A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling

imageA Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling
Edited by Yisrael N. Levitz and Abraham J. Twerski
Feldheim Publishers
Jerusalem, 2005
392 pages

Most rabbis, will, at some point in their careers, encounter a congregant who has experienced a traumatic event. It is often the rabbi who is called upon immediately following a catastrophe, be it a devastating car accident, a fire or a serious injury. Understandably, many rabbis may feel anxious and at a loss for words when confronting a congregant in a state of crisis. In A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling, a handbook containing the wisdom and insights of a score of gifted and accomplished mental health and legal professionals, Dr. David Pelcovitz offers insight into dealing with trauma and its aftermath, providing rabbis with practical ways to help their congregants. While Dr. Pelcovitz, a professor of education and psychology at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, emphasizes that there may not be a “right” thing to say to a congregant, he stresses that the rabbi is, nevertheless, viewed as “playing a crucial role in supporting congregants facing what is often the most trying period of their lives.”

Dr. Pelcovitz’s insightful essay is but one of twenty in this impressive book, which includes contributions from many well-known therapists. The book, which was edited by Rabbis Yisrael N. Levitz, PhD, and Abraham J. Twerski, MD, both of whom have prolific careers in the field of mental health and have themselves authored several essays in this guide, is a valuable contribution in the area of rabbinic counseling. Dr. Levitz, a clinical psychologist and an ordained rabbi, is professor emeritus of Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Dr. Twerski is an author, a lecturer and a noted psychiatrist who specializes in addiction and rehabilitation. The book is an outgrowth of the pioneering efforts of the Bella and Harry Wexner Kollel Elyon of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an innovative program that provides rabbis with the requisite skills to deal with many of the social issues characteristic of modern-day life.

A valuable resource for both rabbi and therapist, A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling covers topics ranging from comforting the ill and bereaved to dealing with mental disorders to resolving conflict. Particularly illuminating are the chapters on addiction, domestic abuse and rabbinic confidentiality. In dealing with these sensitive areas, rabbis require more than empathy, understanding, intuition and good intentions. They require considerable training, and often the counsel of experts in law, psychiatry or social work. A rabbi also needs a large Rolodex to refer congregants to competent professionals. As Dr. Twerski notes in his essay on addiction, it is imperative that the rabbi understand the way in which the addict thinks. He should also realize that no amount of rabbinic counseling can cure the chemically dependent congregant “without active participation in formal treatment.”

Dr. Twerski describes men who take several drinks at the “Kiddush club” and several more when they get home, resulting in ruined Shabbat meals. Alcoholics, Dr. Twerski stresses, need treatment not from the rabbi but from a competent family counselor who specializes in alcoholism. Many rabbis will recognize the following scenario described by Dr. Twerski: The wife of an alcoholic makes what appears to be an innocuous request. “Rabbi, my husband has great respect for you. I’m sure that he’ll listen if you talk to him.” Dr. Twerski cautions that this is a trap. The wife really wants the rabbi to make her husband change—which is something he cannot do. Only a referral to the right expert holds the promise of change.

In dealing with addiction, domestic abuse and rabbinic confidentiality, rabbis require more than empathy, understanding, intuition and good intentions. They require training.

Dr. Twerski goes on to insist that a spouse with a gambling, sexual or other addiction be referred to an appropriate support group. When the addict protests (“How can I take a chance of being seen in a support group for [this] addiction? If word gets out, it will ruin my reputation and bring shame to my children!”), the rabbi should emphasize that there is no other option.

Of particular interest are the many chapters that focus on helping the rabbi develop the skills and attitudes of a mental health counselor. As Dr. Levitz notes in the introduction: “Advice has limited value when it is merely a subjective opinion masquerading as divine wisdom.” Rabbis often lack the most basic counseling skills, and therefore require training. Furthermore, a congregant’s need to be counseled in a non-judgmental manner in what he perceives as a safe environment may run counter to the rabbi’s rabbinical training. To effectively help his congregants, a rabbi must suspend his tendency to judge and must instead “learn to connect to the distress, conflict, grief, shame or pain that is being experienced by individuals who turn to him for help.” This indispensable skill is what enables a rabbi “to create the very empathic environment that is the sine qua non of a safe counseling relationship.” While readers are treated to an excellent introduction of the principles of counseling in an essay by Dr. Levitz and Rona Michelson, a family therapist, they should not, however, be tempted to provide psychological counseling without adequate formal training. Unfortunately, the authors’ cautious advice in this regard is not sufficiently strong and unequivocal. Formal training is more than simply counseling “in consultation with and under the supervision of a seasoned professional.” It also requires coursework, internships, ongoing supervision, professional and credentialing exams, et cetera.

A Practical Guide devotes at least three chapters to dealing with the ill as well as with the families of the seriously ill. Allocating that much space to the topic highlights the importance of empathy in those situations and the rabbi’s need to be keenly aware of the charged environment that is the patient’s new reality. Other writers have addressed this topic as well. In her book Please Don’t Break My Other Leg: A Guide to Empathising with Patients,1 Valerie Mirvis notes that visitors to the sick should understand that every patient has the right to be looked at in his own unique world, and that that world changes minute by minute. In another A Practical Guide essay, Drs. Daniel H. Jackson and Susan Taylor Jackson, a hospital chaplain and clinical psychologist, respectively, detail the rabbi’s contribution to visiting the sick and guide the reader through the complexities of this duty with regard to the patient, his family and the hospital staff.

Dr. Sylvan J. Schaffer’s essay on rabbinic confidentiality is eye-opening, if not a stern warning to every rabbi. In this well-presented chapter, Dr. Schaffer, an attorney and a clinical psychologist, discusses the interface between secular and religious law and its ramifications for the practicing rabbi. The nexus of religious and secular law can be a minefield for rabbis, as is the case when religious duty is at odds with secular confidentiality laws. Among the cases cited by Dr. Schaffer is one concerning two rabbis who believed they had a duty to disclose information to a husband—told to them by the wife—“in order to prevent the husband from violating Jewish law by engaging in prohibited sexual relations with his wife.” The wife sued the rabbis, claiming that her communications with them were confidential and subject to “clergy-penitent (congregant) privilege,” bylaws that establish a privilege that protects client/patient confidentiality.

While there are almost no practicing psychologists without malpractice insurance, many rabbis are not fully aware of their professional liability. Dr. Schaffer does not mince words in urging the rabbi to not only be well versed in the secular laws governing the clergy-penitent relationship, but to take steps to protect himself from damaging suits. His succinct warning—“Rabbis can get into trouble counseling congregants”—should be underscored. Take, for example, the case of a congregant who seeks his rabbi’s guidance in a personal, legal or business matter. In some states, this very congregant can bring a lawsuit against the rabbi “if he believes he received negligent counseling.” While communications with one’s rabbi are generally protected, some “do not fall within the context of spiritual guidance, and so are not necessarily protected.” Sometimes confidential communication must be disclosed to state authorities in accordance with state laws, often in regard to child abuse and child sexual abuse. Not disclosing information in some states, Dr. Schaffer warns, is a criminal offense. His highly informative essay guides the rabbi in how to limit his exposure to liability. Rabbis would be well advised to heed his words and to “participate in risk management programs to learn about the potential pitfalls of their work.”

Dr. Levitz’s final chapter is in the mode of “Doctor, heal thyself.” The rabbinic family faces many pressures, be they social, emotional or financial. At times, the rabbi’s family must cope with economic insecurity and frequent mobility. The rabbinate is more than just a profession. It is “an all-encompassing lifestyle that can absorb a rabbi to the point where he has neither time for himself nor his family,” writes the author. He also notes that oftentimes rabbis’ children report ambivalence about their fathers’ profession and their families’ role in the community. Although they may feel “special” and proud, they often complain that they are constantly held to a higher standard of behavior than their peers and are expected to undertake more duties than others in the congregation. Dr. Levitz quotes the son of a rabbi who bemoaned the fact that half the community never referred to him by name. To those individuals, he was simply “the rabbi’s son.” In addition, clergy children are sometimes offended by cynical and callous remarks made by congregants. Dr. Levitz relates the story of an eight-year-old child who was asked by a congregant to deliver a sharp message to his father. Leaning over and whispering in a harsh tone, the congregant demanded, “Tell your father not to talk too long today.”

While the children’s perception of tensions vary, the rabbi’s wife may experience the most stress within the family and vis-à-vis the community. Her (unpaid) role as a rebbetzin is mostly undefined, yet her duties are numerous and time-consuming. At the same time, she is entrusted with the daunting challenge of “preserving the private space of her public family” and supporting and shielding their “normal” family functions from constant intrusions and excessive drains on their time and energy.

As rabbis face unusual challenges in successfully fulfilling their roles as husbands and fathers, the book’s insight into the dynamics of the rabbinic family will answer many of their questions regarding their own spouses’ and children’s emotions and attitudes. A rabbi’s children grow up in the ever-present shadow of the “realization that the rabbi serves at the pleasure of his congregation, and that job security, financial stability, and a sense of personal well-being are contingent upon the good will of the congregation.” In his essay, Dr. Levitz advises rabbis to create “community proof” boundaries to protect their families from outside intrusion “while permitting [the family] to develop supportive cohesion from within.” This advice should be embraced by every rabbi. When the rabbi is able to develop strong marital bonds, attend to the emotional needs of the entire family, and support his wife’s and children’s self-esteem by validating their needs and valuing their contributions, he will then be able to build his family’s solidarity and enhance the well-being of each family member. Rabbinic training should include sensitizing students to the impact of the rabbinate on one’s personal life. Dr. Levitz’s essay also emphasizes the resilience of many families who report positive experiences. He points out that, in fact, growing up in a rabbinic family has provided many rabbis’ children with the desire to serve the community, whether in the religious or secular arena.

While A Practical Guide masterfully presents a general approach to recognizing problems and to demonstrating effective counseling skills, a sequel to the book is needed. Rabbis today are called upon to deal with a myriad of problems, some of which are not touched upon in the book. These problems include dealing with children from divorced homes, at-risk youth and those contemplating alternate lifestyles.2 Parents, as well, face new challenges that sometimes require intervention. Families with a child with special needs or with an adopted non-Caucasian child must cope with the issue of acceptance. Parents face stress while their children experience the dating process as well as during the planning of their children’s marriages, with all the social and financial issues that these occasions entail. Parents whose children are contemplating aliyah may experience anger, depression and even resentment. In addition to addressing these topics, a sequel would hopefully provide an index to make the various topics discussed more accessible for quick reference.

No doubt, Rabbis Levitz and Twerski have presented us with a most valuable addition to the rabbi’s toolbox. This practical guide will quickly become the rabbis’ second “madrich.”

Rabbi Rybak, PhD, is the rabbi of Congregation Adas Israel in Passaic, New Jersey, and is president of rabbinic alumni of RIETS. Dr. Rybak, PsyD, is the director of psychological services at the Hebrew Academy for Special Children (HASC) and is an adjunct professor at Touro College.

1. (Lanham, Maryland, 2001)
2. Joel B. Wolowelsky and Bernard L. Weinstein, “Initial Religious Counseling For A Male Orthodox Adolescent Homosexual,” Tradition 29 (winter 1995) and Moshe Halevi Spero, “Halakhic Definitions of Confidentiality in the Psychotherapeutic Encounter: Theory and Practice,” Tradition 20 (spring/summer 1982), 298-326.

Dr. Spero compares general ethical perspectives with halachic perspectives in respect to a patient’s right to privacy and the professional’s obligation to maintain (or divulge) professional secrets.

This article was featured in the Winter 2008 issue of Jewish Action.
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