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3 Cheshvan 5760 - October 13, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Who Really Knows Psychology?

by Yisroel Lorberbaum

The ordinary guy

Not so long ago, public interest was aroused by a new idea, the use of the polygraph (lie detector) for investigating public figures. Figuring only marginally in the media coverage of the issue was a very interesting piece of information: At every polygraph station where an individual is being tested, a psychologist must be on hand. Why?

Polygraph methodology requires that before the defendant is interrogated for his alleged crime, he must be interrogated on personal issues. At the beginning of the interrogation he is asked all sorts of questions about his personal affairs, to find out how the polygraph will react when he tells the truth, and to compare this with the way the polygraph reacts when he tells an untruth. Only after it has been proven that the polygraph is capable of determining when he is lying, are they able to begin investigating the real issues.

What this means is that a person is forced at the outset of his interrogation to confront his own character, his own values and moral behavior, his particular traits of personality, and so on, and all of these sincerely and without bias. He has no choice of evading or of concealing any personal aspect of the truth (after all the lie detector will immediately register that he is lying!). In other words, the individual is forced to confront himself, his own inner world at every level and dimension. This is something that most human beings never do, not even once in their whole lives

A confrontation of this nature can easily bring the ordinary guy -- who has spent his whole life escaping or at least ignoring his inner world -- to a profound crisis. Foreseeing this eventuality, the law requires a psychologist to be on hand during every polygraph test, to help the individual through his crisis of inner confrontation and to prevent his mental breakdown.

The process we have just described is not exactly surprising to anyone aware of the internal workings of the human personality. There are people who investigate the inner human life forces on a regular basis. So writes HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, (Alei Shor Sec. 1, p. 136): "The majority of human beings are completely oblivious to this inner world (of their own selves). Most human beings live their lives directed toward the external world, and they are afraid to turn the direction of their lives inward, towards themselves, for even but a moment, mainly out of recoil from this hidden and alien world of themselves!"

Now lehavdil, if we can distinguish for a moment between sacred and profane, between light and darkness, it seems obvious that every single Jew who walks the path of Torah, who involves himself in Hashem's service, is doing just exactly this -- nonstop. He is involved constantly in the attempt to be more fully aware of his inner world with all of its multiple layers, of his particular traits, natural tendencies, biases, the specific structure of his personality, his own behavioral tendencies, and much more. This type of awareness is the very root of the moral effort toward the repair and refinement of character.

Getting to know your inner life is basic and axiomatic. Every sefer mussar assumes this approach. (See Alei Shor sec. 1, introduction to Gate 3.) In a word: The road to self-improvement begins at self-knowledge, i.e. understanding all layers of the vital inner forces that make up a human being.

Now if this is true, it means that every Jew who has ever walked through the door of moral effort, who has ever labored over his middos, would be very glad to be tested by the polygraph machine. He would be eager to test how far he had gotten, how deep he had reached, in his understanding of his own inner world. And the psychologist on hand, ready and waiting, would not be necessary.

On Philosophers and Psychologists

For centuries philosophers and psychologists have been trying to understand the inner mental forces that make up a human being. Still, the unknown exceeds the known, there is more mystery than knowledge.

For example: 2500 years ago Aristotle conceived of the notion of "catharsis," i.e. emotional release and relief, in an effort to describe the inner life. Aristotle claimed that viewing violent events on stage provides relief for a person's own feelings of violence: Viewing and connecting with a staged violent event brings out and liberates a person's emotions, thereby causing his routine, day to day behavior, to become less violent. In the course of time other opinions arose, including many different from Aristotle, claiming that viewing violent happenings actually has the opposite effect; that it actually reinforces an individual's violent tendencies.

The controversy between these two basic approaches has continued, and has never been resolved in the Western world. Since no clear decision was reached for or against either of these theories, viewing scenes of violence is not perceived as an obviously dangerous activity.

It was only about thirty years ago that this age-old controversy began to move toward a resolution, as the result of a series of research efforts and experiments. One of these (Berkowitz, 1964) attempted to test -- using controlled laboratory conditions -- the relationship between viewing violent movies and behaving in a violent manner. Berkowitz found a clear and obvious correlation: The more that a subject identified with the violent happenings he viewed, the more violently he responded to his environment.

In his essay on this topic, Berkowitz notes other experiments conducted by other researchers regarding the influence of viewing scenes of violence upon children. Here too the correlation was found to be evident and obvious. Young children who viewed cartoons (!) containing violence, exhibited excessively aggressive responses toward other children at playtime, even during games of cars or blocks. Furthermore, little children tended to imitate the specific forms of the violence that they had seen.

Today laboratory experiments are no longer necessary in order to prove this point. Practical experiments have been proving it more clearly than anything else: Viewing violence causes an individual to behave in a violent manner. Watching television, movies , computer games, and the like that contain violence reinforces and stimulates violence to a significant extent at every age level and in every social class. True, the age old argument has been resolved, but it has been resolved by painful reality, by a soaring rate of violence that has hit unprecedented heights. All of humanity is today paying the price for this lack of insight into the mental processes, the profound inner forces that motivate a human being.

Lehavdil to distinguish, again, between sacred and profane, between light and darkness, it would seem that every Torah Jew is aware of this process. The Jewish perspective on this topic is quite clear: Viewing any event (positive or negative) leaves a powerful and profound impression, and to some extent, takes possession of one's mental life. Therefore viewing scenes of violence allows images of violence to penetrate into a person's mental space. The result is excessively violent behavior.

In the Torah it says (Bamidbar 15:39): "Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes." Rashi comments: "The eye sees and the heart covets and the body does the deeds." The source for Rashi's words is in the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 16:6). The gemora explains (Sanhedrin 45): "The urge for evil does not rule except over what the eyes see."

In Ibn Ezra we find (Devorim 23:14): "Everything that is seen by the eyes that is disgusting, breeds a disgusting image within the mind." Hence the prohibition (Megilla 28) against looking at the form or image of an evil person, which the Maharal explains as follows (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Hatzedokoh 83): "For if he gazes upon him then his eyes will be connected with evil and therefore it is forbidden to look at an evil person." The Zohar writes (Tetzave 18:1): "It is forbidden to look in the face of someone who is prone to rage because by doing this he becomes actually immersed within him." (The reverse is true as well. Looking at the forms of kedusha such as tzitzis or the image of a tzaddik connects with kedusha and this too influences behavior.)

These things are all almost self-evident and obvious and well known to every Jew

A further example: For many years psychology has been investigating and researching the subject of rage and aggressive behavior. In spite of this, psychologists have not succeeded in uncovering the root of this phenomenon, the cause of it, the source of aggression that lies in the inner mental and emotional forces. All that psychological theory has done is to analyze the circumstances under which a person responds with rage and aggression. (Cognitive theory claims that rage is a conscious reaction towards a society that the individual feels is in conflict with him. Psycho- social theory claims that rage is a response to frustrations such as inadequate reward. Psychoanalytical theory claims that rage is either an instinctive urge that demands release or a lack of balance between the id and the superego.) Accordingly, every theory offers to deal with the circumstances that cause the individual to react with rage, rather than dealing with the root of rage, concealed deep within the inner world, within the forces that animate a human being -- and hidden from the sight of psychology.

Dealing with rage in this way is called treating the symptoms instead of the disease; confronting the effects of the problem rather than the problem itself (like perhaps treating an infection with a pain killer).

Lehavdil again, between light and darkness, every Jew who has ever stood at the gate of moral effort and toil, of tikun hamiddos, has seen immediately what psychology has failed to see. It is written all over -- in every sefer mussar, in every book that ever offered to guide a Jew in Hashem's service: The root of rage, within the forces of mind and emotion, is arrogance. Meaning: whoever is infected with arrogance expects everyone to do what he thinks they should do. The moment that things occur against his wishes, he responds with rage.

Rabbenu Chaim Vital's Shaarei Kedusha (Sec. 1, Gate 2) explains it in this way: "It is the element of fire from which arrogance is derived and it includes rage because, as a result of arrogance, a person works himself into a rage when his will is not done. Whereas if he were humble of spirit and aware of his own shortcomings, he would not bring himself to rage at all. We find then that arrogance and rage are one and the same trait." Which means that your simple average Torah Jew knows how you treat rage at its roots: distance yourself from arrogance and cultivate humility of spirit. And there are many more such examples!

The Practical Difference

We have arrived at some very simple and basic points. The theoretical conclusions that philosophy and psychology have reached regarding the forces of mind and emotion, are not useful to us. They do not have the tools to get to the bottom of it, to the depths of the human mind. And so they grope in the dark, in terms of any sort of real understanding of the forces that are at work within a human being.

On the other hand, the need to cleave, absolutely and without reservation, to the truths that Chazal have revealed to us, seems more obvious than ever. Chachmei hamussar, the sages of avodas Hashem, our leaders and teachers in the field of spiritual growth, have gone much deeper, toward real and profound knowledge of the workings of the human mind. HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, writes (Alei Shor Sec. 2, p. 140): "Mussar is deep wisdom. It is the Torah's own path towards self-awareness and self- education. It is built upon a knowledge of the inner forces of mind and emotion that the Torah itself teaches us. Mussar is the Torah's psychology."

It is important to note that we refer here only to theoretical psychology. We refer neither to research psychology nor to applied psychology. While theoretical psychology attempts to decipher the forces of mind and emotion, applied psychology is built upon precise hypothesis and experiment, definition, diagnosis and treatment of specific behavioral symptoms, and in this respect it is no different than the medical profession, and it is effective to the same considerable extent.

If we were to make use of the conclusions that philosophy and theoretical psychology have drawn in the areas of education and socialization, we would have, in the best case, only partial and unstable solutions (such as the treatment of rage and aggression). In the less than optimal conditions, we have social devastation and disaster -- as in the culturally accepted practice of viewing violence.

HaRav Eliahu Dessler zt"l explains as follows (Michtav MeiEliahu Sec. 3, p. 361, and cited also in Mesilas Chaim beChinuch by HaRav Chaim Friedlander): "How much must one exercise caution in everything that is related to innovation by researchers in the areas of psychology and education. One must examine thoroughly to determine that such an innovation bears no contradiction to the words of Chazal or of the rishonim or of any of the Jewish minhagim that are in themselves Torah. If there is any sort of contradiction, one must throw out all of their filthy innovations!"

Regarding a specific example, Rav Dessler writes (ibid.): "They reason that we must develop the children's independence, and this is a rather major error. It is not independence that they must develop but submissiveness. Even if we develop the child's submissiveness and humility, he will learn his own deadly arrogance. But to teach him `I am important and nothing else' is the law of Edom, the law of murder and robbery."

It seems necessary to examine a bit of what's going on in the world on the issues of education, just so that we can be grateful for the profound knowledge that we have been given, and for the effective tools that we have been given for dealing with our inner life. We can also give thanks to Hashem yisborach, ". . . for having separated us from those who err and for having given us the Torah of truth and for having implanted within us everlasting life."

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