Times of Israel
Raising taboo issues, from therapy and mental illness to addiction and sexual abuse, he pushed the Jewish community to accept and protect the victims.
The recognition upon the passing on Jan. 31 of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski — a scholar and psychiatrist — has already shown us the many facets of his greatness.
Over the years, I was fortunate to meet him and to hear him speak in synagogues where I was the rabbi, at rabbinic conferences, and to read several of the 92 books that he wrote. His personal warmth, whether it was speaking to a large audience or giving time to someone after a talk always permeated all his interactions. There are several lessons that stand out in my mind, which I would like to share.
The first lesson is that the issues we struggle with in our lives are not temporary problems that we engage with, overcome and then move on to the next one. He said that the issues we struggle with, character traits we need to change, bad habits we need to break, complicated relationships in our lives are probably issues that we will need to address our entire lives. “Polishing the Diamond” (see his story by that name) is something that takes a lifetime.
The second lesson came when someone asked him why life is so hard, and it seems we are always struggling. Many of his books emphasize celebrating life and being joyful, feeling good about ourselves and having self-confidence. Yet his answer was very simple and as he was often bluntly honest. His answer was, “Whoever said life was going to be easy.” We might not have signed up for it, but this is what life is, and we have to make peace with that and do the hard work.
The third lesson is that Rabbi Twerski did not function within the usual conventions of his Hasidic origins. He stood up for what is right no matter what other people thought or said. The fact that he worked in a Catholic medical institution and wrote a book about it, The Rabbi and the Nuns, attests to this. So does the fact that he spoke out about serious mental health issues that no one else wanted to talk about, and that many did not want him to talk about.
Courage to Break Taboos
For me, the most impressive dimension of who Rabbi Twerski was is his courage. If we take a step back and look at his impact, his courage to “break the taboos” around mental issues in the Jewish community have impacted the entire fabric of the Jewish and the Orthodox Jewish community and will continue to do so for decades to come.
It is easy to forget how up until the 1980s, maybe even the 1990s there was a very strong stigma around therapy, psychologists and mental health issues (not to say it has disappeared today). Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, just by the symbolic message of his distinguished Hasidic background merged with being a practicing psychiatrist dispelled those stigmas. But that was not enough for him. He spoke out over the decades about mental health/social issues that no one else would talk about.
From therapy and mental illness, itself, to addiction (substance abuse, pornography and gambling), to domestic abuse and violence and to the most difficult of all to bring to light, sexual abuse, he fearlessly pushed the Jewish, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities to deal with these issues. The silent victims would no longer be alone without protection, and those suffering from their own struggles would no longer be without resources.
Rabbi Twerski was not just an author and a public figure, he personally got involved in organizations, attended events and conferences to help and encourage people with his personal warmth and caring. We now live in a world with Orthodox therapists and nonprofits to help those who are struggling. There are still obstacles to overcome, there is still stigma around mental health issues, there are still those who are protecting abusers, and there still needs to be more awareness and resources devoted to mental health problems.
Rabbi Twerski was a brave voice who spoke out despite criticism, opposition and even fallout for his family. He left us a legacy of standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, it is up to us to carry on that legacy.
Rabbi Jonathan Feldman is community educator for Am Yisrael Foundation, an organization that runs programming for young olim and expats from all over the world in Tel Aviv. After attending Cornell University, he received his Rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from New York University. He has lectured widely as a guest speaker on Jewish topics.