Psychology and Jewish thought – Yeshiva University News
Communication and program officer
For the fall semester of 2021, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman, Clinical Assistant Professor of Jewish Education, teaches Psychology and Jewish Thought, which is offered at Stern College for Women in conjunction with the Zahava and the Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. Sam Gelman, communications and program manager at the Straus Center, recently sat down with Rabbi Dr Schiffman to discuss the course.
At the start of your program, you mention five course values. What are these values and how do they fit into the way you teach your course and the material you cover?
My goal with the five values is to create a classroom culture conducive to effective learning and personal growth. To these ends, I emphasize the values of communication, community, growth mindset, courage and honesty in my program. We talk about them, I try to model them and I encourage the students to think and act in accordance with these values. To get a better appreciation, we even spend a few lessons exploring some of these values from both Torah and psychology perspectives, which also serves as an introduction to the topic of the course.
Many of the subjects you teach – human nature, good versus evil, elements of good character – would also be found in a course in Jewish philosophy. How is the philosophical approach different from the psychological approach?
There is no doubt that the topics overlap with philosophy. Keep in mind that psychology didn’t become an official field until the middle of the 19th century. Previously, psychology was entangled in philosophy. Although the course often refers to various philosophical viewpoints, the psychological approach adds information that emerges from its use of the scientific method to assess ideas about human mind and behavior in a social context. Often, this approach can corroborate previously articulated philosophical ideas, and at other times, it can challenge various theories.
Do you find that Torah and modern psychology are often on the same page, or do they take different approaches to these topics?
The answer depends on what you define as “Torah” and “modern psychology”. You can find Torah sources that are opposed to modern psychological theories and findings, and you can find modern psychological writers who are anti-religion. However, one of the recurring themes, regardless of the topic covered, is that there are multiple approaches in the Torah to the issues we explore, and there are multiple perspectives in psychology as well. For the most part, they’re both on the same page or at the very least reconcilable, as long as you’re willing to take multiple perspectives.
How does the class illustrate the credo of Torah Umadda?
I firmly believe that studying psychology can help us understand the Torah texts in a new and insightful way. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt ”the dozens of powerful ideas on the parsha (weekly portion of Torah) which were generated in large part by his reading and understanding of psychology. I’m trying to follow in that direction with my own essays on the parsha. (Coming soon by Kodesh press and available at www.psychedfortorah.com). The benefit is also reciprocal, in which Jewish texts and values can impact the field of psychology. This is something I wrote in newspaper articles with Yeshiva College professor Rabbi Dr Eliezer Schnall. I try to bring out these values in the classroom through discussions and class assignments, such as having students write or record their own. divrei Torah (biblical teachings) which together integrate psychology and Torah.
Why did you decide to teach this course? Why is this interesting and inspiring for you?
Exploring the depths of human mind and behavior through the prism of Torah and psychology is a great passion for me. Intellectual ground is just starting to be covered, and the possibilities for intuition and connection are endless. On a more practical and prosocial level, the marriage of the two subjects has the potential to alleviate suffering and promote fulfillment. Special thanks to Straus Fellow Ayelet Brown for showing me there is a need and interest in such a course at Stern.
What book would you recommend to someone who is not taking the course but still wants to understand Jewish perspectives on psychology?
My mentor, teacher and now colleague at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Dr. David Pelcovitz, wrote a book with his father, Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz, on positive psychology and Judaism titled Life in balance, which is a great blend of Torah, psychological research, and practice. There are many self-help books that mix psychology and Torah – Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski has 90 books on this subject. However, if you are looking for a broader theoretical analysis that compares psychology and the Torah, it is more difficult to find an up-to-date book. Many books were written at the end of the 20th century and are heavily influenced and focused on comparing Judaism with the early psychological theories which have since been updated and revised. That being said, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rabinowitz Judaism and psychology: meeting points is a good place to start.
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