Straus Course Spotlight: Psychology and Jewish Thought

Samuel Gelman
Communications and Program Officer

Rabbi Mordechai Schiffman

For the fall 2021 semester, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman, Clinical Assistant Professor of Jewish education, is teaching Psychology and Jewish Thought, which is being offered at Stern College for Women in collaboration with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. Sam Gelman, Straus Center communications and program officer, recently sat down with Rabbi Dr. Schiffman to discuss the course.


Early in your syllabus, you mention five course values. What are these values, and how do they fit into how you teach your course and the material you are covering?

My goal with the five values is to create a class culture conducive to effective learning and personal growth. To these ends, I highlight the values of communication, community, growth mindset, grit, and honesty on my syllabus. We talk about them, I try to model them, and I encourage the students to think and act aligned with those values. To get a greater appreciation, we even spend a few lessons exploring some of these values from both a Torah and psychology lens, which doubles as an introduction to the course’s subject matter.

 

Many of the topics you are teaching—human nature, good vs. evil, components of good character—would also be found in a Jewish philosophy course. How is the philosophical approach different from the psychological approach?

There is no question that the topics overlap with philosophy. Keep in mind that psychology only became an official field in the mid-19th century. Beforehand, psychology was enmeshed within philosophy. While the course will often refer to various philosophical viewpoints, the psychological approach adds insights that emerge from its use of the scientific method to assess ideas about the human mind and behavior in a social context. Oftentimes, this approach can corroborate previously articulated philosophical ideas, and at other times, it can call into question various theories.

 

Do you find that the 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 averse to modern psychological theories and findings, and you can find modern psychological authors 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 questions we are exploring, and there are multiple perspectives in psychology as well. For the most part, they are both either on the same page or at the very least reconcilable, as long as you are willing to embrace multiple perspectives.

 

How does the class exemplify the creed of Torah Umadda?

I firmly believe that studying psychology can help us understand Torah texts in new and insightful ways. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l has dozens of powerful insights into the parshah (weekly Torah portion) that were generated in large part by his reading and understanding of psychology. I try to follow in this direction with my own essays on the parshah. (Soon to be published by Kodesh press and available on www.psychedfortorah.com). The benefit is also reciprocal, in which Jewish texts and values can have an impact on the field of psychology. This is something I have written in journal articles with Yeshiva College professor Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Schnall. I try to bring these values out in the classroom through class discussions and assignments, such as requiring students to write or record their own divrei Torah (Bible teachings) that incorporate psychology and Torah together.

 

Why did you decide to teach this course? Why is it interesting and inspiring to you?

Exploring the depths of human mind and behavior through the prism of Torah and psychology is a strong passion of mine. An intellectual terrain is just beginning to be traversed, and the possibilities of insight and connection are endless. On a more practical and prosocial plain, the marrying of the two subjects has the potential to alleviate suffering and support flourishing. A special thank you to Straus Scholar Ayelet Brown for showing me there was a need and interest in such a course at Stern.

 

What is one book you would 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 & Administration, Dr. David Pelcovitz, wrote a book with his father, Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz, on positive psychology and Judaism called Life in the Balance, which is an excellent blend of Torah, psychological research, and practice. There are many self-help books that blend psychology and Torah—Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski has 90 books on this topic. However, if you are looking for a broader theoretical analysis that compares psychology and Torah, it is harder to find an up-to-date work. Many of the books were written in the late 20th century and are heavily influenced and focused on comparing Judaism with early psychological theories that have since been updated and revised. That being said, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rabinowitz’s Judaism and Psychology: Meeting Points is a good place to start.

 

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