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The Season of Prayer, Repentance, and Psychotherapy

During the High Holidays, many Jews turn to their rabbis with questions about God. But others seek their answers on the couch.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
September 23, 2016
Original photo Shutterstock
Original photo Shutterstock

As a psychotherapist, I can tell you that it’s not unusual for the creator of the universe to come up in sessions around the High Holidays. This time of year, God puts a lot of pressure on Jews everywhere—even those who don’t believe in him. Few will ever come upon a burning bush, but whispers, hints, or even simple thoughts about God will often arise during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It’s no wonder. The customs and obligations of the season—from visiting the graves of ancestors, to confessing, to asking forgiveness—“force” you to consider life from the angle of unified, tribal purpose. Our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob began a special relationship with God thousands of years ago, and we remain entwined with him and with each other, especially during this season of prayer and repentance.

At Rosh Hashanah time, an urgent predicament visits the soul: Do I believe or don’t I believe? Exactly what do I believe? Should I come to synagogue or not? Should I pray—and if so, to whom? Whom am I living my life for?

In another age, one might have gone to a rabbi to discuss God—or perhaps, if bold, like Tevye, to talk back to the Hidden One himself. The rabbi would artfully bring the errant sheep back to the flock—or the questioning man would, Tevye-like, talk himself back to tradition. While that’s still an option, the psychotherapist’s office is now often the address for such sanctified stirrings of the soul. This is, after all, the age of the individual, and one takes his or her prerogative to arrive at belief, observance, or even lack thereof by talking things through to one’s unique conclusions and sensibilities. Who better to talk to than a psychotherapist?

“I went to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave,” a patient told me. “I put the stones there, I knew I had to pray, but believing in nothing, I put my head down and prayed to ‘nothing.’ But who, exactly, is this ‘nothing’? I ‘know’ there’s nothing out there, but I pray because there is something in that ‘nothing.’”

These sorts of dilemmas and conundrums make even the simple men and women of our tribe into Spinozas. Another patient told me that for years he bludgeoned himself into going to synagogue, praying, fasting. Now, no longer. Instead, he spends every year “elsewhere.” One year, he went to a brothel; another, he went camping. “God was with me in those places, too,” he said, nearly glowing—not just with the handsome wages of sin, but also with the joy of life.

Still another man described going to synagogue like visiting his father in the old-age home: “God, like my father, is in a sorry state,” he said. “I no longer need him — the world no longer needs him — but I retain a fondness for him, so I go.”

Psychoanalysis has come to understand that we are creatures who break God’s (and man’s) rules all the time and yet strangely, even as we might “get away” with it, we are disturbed by that. In fact, we are disturbed by both virtue and sin, by order and chaos, by belief and nonbelief. As Woody Allen once quipped, “I don’t believe in God, but I feel guilty about it.”

One time, a baalebos, a family man in his 40s, came to me. He was in the thick of life: a wife, many children, a business, a house—as Zorba the Greek said, the full catastrophe.

Religiously, he was a solid citizen if not especially devout, a creature of a temperate religious climate: rote synagogue attendance, a bland suburban modern Orthodoxy. Seventy years after the dark days of the Holocaust, the crew of shoe peddlers and shopkeepers, men of the meat market and the paint store who once made up his congregation had been eclipsed. Gone were the round, pink-faced butchers; in were the stock analysts with an agreeable (yet repulsive and smug) air of Emersonian self-reliance—slim, handsome Jewish hombres, now on exclusively plant-based diets. Men in long chino slacks gave the synagogue a genteel air—silver-haired gents with small crocheted yarmulkes with “Grandpa” or “Joe” stenciled on them.

My baalebos maintained his rituals: On Sukkot, there would be a lulav and the four species, and a sukkah on his front lawn. Occasionally, he would go to the Talmud class. He wore a “bottlecap” yarmulke and a small tallis draped without enthusiasm on his shoulders.

He went to services but as time wore on, he sprouted a few gray hairs, his father passed away, his oldest son was nearing bar mitzvah, he started to move toward the religious “right.” No longer was it sufficient for him to show up in shul once a week; he had begun going every day—eventually, at least twice a day. He began to take less interest in his wife and business and more in the eternal and the spiritual. His wife—a woman he said was materialistic and merely paid lip service to “faith”—had become worried of late, especially with the High Holidays approaching.

Eventually, he had his own table in the corner of the synagogue with a few scholarly books. Although not a born scholar, he had a good mind and he became a man of the book. Whereas previously, he was no stranger to the neighborhood baseball games and his son’s Little League, he now spent his time communing with the medieval authors of The Path of the Just and the Gateways to Repentance. He would come to sessions quoting the Sages: “Life is a corridor, a vestibule; we’re all just passing through.”

One day, he reported to me “good news”: His wife, after nagging him for months to go on vacation, offered instead to go to Florida on her own to visit her parents. “She has finally realized that I am not the vacationing type,” he said. I hinted that I saw this as an unfavorable omen for his marriage, a sign of her giving up and getting ready to leave, but he discounted it. “It’s just a couple of days in Florida,” he said. “More time for study.”

The marriage coasted. If there were any further warnings or signs, he didn’t mention them. He started to come to sessions less often. I realized that he needed to go just to the edge of blowing up his marriage: He had to throw his marriage up in the air and see if it would come down in one piece. I’ve seen it done before. And as psychotherapists, sometimes when people go to the edge, we have to go with them.

I didn’t hear from him for a long while. The following Rosh Hashanah season, he came once more. “My wife is talking about leaving,” he said. “Perhaps I should let her go.”

He paused and asked, “I wonder what God would want from me?” He looked at me without really looking at me. It is possible that he was making room for something he knew but of which he was barely conscious: Though we were members of the same tribe, he had a different God than I had—one who demanded different things. (His God seemed like a tyrannical bore, while mine, naturally, was more interesting and nuanced!)

But there was something more: There was a casualness to the way that he spoke about his wife, a detachment. I wondered why. I knew that I wasn’t paid to impose my views, but rather, in the words of the late analyst D.W. Winnicott, “to understand the world as the patient sees it.” In that spirit, I asked him, “Would this be a Rosh Hashanah sacrifice to give her up,” I asked, “as Abraham sacrificed his son for God?”

“Not a sacrifice here actually,” he said, “rather a circumcision.” He unfolded one shirtsleeve and started to re-roll. “Did you ever hear of circumcision of the heart? It sounds goyishe, but it is actually Jewish—in the Book of Devarim,” he explained to me, unsure of the extent of my Jewish knowledge. “I am no theologian, but years ago when I came across the words arlas halev, circumcision of the heart, in the Torah, I stopped cold. I thought, ‘Wow.’ That’s it. All that talk about where God is, does he exist or not, it’s all beside the point. If there is something in your heart—a foreskin—you can never see him. For me, the foreskin is a kind of materialism, the kitsch of life. The media, the internet, all that. The swimming club, the idiotic Pesach vacations in Cancun—all this stuff is her and she stops me from God.

“I need to turn it all off,” he continued. “My wife doesn’t see it that way, I know. But I hope she does. If she doesn’t, we will separate.”

I swallowed hard. I understood what he was saying, and yet it was cold—by my lights, even un-Jewish. Yet, there was a light in his eyes—lit up not with life, but not entirely demonic, either. I could see, through his shirt, his new thick woolen tzitzis with black stripes. He was very serious about religion and it had now the vitality of a voluptuous blonde to whom he had made a rapturous attachment and with whom he was now going to happily wreck his life and build another, better one—or so it seemed. In a sense, he was complete without a woman.

He didn’t need me, either, as he was coming less and less often. He had a code and an ideology, and in there, he was one with his God.

I have seen such men in my practice. Sometimes they are crazy in love or lust or in search of treasure or bounty, or sometimes they have bonded so deeply with their code, they will leap over whatever it takes to get what they want—or in his case, to do what they think is right. They reach a point where they are no longer afraid even of the angel of death—they have that look in their eye.

That was the look he was giving me. For him, life had become an ideological project that was far too important to be left to anything as unreliable and capricious as “feelings” or psychoanalysis, but instead, could only be entrusted to something more sturdy and strong, like a code.

“There is not much else I have to say,” he said, even as I was quite sure it ought to be the beginning, not the end, of the discussion. He got up, shook my hand. We wished each other a good year and I never saw him again.

But it left me in discomfort. Was God simply an idiosyncratic creation dreamed up—invented—by individuals to “solve” their unique predicaments? Or was there one God to whom we all answered, even as the experience of him was filtered differently through our unique experiences and personalities?

I was 21 when I enrolled in the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University, my first foray in the field of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. I could scarcely know what I was doing at the time, but I began the entrance essay with these words: “My name is Alter Yisrael Shimon, the namesake of my great-grandfather, the Rebbe of Novominsk who lived in Warsaw and died there before the war. …God no longer talks to us through the prophets. He has, as described in Chronicles, pulled back the curtain and hidden himself. Instead, he ‘sends’ men and women in each age and generation to care for his people to comfort them and bring them back … to say nice words, to speak to the inside of a person, her soul …”

That was what I wrote over 30 years ago. I did not realize then, at 21, that the task was far more complicated than nice words. I came to understand that when a man says he found “God” in the brothel or another who says “God” wants him to separate from his wife, or a person who believes only in a “no-God,” these expressions just might be, rather than straightforward heresy, a paradoxical proof of God’s eternal presence in Jewish life. At this time of year especially, formal doctrine and theologies crumble into sentiment and tradition. The Jewish idea that God is a presence and someone with whom we must keep “talking” will bring one to shul—or even the psychotherapist’s office.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.