Faced With Strife and Simcha, Experts on Jewish Pastoral Counseling Share Insights That Transcend Judaism Itself

Written by BY: David Hornestay on . Posted in Book Reviews

The duties and responsibilities of rabbis have always been formidable. While teaching, preaching, and rendering halachic decisions have traditionally dominated their time, there was also an element of advising on personal issues. This aspect of the job has taken on increased importance with the intensified exposure of Jews to the complex and challenging culture of greater society.  

Perhaps belatedly, it was only in the last three decades that Orthodox institutions have looked systematically at the role of the rabbi and other religious leaders in dealing with intimate problems such as intra-family conflict, addiction, abuse, intermarriage, and alienation. Recognizing that the methodology and skill-building needed to address these issues were sorely lacking in the traditional education of religious leaders, efforts began to integrate such training into the curricula.


One of the most important contributions to this effort is the recent publication The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths by Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda. Friedman is the founding director and Sharon and Steven Lieberman Chair of Pastoral Counseling for the pastoral counseling program at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. Yehuda is also a professor in the yeshiva’s pastoral counseling program as well as Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Drs. Friedman and Yehuda have authored a comprehensive but highly readable guide for synagogue rabbis, chaplains, educational directors and other institutional leaders sought after for religion-based counsel. The authors’ motivating belief is that “blending the rigorous methodology and principles of mental health treatment with the wisdom of religion and halacha can create a healing experience that combines the best of both worlds.”

Readers with counseling responsibilities will learn much about the art of listening, how to put people at ease, establish and maintain trust, set boundaries, establish goals, handle unexpected developments, and–– particularly critical–– when to recognize the need for referral to a mental health professional. Lay readers will benefit from an appreciation for what they may gain from pastoral counseling, how they can contribute to its usefulness, and what they can reasonably expect from it.

But the unique value of the book rests firmly on its 61 dramatized case studies, drawn from the authors’ extensive experience as teachers as well as Dr. Friedman’s experience in psychiatry and Dr. Yehuda’s in neuroscience and hospital mental health programs. The cases run a broad gamut: from illness and death to marital discord, spiritually-straying children, sexual orientation, criminal wrongdoing, conversion, and potential intermarriage—and even the seemingly comparatively simpler problems of preparation for a simcha (a happy lifecycle occasion). The book effectively employs four fictional characters to act out the role of counselor in these scenarios, providing a realistic depiction of both the challenges and possible solutions to a given situation.

A typical thought-provoking scenario: a veteran of Afghanistan who lost part of his left arm to a landmine asks for the halachically acceptable method for putting on tefillin under his changed circumstances. Through questions and discussion, the rabbi (and reader) is guided to reflect on the anguish and dilemmas that may underlie the question and to probe tactfully for any other issues that may warrant counseling beyond the bare halachic response. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on careful listening, sensitivity to deeper meaning, and being prepared for the unexpected, all grounded in compassion.

Our four protagonists are an Orthodox synagogue rabbi, a female synagogue rabbi, a male Hillel director, and a female JCC educational director. More traditional readers might intially be put off by the inclusion of a rabbi named Shira Kane, but the authors are sensitive to Orthodox concerns throughout the book, providing frequent references to halachic sources including the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. The book is meant for a broad Jewish audience, but earns its subtitle–– “A Guide for All Faiths” –– with its convincing case for the applicability of scientific knowledge leavened with Jewish learning to the general population.

No less an authority than Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union and a psychologist himself, wrote in his endorsement of the book that he found it “necessary, informative, relevant, practical, and touching.” Recommending it “heartily” and recognizing that only recent rabbinical students will have been exposed to its subject matter, he gives the following prescription:

“For those already in the pulpit, this book is required reading.”

Hard to think of a stronger or more authoritative endorsement.  

David Hornestay has lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, for more than 50 years. After a 34-year career in federal government management, primarily with NASA, he wrote for Government Executive Magazine and is the author of Cases in Effective Leadership. A member and former officer of Young Israel Shomrai Emunah, he is a volunteer driver and visitor for Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington.