THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN

A RELIGIOUS THERAPIST

AND A THERAPIST WHO IS RELIGIOUS

This lack of fit between personal and religious values and those of therapy has been a great concern to me. In my years as a religious therapist I have found a significant difference between a religious therapist and a therapist who is (also) religious. The therapist who is religious will be trained professionally but has learned to keep his religion out of his work. He will of course not openly violate Jewish law in this practice (e.g. encourage a client to marry out of the faith) but his therapy is not guided by religious values, goals and vocabulary. His basic view of man is based on his professional style of talking and not those he learned in his religious studies. He may often find Jewish quotes (words) which can be made to be compatible with his professional model. These he will readily use when needed as dictated by his professional model. The relation between religious beliefs and therapeutic behavior is basically pragmatic. The professional criteria determine material when and if to utilize religious. His understanding of his client, the language is uses (particularly with colleagues) and most important of all the goals of therapy are predetermined by secular theory.

In strong contrast, a religious therapist subjugates all aspects of his life and actions to Torah laws, values and vocabulary. Just as he would investigate the kashrus (legal requirements) of the food he eats, and the potential conflicts involved in reading modern literature he will critically inspect the style of talking of therapy to determine if it is consistent with Torah principals. In my own case I had to re-examine my professional style of talking of working after I became an observant Jew. I had been originally trained in classic long term individual psychodynamic therapy. After a serious evaluation, I found that it presents serious conflicts with traditional religious values.

The models I now use, developed by Michael White and Steve de Shazer, are as far as I can see (and from the opinions of Rabbis I have consulted) seems to be much more, but not fully compatible with Torah techniques and to some limited scope Torah laws. My guess is that de Shazer would be totally disinterested in values and ‘extra therapeutic’ issues. M. White, from my understanding of his writing about religion is at odds with organized religion. What I have attempted to take from them is techniques and not values. I am well aware that it is impossible to totally detach one from the other, but I have tried. If, and when you find a contradiction please let me know.

A short but telling example of how technique can be in conflict with Torah law is in order. Torah law prohibits talking negatively about others. The therapist who is religious will seek a blanket exemption from this injunction in order to delve into history, explore negative feelings, etc. because the style of talking requires this type of behavior. The religious therapist would question the validity of the therapeutic need for such a (forbidden) activity on both empirical and religious grounds. The religious reason is that if the Torah and the Sages clearly said that it not desirable to talk this way it means that it is not healthy. A style of talking that encourages this behavior negates this basic religious principal and indicates it is not healthy to behave this way. This understanding would lead the religious therapist to choose a style of talking that attempts to avoid this type of forbidden activity both on religious terms and health terms.

Both the therapist who is religious and the non religious therapist at this point are probably asking themselves whether this approach of religion first means that therapeutic effectiveness must be sacrificed in the name of religiously? This can be answered by the extensive research that indicates that most professional models (including White's and de Shazer’s) are equivalent in effectiveness. That being the case, a therapist should therefore focus on the match between his values and those of the therapeutic style of talking he uses - as well as the values of the client.

In summary, it is important to look beyond the overt religiosity of the therapist when talking about Torah psychology. It is vital to focus on the relationship between the therapist and his style of talking of therapy in understanding value conflicts in therapy. I have found in my years of working and supervising hundreds of professionals that the therapeutic style of talking will predominate in shaping the ongoing therapeutic interaction and vocabulary for both the non-religious and the therapist who is religious. This is in contrast to the religious therapist who will choice a style of talking of therapy which will support this values, vocabulary, and the religious behaviors that emanate from them. My religious/professional experience has shown that by choosing a style of talking carefully there need not be conflict between a therapeutic model, the therapist and his or her religious beliefs. This is only true when the order of importance is as follows: religion, therapist, model.

Over the last twenty years or so there has been a shift in the traditional explanations and vocabulary of models of therapy. The first meaningful shift is the acknowledgment that all theories are value laden and judgmental. Gone is the fiction of scientific neutrality. The second major shift has been the development of effective professional models that are not based on traditional concepts of pathology, sickness, and the science of people. These new models use terms such as solution oriented conversations, alternative life stories, the positive use of strengths, etc..

I want to take these two evolutionary changes - moving from phase 2 to phase 3 - and extend them even further and propose the possibility of a new phase - the fourth. Yes, to build on judgmental values - religious ones. No apologies. The second is to take the shift towards helping conversations into the world of Torah. Coupling this secular tool to our vocabulary and respect for the power of words can further this evolution and ‘bring it home’. Under the auspices of Torah this evolution can be carefully used to enhance Torah values and ability to help people in distress.

Part of this Torah approach deals with how and why things happen - the difference between the science of people and causation with a Torah psychology.

Please send us your comments to TorahPsychology@shemayisrael.co.il