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.