important contribution to the understanding of evil in the world. In addition to being an ordained rabbi and talmid chacham, Rabbi Weinreb is also a qualified psychotherapist, which adds another dimension to his thoughts and insights.

“I don’t remember the exact lashon,” he tells me, “but Rav Hutner wrote in a letter to a talmid that being educated in various fields isn’t considered living a ‘double life’ but rather a ‘broad life.’ This is certainly true with regard to my rabbinical calling and profession in psychology. In fact, it goes beyond breadth, as they are really one and the same at this point. There may have been times early in my training when they were separate and existed side by side, but by now they have merged.”

“Sometimes there’s a question of whether one should try to help someone with mussar or therapy, but as a rabbi who is also a therapist you can decide which approach to adopt,” I point out.

“It’s very important to make that distinction,” he says in agreement. “There are some things that aren’t dependent on bechirah. No one chooses to become psychotic or clinically depressed, and no one chooses his parents, his genes, his biology or much of his circumstances. On the other hand, many of the frum psychotherapists deal with issues of bechirah. The way I was trained in the secular schools is that a psychotherapist’s job is to help the person make choices. The first thing is to show him that he really does have choices, because many people think that that’s just the way things are and everyone else is to blame.

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