Talk Therapy with the Sages: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Jewish Tradition
The neurotic Jew on the psychiatrist’s couch is a staple of popular culture (see Portnoy’s Complaint or Woody Allen, the collected works of). More somberly, the Nazis labeled psychoanalysis “the Jewish science.” In his new book The Judaic Foundations of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Rabbinical and Talmudic Underpinnings of CBT and REBT, Tufts psychiatry professor Dr. Ronald Pies painstakingly and successfully explores the connections between a relatively new branch of psychiatry and some very old – Biblically old – Jewish ideas.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a goal-oriented system of talk therapy that tackles emotional problems by helping patients think about their actions – gained popularity in the mid-20th century. But Pies sees the origins of practices in Jewish scholarship dating back two millennia. In his words, both CBT and Judaic thought “assert that, by means of our intellectual faculties, we can understand, modulate, and “tame” our unruly emotions.”
Take for example this quote from Maimonides: “The more mental training a man has, the less affected he will be by luck or misfortune. He will not get excited over a very fortunate event and will not exaggerate its value.” Pies likens this sentiment to CBT’s emphasis on personal responsibility.
Or consider this from Rabbi Abraham Isaak Kook (1865 – 1935): “The more I shall recognize my own identity and the more I will permit myself to be original, and to stand on my own feet…the more will the light of God shine on me, and the more will my potentialities develop to serve as a blessing to myself and the world.” Pies writes “For Rabbi Kook, as for the cognitive therapists, one’s inner transformation cannot come about unless we begin to change entrenched, self-defeating habits. And perhaps then, society, too, many change.”
Throughout his book, Pies shows an impressive command not only CBT but Jewish thought. The book covers Biblical and Talmudic Judaism; Medieval and Renaissance Judaism; Spinoza and Enlightenment; the Hassidic and Chabidic Traditions; the Musar Movement and its Contemporaries to Modern Rabbinical Views.
As fascinating as I found this book, it’s likely to appeal to only a very niche audience. This is not a book that can be read on the bus – except maybe the 66 on its way through Brookline to Longwood. I would recommend this book to Jewish practitioners of psychiatry and psychoanalysis and their Jewish patients who share both an interest in the foundations of cognitive behavioral therapy and yiddishkeit. Alexander Portnoy, in other words, would have loved it.