When Torah and Your Emotional Needs Don’t Feel Compatible
Persons who go through therapy and find access to their deeper feelings can become aware of conflicts that others may not be consciously aware of. For example, unfortunately there are a number of people who habitually talk in Shul. Some may get serious, develop self control, begin to appreciate the value of prayer and solemnity, and stop this behavior. Others may continue for years, feeling vaguely guilty but maintain a status quo love / hate relationship with Shul. They come late, they talk, but after all, they still go. Like a sullen grade schooler off to school who cannot wait until recess.
On the other hand, a person in therapy might come to understand that his talking in Shul comes from an anger and wish to rebel against his father. He projects his ambivalence onto the rabbi or maybe even to G-d, develops a suite of passive aggressive behaviors toward Shul such as coming late, talking, and drinking at the kiddush club. But once this unconscious conflict is made conscious, one type of person may find it easier to quit disrupting his prayers and sort through his anger at his father directly. Paradoxically, another kind a person might emerge from the therapy feeling free to let go of his guilt and burden of insincere prayers in the first place, and simply stop going to Shul altogether. This is why sometimes therapy gets a bad rap from religious persons because through self-awareness, therapy helps a person become more free. With one kind of person that can mean more free to follow his religious beliefs separated from his emotional burdens and resentments of the past. For another person it could mean to become free entirely of religion. A good therapist doesn’t preach morals, and instead, helps the client understand himself better so that hopefully the client will make the best possible choices, as the client sees it.
The above example was a simple one that did not necessarily involve deep social or cosmic challenges. However, there can be much more disturbing and challenging conflicts between personal feelings, needs and religion. Consider a person who has strong homosexual desires and yet wants to be obedient to his or her religion that forbids is it? Or, what about a sincerely orthodox woman who feels unfairly limited by the strongly assigned gender roles that forbid her from becoming a rabbi, reading from the Torah publicly, or being part of a minyan. While many women would feel this to be merely a minor inconvenience, for her it is a painful barrier and challenge for faith and practice. For such persons, therapy MIGHT help them find a way to make peace with the strong need they feel and find a mode to express and experience this need in ways that are more compatible with religion. They may find a way to simultaneously preserve a sense of self and emotional independence and differentiation while accommodating the religious requirements. This is done by understanding some of the drives, conflicts and neurotic tensions that MIGHT be part of the overall picture, and finding more adaptive ways to express them.
Yet, I stress the word “MIGHT” because it is offensive to assume that when a person chooses a different path or mode of expression, mode of being or identity, which conflicts with his or her religion, that the automatic response is this comes from a neurotic conflict. After all, aspects of heterosexuality, and masculinity are also psychological complexes that society and family imposed on persons to help them express certain needs and desires, redirect others and repress still others. In traditional patriarchal religions, the masculine roles and heterosexual roles are sanctioned and so there is little need to find other ways to adapt these modes of being and expression. But if heterosexuals and male privileged persons would suddenly be transported to a Universe where the religion condoned matriarchy and homosexuality, and condemned patriarchal dominance and heterosexuality, therapy theoretically MIGHT be just as useful in helping the person find another way to express these deep needs and feelings in a way that could be compatible with the dictates of that Universe’s religion and still allow for emotional independence and differentiation.
Indeed I wonder what would happen if I suddenly woke up one day and found myself in a Universe where heterosexuality was religiously forbidden and homosexuality was ideal. I believe that being a mature, flexible and emotionally healthy person I would have to carefully consider could I live a life with a less preferred homosexual partner and find peace, knowing that my deepest sexual cravings of heterosexuality could never ever be sanctioned or met? After all, Heterosexual men and women who are incarcerated seem to find a way to enjoy being homosexual even when it is not their first choice of sexual expression. Or, would I need to accept my loss of religion and encounter familial and community ostracism to pursue my deeply heterosexual identity and yearnings. I would also have to figure out in what way could I relate to G/d under these circumstances. It would be a difficult choice. A mature and wise person can make either choice in a clear headed fully-conscious manner and find happiness and fulfillment without excessive regrets or neurotic conflict. Either decision would bring one or another kind of pain or loss, but a healthy person could possibly find a way to cope with either decision with due consideration. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for some of my homosexual acquaintances, the Universe I live in allows me to be myself without too many repercussions. (Although I may have spoken to soon, as I think this essay will manage to provoke outrage from every side of this debate, and I may lose more than a few friends.)
In our modern liberal culture the more likely outcome of therapy in situations where religion and personal need for expression or identity conflict, is for religion to take the hit. The person will likely be guided to become free from neurotic guilt and excessive subordination of the individual will to the community or family expectations. This often leads to persons rejecting their religion and beliefs of their family of origin because they see their mental health, personal development and sense of self to be incompatible with the religion’s expectations.
In this essay, I will explore a possible third alternative, different than what most people would consider emotionally and religiously feasible from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism:
The standard belief that most devout and strict religious people have is that since G-d is all good and the religion represents a revelation of His will, no prohibition or commandment can possibly be bad. If a person experiences difficulty, there must be some lack of development, misunderstanding, immaturity, or even possibly a psychological disorder that’s responsible for the difficulty. Certainly it cannot be that the word of G-d is incorrect, nor is it possible that it should be “updated“ in order to conform with modern morals and beliefs. G-d’s words are timeless. I have even heard some well intentioned rabbis naively assume that so-called reparative therapy must work because how could the Torah expect homosexuals to suffer and live celibate lives or live in sin?
While this is an understandable and logical position to take, it’s simplistic and ignores the basic realities of life in the physical world. Many people suffer from diseases and situations that appear unfair. Our sages tell us life circumstances are not under our control - only our moral state of mind. There are other views expressed by great Torah sages that are less simplistic, more nuanced and even revolutionary. Talmud Berachos (33b) states: “Rabbi Ḥanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven.” There are great Torah sages who do not assume that every aspect of the Torah is automatically compatible with every person.
Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed (III:34) understands that the reasons for the commandments are basically one of three purposes: To promote physical health, spiritual health or the smooth running of society. Maimonides compares the commandments to Nature (also designed by G-d). Just as the general welfare and survival is provided for by natural processes, yet individuals may have diseases or defects that nature does not protect them from, so too the Torah is designed to help the majority. There may be times or individuals that suffer and are hurt by a particular Torah requirement. Caution is required here in understanding Maimonides’ revolutionary statement. He is not advocating that an individual abrogate his Torah obligations even if he could verify with absolute certainty that this aspect of the Torah holds him back from experiencing “shleimus”, which is the language used by Maimonides to mean personal character and spiritual development. This person must still follow the laws. This is similar to civil law: One is not exempt from obeying the law that is designed to promote the greatest good and common welfare, even if he can offer a strong argument why it does not promote his welfare. The Torah is still a legal system aside from a spiritual system. So even though Maimonides states firmly that it is indeed possible for a Torah requirement to be in some way unhelpful and even destructive to a minority of people or even points in history, the legal obligations remain unchanged.
There is an even more radical position taken by Rav Kook, of which I will print the Hebrew original, as I want the full power of his words to be seen and not misinterpreted:
אגרות הראי"ה, חלק א', עמ' קג.
אמרת שלפי דברַי התורה הולכת ומתפתחת, וחס וחלילה לא אמרתי מעולם דבר זר כזה. מושג ההתפתחות, שרגיל העם ליחש, הוא מאורע של פנים חדשות, המביא קלות ראש. ומה שאנכי אומר, שהידיעה העליונה, הסוקרת כל המעשים מראש ועד סוף, היא סובבת את כל התולדות כולם, היא אמתת קבלת עול מלכות שמים שהוכנו מראש כל הסיבות שיסבבו ההבנות וההרגשות לבא לידי החלטות בכל דור ודור כראוי וכנכון. על כן אי-אפשר לאמתתה של תורה להתגלות כי אם בהיות עם ד' כולו בארצו, מבונה בכל תיקוניו הרוחניים והחומריים גם יחד, שאז תשוב תורה שבע"פ לאיתנה, לפי הכרת בית דין הגדול, היושב במקום אשר יבחר ד', על כל דבר אשר יפלא למשפט, ואז אנו בטוחים שכל תולדה חדשה תהיה מוכתרת בכל עז ובכל קודש, כי קודש ישראל לד'. ואם תפול שאלה על איזה משפט שבתורה, שלפי מושגי המוסר יהיה נראה שצריך להיות מובן באופן אחר, אז אם באמת על פי בית דין הגדול יוחלט שזה המשפט לא נאמר כי אם באותם התנאים שכבר אינם, ודאי ימצא על זה מקור בתורה, והסכמת המאורעות עם כח בית דין ודרישת המקרא יחד אינם דברים שמזדמנים במקרה, כי אם הם אותיות מחכימות מאורה של תורה ואמתת תורה שבע"פ, שאנו חייבים לשמע לשופט אשר יהיה בימים ההם, ואין כאן "התפתחות" של גריעותא. אבל מי שבא לדון בזמן הזה, שאנחנו מדולדלים וחיינו הכלכליים אינם נערכים לשם חיים לגבי מצב האומה בצביונה הראוי, על פי אותן הדרישות הרוממות, הוא נכון למועדי רגל, ורחמנא ליצלן מהאי דעתא.
Essentially, Rav Kook is saying that at some future time, when there is an operational Sanhedrin in a fully established, religiously moral and fulfilled Jewish state, they will have the power to reinterpret Torah laws. He is clear that they can do this if they feel that their understanding of morality requires a new derasha, it is in the nature of the design of Torah for them to find the ability and the inspiration to do it properly. Caution here must be taken as well to note that Rav Kook only believed this could be accomplished via a proper Sanhedrin. In addition, just because a person feels that the Torah is asking something unreasonable of them does not mean that their subjective biased view is necessarily correct and we cannot know what a group of divinely inspired sages would change, even if they had the power to do so. While Rav Kook is making a daring assertion, a close reading of Maimonides in the Guide (III:41) seems to be hinting that the rabbis of the Talmud (Bava Kama 83b) did this exact thing in response to the verse that states “An eye for an eye”.
How does this help? While in modern life a person might feel that certain aspects of Torah life do not fit, though they must still obeyed, at least one does not have to feel that their personal experiences and instincts are necessarily incorrect. Not to, G-d forbid, permit or rationalize forbidden behavior, but to at least offer comfort when a person succumbs to desires or impulses by validating that the perception of need MAY not be coming from a distorted sense of self or morality. Though some would argue that there are qualities of feminism and homosexuality that are destructive and innately immoral, and no Sanhedrin would ever change its mind. It is only the corrosive secular influences that have brainwashed us into thinking that the old gender roles are deficient or that homosexual love also can be sacred. It can be argued that the true Divine religion dictates patriarchy and heterosexuality as a superior form of management of human impulses and drives. The heterosexual patriarchal family unit promotes cohesion, love, moral and character development that is less selfish and more about creating a stable relationship and society. As a religious heterosexual male and therapist I have indeed seen how excessive promiscuity and lack of ability to delay gratification has led to increased divorce, single motherhood, and broken families. I personally am not convinced that the destruction of traditional roles and models of intimacy and gender is a good thing. Yet, the point is, it’s not up to me.
A person who is religious and feels strongly that things must change can at least feel the comfort of potential emotional validation. That is, that if enough people in time felt and believed as he did, and there was a Sanhedrin, it could be revisited. This allows a religious person to maintain faith in the essential compatibility of his beliefs with the divine religion, divine justice even. Notwithstanding that in his or her lifetime he may have to comply with religio-legal requirements to follow the commandments and prohibitions as they are traditionally understood.
The reader might scoff and say, so what? In the end, I’m still torn between my emotional needs and the religion requirements! While yes, that is true, we also know that emotional validation eases pain even when an actual need cannot be gratified. To know that a day might come when the religion might accept your need is still a form of validation and comfort. To know that your needs and beliefs MAY one day POSSIBLY be re-evaluated and incorporated into your religion can still offer a sense of hope and connection to G-d that otherwise might be too difficult to accomplish.