Prayer and Psychotherapy by Dr. Sanford Drob
Prayer and Psychotherapy by Dr. Sanford Drob

Volume 1 , Issue 1

Jewish prayer, if it is seen in all of its varied dimensions, is a wonderful opportunity for enriching an individual's psyche and soul. As a psychotherapist I have observed that the communal prayer which has evolved in our Jewish tradition involves the same psychological principles that form the basis of psychotherapeutic healing. These principles are present even for the individual who attends services only once a year. While each of us, I am sure, can connect our synagogue experience to a few of these principles, it is my purpose here to widen our perspective on the synagogue service and thus broaden the opportunities which this service affords. I believe that in the process something can be learned about the power of psychotherapy as well as about the power of prayer.

Asking for Help

Principle I: Asking for help. For psychotherapy to have any effect at all the individual receiving it must acknowledge that he or she is in need of assistance and be trusting enough to ask for help. The same is true for prayer. Many of the prayers we recite on a daily basis including the central prayer in the Jewish liturgy. the Sh'moneh Esrei "Eighteen Benedictions" are expressions of our own limitations, and, petitions for G-d's help. On the High Holidays this theme is highlighted further. The Avinu Malkenu (Our Father Our King) is a beautiful plea for divine assistance. Psychotherapists have long noted that just the mere request for help, the acknowledgment that one needs the assistance of others as he or she encounters life's difficulties, can be enormously therapeutic in and of itself.


Principle 2: Thankfulness: Closely related to the capacity to ask for assistance is the ability and willingness to be thankful when it is forthcoming. In Japan an entire school of psychotherapy has evolved which is based on the principle of thankfulness to one's loved ones, teachers and benefactors. Our Jewish tradition also recognizes that one who is willing to say "thank you" is also capable of feeling blessed, a feeling which is at the core of our capacity to achieve happiness and fulfillment. The entire prayerbook, of course, is replete with expressions of thankfulness and of the acknowledgment that in spite of our travail and suffering we are nonetheless blessed with the greatest gift of all, life itself.

Positive Thoughts

Principle 3: Positive thoughts. Much of Jewish liturgy consists of praise for the creator and his works. The psalms of David and the kiddusha (sanctification), recited in the synagogue on a daily basis, recount praise for G-d and the wonder of his works in beautiful song. Such praise fosters a positive attitude towards the world which can only result in positive feelings about the self and life in general. This is the foundation for all cognitive approaches to psychotherapy, which see negative emotions (e.g.. depression) as resulting from a negative view of the world and one's past, present and future.


Principle 4: Community: At the turn of the century the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, in his famous study of suicide, found that those individuals who were outsiders, not an intimate part of any family or communal organization, were at the highest risk, G-d forbid, for this tragedy. Psychotherapists today see the alienation resulting from a breakdown of the family and traditional social/religious institutions as a major cause of psychological suffering. In Judaism we have the requirement of a minyan, that people come together to share their deepest vulnerabilities and concerns in prayer and camaraderie on a daily, or at least, weekly basis. This socializing or camaraderie, far from being a disruption to the synagogue, is indeed one of its central functions. The best synagogues are those which give both new and old members afeeling of "chevrusa" (friendship) and which allot much time outside the formal service for informal socializing and discussion.

Reconnecting with Tradition

Principle 5: Reconnecting With Tradition: Closely related to camaraderie with people in one's present is the connection with people in one's past. Many hours are spent in psychotherapy in an effort to clarify past relationships and bring something valuable from them into one's current life. For many people the opportunity to connect with one's parents and grandparents is what brings them back to shul. Jewish prayer, because of its wonderful timeless, repetition, affords us a connection not only with our immediate ancestors but to an entire people, culture and tradition. Such a connection is, as psychologists know so well, a major, if not the major, vehicle for attaining a sense of personal identity and purpose in one's life.

Affirming Faith

Principle 6: The Affirmation of Faith Faith or emunah is a term that in Judaism has a wider significance than a simple belief in the existence of G-d and the occurrence of certain historical events. We do affirm such a belief when we recite the Shema (Hear Oh Israel, The Lord Our G-d The Lord Is One) but in so doing we are also performing an act which, on my view at least, is basic to the psychotherapeutic endeavor: an affirmation that our lives have a purpose and meaning which transcends the self.

Individuals who have this faith, regardless of their religious beliefs, find the greatest fulfillment in life and can face the inevitable tragedies of human existence with equanimity and resolve. The prayer service provides us with the opportunity for a continued affirmation of faith both in G-d and in life itself.

Ethical Improvement

Principle 7: Ethical Improvement (Musar): Psychotherapy which heals the self without increasing one's empathy and concern for others is in the end a mere cultivation of self-centeredness or narcissism. Indeed as many psychotherapists realize, it is only through a devotion to helping and caring for others that a lasting personal fulfillment can be achieved. The davening, all year but especially on the High Holidays, is concerned with our ethical improvement. The various petitions made toward G-d, for example, must also be understood as moral prescriptions for our own behavior. As the Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) have seen, we are partners with G-d in tikkun olam, the repair and restoration of the world. Prayer, by reminding us of our highest ideals, also inspires us to assume our greatest responsibilities.

Introspection & Atonement

Principle 8: Introspection and Atonement: There can be no psychotherapy without introspection and no personal growth without a certain disavowal of what went before. While it is certainly possible for one to go through an entire high holiday service without genuinely looking inward, the entire mood of the period is conducive to psychological work. The AI Chet ("For the sins") prayer, with its catalogue of transgressions between man and man and between man and G-d is designed to awaken within us, through the process of verbal association, our own transgressions and feelings and inspire us towards their rectification.


Principle 9: Meditation: Meditation is usually associated with eastern religion and few people realize that Judaism contains within itself a strong mystical and meditational tradition. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his books Meditation and the Kabbalah and Jewish Meditation, carefully shows how prayers such as the Shema and the Sh'moneh Esrei can he used as, and may have originally been, meditations to purify the soul and effect a unity with the creator. The psychological benefits of meditation have been well documented. Many individuals find davening a meditation of unsurpassed meaning and value.

Therapy of Song

Principle 10: The therapy of song: No other art form has the power to reflect and alter the mood of the soul as much as music. My patients frequently tell me that they can achieve insight into their own mood or outlook on a particular day by observing the music they find themselves playing, humming or listening to. A whole branch of psychotherapy, music therapy, has evolved from the practical effects of this observation. Music, as the melody of Kol Niche (on Yom Kippur eve) amply demonstrates, has the power to move an individual both spiritually and psychologically. G-d's heavenly courtiers are themselves pictured in the siddur as singing the praises of the creator. The songs of the synagogue on earth have marvelous restorative and therapeutic powers which are the province of each individual to explore.

I have chosen 10 aspects of Jewish prayer which are paralleled by elements of the psychotherapeutic process. There are, of course, other parallels as well (the structure and fixed time of both prayer and psychotherapy is one that immediately comes to mind) as well as a number of important differences. While I certainly believe that there is an important place for both psychotherapy and prayer in this world, I believe just as firmly that the proliferation of the former in our time is in fact, the result of people having forgotten how to fully participate in the latter. It is my hope that the principles outlined herein will enable a few individuals to achieve a fuller appreciation of their experience in shul, both in this holy month of Tishrei and throughout the coming year. L'shana Tova.

Sandy Drob holds doctorates in philosophy and clinical psychology.

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