Sunday 31 October 2021

356) Tehillim as therapy?



I recall some years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe asked a number of religious psychologists to research Jewish mysticism and develop a “kosher” form of meditation for observant Jews. In this article, based extensively on Brent Strawn’s research[1] on psychology and psalms, we explore the possibility of using Tehillim as a personal form of spiritual therapy.

Attachment Theory

Since earlier times, Biblical psychology was generally synonymous with systemic theology (the theology of any given religious system). Today, we can be a little more universal and use modern psychology by applying it to biblical texts, including Tehillim.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) did not discover the unconscious but he opened and exposed it more than anyone before him. Freud believed that children are driven by primal instinctual drives which go on to inform the character of the developing adult. However, post-Freud, psychologists began to understand that instead of instinctual drives, children were driven by relational needs. This change marked an important turning point in understanding human development. Strawn explains that the major thinkers of the post-Freudian psychoanalytic Object Relations School and other relational approaches maintained that children were “wired for human relationships”. Freudian thinking had become outdated, and attention was now concentrated on the parent-child relationship. According to this school of thought, if that relationship is damaged, the child does not develop into a healthy human being.

As a baby develops, it learns how to relate to others based on the relationship it experiences from its parents or caregivers. In psychological parlance, the child is called the “subject” and the caregivers the “objects” (thus “Object Relations School”). Significantly, children (subjects) bond to their parents (objects) “through whatever forms of contact the parents provide” which then “become lifelong patterns of attachment and connection to others”.

An inadequate parent, unfortunately, is the child’s sole and only “object” it can and must bond to. Strawn writes:

The child must bond with this object and maintain attachment with it at all costs, since this relationship is the very means of the child’s survival.

Good parents hold their infants for “long periods of time” and they also communicate emotionally with their infant. Usually, it is only the parents who themselves experienced such upbringing who can perpetuate this nurturing to the next generation. A child raised in an environment of good attachments will experience less separation anxiety, be more confident, self-reliant and be able to both give and receive naturally to and from others.

A secure child will be able to communicate their emotions to their parents when things are good as well as bad. It is particularly important for the child to be able and comfortable to communicate when he or she is not content. A baby needs love and the mother must respond to that need besides just providing food and shelter. D. W. Winnicott colourfully describes the early period of a child’s life as “subjective omnipotence” where it becomes the “all-powerful center of all being”. The baby even controls the temperature of the world around it. The baby believes it controls its entire universe with his or her needs and desires, and the enabling mother immediately responds by fulfilling its every need.

Winnicott points out that this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely because no mother in her right mind would behave like this to any other person, even if she loved them dearly. Therefore, the mother is actually not in her right mind but experiences a state of temporary insanity! Only then can she suspend her own subjectivity to allow the subjectivity of her child to develop.

Most importantly, a time arrives when the mother cannot practically be there to respond to every single whim of her child. This is normal and is to be expected. It doesn’t mean that the mother has stopped loving her child. On the contrary, it is at this point that the child learns the most necessary lesson of its life: he or she is not the centre of the universe, nor is he or she omnipotent. The mother is an “other” who exists outside of the child’s control and is, in fact, also another “subject”. There is more than just one subject in the world. This is a good lesson and the mother remains a good mother and raises a psychologically healthy child.

Winnicott explains that the mother has just naturally moved out of the picture a little and that her benevolent and nonintrusive absence becomes a safe “holding environment” for the child. In this “physical and psychical space”, the child is “protected without knowing he is protected”.

But if the parent is neglectful and does not respond to the early relational needs of the child, then things go terribly wrong. Often a “false self” develops within the child. Strawn explains:

This is a splitting off of the child’s real needs that are truly felt but inadequately met or altogether rejected by the caregiver. This child must deny these feelings and needs lest he or she jeopardize attachment to the caregiver.

The question now is whether or not this state of “detachment” can be remedied later in life?

The therapeutic process

Freud’s theory of bringing the unconscious to conscious awareness is no longer regarded as adequate in situations like this. The subject must, instead, believe that different outcomes are still possible, even later in life. Harry Guntrip, a prominent Object Relations theorist, believes that “replacement therapy” could still be a viable option, where the therapist “recreates” the damaged relationship between the baby and the mother. Under a skilled therapist, the “subject” can learn, or re-learn, how to relate to other “objects”, and in a sense be “re-parented”.

Strawn now attempts to apply Attachment Theory to the Psalms.

Attachment Theory and Tehillim

It has been noted that Tehillim moves through different psychological “moods” traversing three general stages:

1) Orientation -   

    אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר ׀ לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֢ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד וּבְמוֹשַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב׃ 

Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked,
or taken the path of sinners,
or joined the company of the insolent (Ps. 1:1).

וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּעֵץ֮ שָׁת֢וּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י־מָ֥יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר פִּרְי֨וֹ ׀ יִתֵּ֬ן בְּעִתּ֗וֹ וְעָלֵ֥הוּ לֹֽא־יִבּ֑וֹל וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֣ה יַצְלִֽיחַ׃

He is like a tree planted beside streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season,
whose foliage never fades,
and whatever he does prospers. (Ps. 1:3).

In this “mood” everything works out according to plan and life is congruent with the effort put into it. These types of psalms reflect, in psychological terms, periods of “secure attachment” to G-d.

2) Disorientation -

But life is not always so smooth and sometimes things fall apart. A large portion of the Tehillim are laments of sorts, whether private (almost one-third of the 150 psalms) or individual cries for help:

עַד־אָ֣נָה הֹ תִּשְׁכָּחֵ֣נִי נֶ֑צַח עַד־אָ֓נָה ׀ תַּסְתִּ֖יר אֶת־פָּנֶ֣יךָ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃

How long, Hashem; will You ignore me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?

3) New orientation –

The psalmist, however, does not depict the reader remaining in a state of despair forever and suggests that a new way forward is possible, and one can be extricated from the mire.

מַצְמִ֤יחַ חָצִ֨יר ׀ לַבְּהֵמָ֗ה וְ֭עֵשֶׂב לַעֲבֹדַ֣ת הָאָדָ֑ם לְה֥וֹצִיא לֶ֝֗חֶם מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ

You make the grass grow for the cattle,
and herbage for man’s labor
that he may get food out of the earth

וְיַ֤יִן ׀ יְשַׂמַּ֬ח לְֽבַב־אֱנ֗וֹשׁ לְהַצְהִ֣יל פָּנִ֣ים מִשָּׁ֑מֶן וְ֝לֶ֗חֶם לְֽבַב־אֱנ֥וֹשׁ יִסְעָֽד׃

wine that cheers the hearts of men,
oil that makes the face shine,
and bread that sustains man’s life (Ps. 104:14-15).

Accordingly, it seems that Tehillim, when viewed in full perspective offers a person a range of moods and the possibility of working through them, hopefully to a state of new orientation – or in psychological terms, to a state of “therapeutic redress of disorientation”.

The “psalmic process”

Strawn refers to what he calls the “psalmic process” where psalms can be used as a form of personal therapy for the reader to move through different moods and spirals and eventually become “re-attached” to G-d in the same way a child who was not provided with secure attachment to the caregiver can be “re-parented”.

אֵלִ֣י אֵ֭לִי לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי רָח֥וֹק מִֽ֝ישׁוּעָתִ֗י דִּבְרֵ֥י שַׁאֲגָתִֽי׃

My God, my God,
why have You abandoned me;
why so far from delivering me
and from my anguished roaring? (Ps. 22:2)

עָ֭לֶיךָ הׇשְׁלַ֣כְתִּי מֵרָ֑חֶם מִבֶּ֥טֶן אִ֝מִּ֗י אֵ֣לִי אָֽתָּה׃

I became Your charge at birth;
from my mother’s womb You have been my God (Ps. 22:11)

אַל־תִּרְחַ֣ק מִ֭מֶּנִּי כִּי־צָרָ֣ה קְרוֹבָ֑ה כִּי־אֵ֥ין עוֹזֵֽר׃

Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help (Ps. 22:12).

Psalm 27 continues along similar lines:

כִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהֹוָ֣ה יַאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

Though my father and mother abandon me,
Hashem will take me in (Ps. 27:10).

These overt references to the child neglected at birth and the ability to be “re-parented” (by G-d) show how Tehillim can be used as a form of spiritual therapy. This is especially the case with Tehillim as the book can take one through some rather unsettling imagery and dark moods. The cause of these emotional spirals is often enemies, but sometimes the disorientation is inflicted by G-d Himself, say in the case of illness or general bad luck. Such is the reality and nature of the vicissitudes of life:

כִּֽי־חִ֭צֶּיךָ נִ֣חֲתוּ בִ֑י וַתִּנְחַ֖ת עָלַ֣י יָדֶֽךָ׃

For Your arrows have struck me;
Your blows have fallen upon me.

אֵין־מְתֹ֣ם בִּ֭בְשָׂרִי מִפְּנֵ֣י זַעְמֶ֑ךָ אֵין־שָׁל֥וֹם בַּ֝עֲצָמַ֗י מִפְּנֵ֥י חַטָּאתִֽי׃

There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your rage,                                                 

no wholeness in my bones because of my sin (Ps. 38:3-4).

כִּֽי־כְ֭סָלַי מָלְא֣וּ נִקְלֶ֑ה וְאֵ֥ין מְ֝תֹ֗ם בִּבְשָׂרִֽי׃

For my sinews are full of fever;
there is no soundness in my flesh.

נְפוּג֣וֹתִי וְנִדְכֵּ֣יתִי עַד־מְאֹ֑ד שָׁ֝אַ֗גְתִּי מִֽנַּהֲמַ֥ת לִבִּֽי׃

I am all benumbed and crushed;
I roar because of the turmoil in my mind (Ps. 38:8-9).


But Tehillim can offer a safe “holding environment” where, within one’s own environs, one can express anxiety, fear, pain and resentment to G-d and, hopefully, emerge somewhat restored and with a “new orientation”.

Some of these statements of painful speech, directed even against G-d, may resemble the infant in its state of “subjective omnipotence”.  In this state of anxiety, the reader of the psalms is the “all-powerful center of all being” and can and does say whatever he or she wishes. Strawn emphasises, however, that just like the infant grows up and matures in time, especially when developing in a secure “holding environment”, the reader of the psalms also undergoes a similar process of maturation.

Even though the reader sometimes wants his or her enemies to have their teeth smashed in their mouths (Ps. 58):

אֱֽלֹהִ֗ים הֲרׇס־שִׁנֵּ֥ימוֹ בְּפִ֑ימוֹ

and to melt into slime like a snail:

יִמָּאֲס֣וּ כְמוֹ־מַ֭יִם יִתְהַלְּכוּ־לָ֑מוֹ

- that does not always happen. The reader, like the growing child, realizes that G-d is another “Subjectivity” and that there are larger matters in the universe outside oneself.


The possible inherent danger of such an approach - as enticing as its “hands-on” and “DIY” presentation is – is that one can come to expect the pain and anxiety to magically disappear after reciting a few chapters of Tehillim. This will not happen in reality. However, one can set a healing and therapeutic process in motion, and that is always a good thing.

Of particular value, is that by undergoing such a process of attempting to “re-connect” to a “new orientation” by expressing the gamut of emotions as found scattered throughout Tehillim, one is no longer denying the real emotions that would otherwise “split off” and result in the creation of “false self” (as in the case of the child who is neglected at birth and has to deny its feelings for fear of jeopardising its attachment to the caregiver).

The structure of the Tehillim is such that through the five books, the mood swings from lament at the beginning to expressions of contentment, hope and finally praise. There is, therefore, some potential within Tehillim to help the reader agitate and draw to life some of the deepest human sentiments and possibly work through them to a state of “new orientation”:

אִם־לֹ֤א שִׁוִּ֨יתִי ׀ וְדוֹמַ֗מְתִּי נַ֫פְשִׁ֥י כְּ֭גָמֻל עֲלֵ֣י אִמּ֑וֹ כַּגָּמֻ֖ל עָלַ֣י נַפְשִֽׁי׃

but I have calmed and quietened myself to be contented,                                            

like a weaned child with its mother (Ps. 131:2).

[1] Strawn, B. A., Poetic Attachment: Psychology, Psycholinguistics, and the Psalms.

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