As Collision between Rabbinics and Psychology Increases, Leading Rabbinic Programs Offer New, Additional Tools

psychologyBy Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

A modern-Orthodox mother is unexpectedly pregnant. She approaches her local rabbi to ask him if she can “bend the rules” and get an abortion; another baby was simply not in the plans. The rabbi is torn. From a religious point of view, there are differing opinions about whether or not the pregnancy could be terminated. From his personal perspective he is outraged; he and his wife have struggled with infertility and he has other congregants who have experienced similar challenges.

How could she consider termination of a healthy child? If she already “knows” the Jewish law answer, why is she asking her rabbi the question? How should a rabbi handle situations when he/she is not sure what the congregant wants to hear?

This scenario is one of dozens raised in a new book by doctors Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda (Routledge), scheduled to hit the shelves this November. “The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths” tackles the delicate intersection between rabbinics and psychology in the modern world.

There is an ever-increasing need for rabbinical school graduates to be competent in basic psychology, said Friedman, founder and Sharon and Steven Lieberman Department Chair in Pastoral Counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT).

“Clergy have an opportunity to serve in more intimate ways than they were once called upon to do,” said David Adelson, Dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion New York (HUC-JIR). He said that new age understandings of human psychology helps rabbis engage in eternal spiritual questions in new ways.

Adelson said that over the last decade the educational program on the New York campus has been “evolving steadily” to incorporate new aspects of psychological learning. Six years ago, HUC-JIR launched the Spirituality Initiative, which “brings mindfulness and contemplative practices to the educational experiences” of rabbinical students, according to the HUC-JIR website. HUC-JIR defines “spiritual” as the “practice of paying kind and deep attention to what happens inside and around us.”

Today, 85 percent of HUC-JIR students elect to do at least one unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE).

Friedman’s program – the first of its kind in the United States to mandate course work in the field of psychology throughout all four years of its rabbinic program – combines classroom instruction, practical experience in hospitals and through rabbinic internships, and individual awareness through small-group counseling and spiritual reflection. YCT rabbinic students spend 400 hours completing a CPE-certified program.

Friedman said knowing basic facts, such as what is postpartum depression or will talking about suicide cause a congregant to consider it, is an important aspect. From there, fieldwork allows rabbinical students to encounter these situations live and bring them back to rabbinic and psychological mentors who can help the students process through them.

She said when a rabbi is in the field, he/she is forced to have social contact with his/her congregants even after he/she knows a great deal about the congregants’ private lives. The rabbi may just have been told by a congregant about an extra-marital affair or a child who is taking or selling drugs and he/she has to be able to switch gears quickly and without trouble.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Boston, New Square or Baltimore, every rabbi sees the same issues today,” Friedman said.

Most recently, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (YU’s RIETS) announced a joint program with Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, which combines Ferkauf’s mental health expertise and resources with the experience and spiritual guidance of RIETS faculty. According to RIETS Dean Rabbi Menachem Penner, those who elect to take part in the program complete 40 percent of the requirements for a master’s in psychology from Ferkauf.

“Rabbis today are being put in serious counseling situations and although we don’t encourage our rabbis to act as mental health professionals … since they are put in that position very often, we wanted to get the best training they can get,” said Penner is explanation of YU chose to launch the program.

Penner said that YU has always offered pastoral counseling classes. This new program is taught at the graduate level by Ferkauf instructors, but the curriculum is catered to the types of cases that an Orthodox rabbi might encounter and classes take place on YU’s campus, making it easier for rabbinic students to attend.

Penner, who entered the rabbinate 25 years ago, said, “There were a lot of things I wish I knew before I went out,” things that he thinks will be answered by the new program. Further, he noted, “The community and the world keep getting more and more complicated.”

“We are dealing with people and their neshamos [souls],” said Penner. “We have to prepare these rabbis to be the best they can.”