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Jewish Journal

Rabbinical marriage counseling works—up to a point

by Marc Ballon

October 5, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Karen Fox remembers the moment when she decided she needed to pursue a master's degree in counseling psychology.
 
In the late 1980s, Fox, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, decided to create a support group for several couples who had privately sought her out to discuss their fertility problems and the resulting strain on their marriages. By bringing those temple members together, Fox did what scores of rabbis across the country do daily: She tried to improve congregants' relationships and lives by offering free counseling.
 
Problem was, Fox now admits, she didn't really know what she was doing. Having received only the most basic training in marital and other counseling during her rabbinic studies, she lacked such vital tools as empathetic listening and a deep understanding of the form and function of families. Much to her chagrin, Fox could do little more than offer sympathetic words of encouragement.
 
"Just as doctors specialize, I think it's important that rabbis interested in counseling study it and train for it," said Fox, who earned her master's in 1991 and later became a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Otherwise, they might not have a broad enough vision and a wide enough ear to understand what's going on with a couple."
 
Like other clergy, rabbis have dispensed marital and other advice to congregants for generations. With a deep knowledge of Jewish texts and values, they have long played an important role in helping couples headed to the chuppah learn how to incorporate God and Judaism into their lives. Those premarital interventions, spiritual and otherwise, often increase the odds for marital success by teaching Jewish couples how to make their union sacred and loving, rabbis and their supporters say. Overall, rabbis earn generally high marks for premarital counseling, which focuses on the rudiments of good communication.
 
However, critics say rabbis are less suited for long-term marital counseling, even though desperate couples with crumbling marriages often turn to them for salvation. Although rabbis can play a positive role in brokering a reconciliation in couples with relatively minor problems, they are generally ill-equipped, both educationally and often temperamentally, to grapple with spousal abuse, depression, bullying and other serious issues that can destroy marriages and souls. Untrained in these areas, rabbis can do congregants a great disservice when they fail to refer them to professionals for help, experts say.
 
"The rabbinate encourages pronouncements and directives, but counseling is about listening and hearing subconscious messages," said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Program at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. "So, if as an authority figure you tell someone what to do, you might curtail the process of emotional expression that is essential for a couple's growth."
 
Judaism considers marriage to be a holy union with partners entering into a sacred relationship with one another and God. Several texts enshrine institution's centrality in Jewish life. Genesis 2:18, states: "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him." The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b, says: "Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing and without goodness." Midrash, Yalqut Shimoni, Ruth 606: "He who marries a good woman is as if he fulfilled the whole Torah from beginning to end."
 
Given Judaism's emphasis on marriage, it is hardly surprising that many rabbis offering premarital counseling infuse their sessions with religiosity. Rabbi Michael Menitoff, an instructor in the psychology departments at the University of Judaism and the Academy for Jewish Religion, said that when he worked as a congregational rabbi he would encourage couples to make their future home sacred by observing Shabbat and keeping kosher.
 
Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe said he also emphasizes the importance of Shabbat, which he calls "an opportunity to not be tyrannized by the modern world and to create a space in which personal interactions can exist away from the constant [inundation] of information and opinion and all the things with which we are bombarded day-to-day."
 
In his nearly two decades as a congregational rabbi, Rabbi Mark Diamond would discuss the meaning and importance of Jewish wedding rituals before the big day. For instance, Diamond, now the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, would explain that the sixth blessing recited under the chuppah teaches that newlyweds begin married life with a clean slate and rejoice together. But the seventh blessing, Diamond says, suggests that Judaism also calls on partners to celebrate their individuality and give one another space to grow. Diamond's point: Understanding the meaning behind Jewish marital customs gives couples a roadmap to better navigate their futures together.
 
In the bad old days, rabbis received scant counseling training of any type in the seminary. That meant they relied on little more than gut instinct when advising couples on how to grapple with issues such as alcoholism and infidelity. In recent years, observers say, rabbis and rabbis-in-training have received better pastoral counseling education. The Academy for Jewish Religion, for instance, now requires rabbinical students to take two counseling courses, which, among other subjects, address such topics as the power of active listening, the therapeutic process and crisis management. In recent years, the Board of Rabbis sponsored a series called, "The Rabbi as Counselor: Issues & Challenges," which dealt with issues ranging from marital counseling to infertility to mental illness and depression.
 
The improvements notwithstanding, congregants coming to rabbis with serious marital and other problems have often come away disappointed, said Rabbi Abner Weiss, former rabbi at the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. In a 1999 survey of more than 200 Jews at Beth Jacob, University Synagogue and Valley Beth Shalom, Weiss found that the majority of temple members who had gone to rabbis and licensed professionals for advice found the marriage counselors, psychologists and social workers to be more helpful, although the majority of Orthodox congregants preferred going to a rabbi.
 
Despite rabbis' good intentions, some temple members complained that clergymen had betrayed them by using their personal dramas as the basis for sermons, Weiss said. Others said that even if rabbis respected their privacy, too many temple members saw them going in and out of his/her offices for counseling and gossiped. Finally, many groused that rabbis knew far less than the trained professionals.
 
"When there's a real problem, what's really required is a good referral," said Weiss, himself a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Rabbis often can't recognize what's really going on in a relationship and should be honest enough to say so."
 
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