Rabbi Chaim Feuerman reviews seven volumes written by Jewish Action columnist, Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
Like Yourself and Others Will Too (Prentice-Hall, 1978)
Generation to Generation (Traditional Press, 1986)
Let Us Make Man (Traditional Press, 1987)
Living Each Day (Mesorah Publications, 1988)
I’d Like to Call for Help but I Don’t Know the Number (Pharos, 1991)
Smiling Each Day (ArtScroll, 1993)
I am I (Shaar Press, 1993)
For Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, positive self-esteem is more than both the prevention and the cure for emotional ill health, emanating as it does from both Jewish religious and secular scientific sources. It is for him the basis of all spirituality and religion. (Dr. Twerski defines “spirituality” as “having a goal in life other than oneself”; he defines “religion” as “spirituality combined with Godliness”.)
He introduces the recurrent theme of wholesome self-esteem in his first book, Like Yourself and Others Will Too. In it he postulates that most psychological and/or emotional problems can be traced to a single underlying cause: lack of self-esteem. (Dr. Twerski defines lack of self-esteem as a distorted self-perception whereby a person sees himself as less than what he in fact is) Let Us Make Man and Living Each Day further elaborate on this theme, propounding the Jewish religious concept of a healthy self-esteem as true humility (anivut) rather than vanity (ga’avah). Illustrative Torah sources drawn from the lives of Moses, David, Hillel and others abound in both books.
Still, the author felt impelled to add a citation from the writings of Reb Yerucham z”l in a personal telephone communication with the reviewer. In this citation, Reb Yerucham declares that a person who is unaware of his own potential is not a humble man (anav), but rather, a fool (shoteh): “Woe to he who is unaware of his soul’s deficiencies; seven-fold woe to he who is unaware of his own capacities!” Precisely because humans are born imperfect they are dynamic in their ability to grow and improve, in contrast with angels, who remain static in their divinely endowed perfection. Let us, then, appeals Dr. Twerski — human and divine together — capitalize on an imperfect person’s healthy self-esteem to develop his enormous potential to become a magnificent human being: Let us Make Man.
So all-pervasive is the recurrent self-esteem motif in Dr. Twerski’s writings that it becomes clearly evident to the reader of Generation to Generation, even though not intended by the author. Dr. Twerski characterizes this book merely as “Personal Recollections of Chassidic Legacy.” He ostensibly exhorts readers to follow the Baal Shem Tov in loving life and finding joy in it, even after the horrors of the Chmielnicki pogroms: “Lebedik, kinderlach, lebedik!” — “Lively, children, lively!”
Yet, to this reviewer, the most characteristic, powerful and memorable story related in Generation to Generation centers about the far-reaching long-term positive effects of building a youngster’s self-esteem. In it, Dr. Twerski movingly tells of how he, as a young boy, once played a game of chess on Shabbos. When his father, a Chassidic rabbi in Milwaukee, learned of the chess game [deemed mundane and inappropriate Shabbos activity], he did not reprimand his son for having transgressed a prohibition. Rather, he chided him gently by indicating that “ess passt nisht” — “You have better things to do on Shabbos than playing chess.” At the same time, regarding the not-recommended-but-not-exactly-prohibited chess game, the rabbi impishly and lovingly inquired of his son, “Did you at least beat him?”
Dr. Twerski’s more recent books, I’d Like to Call for Help but I Don’t know the Number and I am I, spell out more of the implications of the self-esteem concept. The first half of I’d Like to Call for Help… exhorts people to think of spirituality (having a goal in life other than oneself) even if they have no specific religious conviction or commitment. The second half adds the religious (Godly) dimension to spirituality as a spiritual goal. Both halves posit wholesome self-esteem as a prerequisite sine qua non for succeeding in the search for spirituality in everyday life.
Again in I am I, which is presented as “a Jewish perspective — from the case files of an eminent psychiatrist,” the self-esteem refrain emerges prominently. Although the author characterizes this book as a compendium of responsa which address issues of Torah perspective (hashkafah), its most frequent response to inquiries may be distilled to: “Your problem is probably one of poor self-esteem and the guidance of a competent psychotherapist should be sought.”
“One who is unaware of his own potential is not a humble man, but rather, a fool…”
This seemingly simplistic “responsum” is, in fact, an exceedingly significant and highly valuable one. Often addressed to inquirers who are needlessly suffering emotional anguish, Dr. Twerski’s deceptively simple advice provides a great service and represents a profound kindness — for many of the individuals who turn to him for help are committed, observant Jews. They entertain understandable misgivings and mistrust regarding areligious sources of guidance in life issues. Yet, Dr. Twerski, in his witty, engaging, charming, entertaining and highly readable style, popularizes basic, wholesome psychological concepts, rendering them palatable, plausible and acceptable to his Jewish religious readership.
Dr. Twerski’s good-humored genius lies in being psychiatrically competent while at the same time obviously steeped in Torah learning and observance, as well as in knowledge of halachah, mussar and Chassidut. This fortuitous blend bestows upon him a credibility in some Jewish circles which he otherwise might not have enjoyed. It also renders his service to the observant Jewish public eminently more effective.
Accordingly, Dr. Twerski comes across in his writings as a unique admixture of rabbi, rebbe, chassid, psychiatrist, scientist, preacher, homiletician, and halachic authority. For the most part, this impacts positively on the reader in terms of the credibility and readability noted above.
However, this admixture also has a downside. The critical reader finds him “subject to change without notice.” For example, he often switches modes from what “we have established” or what is “generally accepted” to what is “permissible” to the brilliance of the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step Method, to waxing ecstatically eloquent in preaching about the “irresistible” nature of Shabbos. The reader may have no argument with what has been “established” and “generally accepted,” nor with what is “permissible,” nor with the “irresistible” qualities of Shabbos. Yet the critical reader likes to know on what basis “we have established,” by whom it is “accepted,” how the Twelve Step Method is congruous with Torah sources, and at which point have we switched to a homily. If the author is writing as a Torah scientist, he is expected to footnote all primary, secondary and tertiary sources, whether secular or Torah. He is expected to document and support every assertion with authoritative sources and annotated bibliographies. He is expected to distinguish clearly between the plain meaning of a Torah text (p’shat) and its implicit meaning (drash), between a derived interpretation of the Sages (midrash) and a clever Chassidic play on words (“vertl“). In addition, he is expected to be stylistically consistent, grammatically meticulous and orthographically impeccable.
With all its brilliance, Dr. Twerski’s writing occasionally falls short of some of the expectations mentioned. This leaves him vulnerable to the attack of potential detractors who might unfairly accuse him of falling prey to the temptation of simulating the non-Jewish secular culture, presenting it with a superficial sprinkling of quotations from Torah sources.
In fact, however, Dr. Twerski posits the truth which heals the Jewish heart and uplifts the Jewish soul regardless of where that truth may have its source. He presents this truth with the kind of good-humored love of mankind reflected in Smiling Each Day. In it, he goes through the Jewish calendar day by day, citing an inspirational quote and an amusing anecdote from the lives of Jewish “greats” for each day. By so doing, Dr. Twerski dispels the erroneously held image of the great men of the Jewish past as morose, somber moralists. Instead, he presents their brighter, lighter, more human side as an inspirational with which to begin each day. This emulates the Talmudic Sage, Rabbah, who would preface his discourses with witty comments that would engender a cheerful mindset conducive to learning. However, one wishes that the quotes were matched conceptually with the anecdotes and that both the quotes and the anecdotes were connected in content to the religious context of their respective days.
Overall, Dr. Twerski is to be commended and admired for having brought home to the observant Jewish readership psychologically wholesome concepts and inspirationally uplifting insights to which the readership might not have otherwise enjoyed access. In doing so, he is helping heal aching Jewish hearts, uplifting downtrodden Jewish souls, and bringing to them a dimension of joy in spiritual living which might otherwise not be theirs.
Rabbi Feuerman Ed.D., is the Headmaster of Westchester Day School, Adjunct Professor of Education, Administration and Supervision at the Azrieli Graduate Institute, Yeshiva University and at Touro College.