Thursday, December 21, 2006

Orthodox Self Help Books

I see there is something of a market in Orthodox Jewish self-help books. I am thinking of getting into the business, as a sideline of course. I wouldn’t give up my night job of writing a blog. First there are the advice books on how to date and find the right match. I’ve already dealt with some of these issues in my discussions of JDate. I could adapt my posts to a more lonely-hearts form. Second there are these books on how to have a good marriage. No problem there. I need some stories of bad marriages that I saved with my sound advice. Maybe I’ll attend a few lectures of Rebbetzin Jungreis. She must be selling some tapes. Rebbetzin Jungreis is for me a model of self help. She was already famous and popular when I was a teenager, and she looks better than ever. Then there are the standard self-help problems…feelings of failure, depression, anxiety, etc. I know how to say, ‘’Yes you can’’, ten different ways, and if necessary I could always use “Be satisfied with your lot.” I guess you need some stories, case histories and such. I can ask around and read some other self-help books. I know a psychiatrist who specializes in post-partum depression. I can always ring her up.

References from the Talmud are always good…I can handle the Torah side, especially since its Torah light. Over the years I’ve made it a point to study the history of musar (traditional pietistic and ethical discourses). There must be some decent quotes from the Alter of Somewhere or Other. I am not fond of Novardik, but Kelm works. I’ve always liked the parables of the Dubno Magid. No question I could get into this line of work.

I am teasing. I would rather eat cardboard than write the sort of stuff that is frequently found in Jewish self help books. Don’t get me wrong. I have an ongoing interest in musar. I hate self-help. I think it is pretty much of a racket. The biggest customers for a new self-help book are those who already bought a self-help book. You would think they were already helped. But noooo…when they finish the first self-help book, they find themselves in need of a booster-shot shortly thereafter. Self- help books are like diet books. The only thing diet books really accomplish is to motivate people to buy a second diet book. There’s something about self-administered medicines or cures that lead to a certain excess. People who take vitamins don’t gobble a few vitamins; they swallow handfuls of the stuff. Vitamins lead to more vitamins. Diets bring on more diets. Self-help books, even Orthodox Jewish ones, generate more self-help books.

In the case of self-help books, the reason is clear enough. I think of musar as having two goals, deepening a Jew’s love and fear of God, and shaping character. I think of self help books as dealing primarily with personality issues. (My criticism doesn’t apply to writers who have some practical knowledge on how to game a system such as useful tricks on how to do this or that; for example, how to fix a faucet or contest a parking ticket.) Character can be dealt with top down, maybe. You can hopefully train yourself to overcome sloth or gluttony. Personality changes generally need to come from the bottom up, where many of the impulses and motives are largely unconscious. A person who is looking to improve his mental/emotional state will find it very difficult to talk himself into the cure. It only occurs if there’s a structural change inside the person, which frequently only occurs if the person understand the aetiology and actually grasps what he is doing in a vivid, moving way. Let’s say a person is guarded and pinched with his emotions. Telling yourself to cut it out and be more expansive and warm frequently leads to a guarded pinched person with a smiley face. You have to know where this trait came from; you have to see how it works in your life. It’s a very slow process. Following a ten-step program frequently just doesn’t work. When psychotherapy is called for, self help acts at most as a palliative, not as a viable substitute.

One more thought on the topic of musar and self-help: I read a while back that some rabbi was talking at a Torah Umesorah Convention. He was trying to explain to teachers, rebees in yeshivas how to inspire their students to be more enthusiastic about learning. He starts on this rant about self-esteem and the importance of confidence…one shouldn’t tell the kid he’s a dummy or a retard no matter how slow the child is, you have to make him feel that he is about to become a chasheva bochur (distinguished student) with just a little more effort. I said to myself, who allowed this idea of self-esteem into Jewish life? Was there an Agudah convention I missed? I recently learnt some late 19th century musar books borrowed the idea of a self improvement ledger from Benjamin Franklin. An idea that comes from outside Jewish thought can be made Jewish if it lasts long enough inside Jewish circles. Self-esteem, however, even in its pop psychology version is borrowed from fairly recent developments in clinical psychology, and the abundant literature on narcissism. If you look in musar seforim (books), there’s all this talk about gaiveh (arrogance) and breaking of the self. Its humility and modesty and unpretentiousness we want. Egotism, pomposity, pretension all big no-no’s. Everyone knows the chassidish punch line: “The “I” (the ha’anochi) stands between you and God.” In self-esteem talk, we try to make the person feel more important and significant. We mirror the person, confirm and strengthen his self image. In musar discourses about humility, the goal is try to make the person feel unimportant and insignificant.

Imagine a rebee who told a kid, “You know what you’re like. You’re like a potsherd that breaks a shadow that passes a dream that flies away. You’re a nothing. You came from dust and you’ll return to dust.” He’d be fired the same day and sent to reebe rehab. Who allowed all this self-esteem talk into Jewish life? Why wasn’t the introduction of a totally new way of talking a halachic rabbinical question? I say the change from humility talk to self-esteem talk is a bigger change than most of the insignificant issues people keep on fighting about. It’s a revolutionary change in how we understand a human being. (See my posts 10/20/06-10/23/06). It came right into charedi life, unannounced, and now has the imprint of Artscroll and Feldheim.

I think the self-esteem case is an example of a new idea that is taken up in Jewish life because it’s the right idea at the right time. It was an idea that worked and was therefore adopted side by side with older more traditional ideas. If you ask a rabbi, what about humility, is that important? He’ll, of course, say yes. Ask him ten minutes later about self-esteem, he’ll also say yes. Is this a crisis? Do we need a Slifkin of musar to reconcile the two? How there can be two parallel contradictory discourses/languages, and whether or not there’s any need for integration is an interesting topic.

24 Comments:

At 10:24 AM, Blogger avakesh said...

Relation of psychology and mussar is a BIG topic. In brief, I believe that psychology is first a substrate of mussar (you need to remove at least the gross psychological imperfections before engaging in mussar) and a tool for revival of mussar in our times. The two disciplines overlap but are also distinct.

I suggest a coupe of links:
Beyond Psychology - http://www.morinis.ca/jewish_action_article.pdf

http://www.avakesh.com/2006/10/selfesteem.html

 
At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that humility & self-esteem are contradictory. Humilty is in relation to Hashem & others. Self-esteem is inrelation to yourself.

I realize that this does contradict the Novardok-type of mussar which was an exercise in self-humiliation, e.g. the famous (perhaps mythical) exercise in going into a drugstore & asking for onions in order to be berated by the clerk.

BTW - notice that the Novardok model (at least as depicted in the drugstore case) is the exact inverse of what I said above. It is working on yourself to get a low self-esteem, while using up someone else's (the clerk's)valuable time & energy.

 
At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

This one's a genuinely good read:

The Trail to Tranquility: Your Personal Guide to Overcoming Anger And to Attaining Genuine Inner Peace (Hardcover)
by Lazer Brody

Amazon and other retailers carry it.

 
At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

This is on your main topic:

http://www.aish.com/holidays/shavuot/last/humility.htm

 
At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make some good points. Fine posting !

" I say the change from humility talk to self-esteem talk is a bigger change than most of the insignificant issues people keep on fighting about. It’s a revolutionary change in how we understand a human being..... It came right into charedi life, unannounced, and now has the imprint of Artscroll and Feldheim."

Well said. Perhaps we can say that it came in with outside influences, as the saying goes, 'vi es kristilt zich, yiddelt zich'.

I think that what must be mentioned here is the fact that many frum people have gone into the mental health industry and they have been in the forefront of promoting such ideas in their home community. A leader in this has been Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, formerly of Pittsburgh. With his long white beard, long black coat, and distinguished Hassidic lineage, he has done much to push these ideas and overcome suspicions and antagonism. However, some of the more orthodox remain suspicious (for good reason, in my opinion). There is also a group called NEFESH composed of frum people in the mental health industry who also promote such things.

"Everyone knows the chassidish punch line: “The “I” (the ha’anochi) stands between you and God.”

That is a good line, but nevertheless, I think most Hassidic groups stress self-esteem more than humility (with some exceptions perhaps, such as Ger). On the other hand, Litvak types seem to traditionally stress humility more.

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

avakesh and bob miller...I will make every effort to read more on the topic and will indeed look at your suggested url's.

anonymous 10:30...I don't get your distinction. We are not talking how we act towards others; a person can act humble and be arogant. We are talking how we are . Both self esteem and humility are not imho relative terms. I might be better at math X and worse than Y. Humility and self esteem don't change depending who the other is. They are more like states of the self, how a person is.

 
At 2:30 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 2:19..I am pleased you see the force of my argument. One caveat and one question. To be clear I am not questioning the abilities of frum pychotherapists in their one on one clinical work.I question the clinical value of their books,newspaper articles and shmuzen.

My question is do u have any specific references to the concept of self esteem in chasidic literature? R. Nachman for example warns against yeeush and spoke highly of inner simcha but those passages sound more like defenses against depression.

 
At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It was an idea that worked and was therefore adopted side by side with older more traditional ideas."

It may work but for the most part IMO not in the versions they are offering. I think this has been responsible for the dumbing down of Jewish life (intellectual and spiritual)

"Why wasn’t the introduction of a totally new way of talking a halachic rabbinical question?"

You're right :-)

"Following a ten-step program frequently just doesn’t work. When psychotherapy is called for, self help acts at most as a palliative, not as a viable substitute."

I used to think this was true. I don't as much anymore, because I think experience is a or the main engine of change (and I have very mixed feelings as psychotherapy as providing positive experiences and role models - that gives a single, hired person an awful lot of power!)

 
At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I would rather eat cardboard "

Navardok after all

 
At 12:28 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 5:30...'that gives a single, hired person an awful lot of power!)'. Yes, and if you take into account the regression that occurs in therapy plus the intensity of the transferrence relation which is crucial to analysis and many Freudian styles of therapy the situation gets more dangerous. Nevertheless in the case of psychoanalysts and psychiatrists we are dealing with MD doctors who hopefully have some integrity. The problem you mention arises most intensely with children and teenagers.Most adults, even troubled ones have enuf sechel and strength to see over time if they r being spun around by an incompetent.

 
At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My question is do u have any specific references to the concept of self esteem in chasidic literature? R. Nachman for example warns against yeeush and spoke highly of inner simcha but those passages sound more like defenses against depression."

I don't have chapter and verse right now, but it's my impression that Hassidim greatly stress/ed self-esteem, 1) in the old days, to tell the common folk, who were not learned, things like 'Hashem loves every Jew', 'you are very special in his eyes', even if you are a grobbe am haaretz, and 2) in more recent times as well, the idea like 'you are so great, even if you're not well-educated and can't speak/write English well, you are so great for wearing Hassidic garb, maintaining your pronunciation, gartel', etc., and otherwise not conforming to the rest of orthodoxy.

 
At 1:03 PM, Blogger SephardiLady said...

I said to myself, who allowed this idea of self-esteem into Jewish life?

Reminds me of a story. When I was (briefly) teaching in place of another teacher at a girls' school, I was asked a question about why teachers don't get paid more.

So, I started to explain the idea of supply and demand-in between the disruptions. I like sports, so I used a famous basketball player as an example.

One of the girls tells me "we could play basketball like that if we could practice all day. . . . . !!! (These girls needed a lesson in Hashem providing different people with different talents).

The administration of this school was always concerning themselves iwth the self-esteem of the girls. They didn't want bad pop quizes returned because of self-esteem, etc.

I came back at one of the principals saying. . . these girls have a false sense of self-esteem. Nobody has helped them realize their weaknesses, or their talents. You are doing them no favors by telling them how great they are, as their basic skills fall further and further behind. Someday they will get a wakeup when they can't function as employees, etc. They need to be provided with a sense of reality. They need to know where their potential lies and where their weaknesses lie.

The promotion of self-esteem in the "pop culture" sense is a failed initiative. I'm not against "self-esteem" completely. But, there is a Torah approach and a non-Torah approach. And, I'm afraid, that some are setting their/our children up for failure through the wrong approach.

 
At 1:57 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Anonymous…yes, yes in that sense you are, of course right. . My question was if the circle of self concepts are found in an exact Hebrew correlate,( self cohesion, self confidence, self esteem, exhibitionism, grandiosity, narcissism…they are all related.) For many of these terms there I can’t find any classic Hebrew words. It would be quite difficult to express the thought. But yes chassidic thought is kinder and beats people up to a lesser extent than classic medieval or modern musar.

Sefardi lady…the 2 best private secular schools on the north side of Chicago are Parker and Latin. Parker is stuffed with Jews, Latin less so. In Parker every kid is above average, special, talented and most important creative. In Latin they teach Greek, Latin, calculus…you are what you are. My impression is the Parker kids are not nearly as good as the Latin kids. They end up going to Bard and Bennigton and majoring in dance and drumming. lol.

 
At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about gadlus ho'odom slabodka style. this is surely related to self esteem. i do not understand what u r getting at. people nowadays have much more self esteem problems than in the past, mimeyle it needs to be strseed more nowadays. we can't just give kids mussar, even kelmer mussar,they first need to be taught that they can be in control of their lives, which is what teachign self esteem is about. it's poshut that self esteem and humility are not a stiro. did rav hutner, lemoshol, have confidence in himself? of course he did! was he an onov in his service of hashem- 100 percent. we see this in m,any slabodka and chevronner talmidim who were confident and aware of their abilities, but nevetheless avdei hashem in the true sense of the word.

 
At 10:35 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Self esteem in its secular version is an offshoot of the idea of autonomy, or governing oneself. It is held that the dignity of man is not to be servile and submissive, but free and proud of his capacity to choose and take responsibility for his choices. A person who lives autonomously is entitled to be held in self esteem by himself and others. Obviously when applied to the yoke of heaven it is not a promising pedigree. There is a second derivation in Emerson and others which is based on panantheism,i.e. the idea that the world and man is contained in God, so that our neshamas are a chelek elokah mimaal,and our esteem is derived from this connection. The idea is of course integral to kabbalah and I imagine is part of what you referred to as gadlos haadom. In psychological thought the self esteem stems from the idea of a cohesive self, a self that has ideals and ambitions that are worked out and integrated, and entitle one to both exhibit/ show(off) one’s talents without excessive embarrassment and aspire to personal greatness and honor. I imagine your Slabodker talmidim, though not the baalei musar, held themselves in high self esteem in this sense. There is a certain type of Litvish lamdan swagger that I would not exactly think of as a model of anivus. There are gedolim like Rav Pam z’l and if you are old enough to remember there are gedolim like Rav Eliezer Silver z’l.

Being an onov as part of avodos hashem is no trick considering the relative disparity in strength, knowledge and goodness between man and hashem. Being a baal gaveh vis a vis hashem is unwise to say the least. Both gaaveh and anuvah are interpersonal, between man and man, not between man and hashem. BTW how do you know people nowadays have much more self esteem problems than in the past? I agree with you how to raise kids…we differ if this new development, and if the languages are contradictory. Just look at the letter of the Gra to his family when he was praving galus and tell me he was thinking of self esteem!

 
At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

im not old enough to remember rav eliezer silver (i'm presently a mere bochur in chevron), but i understand your point. i don't have time to discuss the rest atm, but 'od chazon lemoed' im yirtse hashem.

 
At 8:19 PM, Blogger daat y said...

Self esteem and humility are two separate issues.They do not necessarily have to conflict with one another.One can for example feel good about themselves and their point of view,yet be humble, realizing others may have equally valid ponts of view.

 
At 12:06 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

daat y ...In my opinion tolerance and humility are seperate virtues. Tolerance is a social/political virtue which in its ideal type works even when we believe the other's pt. of view is way off base. It is an attitude that is useful if we are to live peacefully with people of radically different pts. of view. Tolerance doesn't preclude arrogance or haughtiness.

The dictionary says 'humility' means 'the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank.'Synonyms are: abasement, fawning, inferiority complex, lowliness, meekness, modesty, mortification, obedience, obsequiousness, passiveness, resignation, self-abasement, self-abnegation, servility, shyness, subjection, submissiveness, subservience, timidity, unobtrusiveness, unpretentiousness

The antonym of humility, 'pride', which is frequently defined as 'self esteem'. Synonyms of 'pride'are:ego, ego trip, egoism, egotism, self-admiration, self-confidence, self-glorification, self-love, self-regard, self-respect, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, self-trust, self-worth, sufficiency, cockiness*, conceit, disdain, egotism, haughtiness, hauteur, hubris,immodesty, insolence,overconfidence, pretension, pretentiousness, self-exaltation, self-importance, self-love, smugness, snobbery, swagger, swelled head*, vainglory, vanity.

As you can see from the thesarus entries the two terms in general
map out different personality types

 
At 3:12 PM, Blogger daat y said...

EvanstonJew,
You may be responding to feeling that self-esteem is related more to
arrogance and haughtiness.That would be inappropriate self-esteem.More in the direction of narcississtic personality.
Seeing that someone else's viewpoint may be correct is more than tolerance .It is knowing there may be other truths than your own.Therefore be humble.
Important discussion.

 
At 3:16 PM, Blogger daat y said...

EJ,
A Jew may move from 'yirah to 'ahava' and back again to find the proper balance.

 
At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"anonymous 5:30...'that gives a single, hired person an awful lot of power!)'. Yes, and if you take into account the regression that occurs in therapy plus the intensity of the transferrence relation which is crucial to analysis and many Freudian styles of therapy the situation gets more dangerous. Nevertheless in the case of psychoanalysts and psychiatrists we are dealing with MD doctors who hopefully have some integrity. The problem you mention arises most intensely with children and teenagers.Most adults, even troubled ones have enuf sechel and strength to see over time if they r being spun around by an incompetent."

Ah, you're talking incompetence/negligence etc. I mean more than that. If positive experiences and role models are the issue, why should the psychoanalyst or the psychiatrist be the person to provide it? They may have integrity but they are also hired, engaged in a professional relationship, and also not chosen for their values and character. I don't think if most patients understood the extent to which analysis is conceived of as a reparenting experience that they would willingly enter into it for these reasons (which would account for why they are not told of this). I find this troublesome.

 
At 11:51 PM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

EY-WADR, R D A Twersky's works have helped make mental health professionals, therapy , Sippurei Tzadikim U Gdolim and even classical Musar and Chasidic works welcome in all sectors of the Torah community. Have you read anything by R S SWolbe or the Nesivos Shalom ZTL? I found their works very inspiring, deep and devoid of fluff.

 
At 11:26 PM, Anonymous Jaded Topaz said...

Evanston Jew - Quite the refreshing perspectives on stuff ....perfectly profound concepts.Jewish self help psychology wannabe books can best be compared to the pink and blue re-packaged stale cotton candy.The kind generally sold at off the beaten track amusement parks to hungry /tired thrill seekers, with a bonus cheesy smile at no upcharge. And the actual writing usually gives the end user ,the kind of headache, vicodine has a difficult time curing. And what exactly is up with all the subsequent sequels with repackaged old content /new trite analogies and a whole new cover for distraction purposes.

Steve Brizel- R Wolbe's stuff is all in hebrew (aside for a book on child rearing) and no one seems to be willing or wanting to teach his stuff in the NYC area or any area. I guess Its more fun teaching cotton candy oriented concepts.

 
At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

Jaded Topaz-The seeming need to translate ( or water down) any text from Lashon Kodesh to English says more about our lack of willingness to tackle a text in the language of an author for those of us able to do so as opposed to the need for a transation that is a faithful rendition of the author's work. For those who can make it thru texts in the original, I highly recommend anything by R Wolbe and/or the Nesivos Shalom ZTL.

 

Post a Comment

|

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home