The ProsenPeople

Why Do Talented People Do Bad Things?

Monday, November 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda wrote about the Thanksgiving concerns all rabbis must address with their congregants and the backstory behind the book they wrote, The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. Rachel and Michelle have been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Recently, prominent Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, was suspended from his Hillel International speaking tour and then resigned from Ha’artez following accusations of sexual harassment of fellow journalists.

A few years ago, Rabbi Barry Freundel, a noted scholar and Washington, D.C. community leader, was found to have violated the trust of female congregants by abusing potential converts and indulging his voyeuristic inclinations by placing cameras in the changing area of the ritual bathhouse.

A few decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, an internationally famous composer of religious music, was surrounded by stories of inappropriate groping and sexual misconduct with adoring congregants.

There is no shortage of such accounts. They each touch the same raw nerve and evoke the same questions: Why do people who have earned our respect and admiration, to whom we look for inspiration and guidance, show such poor judgement, and worse, exploit their power in morally repugnant ways? How much does this type of unacceptable behavior on the part of leaders invalidate their artistic, academic, and spiritual productions? Should we be reading My Promised Land, studying Freundel’s religious insights, or praying to Carlebach tunes? How should we think about these issues?

The first question requires a brief discussion of narcissism. While a robust sense of personal esteem is important to self-worth, narcissism can hypertrophy in highly successful people. People who achieve positions of power and leadership may succumb to poor judgment that leads to crass behavior as a result of inflated self-esteem. Pathological narcissists have an hyper-exaggerated belief in their own self-importance, as well as a bottomless need for admiration. Such people feel that they have unlimited power, wisdom, and entitlement, and are prone to boundary-crossing, particularly in the arena of sexual exploitation. Pathological narcissists resort to serial sexual conquest to pump up their fragile egos and prevent themselves from facing their own deep insecurities. The narcissist is not concerned with damage caused by these seductions, and may feel that their talent or elevated status places them above conventions designed for ordinary people. The narcissist may feel that bestowing a sexual touch is a gift to admiring fans.

An attendant issue is the devastating impact that revelation of inappropriate behavior has on the public. Some members of the affected community feel shock, outrage and disgust while others rise to defend their inspirational leader, either minimizing, excuse or just plain denying his offenses.

Mental health has a good model for describing personality disorders, such as pathological narcissism, but does not always have the moral answers to help us understand what our reaction to their legitimate contributions should be. Ethicists have debated whether science should utilize findings gleaned from horrific Nazi experiments. But does this extreme comparison help answer the question of whether people should allow themselves to enjoy, learn from, and even be inspired by the creativity of charismatic figures who also exploited their power in demeaning and hurtful but not lethal ways? Can we throw out the bathwater and keep the baby?

Here is where communities encounter some of their strongest divisions. Some people feel that the sins of the artist carry over and besmirch the product; they will no longer read Shavit’s works or listen to Carlebach songs. Others feel that the artistic merits of the work stand separate from the flaws of their creators. Perhaps such folks will include a disclaimer at a conference on Carlebach’s life, but they unabashedly dance at weddings to his tunes.

Jewish spiritual leaders such as rabbis and educators confront both of these questions on a regular basis. Congregants, students, and colleagues turn to them for guidance with this dilemma. At best, the guidance should acknowledge that this moral struggle is a positive one. Our rabbis, teachers, and lay leaders need to encourage and facilitate respectful dialogue on such matters. They must institute checks and balances and set up policies and procedures to address allegations of corruption, abuses of power, and misconduct. While resolution of each case will differ depending on community culture and individual needs, the fact that we struggle with these issues enlarges our moral sensitivities and makes us capable of the right choice.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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Writing a Guide to Jewish Pastoral Counseling

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 | Permalink

Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. With the holiday season approaching, they will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


How did a nice psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, not to mention a neuroscientist, get mixed up with the world of rabbis and wind up writing a book on pastoral counseling? Aren’t mental health professionals and clergy like oil and water—do they not embody the gulf between science and faith, between non-judgmental exploration and directed guidance?

We believe that the two fields can coexist and even nourish each other. Perhaps blending the rigorous methodology and principals of mental health treatment with the wisdom of religion can create a healing experience that combines the best of both worlds—the yin and yang of a spiritually and psychologically satisfying response. Our odyssey started two decades ago when Michelle had the opportunity to bridge her professional and personal passions by organizing a conference on Jewish responses to anxiety and depression. This led to an invitation to be the pastoral counseling expert at four-day rabbinic conference. She was in for a big surprise.

Perhaps the serene wooded setting of the retreat center encouraged trust and openness. As the days passed, participants increasingly shared painful and sometimes shocking vignettes that congregants disclosed to them on a regular basis. While these well-meaning, good rabbis did the best they could, they were often overwhelmed by their own anxiety and simply did not know what to do. Whether early on in their careers or many years out, these clergy felt alone and unsupported out there in the field. Their seminary years had prepared them to answer questions about Jewish ritual but not on how to listen and respond to stories of loss, betrayal, and confusion. Unlike mental health professionals, whose training includes supervision and encourages personal therapy, rabbis rarely share pastoral challenges with their peers.

Michelle left that retreat chastened. Clergy are first responders to the messy needs of their congregants. She started doing one-off programs here and there for rabbinic alumni groups and other organizations. When Rabbi Avi Weiss called her out of the blue in 1999 and asked if she was interested in heading up pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the rabbinical seminary he was starting for Orthodox rabbis, it sounded like an intriguing adventure. Michelle had no idea of what a pastoral counseling program was, so she borrowed from her own psychiatric and psychoanalytic training programs and brainstormed with the few people she could find who were engaged in similar work.

One of the people she called was Rachel. Rachel is a psychologist and neuroscient who had by then developed several successful clinical treatment programs for trauma-related illness like posttraumatic stress disorder at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which included modules for training young residents and interns. These programs included the Specialized Clinic for Holocaust Survivors and their families. Rachel was by then serving on the Board of Directors of YCT. Michelle asked Rachel to teach rabbinical students how to deal with congregants in the aftermath of trauma and disaster.

The years rolled by, and the pastoral counseling program at YCT flourished. One of the major teaching techniques to emerge was role-playing, in which rabbinical students are given scenarios to play-act: one student would act the part of the congregant while the other played the part of the rabbi. Another was process group, where students met every week with a mental health facilitator and, in a confidential setting, talk through feelings and issues that emerge in their training. Other seminaries strengthened their own programs, and mental health awareness grew across the denominations. Both Michelle and Rachel were invited to speak at Jewish community programs across the denominational spectrum on postpartum depression, psychiatric medications, sexual abuse, and how to respond to individual and communal trauma. Emails and calls came from around the country from rabbis who sought consultation on tough pastoral situations.

It was time to write a book. The goal was not to create yet another informative but dry, academic piece with a formulaic review of the literature, data charts, and copious footnotes, not another compilation of chapters about topics pertaining to mental illness that do not exactly provide guidance about how to navigate specific situations. There were enough of those. It felt important to write a book that explored the feeling experience of the person who sat in the pastoral counselor’s seat and confronted human drama and raw need. To write for the rabbi who listens to people dealing with loneliness or marginalization, parents struggling to connect to their children, spouses whose marriages are falling apart, elders confronting frailty, and for the school principal or camp director who sees the boy or girl struggling with a difficult family, with sexuality, with Jewish identity. The goal was to share what had been gleaned over these decades of delivering mental health services on the one hand, and teaching rabbis at YCT.

So that’s what we did. We created four fictional characters who go through almost 70 different scenarios culled from our combined logs of practice and supervision. We crafted expositions on each scenario that explain basic principles of pastoral counseling from a Jewish perspective. Toward the end of the process, we read the book out loud to each other to pick up on awkward or confusing sentences. It feels great to offer this book that can help people in positions of spiritual authority listen wisely and well.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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The Active Listening Skills Every Rabbi Should Prepare for Thanksgiving

Monday, November 21, 2016 | Permalink

Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. With the holiday season approaching, they will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


“Rabbi, Thanksgiving is coming up, and after the way my brother behaved last time I can’t bring myself to ever spend the holiday with him like we have always done. What should I do?”

Rabbis get questions like this all the time and especially before holidays.

People turn to clergy and other Jewish professionals for pastoral counseling because they hope to glean wisdom and support that connects them to Jewish tradition. But how are rabbis supposed to get that wisdom and how do rabbis learn how to provide the kind of support warranted by the specific situation?

The wisdom and experience comes from learning how to listen in a specific way. This is harder than it sounds. It is the kind of listening where the rabbi resists the impulse to jump in with a similar vignette from their own life, refrains from giving quick advice, and hears out the story. While listening, the rabbi quietly stays in touch with the anxiety, anger, or sadness stirred up within themself while listening to a painful, deeply human story.

Sometimes, a rabbi may worry that non-judgmental listening implies tacit acceptance of actions that contradict Jewish tradition. But when a caring listener finds a sliver of alliance with the teller of an offensive story, they generate trust; not necessarily approval. In fact, a Jewish pastoral counselor must find some point of connection in order to point out where behavior runs into conflict with Jewish and other values or might even lead to danger.

One way for the rabbi to listen is to ask questions. In the opening vignette, it is not clear whether the sibling got drunk, was missing in action during a family member’s critical illness, questioned Mom about the will, or suggested conversion therapy for a gay family member. The simple direction, “Tell me more,” coupled with quiet attention encourages the most turbulent souls to open up. As the rabbi listens, they can think of questions and generate hypotheses as to what is going on. The congregant fills in the story: “We needed financial help and my sister wouldn’t help;” “My brother was staying with us during his separation and made a pass at the nanny;” “I was going through a rough time and they didn’t bother to check in on how I was doing.”

The rabbi listening might wonder if these slights started long ago or whether they result from something that the congregant did that provoked alienation. They may recall similar painful situations in their own family. Sometimes there was resolution, other times not. Getting in touch with one’s own emotional pulse allows one to empathize with the congregant’s distress while also being clear that their life experiences and reactions are different. The rabbi might ask a few questions to clarify the picture and formulate a hierarchy of goals.

Sometimes people ask for a specifically religious answer: “Rabbi, what does Jewish tradition say about families?” or “Isn’t it against the Torah to embarrass someone?” Jewish tradition has much to say about family relationships and family conflict, about rupture and repair. The rabbi’s sense of tact and timing will determine whether offering a text feels formulaic or supportive. Often the congregant’s question is rhetorical, in the sense that they are not seeking a true Torah ruling but instead trying to get some heavy-duty support for their own feelings and opinions.

There is no one right answer to any of the above questions. A guiding principle for rabbis and pastoral figures might be to try and circumscribe the problem to the present moment and give the congregant permission to make a decision just for the immediate situation at hand. “I understand your relationship with your brother has been difficult for quite a while. I find it’s more helpful to avoid words like ‘never’ and ‘ever’—at this time you need to make a decision about this one Thanksgiving. After that, you can think about how that felt and what you want to do next.” This kind of response allows for a kind of pause after Thanksgiving, time in which to metabolize whatever behaviors and feelings come up over the holiday.

Few people listen well. The goal of pastoral counseling is to help those going through regular life events as well as crises. The enduring legacy of such support connects Jews to the richness of tradition over the longer arc of time.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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