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The Varieties of Religious Therapy: Judaism

Jewish Psychotherapy according to Mordechai Rotenberg

Psi and The Star of David, by WG

The Varieties of Religious Therapy (VRT) is a blog series where representatives from twelve belief systems discuss how they integrate faith with their approach to psychotherapy. This first installment is an interview with a distinguished Jewish psychologist, author and professor. See the Introduction for a full description of VRT and the table of contents.

Judaism is a 3000+ year old religion developed among the ancient Hebrews and distinguished by a belief in one transcendent God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses and the Hebrew prophets. Today, there are nearly 14 million Jews worldwide living primarily in Israel and the United States. Modern Judaism is both a religion and a culture that permeates the lives of its adherents.

I'm honored to introduce Mordechai Rotenberg (Ph.D., UC Berkeley, 1969), Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he founded the Psychology and Religion subdiscipline. Dr. Rotenberg has written dozens of articles and ten books including Rewriting the Self: Psychotherapy and Midrash and Hasidic Psychology. He received the 2009 Israel Prize, the state's highest honor, for research derived from psychological interpretations of Hasidic and Midrashic concepts that pertain to social welfare and other areas within the social sciences. He is the founder of the Rotenberg Center for Jewish Psychology and has been called the father of Jewish psychology. Please enjoy these responses from the distinguished Dr. Rotenberg:

What is the role of religion or spirituality in your clinical practice?

The role of religion is central in my clinical practice because Judaism is a text based on religion. By emphasizing the centrality of text, I wish to declare that I derived my Jewish psychological paradigms via the hermeneutic process of reinterpreting the sacred texts in psychotherapeutic terms.

How does your technique or theory differ from mainstream psychotherapy?

Most therapies are based primarily on talking techniques. From this perspective my therapy does not invent new techniques because it is the content and context which is crucial in reshaping ones meaning of life. Accordingly, if the Oedipal text teaches that we are destined to kill our fathers, by using the Issack solution of intergenerational tension, the possibility of continuity in spite of the natural gap between generations is used as a modeling therapeutic device.

A new client comes to therapy reporting his main problem is feeling detached from God. How would you proceed?

As a student of Max Weber's socio-psychological understanding of religion, I believe that all so called behavior patterns are rooted in religious beliefs which were secularized in the process of acculturation. By studying one's life story, I would help the client to identify the religious meta code which molded his/her feeling of detachment from the perception of God which he/she internalized. Then I would use the Jewish belief in free will, to help the client to formulate a concept of divinity which could help in controlling life events rather than being controlled by it.

What is the relationship between sin and psychopathology?

Since Jewish free will based doctrine of repentance, allows even the "true believer" to repent instantaneously, I would help a client who is obsessed, for example, with feeling of sin and/or guilt, to realize that it is only the present based actual correction of behavior which counts according to the Jewish concept of "teshuva" (repentance) as rehabilitation. However, if the perception with the feeling of sin is still entrenched , I would suggest a longer period of therapy to try and uproot the forbidden preoccupation with sin which according to the Hasidic doctrine, for example, is the greatest sin of them all.

Who or what is the primary agent of change in therapy?

The answer here is clear cut and short. It is the client himself who possesses not only a free will but also the responsibility to change. While this assertion sounds like a humanistic politically correct slogan, it implies that even so called "mentally ill" people are basically responsible for their condition, might be far out among some mental health practitioners.

What is the most difficult part of practicing psychotherapy while maintaining your beliefs? The most rewarding part?

While the most difficult part in psychotherapy is to work with clients who under the disguise of a deterministic view of life are reluctant to take responsibility for their own misery, the most rewarding part emerges from the therapist's feeling that he succeeded to change this "convert's" disbelief in one's ability to change.


Stick around, there are many more VRT interviews to come! Keep track by bookmarking the table of contents or follow along on facebook.

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