Dr. Eliezer Schnall Brings Torah Umadda Approach to His Classroom, Research
It was a classic set up: The woman in the video walking, unaware. The man racing by, snatching her purse off her shoulder, and the screen goes blank.
Dr. Eliezer Schnall turned to his Introduction to Psychology class and asked them to “Write down the description of the thief. What did you see?”
In a class that covered various forms of memory, in this case eyewitness memory, Schnall kept the students engaged, their hands raised to answer, all offering different versions of what they saw. He is pleased with the result noting the “dozens of eyewitnesses and ten different versions of the events.”
He then quotes the tanna [Mishnaic era rabbi] and head of the Sanhedrin [ancient Jewish legislative body] Shimon ben Shatach from Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] who exhorts the need to examine witnesses and be careful with your words lest the witnesses learn to lie with them. Schnall pointed out that studies show that when witnesses are interviewed with leading questions, their memories are distorted and they often adopt misinformation.
Schnall, clinical associate professor of psychology, lives and breathes the Torah Umadda philosophy of Yeshiva University—blending the disciplines of psychology and Torah, using one to illustrate and enhance the other.
“My psychology courses are interdisciplinary, weaving together rigorous psychological science with classic Jewish religious texts and perspectives,” said Schnall. “The field of psychology is initially something new to most of my students, yet many of them have been immersed in religious texts throughout their lives. Presenting the psychological together with the religious helps students to understand and remember what they are learning, as their coursework is then connected to something that is already so much a part of them.”
Schnall speaks easily, shares personal anecdotes, discusses studies, screens brief videos, and regularly quotes Talmud, Chumash, Mishna and Midrash to present a tightly woven class that pulls all the threads together to present a Jewish and secular fused tapestry on the topic discussed.
“I like the Torah Umadda,” said Yosef Penner, one of Schnall’s students. “He takes the YU slogan and actually puts it into action.”
“The way he speaks makes the material relatable; it’s more compelling than just a lecture,” said Eli Berger, another student.
Schnall’s research, published in scientific journals and covered in popular media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Jerusalem Post, highlights the Torah and psychology connection. He ties positive psychology, social psychology, and state-dependent memory to Jewish subjects.
One of his studies examined marriage satisfaction among Orthodox Jews. Another study demonstrated the reduced risk of mortality and positive mental health in those who attend religious services.
A 2012 paper, coauthored with one of his YU students, analyzed the ancient Sanhedrin through the lens of modern social psychology. Schnall noted that in certain cases, junior members of the Sanhedrin would be called upon first to voice their opinions, with senior members of the court presenting their view last. This process helped avoid groupthink, a theory wherein group decision-making frequently ignores alternatives in the quest for unanimity, often with a negative outcome.
Schnall himself is a product of Yeshiva University—having graduated The Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy/Yeshiva University High School for Boys, Yeshiva College, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He credits Dr. Stephen Bacon, adjunct professor of psychology, for serving as “an early role model when I began to think about viewing psychology through the prism of Torah” and noted that Bacon and his brother Dr. Joshua Bacon, associate professor of psychology, continue to have an influence on him.
“Dr. Schnall is a particular asset to our department, with a very special niche that our unique student body really responds to,” said Dr. Anna-Lisa Cohen, department chair and associate professor of psychology. “His students, both those he teaches and those who conduct research with him, gain much from his approach to psychology that incorporates religious sources and viewpoints.”
“Connecting Torah and Madda together allows for greater appreciation and understanding of each,” said Schnall. “My students express excitement and interest in this unique approach to their studies. Nowhere but here could we explore psychology in quite this way.”