Drs. Michelle Fried­man and Rachel Yehu­da are the co-authors of The Art of Jew­ish Pas­toral Coun­sel­ing: A Guide for All Faiths. With the hol­i­day sea­son approach­ing, they will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil togeth­er as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Rab­bi, Thanks­giv­ing is com­ing up, and after the way my broth­er behaved last time I can’t bring myself to ever spend the hol­i­day with him like we have always done. What should I do?”

Rab­bis get ques­tions like this all the time and espe­cial­ly before holidays. 

Peo­ple turn to cler­gy and oth­er Jew­ish pro­fes­sion­als for pas­toral coun­sel­ing because they hope to glean wis­dom and sup­port that con­nects them to Jew­ish tra­di­tion. But how are rab­bis sup­posed to get that wis­dom and how do rab­bis learn how to pro­vide the kind of sup­port war­rant­ed by the spe­cif­ic situation?

The wis­dom and expe­ri­ence comes from learn­ing how to lis­ten in a spe­cif­ic way. This is hard­er than it sounds. It is the kind of lis­ten­ing where the rab­bi resists the impulse to jump in with a sim­i­lar vignette from their own life, refrains from giv­ing quick advice, and hears out the sto­ry. While lis­ten­ing, the rab­bi qui­et­ly stays in touch with the anx­i­ety, anger, or sad­ness stirred up with­in them­self while lis­ten­ing to a painful, deeply human story.

Some­times, a rab­bi may wor­ry that non-judg­men­tal lis­ten­ing implies tac­it accep­tance of actions that con­tra­dict Jew­ish tra­di­tion. But when a car­ing lis­ten­er finds a sliv­er of alliance with the teller of an offen­sive sto­ry, they gen­er­ate trust; not nec­es­sar­i­ly approval. In fact, a Jew­ish pas­toral coun­selor must find some point of con­nec­tion in order to point out where behav­ior runs into con­flict with Jew­ish and oth­er val­ues or might even lead to danger.

One way for the rab­bi to lis­ten is to ask ques­tions. In the open­ing vignette, it is not clear whether the sib­ling got drunk, was miss­ing in action dur­ing a fam­i­ly member’s crit­i­cal ill­ness, ques­tioned Mom about the will, or sug­gest­ed con­ver­sion ther­a­py for a gay fam­i­ly mem­ber. The sim­ple direc­tion, Tell me more,” cou­pled with qui­et atten­tion encour­ages the most tur­bu­lent souls to open up. As the rab­bi lis­tens, they can think of ques­tions and gen­er­ate hypothe­ses as to what is going on. The con­gre­gant fills in the sto­ry: We need­ed finan­cial help and my sis­ter wouldn’t help;” My broth­er was stay­ing with us dur­ing his sep­a­ra­tion and made a pass at the nan­ny;” I was going through a rough time and they didn’t both­er to check in on how I was doing.”

The rab­bi lis­ten­ing might won­der if these slights start­ed long ago or whether they result from some­thing that the con­gre­gant did that pro­voked alien­ation. They may recall sim­i­lar painful sit­u­a­tions in their own fam­i­ly. Some­times there was res­o­lu­tion, oth­er times not. Get­ting in touch with one’s own emo­tion­al pulse allows one to empathize with the congregant’s dis­tress while also being clear that their life expe­ri­ences and reac­tions are dif­fer­ent. The rab­bi might ask a few ques­tions to clar­i­fy the pic­ture and for­mu­late a hier­ar­chy of goals. 

Some­times peo­ple ask for a specif­i­cal­ly reli­gious answer: Rab­bi, what does Jew­ish tra­di­tion say about fam­i­lies?” or Isn’t it against the Torah to embar­rass some­one?” Jew­ish tra­di­tion has much to say about fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships and fam­i­ly con­flict, about rup­ture and repair. The rabbi’s sense of tact and tim­ing will deter­mine whether offer­ing a text feels for­mu­la­ic or sup­port­ive. Often the congregant’s ques­tion is rhetor­i­cal, in the sense that they are not seek­ing a true Torah rul­ing but instead try­ing to get some heavy-duty sup­port for their own feel­ings and opinions.

There is no one right answer to any of the above ques­tions. A guid­ing prin­ci­ple for rab­bis and pas­toral fig­ures might be to try and cir­cum­scribe the prob­lem to the present moment and give the con­gre­gant per­mis­sion to make a deci­sion just for the imme­di­ate sit­u­a­tion at hand. I under­stand your rela­tion­ship with your broth­er has been dif­fi­cult for quite a while. I find it’s more help­ful to avoid words like nev­er’ and ever’ — at this time you need to make a deci­sion about this one Thanks­giv­ing. After that, you can think about how that felt and what you want to do next.” This kind of response allows for a kind of pause after Thanks­giv­ing, time in which to metab­o­lize what­ev­er behav­iors and feel­ings come up over the holiday. 

Few peo­ple lis­ten well. The goal of pas­toral coun­sel­ing is to help those going through reg­u­lar life events as well as crises. The endur­ing lega­cy of such sup­port con­nects Jews to the rich­ness of tra­di­tion over the longer arc of time.

Michelle Fried­man and Rachel Yehu­da are the co-authors of The Art of Jew­ish Pas­toral Coun­sel­ing: A Guide for All Faiths and pro­fes­sors at the Icahn School of Med­i­cine at Mount Sinai Hos­pi­tal in New York City. Along with their inde­pen­dent posi­tions and dis­tinc­tions, both authors teach pas­toral coun­sel­ing at Yeshi­v­at Chovevei Torah Rab­bini­cal School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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