Psychology and Judaism – When should they intersect?

It’s a touchy topic and one that divides the religious community. Just like any science, the debate really goes back to: “can we use ‘secular’ knowledge to understand the way Hashem runs the world or can we know Hashem and his world simply through the Torah?” My initial feelings on these topics is “why not both”? Why narrow knowledge in the first place. If both exist in the world then maybe both are there for a purpose. Is not all of Hashem’s creations there to be used for better or for worse? Aren’t all things created to give us the choice to do good or evil, to choose life or death? One thing that really stuck with me from Rebbetzin Heller’s classes was always this perspective about the world. She often said that things exist for us to be able to make the choice and you look at the Torah to guide you as to decide what that right choice is. She has become the great educator that she has because she has been able to use everything around her to make the right choices. For example, she often mentioned her collection of secular books. She reads so widely to get a greater understanding of Hashem’s world and to come closer to Him. Not everyone can do this, and that’s why it’s encouraged to build fences – many of us see and forget the Source. Yet, what if one can connect the dots back to the Creator? Would it not be a waste to utilise all that we have available to us to connect? This concept touches so many areas of life, including use of internet, sport, technology, etc. Yes, someone could use the internet to abuse themselves through porn, or they could use the internet to connect to Torah learning and be a light onto the nations in a wider forum. The example that comes to mind is Doniel Katz using the internet to teach baalei teshuvas all around the world in real-time. What an opportunity that is. And yet, so many would steer clear of the temptation that lies at the fingertips. Those that build these fences obviously believe that they need them and they very well may. It’s once again a matter of choice, of being realistic to who you are and where you want to be.

So what about psychology and Judaism? I came across an old online psychology test I did many years ago just out of interest. It’s as accurate now as it was then, more than X number of years ago and despite my move into practicing Judaism. Being baal teshuva we often forget that religious people are indeed people too. Yes, they have set standards and moral code to follow, but so do others in their own way. Each sub-set of society have their own rules, no matter what group they belong to. But all groups are made of individuals and while there may be general group traits that could be present, each person has their own distinctiveness. I read recently that most baalei teshuvas are more open to change then the rest of the population. It makes sense since making such big changes in one’s life aren’t easy and would not be done by the very change-averse. Yet, I’m not a fan of change and I’m baalei teshuva.

If we have access to such data, to people’s traits and personality types, and some of these tests are quite reliable, why does the religious community not utilise it more? While a person’s Rabbi may know you well, there are some things that don’t come out in public forums. A person’s personality may be deeper than you see at first or at the occasional meeting. Even in the shidduch scene, why not include a Myers-Briggs type? It could actually help create life long matches instead of estimates based on what the person puts forth about themselves. This could help iron out inaccurate testimonies because the psychological tests themselves have ‘lie testing’ that weeds out false answers. We rely on people’s subjective testimonies but don’t rely on tools that are based on real data. It doesn’t make sense. There’s a balance that I think is pivotal to reach between emuna (what will be will be attitude) and the ‘I’m obligated to find out as much as I can’ attitude. At the end of the day if Hashem wants the data to be skewed it will be, but at least you put your effort in. 

The same applies to the counselling that Rabbis do. How much easier would it be having the facts? The situation would remain but at least you’d know what you’re dealing with. You’d know whether this issue was a once off out of the ordinary event or is it something that’s deeply ingrained in the person’s personality and would need long-term guidance. It would just confirm the issues that the Rabbi would have already understood. At what point does a Rabbi send someone to a trained psychologist or psychiatrist too? Do they ever? And if not, why not? Is it a bad reflection on the Rabbi or on his ability to apply the Torah to the every-day people problems?

It’s time to find emes through all available means and not just leaving it to people’s’ subjective accounts. The Torah can be applied only as far as the information the Rabbi receives is accurate. Accuracy can be discovered through intelligent questions, but it can also be backed up by statistics. The tools are there to use and what better use could there be than for practicing Jews?

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