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TOPIC TITLE: Psychological Wisdom of the Sages
Created On 7/24/13 6:01 PM
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(Originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Mind, Body & Soul)

By Seymour Hoffman, Ph. D.

Our Jewish sages have always been acute observers of human behavior. Below are presented several charming and enlightening anecdotes demonstrating the psychological wisdom and sophistication of past and present Jewish sages.

1. A distraught couple appeared before Rabbi Mordechai Lebton, the Chief Rabbi and head of the rabbinical court in Syria in the nineteenth century. Though the couple had been happily married for many years, during the last year the husband had become depressed, angry, and impatient with his wife because she was barren and therefore decided to divorce her. The rabbi unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the husband to reconsider his decision since his wife was a fine meritorious person.

The rabbi, an intelligent and perceptive person who was able to penetrate the inner recesses of people and discern their dynamics and weaknesses, decided on a plan of action to cause the husband to revive his affection and appreciation of his wife. He instructed the couple to return the following day for the purpose of arranging the divorce procedures.

The next day, as the rabbi was preparing to divorce the couple, his student (upon pre-arranged instructions) barged in and whispered into the rabbi’s ear. The rabbi unexpectedly began scolding and yelling at his student to the astonishment of the estranged couple. When queried about his unusual behavior, the rabbi explained that his student had crossed the line of propriety. “My student had the audacity to ask me to hasten the divorce proceedings so that he could propose marriage to this wonderful woman.”

Upon hearing this, the shocked husband informed the rabbi that he decided to return to his wife and asked the rabbi for his blessing. The following year, a son was born to the happy couple.

2. Rabbi Ezkiel Landau, (18th century prominent rabbinic scholar and author) did not believe in amulets or in other supernatural remedies. Once he was consulted regarding an amulet. A distinguished woman was seized by a spirit of insanity. She felt that her condition was critical, and that she could behealed only with an amulet prepared by him. Rabbi Ezkiel took a blank piece of parchment, wrapped it in a small pouch, sealed it with his personal signet, and said: “This amulet should be worn around the neck of the woman for thirty days. After thirty days, open the amulet. If the writing disappeared and the parchment is blank, it is a sign that the woman is healed."

And so they did. After thirty days they opened the amulet and found the parchment blank with no sign of any script. The woman entirely recuperated from her illness.

In their interesting and informative article, “Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinic Responses to Religious Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”, ( Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, vol. 45, No. 3, 2008, 183-192), Professor Greenberg and Dr. Shefler provide examples of the psychological insights and sophistication of prominent rabbis, of which two are presented below.

3. A woman was very concerned that she found signs of the cross wherever she walked, in the pavement, the window frames, etc., and that as a religious Jewish person she should avoid these signs of Christianity. She went to see her rabbi, renowned for his saintliness and understanding of mental health issues, and described her difficulties. In response, as she sat before him, he put one index finger across the other to form the shape of a cross, raised it to his lips and kissed the shape. His non-verbal response was to make it clear that there is a distinction between a religious symbol and everyday objects, and she was not to seek such symbols where they did not exist. His message was made even more powerful, as he was modeling “kissing the cross” to show that such everyday objects need cause no alarm and should be confronted.

4. Rabbi Yaacov Yisrael Kanievski (1899–1985) was known for his guidance on mental health issues, and had a particular expertise in religious OCD. Below is a questionposed to him and his response
“Question: An important young man is unable to concentrate when he reads the Shema, (an important prayer declaring the “oneness” of God) and repeats each word many times, so as to pronounce each word properly and with exactness, and also out of concern that he did not have the correct concentration on the meaning of the words. And he is in doubt if he had the correct intention of fulfilling the commandment of saying the Shema properly. All of which causes the saying of the Shema to cause him great tension and takes a lot of time.”

Rabbi Kanievski’s reply: “It is my custom in these cases to tell him that he need only say the words in the prayer book. Even if it seems to him that he has not concentrated, he should continue further [and not repeat] (for deep inside he knows what he has said if he understands Hebrew, and even if he does not understand Hebrew, nevertheless his reading is an act of accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven). In this way he has fulfilled his duty of saying the Shema. It is forbidden to give him reasons or explanations, for every reason that he is given, he will undermine to contradict and reject completely whatever he was told. When he appears undecided he should be told decisively without any reasons at all. And after all these tricks, one needs a lot of help from Heaven, and may God have mercy on him and send him a complete recovery”.

5. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter wrote (Choveras Mussar, 10, 1926), “Do not spend a lot of time trying to push away negative thoughts. Human nature is that the more you push them away, the more they come back”.

6. A single 25-year-old yeshiva student went to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the son of Rabbi Yisrael Kanievsky and a prominent haredi decisor who receives thousands of visits every year from Jews seeking religious advice and blessings, in order to receive a blessing from him because of his difficulty of getting up on time in the morning for prayer. The rabbi refused his request and told him to ask his mother to pour cold water on his ear when he refused to get out of his bed in the morning.

Seymour Hoffman, Ph. D., is a supervising psychologist at the “Chiba” Community Health Clinic, Ma’yenei Hayeshua Medical Center, Bnei Brak, Israel. Recently he authored, “Mental Health, Psychotherapy and Judaism” (2011) and co-edited, “Case Studies of Unorthodox Therapy of Orthodox Patients” (2012), published by Golden Sky Books.

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