Rav Soloveitchik speaks to Mental Health Professionals 1978

We owe Rabbi David Etengoff a thank you for recently placing many of the public lectures of Rav Soloveitchik online in cleaned-up mp3 format.

On the list was one public discourse that I had not heard or read called “5122 KNESSETH TISROEL – DIALOGUE 04/25/78.” It was a real winner. It was a discussion with Orthodox mental health professionals and it discussed several hot topics including the meaning of Lonely Man of Faith, Israeli politics, abortion, homosexuality, Chabad, BT’s, and the role of the social worker.

More importantly, it shows how people related to Rav Soloveitchik and his replies to inquiries. Especially in the last 15 minutes of the tape one can see (1) how Rav Soloveitchik gave his students great latitude to solve problems themselves, (2) how he trusted professionals, (3) how did not think that everything needed halakhic or rabbinic answers (4) and how he took his answers to be his own personal formulation, not some binding or definitive understanding. The tape also show Rav Soloveitchik in several moods from impatient to jovial and it especially showed how Rav Soloveitchik dealt with ideas and not with the bottom line.

If you have never heard a full shiur from Rav Soloveitchik or have not heard one in many years or even if you have forgotten why people where once upset about the current revisionism of the Rav, then please listen to this lecture (or at least the last 15 minutes). It has good audio quality. This lecture will remind you why people were attracted to Rav Soloveitchik. I do not intend to mediate your direct encounter with his shiur, and that is why this one is such a good choice.

The setting is 1978, Annie is the wholesome smash hit on Broadway and Billy Joel’s The Stranger is on the pop radio stations. Picture the younger professionals wearing big tortoise-shell eyeglass frames and long side-burns. Deeply colored sweaters and sports jackets were in style that year, colors like wine, cranberry, and olive- on the tape you will hear people referred to by their clothes color. The Rav himself tended to wear light colored sports jackets to events like this.

It was a decade after his Lonely Man of Faith lecture done originally as a mental health lecture and less than a year after a follow-up lecture in Boston 1977 covering much of the same material. The setting this time is NY and the gathering is of Orthodox mental health professionals, mainly MSW’s and psychologists including Paul Kahn, Rivka Danzig, Lester Kaufman, Carmi Schwartz, and Rabbi Avrach, the Director of Community Services Division. In the 1970’s, psychology, therapy, and existential therapy reigned supreme. The Yeshivish answer was still to ban majoring in psychology. It also produced books like Avraham Amsel’s Rational Irational Man – Torah Psychology (1976), which denigrated psychology as not the Torah’s way since the emotions need to be suppressed into a rational and volitional life. Several people in the room whom I did not mention, were graduates of Chaim Berlin or Torah ve Daas who a few years earlier switched from suits to turtlenecks and under the influence of the early 1970’s discovered the humanistic path of psychology based on not repressing emotions; gestalt, transaction, and existential therapies replaced repression. People were reading Erik Erikson, Irwin Yalom, R. D. Laing, and Fritz Perls. The Bob Newhart show about therapy had just ended its six year run that month. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the seeming only Rosh Yeshiva to field the new questions was Rav Soloveitchik. At the same time notice how philosophic and abstract were his answers.

A mere decade later Rabbi Twerski will make the liberalism of self-esteem humanistic psychology and twelve step as a seminal start of the new Yeshivish self-help books and in contrast some of YU’s graduates will start reading the more conservative works by authors like Dobson. There is a switch to asking what causes the individual to be deviant, rather than creating a role for the individual.Now, thirty years later every Rosh Yeshiva and pulpit rabbi is an expert on psychology and social work without the need for professional trained guidance. But in 1978, the burning question is how do we balance the individualism and lack of repression in therapy with commitment to the group, the halakhah community. In the discussion, notice the lack of a role for evil inclination, or any mussar advice to restrain or repress oneself.

When you listen to the tape notice how often Rav Soloveitchik says “ I created” “personal experience” and “my formulation.” Also notice his joke that he took tranquilizers and they didn’t help him as much as Talmud study helped him.

He discusses the Jewish commitment to the Israel. His politics is old time Likkud. We did indeed dislocate the Arabs but that does not matter. We were the ones who started the trouble in Hebron- why did we did it? Because Israel and our connection to it is our insanity. We are willing to go against the whole world. We are willing to defy common sense because of our connection. Defiance and redemptive go together.

In this discussion, he uses the word mesorah to refer to the continuity of the Jewish people and to the chain of scholars of the mesorah. He does not use it as a body of knowledge or a specific teaching. The Mesorah community extends from Avraham to messiah and offers a sense of calming sense of eternity that transcends the individual. Being part of the mesorah offers a deeper reality that unites past and future. We are joined as part of a covenantal community of every Jew who was in the past and those who have yet to appear. Respect for the elders and our antecendents and a commitment for educating future generations.(similar to LMF)

The Rav says that only when his parents died did he find the malakh hamaves confronting him “My Cartesian awareness included a sense of my parents.”

Can we help a homosexual alleviate guilt? “I am not a social worker.” But the goal is not to tell him “sin and be happy.” People have freedom and people can change. There is no need to reject any case. We believe people have the ability to do teshuvah. Don’t encourage sin but there is always hope. But, you may not encourage homosexual practices. (Notice what the discussion looked like before the culture wars- neither condemnation not acceptance, just what is the social worker’s responsibility? Notice how Rav Soloveithcik is mainly concerned with what the observant therapist should do and does not make big statements about society or public policy.)

Can one go against respecting one’s parents kibud av ve am as part of the process of therapy. He answers that the goal is to follow the right way but process may be far from it. So temporary violation is OK as part of a bigger process.

What about college women who are sexually active but not using birth control, therapist cannot pasken birth control questions but it may lead to an abortion? Answer- You are not responsible for events in the future.
What about people having an abortion- it is forbidden but what you should do? Answer- Abortion is completely prohibited as murder, we just do not consider it libel for punishment… What to do? I don’t know.

How do we apply these guidelines when the social worker is orthodox and client is not religious.
Rav Soloveitchik- “It is up to the social worker – I cannot advice – it is hard.” This is the Rav Soloveitchik that many remember who left applications in the hands of professionals.

He praises Chabad and its success because they temporarily display tolerance. They show understanding and lend a helping hand.
One cannot condemn client right away. And to earn respect means professional respect as a skilled and understanding professional. (not respect for sticking to one’s opinions.)

He tells the story of certain girl who became a BT but was not ready for taryag mizvot, all the mizvot. First she went to a known gadol –rosh yeshiva, who said it was an all or nothing package either keep Shabbos or else. She wet to another rabbi who said accept one mizvah with the complete letter of the law. She did and eventually became completely observant. (What lesson do you think his listeners drew from the story?)

In the last five minutes, the Rav was asked “is that [the Rav’s approach in LMF] the only method or the [definitive] halakhic method? Is this the necessary approach toward Keneset Yisrael or is there another method?

The Rav answers that his loneliness is his creative experience and his binding himself to the group cures his loneliness. Being part of the group of keneset yisrael is not his creative time. Rather, his individual loneliness which is an “Awareness of self- not mere introversion or introspection.” But, “Community man is not creative. We have a dialectic back and forth. (Notice he did not consider his approach definitive.)

Certain times I don’t want to give or teach. They say I am a good teacher. A good teacher forms a community in his class. Not technical teaching but to discuss and debate problems – and sometimes they are right and I admit it. One needs to be sincere and consistent. Sometimes the students know as much as I do and I have nothing to teach so I retreat. The need to give is called hesed- to teach is a very volatile activity. (Notice that he defines his teaching an shiur not as offering fixed answers but as discussion and debate. Also notice how impatient Rav Solovetichik was in giving over his prepared précis of LMF, and how relaxed he is in fielding questions.)

Final words on being a social worker. “There is no difference between a social worker or a rabbi concerning their duties as a Jew In fact, a social worker can accomplish more. A social worker is perceived as neutral and objective- and can be more effective.

As a closing comment, the moderator said “Rav Soloveitchik does fancy footwork- he wants idea and we want to drag him down.” (Notice they did not see the Rav as practical guidance or halakhah, rather as ideas and big guidelines. This led to each listener interpreting it for themselves. Unless someone violated the guideline in a major way, they were not reigned in).

[I only listened to the tape once, so if I made any mistakes they were inadvertent, and I will be glad to change what I wrote.] If you cannot find time to listen to the entire tape then just listen to the last 15 minutes to get a taste of his personality.

4 responses to “Rav Soloveitchik speaks to Mental Health Professionals 1978

  1. Alan- if you giving a historical background – you could mention that “Paul Kahn” is Rabbi Dr.Paul (Pinchas) Kahn father of Rav Yair Kahn from Gush – and yours truly – your once and future chevruta🙂
    my father had told me about the meeting on several occasions – but I have never heard the recording –
    by the way Rabbi Avrech is the father of the Emmy Award winning screenwriter Robert J. Avrech

  2. Is this the shiur where the Rav speaks about a case where a certain Rosh Yeshivah referred a couple to a therapist for marriage therapy, and then it emerged that each one had been unfaithful to the other? I think the question had to do with the conflicting priorities of the a therapist who is supposed to do what he can to keep the couple together as opposed to the halacha which would mandate a divorce because the wife was unfaithful.

  3. Ari, Greeting and nice to hear from you. I thought about the shout out, but then you would not have visited.
    To respond to you and Yossi together.
    Yes, the adultery discovered in marriage therapy is discussed on the tape. But more sordid details are given in Paul Kahn, Psychotherapy and the commandment to reprove. “Behavioral sciences and mental health” Proceedings (Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists) 7 (1983) 37-50.
    and more of the issues on the tape are discussed in Paul Kahn, Religious values and the therapeutic alliance, or “Help me, psychologist; I hate you, rabbi!”. Psychotherapy of the Religious Patient (1985).
    Not all of the other articles in the volumes would be acceptable or legal therapeutic practice after 30 years.
    And for full historical background, I read the articles in Ari’s apartment in Romema.

  4. I am impressed – that was 27 years ago…but it does explain how you found such obscure references🙂

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