Oct 27, 2015

God and Psychotherapy in Israel

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October 27, 2015

Couch is a series about psychotherapy.

The voice on the phone was hesitant. “I’m looking for a therapist,” she said. “Not for me, but for a young woman in my community.”

The caller explained that she was a member of the Ger, a community of Hasidic Jews. The young woman on whose behalf she was calling was “already” 20 years old — yet still unmarried. A matchmaker in the community had set up dates for her with a few young men, but these meetings had been unsuccessful. The men reported that she seemed dispirited and talked “like an old woman.”

“We think she needs help,” the caller said. “Please see her.”

“And how are you two connected?” I asked.

“Let’s say I’m a concerned member of the community, helping an orphan girl in distress out of Gemilut hasadim” — loving kindness, or charity. “You can send the bills to me.”

I’m a secular psychotherapist in Tel Aviv. Having worked in the past with other Haredi Jews — who are strictly Orthodox and reject much of modern secular culture — I understood why I had been contacted. My being outside of the community guaranteed anonymity. If rumors were to spread that this young woman was in therapy, her chances of getting a worthy shidduch, or match, would drop considerably.

I agreed to see her.

Rachel walked in for her first session with a suspicious look in her eyes. She was skinny and well dressed, with light makeup and a fashionable hairdo. Her tone of voice was flat, and her body seemed stiff. She sat in front of me and told me her story.

She was the eldest of 15 brothers and sisters. Her father was a beloved and respected rabbi who died in a car accident when Rachel was 16. Her mother was pregnant with Rachel’s youngest brother at the time. Rachel had to become the de facto second parent, the one who looked after her brothers and sisters. “But it didn’t matter much to me,” she said, of the added responsibility. “I’ve been doing that since I can remember myself.”

I ascertained that Rachel had not received much attention as a child. She was only 3 months old when her mother got pregnant for the second time. Hindered by a rough pregnancy, her mother couldn’t even pick up Rachel to hold her in her arms.

I thought about Rachel’s years growing up, her mother being constantly pregnant or nursing, always taking care of someone else, someone who was more “in need,” always expecting Rachel to be the mature and responsible one. The sad look in Rachel’s eyes made it easy to imagine that this had taken a toll.

Yet it was also evident that Rachel took great pride in her ability to “function” and manage the household. She insisted that she never felt that she was “in need,” not ever. She was strong and competent, she said.

At the end of the session, when I asked her what she hoped to achieve in therapy, she said: “Nothing. I don’t need help. There is nothing wrong with me.”

Was there indeed nothing wrong? I supposed that was possible. Perhaps Rachel derived satisfaction and validation from doing what she “should,” what her community found appropriate, despite the demands it made on her. Perhaps those demands appeared onerous only from a modern secular perspective, with its emphasis on the prerogatives of the individual.

In one session, Rachel reminded me that Judaism was a religion of actions. It was your behavior that was important, not the reasons for your behavior or the emotions you experienced. As Rachel once put it, “We were chosen by God specifically because we promised to ‘do and hear,’ instead of the other way round” — instead, that is, of deliberating about motivations or intentions. Judaism, as she understood it, was antithetical to the sorts of probing questions central to psychotherapy.

But Rachel continued to arrive as scheduled, week after week. To me each session seemed to take forever. Her stories were dull, her tempo slow. She clearly wanted to find a husband, but she seemed uninterested in trying to understand why she was struggling to do so, or what emotions she was experiencing as a result. Every attempt to get her to go deeper, to formulate a feeling or a fantasy, was immediately blocked. Any hint of sadness, disappointment or anxiety that I detected was dismissed.

“So, have you found anything wrong with me?” Rachel would tease. I would smile in return, and say something like, “There’s no right or wrong here,” or “I’m just interested in getting to know you.” But she was right; I felt as if I was trying to dig up dirt, stir things up, and I didn’t like that about myself.

Then one day, Rachel came in with some news. “I had a date last night,” she said. “He asked me to tell him about myself. What is there to tell, really? I already told him about my family, about my work.”

“Bingo,” I thought to myself. It was the first time that she admitted, if only implicitly, that there could be something more to her than the way she “functioned,” that she might have an inner world of emotions, hopes, ideas and fantasies that she was hiding from herself.

I wanted Rachel to reconnect with her younger self, the one who learned very early on that she had no right to express her needs and feelings — for even if she did no one would respond to them. In order to receive her parents’ love, she had to be the little helper they needed, living only in the exterior world of action.

The price she had paid was clear: Her vitality was suppressed, and she had become gloomy and robotic. I suspected that this was hindering her ability to achieve the relationship she desired.

I spoke of this with Rachel, or tried to, and in time, something seemed to change in her. She laughed more and looked less inhibited. At times she would concede that she must have an inner life that she was unable to mentalize. But in those moments, she was impatient to have immediate and full access to it, as if it were a treasure chest she could just open and look into.

“How long will it take?” She cried out in frustration one day. It wasn’t immediately clear if she meant the treatment, or getting married. And in that instant it dawned on me that for Rachel, they were one and the same. She saw the therapeutic process as just another thing that served a “function” — in this case, getting her closer to marriage. It had no value of its own.

The next week Rachel entered with some exciting news: She was getting engaged! As is customary in the Ger community, the engagement was set after just three dates, which had all taken place since our previous session, so I had not even been aware of the process. I shared her excitement, yet felt a tinge of disappointment.

“So I guess it’s time to say goodbye,” Rachel said cheerfully.

I wasn’t at all certain that it was. But I knew that my time for persuading was over.

As we said our goodbyes and I closed the door behind her, I hoped that with her new husband, Rachel would at last gain the emotionally reciprocal relationship she deserved. I tried to temper my fear that for her, therapy had been just another means to “function” solely for others, now as a wife and a mother for children of her own.

Most of all, I thought about how often we therapists wish, even as we struggle against the impropriety of the thought, that our patients will want the same things for themselves that we do for them.

Noga Ariel-Galor is a doctoral student in the program of psychoanalysis and hermeneutics at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.


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