The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths

By Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda
Routledge Publishing
New York, 2016
226 pages
Reviewed by Neal Turk

A significant portion of a pulpit rabbi’s time is spent counseling his congregants, and possibly others from outside his congregation. People approach the rabbi with all kinds of issues, often far from strict halachic queries. Since a rabbi is viewed as someone with wisdom, he is expected to offer sage advice in areas that are not necessarily within his area of expertise.

Most often, however, he will need to offer pastoral care in times of sadness or crisis. In order to fulfill this role effectively, he must have an understanding of psychological issues that may be at work in the individual approaching him, as well as a healthy awareness of his own reactions to the situations with which he is dealing. Some rabbis have more of a natural competence in this area than others. But like most skills, pastoral counseling can be honed and perfected.

In their book, The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths, Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist, and Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, teach so many important concepts and offer so much good advice, one hardly knows where to begin in praising this excellent, very accessible book.

The book’s format is helpful in tackling the many facets of pastoral counseling. A full explanation of a particular idea is given, followed by real-life vignettes illustrating the problem the rabbi will be facing (infidelity, trauma, loss, et cetera). The reader is then challenged with “Questions to Consider” followed by a “Discussion” section, where the authors provide salient points to consider and their recommendations for how a rabbi should respond.

This compelling format gives the reader the opportunity to see how he would have responded before learning what the experts advise. Dozens of challenging and realistic hypothetical cases are found throughout the book, including instances where the rabbi stumbles, with the authors pointing out the rabbi’s mistake.

Explanations of psychological concepts such as transference and countertransference are fairly good in the book, but if this is a rabbi’s first exposure to these important ideas, he will need to delve into these topics further.

The book contains crucial themes, including the need for a rabbi to be aware of his own reactions to situations, what the authors refer to as “taking your emotional pulse.” Everyone has a baseline in terms of how he or she feels and responds to normal occurrences. When a rabbi deals with other people’s problems, difficulties in his personal life may come to the surface. He must be sure that his reaction does not depart significantly from his normal “emotional pulse” in order to ensure that his counsel is fair and balanced. “Any significant shift in the rabbi’s state of mind or heart should be seen as a signal to pause and reflect on what has been stirred up in the rabbi’s own psychology” (p. 93), the authors advise. An awareness of how the problem at hand brings up challenging, and sometimes painful, emotions from his own life will help the rabbi be more effective in providing pastoral counseling. Sometimes the rabbi will be confronted with shocking information about someone he thought he knew well, and this too may conjure up feelings that could get in the way of effective counseling. It is imperative that the rabbi have his emotional pulse under control and not convey that he would rather not have heard that piece of information. In a pastoral counseling setting, the congregant must feel that he or she can be totally comfortable divulging all pertinent facts.

Another critical theme the authors raise is that rabbis are not mental health professionals (while some rabbis are, in fact, mental health professionals, they should not be providing therapy to their congregants), and that pastoral counseling differs significantly from therapy. One considerable difference is that rabbis do not charge money for providing pastoral counseling, while the sessions provided by mental health professionals are circumscribed, billable hours. This can lead to the misconception that a rabbi is always available and that his time is not valuable. To avoid giving congregants this impression, the authors suggest that aside from emergencies, a rabbi should not be available at all hours for unspecified amounts of time.

Another major difference is that a therapist does not make value judgments about a client’s decisions, as long as no one is being harmed by those decisions. The therapist is there to help the client find his or her own way. “The therapist refrains from critique or judgment of the patient’s beliefs or practices. The therapist is committed to listening to whatever comes up and to working with that material in order to help the patient lead a less conflicted, happier life” (p. 3). The rabbi, on the other hand, comes from a clear and unambiguous value system that is his responsibility to teach and espouse. He cannot take a neutral view of behaviors forbidden by the Torah. Nevertheless, Drs. Friedman and Yehuda demonstrate that a rabbi can counsel and comfort even those who do not share his lifestyle or values.

Among the many differences described between therapist and rabbi, there is one with which I take issue. When a client’s time is up, the therapist will, if possible, offer to go into another session, with the understanding that more payment will be necessary. While a rabbi obviously does not charge a fee for the time he spends counseling, the authors insist that he be explicit about how long a meeting will be and stick to those parameters. But a rabbi needs to be much more flexible if he deems it necessary. Certainly, if a congregant is crying in his office or has just divulged a bombshell of information, it is unlikely the rabbi will simply tell him that his time is up. The authors acknowledge that time with a congregant can be extended, but they do not sufficiently take into consideration the fundamental differences between the two very different relationships—therapist and client versus the rabbi and congregant. This is related to another critical distinction—a rabbi relates to and counsels his congregants in many different contexts, not just the pastoral one. In a sense, he lives with them. This enables the rabbi to notice troubling behavior among his congregants right away. He must be able to distinguish between problems that he can help resolve and those he cannot. One of the most important functions of any rabbi is knowing when and to whom to refer congregants for help.

Throughout this useful book, the authors provide valuable advice on important topics such as maintaining proper boundaries. “A useful rule in determining whether a behavior constitutes a boundary crossing is to ask if the practitioner would try to keep it a secret” (p. 53). A seemingly minor violation, the reader is warned, can lead to devastating consequences. Although it is sometimes tempting, rabbis should not, as a rule, share their own problems with those whom they counsel. It usually throws the session, and even the relationship, off. “While the rabbi is friendly with congregants, the rabbi cannot be expected to be best friends with them. The rabbi does not confide personal problems with congregants” (p. 71). Many rabbis learn from hard experience how true this is.

For rabbis in modern times, the authors share vital advice: “Clergy should not send any electronic communication that expresses their gut reaction without appropriate reflection beforehand. Oftentimes, a few hours’ delay results in a more neutral, nuanced presentation of the same issue” (p. 140). It is said that Abraham Lincoln had a drawer full of unsent letters, left for him to reconsider his decision to write them. Today, when communicating is as easy as clicking “send,” everyone, especially rabbis, should take heed.

And there is more. The authors advise rabbis providing pastoral counseling to take into consideration certain details about the room—details to which they most likely never gave much thought: the position of furniture in the room; the implications of handing a tissue to a tearful congregant, et cetera. And they advise: when counseling someone, one must know when to talk and when to listen.

It is also abundantly clear that the authors understand the unique challenges of the rabbinate. For example, anyone involved in counseling is bound by confidentiality, but the rabbi finds himself in an unusual position. “While therapists are also obligated to maintain professional confidentiality, the psychologist would not treat a friend or acquaintance and thus is far less likely to acquire information that has direct impact on his/her spouse or family” (p. 170). Complicating this further is what role the congregants expect the rabbi’s wife to have in their lives and what information is shared with her.

Rabbis should want people to approach them with problems they are facing in their lives. When they do, the rabbis need to be prepared to counsel as well as to provide comfort and guidance. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda have done an outstanding job in providing us with an informative, useful and interesting book, which should be considered required reading for those in or entering the field.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was not only the posek hador, but someone to whom many thousands came for advice regarding all aspects of life. People were certain that this great sage would lead them in the right direction. He once confided to someone that when he says the Viduy, confession, he has especially great kavanah when reciting, “ya’atznu ra—we gave bad counsel,” for perhaps the advice he gave to individuals could have been better. It is surely comforting for rabbis to know that even Rabbi Shlomo Zalman fretted about this. Nevertheless, we rabbis can also get better at what we do. Reading this book will improve our ability to provide pastoral counseling and will also help us to remember that, “the challenge for clergy is to resist feeling responsible for fixing all situations. Instead, the goal is to create a plane of alliance in which clergy can offer comfort, support and religious wisdom” (p. 146).

Rabbi Neal Turk is the director of the Mental Health Counseling Program and mashgiach of the Semichah Program at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is a musmach of RIETS and was a pulpit rabbi in Syracuse, New York, Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and Miami Beach, Florida. He and his wife, Laura, live in Teaneck, New Jersey. They have children and grandchildren in the US and in Israel.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2017.