Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Self-Help

After Ariel died, several books were given to me by well meaning friends. These books, about Judaism and bereavement, are I was assured, deeply comforting and helpful. Over the past few months I have read some of these books, and put many down after just a few chapters. I'm sorry to say that I do not find them useful or comforting. In truth, I find them depressing in their reliance on New Age cliches.
Their main arguments seem to be that Judaism is "profoundly knowledgeable about human psychology." The learned men who write these books portray our sages as pipe smoking psychiatrists who just happened to put on tefillin. My wife Karen, the finest psychologist I know, has always held that the best psychologists are men and women who are able to genuinely empathize with their clients; psychologists who form deep bonds with their patients and are willing to discard any and all rigid schools of thought. In other words, the ability to listen and to care is paramount in successful therapy. Theories inevitably shudder and fracture under the weight of reality.
The authors of these Jewish self-help volumes proudly boast that our rituals of death and mourning are psychologically astute. This seems shallow praise to heap on a religion that brought monotheism to the earth. I care nothing for sophisticated psychology in this life of loss that I will never exit. The consolation I seek should and must transcend popular psychology. So I ask these learned and well intentioned writers: what happens if Judaism were not psychologically astute? Would that make it any less true? The answer is obvious. We are bound to Torah with love and duty and the chain of mesorah. In fact, the highest praise I could imagine for Judaism is not that we recognize its psychological integrity, but that we are able to see beyond it. Where a psychologist will see grief as the unresolved fear of abandonment, a Torah Jew will view grief as a necessary part of life, something to be confronted head-on, and struggled with, first among family and community and then inevitably alone. The Rav's Lonely Man of Faith is the paradigm that I turn to and find most heroic, and at the same time, realistic. I prefer Rebbeim who are Rebbeim, not Rebbeim who have turned into smooth talking pop psychologists.
As for the books, they sit on my shelves, comfortable beside the Whole Earth Catalog, The Big Book of Hula Hoops, and books about alternative medicine and holistic healing. I am alone with Karen, we are in a place only grieving parents inhabit; we are beyond self-help manuals, beyond ordinary words.
But your words have been extraordinary.
To all who read this blog, I thank you for your patience, and generosity. I am well aware that these pages are often difficult to reaqd, but for some reason you keep coming back. And your presence provides a measure of comfort. I feel that I have actually met you, even though I only know you in cyberspace. For this, Karen and I thank you. We wish you a Shana Tova Umituka.

20 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am glad that I am not the only person who found those books written by so
many well-meaning Rabbis beyond ridiculous! I get much more from sitting at
the water's edge and watching the waves rolling in!
T.P.

September 16, 2004 at 3:24 PM  
Blogger Z said...

I just wanted to thank you for your movie "A Stranger Among Us." I am raising an 11 year old son, named Evan, who is "special." I am also converting him to Judaism. I like for him to watch movies about Jewish life...true Jewish life and not some weird stereotype. Well, he has started watching this film recently. Although we don't have a diagnosis for his specialness yet, it's very likely autism and knowing that, you can understand how Evan loves to sit and watch a movie over and over and over. Well, now he's asking me about tefillin and tallitot and wanting our Shabbat to be more like the one in the movie. I took him to Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh and he told me he wants to look just like the Jews there and in the movie...with the black hats and the "ribbons". I asked him if he meant payes? He said yes and told me that the rabbis say we aren't allowed to shave there. I am enthralled with my son and how enthusiastically he embraces his new life as a Jew. I wish there were more movies which showed Jewish life so lovingly and so accurately. Thank you again, your film has made a huge difference in my son's life.

September 20, 2004 at 6:56 AM  
Blogger Esther Kustanowitz said...

Grief is grief. It is not a problem that can be solved by troubleshooting, checklisting and the well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful cliches of pop psychology, even if it intersects with Jewish thought. Family, community, friends, they can make it a little bit easier, and I wish those support systems for you in abundance in the new year.

September 20, 2004 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger Jack's Shack said...

I want to wish you and your family some peace of mind this year. You should find something that makes your sorrow easier to bear and an understanding that make sense to you, whatever that may be.

Shana Tova.

September 20, 2004 at 10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like Evan described in Z's comment, I have loved watching "A Stranger Among Us" repeatedly. This non-Jew wishes a DVD with writer's commentary would be released.

Peace to you, Robert and Karen.

September 25, 2004 at 10:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments. I am currently reading Rabbi Lamm's book , Consolation, and so far, it expresses what you said. There is a book of essays by Rav Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind< which discusses death and mourning, and I found his words very meaninful to me.

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