A Voyage Of Discovery Among The Hassids


Some months ago I was approached by the editor of Manna and was asked to write a piece on my work and involvement with the Lubavitch Community in Britain. When I agreed to do so I didn't know that the article would come out just after the death of the Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It is a very sad time for the Lubavitch community and for many within the wider Jewish community. It is a hallowed Jewish tradition that when a Zaddik dies, politics cease and the whole community joins in mourning for the passing of a man who gave of himself unstintingly in the service of his community. Recognition of a life led so unselfishly is independent of doctrinal differences.

I never met Rabbi Schneerson personally, but in my heart I feel as if I have known him in some sense, mainly by his reflection and influence present and indeed detectable across a much wider spectrum of the Jewish community than the Lubavitch movement itself.

By profession I am a psychotherapist. My involvement with the Jewish community began some ten years ago when, together with a group of colleagues, we developed ideas which eventually led to setting up a psychotherapy service for the Jewish community. This is how Link Psychotherapy Centre was formed. It has had two main purposes: a clinical service and an educational service. The clinical service envisaged at the outset was quite straightforward: we would provide a serious and responsible psychotherapy service to the community, catering for its needs and caring for its people, cutting across barriers and responding to the different demands that arose across the whole spectrum. The educational goal was to promote a dialogue between psychoanalytic ideas and Jewish thought via various forums such as public lectures, informal working groups, meetings and conferences. Much work has been done over the years in the pursuit of these objectives. 

Essentially, part of our educational program has been to explore, within these parameters, some of the tensions which arise within individuals, professional groups and the wider community when an interface between religious and scientific ideas is developed. This interface by its nature can never become rigid and fixed; rather, as human beings develop, the interface evolves. Our task has been to extend that interface by promoting contacts, dialogues, forums where some of the worst stereotypes on both sides can be set aside in favor of genuine communication. I have often thought of Link as one key which has enabled us to open doors into sectors of the community hitherto inaccessible, and as a bridge linking sectors which previously had little contact with each other, such as psychoanalyst and orthodox rabbis.

Some years ago I realized that Link could not fulfill its function of wider representation of the whole Jewish spectrum if an important part of it, such as the Hassidic community, was left out. In what follows I would like to highlight events and issues which arose when Link opened the Hassidic door.

I was given the telephone number of a Hasidic scholar. I rang him and told him that I was calling on behalf of a Jewish psychotherapy organization and that we would like to establish contact. I was truly surprised by his answer, which was that he would come to visit me with a colleague that same day in my house. I must confess I was a bit thrown off balance. I had never spoken to a Hassid before, and now all of a sudden two of them were about to walk into my house. Uncertain about this first meeting, I quickly reached for my kippa and hoped for the best.

At the appointed time (or in fact three quarters of an hour later!), two imposing middle-aged men dressed in black with large hats and long beards walked through my front door. The dynamics of that first meeting were very interesting. After some initial polite pleasantries, I started off by stating clearly my agenda: our psychotherapy centre was interested in offering a psychoanalytical psychotherapy service to the Hassidic community. I said I was not sure whether there was any need for such a service, nor what form the service would take, but that we were available and willing. Then followed what I can best describe as a lengthy testing of the waters.

The older of the two Hassids seemed to take a back seat. He sat in a relaxed manner while the younger Hassid began grilling me about the atheistic tendencies of Freud and psychoanalysis. How did I propose to reconcile these in my mind with an interest in spiritual or religious matters, an area Freud had had no difficulty in dispensing with as unreal. I answered candidly that, with all due respect to Freud, he certainly had a right to his own ideas, and I to mine. As I didn't know these two gentlemen, I still had no idea how we were going to proceed, but I was prepared to make an effort to get to know them. Perhaps I would eventually acquire an informed view of the service we could genuinely offer.

This seemed to defuse the atmosphere of tension. The older Hassid said that I had good will and he did not doubt this. But before any further discussions could take place, in his view anyone who wanted to work with a community had to spend time getting to know it. It might be like trying to get to know an Eskimo tribe.

We agreed to set up a forum to establish a dialogue over time between them and a group of interested therapists. When I mentioned this plan to my colleagues, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that five senior members of my profession, including an eminent analyst who was not Jewish, expressed an interest and a study group was formed. This group met regularly at my house for three years. It provided us with a window into the Hassidic community in an effective way. We learned about their large families, how they were organised as a community, their styles of courtship and marriage, the duties incumbent on parents and children, the ways in which Judaism played a central role in their lives, their educational views, and so on. It was a candid discussion between intelligent people who treated each other with tolerance, good humour and a growing measure of trust.

We wanted to find out about them and they wanted to tell us. Conversely, they wanted to find out about us and asked many pointed questions which we ensured were answered as thoroughly as possible. Some thorny issues were discussed. Was it part of an analyst's brief (assuming he did not believe in God) to analyse away someone's religious faith? It was generally agreed that it was not part of an analyst's job to do this. On the other hand, if a person was suffering from hallucinations and delusions of a persecutory nature, and represented God in a pathological manner as a malign and destructive force, most analysts would investigate with the patient the nature and origin of such beliefs and feelings because the aim would always be to restore balance in an individual, and a faith in the potential for goodness and compassion in himself and others. If the relationship between analyst and patient enables the patient to experience this, it could provide such a foundation. If an analyst has no axe to grind in any direction, he can respect beliefs he may not share. Conversely, the patient can learn to respect differences in belief without compromising his own search.

Another question which arose was the special nature of closely knit communities. What would an analyst do if a young person, for instance, wanted to break away from the community in some way? In fact, just such a case arose subsequently. A young person wished to attend a school outside the community. With the consent of both the youngster and the parents, discussions followed where the therapist acted as a facilitator to restore communication which had broken down. After much painful heart-searching, the father agreed to let his offspring attend the school, having realized that the youngster's spirit could be broken by a refusal. This was not an easy case, and there were many painful moments, but it is worth noting that the matter was resolved.

We did not aspire to settle all issues. This would have been unrealistically ambitious. But we did develop mutual respect and learned to trust the process. After about a year the emphasis of the group changed and we all started studying Hassidic philosophy, cross-referencing this study with our psychoanalytic knowledge and our experience of clinical practice. It was an enriching experience.

After studying Hassidic thinking for some time, I felt I was ready to proceed with my original aim of providing a clinical service to the Hassidic community. In my last article for Manna I described my initial impressions of Stamford Hill. I devoted half a day each week for a year working within Norwood Child Care in this area of London and established more regular communications with those within the orthodox community who worked in the field of education. While at Norwood I began meeting ordinary or maybe extraordinary Hassids with problems. By immersing myself in Stamford Hill I began perceiving individuals, real people, rather than stereotypes. My work during that first year proceeded along two main paths: consolidating the relationship with the Lubavitch community, and offering a clinical service across the whole spectrum of the ultra-orthodox communities of the area.

Norwood Child Care does excellent work among these communities. It reaches areas other social service agencies cannot reach, and it provides a much needed service. Because of the importance it has as an agency for the Jewish community as a whole, it is perceived as part of the establishment. Where the mainstream establishment has been perceived as hostile or lacking in understanding about particular issues which have proved divisive, communications between agency workers and particular groups can become difficult at times. This is a delicate area of work and my appreciation of the commitment of agency workers increased over time. In Stamford Hill, Norwood is perceived as something separate which people will have recourse to, with more or less enthusiasm depending on the individuals and families concerned, rather as local communities relate to a child guidance clinic in other places.

After a year I decided to communicate with the Hassids without any protective barriers, so I offered our services and expertise directly to the Lubavitch community. This was an important step. I had spent four years with the 'guardians at the gate'. They now knew clearly who I was. I did not have to pretend to be what I was not, whether in the area of specific religious beliefs and observance or in other areas, and they understood clearly that it was as a practicing clinician that I could be useful to them.

For the last three years I have worked in a voluntary capacity as a psychological consultant to Lubavitch schools. I am accountable in this area of work to a rabbi who is Director of Education with overall responsibility for the schools. I also act as advisor to teachers and assess children who present difficulties. These initial assessments then lead to wider consultation with teachers and parents, and sometimes with other agencies. As always, improving the lines of communication is a vital aspect of the work.

I have often wondered what has made me dedicate so much time to developing an understanding of this community. The best answer I have is that these people have a heart. This statement may sound superficial, because, in truth, all human beings have a heart which they may or may not be in touch with. It is true to say that this community values the heart. Many dedicated workers within the community have a spirit of generosity, an enthusiasm which add to the quality of life. The Hassids I have met are not, on the whole, well off people, but they are generous. They live for Judaism as they understand it.

Many among the Lubavitch are 'baal-teshuvas' - people who have returned, who have been in touch with other Hassids and have decided to join the community. This can and does sometimes present difficulties, because there are, in effect, different levels of understanding, and differences between those who may have joined the community recently and those who have grown up within it. Since teaching Judaism is highly valued, it is often the case that the children of baal-teshuvas know more than their parents. The parents may have had a much more secular education.

The community has a strong sense of allegiance. It is organised along vertical lines and democracy as understood by the secular world is not a characteristic, but this does not mean that a passive acquiescence reigns. On the contrary, when it comes to aspects of communal organisation people can be quite unruly and arguments are lively. The hierarchy in charge of the community has to display great patience and a spirit of compromise. While the Rebbe was alive he was the final arbitrator. Now that the Rebbe has passed away a new order will no doubt emerge, but this will take time. At the moment the Hassidic community the world over is in mourning, and it is too early to know what will happen. There is no clear successor. The Rebbe had no children, no close relations designated as successors, and no obvious candidate for succession.

The death of the Rebbe is not like the death of a pope or a bishop; the relation between the Rebbe and his people was an intimate one. There was a powerful emotional, intellectual and spiritual bond, and the bereavement is akin to that of the children of a beloved parent who has passed away. For each Lubavitch family and for the community as a whole the Rabbi's passing demanded having to face what can hardly be endured. He was a source of inspiration, hope and protection. Stories abound of miracles that have occurred since his death. Here is one surprising fact, mentioned by Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, who was close to Rabbi Schneerson (see Jewish Tribune, 16 June): since the Rebbe had his first stroke 27 months ago, the movement has grown by 20%. This is not, perhaps, what many would have expected. But truth is always stranger than fiction. As for my own belief in miracles, I can say that where there is heart to heart communication, miracles can and do occur, right in the consulting room - where else?