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Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone

Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone

It is a welcome occasion when one of the preeminent leaders in psychiatry endeavors to learn from ancient wisdom and to suggest how it can be applied to our everyday lives. This is precisely what Ronald Pies, MD, has done in his book Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone—and he has done it exceedingly well.

At the beginning of the 20th century, psychoanalysis was the new cure for all mental difficulties. In later years, psychopharmacology was the key that would open the door to untold vistas of psychological healing. In both cases, psychiatrists and many others have believed that the expanding power of rationality would set us free from the emotional ills that beset our species. In this way, the optimism of the Enlightenment has had 2 resurgences in the same modern century and in the same medical subspecialty.1

These days, we live in humbler times. It has been just a few decades since our field turned from psychoanalysis to neurobiology as the main model of comprehension, and most mental health professionals hold out more modest hopes for the treatments we provide. We know that a combination of medication and psychotherapy is a solution, but we also know that this combination only partially solves many—if not most—of the problems presented by our patients. We are less inclined to believe we have all the answers and more likely to perceive ourselves as new kids on an old block. We have come to appreciate more fully that “the old block” has its own time-tested set of sacred traditions whose understanding of inner truth and healing are worthy of consideration and inclusion.

In other words, we tend to recognize with more maturity and sobriety that we are as much students as teachers on a collective spiritual journey that has profound roots in the past and no end in sight, and that anything we can learn from tried-and-true sources is worth exploring and perhaps honoring too.

From the start, Dr Pies invites us “to join the community of ethicists, rabbis, and scholars” throughout Jewish history, and his sincere admiration for these insightful forerunners continues to shine through all of his writing to the end. His central aim is to describe the cluster of virtues embodied in a “mensch”—notably, compassion, kindness, generosity, charity, self-mastery, self-discipline, humility, and flexibility—and to inspire us. In the process of delineating the subtle ins and outs of “menschdom,” each page of the book transmits the author’s love of wisdom (in Greek, “philosophy”). This meshes beautifully with his equal, if not greater, passion for “tikkun olam” (the Hebrew phrase for “repair of the world”).

As readers of Psychiatric Times already know, Dr Pies is a first-rate guide to inner terrain, blending a raconteur’s knack for the telling vignette with a therapist’s intuition for the teachable moment. Becoming a Mensch intersperses the tales and brief sermons of Talmudic rabbis with illustrative stories of current interpersonal challenges we all encounter. Thus, the book emerges as a skillful interweaving of 3 elements: an introduction to the Jewish tradition, a set of down-to-earth case examples in practical ethics, and a fine running commentary about Jewish lore and how we can all reflect on it and be enriched by it. The tone of the writing is mainly gentle exhortation leavened by bursts of descriptive vitality. This combination serves the topic wonderfully. (I would have liked an occasional foray into gentle invocation as well, but we’ll get to that.)

The book is a superbly easy read. It is not only highly accessible in style but also quite slender for all the territory it covers, weighing in at a total of 150 pages, including a useful timeline, glossary, and references. Some scholars might quibble with the author’s reliance on mostly secondary and tertiary sources. However, these references are generally more helpful than primary sources for would-be mensches who wish to learn more about the history and lore of Judaism, especially as its time-worn rubber meets our modern roads and post-modern rough patches.

Dr Pies provides an accurate reflection of mainstream Jewish thinking, and one of the central strengths of this tradition is its powerful rationality. This is also a potential weakness if it is not balanced quite profoundly with a nonverbal, empathic inclination. My questions as I read boiled down to the query, “Are our heads enough, even when they describe the key contributions of our hearts?”

Martin Buber spoke of this concern in 1934, when he compared “Socratic man” with “Mosaic man.” He suggests that the former believes that cognition is sufficient for virtue (“all that is needed to do what is right is to know what is right”), whereas the latter knows that his or her “elemental totality” needs to be seized by the teachings.2 It is indeed possible that many Jewish teachers in the established tradition are more the heirs of Socrates than of Moses. It is also entirely possible that this has been somewhat of a problem for Jews as well as the rest of humanity.

To convey the point differently, do we need to discover at least a bit of the mystic within our own souls to be more truly successful in our quest to become mensches? Would it help to tap into some strain of prayerful invocation as we respond to the set of exhortations that make up this book? Might most of us require spiritual practices, such as prayer and mindfulness, to balance and deepen our intellectual questioning as well as our best efforts at good deeds?

Here lies a connection between the worlds of therapy and ethics. The Dr Pies we know and love as a teacher of psychotherapy has championed the work of Albert Ellis and has had his major focus on secondary process. He has turned less attention to matters of primary process than psychoanalysts often feel is needed. Similarly, as he guides us into the spiritual teachings of the rabbis, where are the gifts in the murkier, more disorienting depths? Do these more elusive hints and glimmers get somewhat short shrift and, if so, how much does that matter?

Whatever the wiser or wisest answers to these questions, they do not take away at all from the splendid work our colleague has done, because he has mined priceless treasures of Jewish lore and brought them forward for our consideration. Some significant pay dirt may be found where morality meets mysticism, but Dr Pies has indeed pointed at times in this direction. In the meantime, he has also revealed for us a large garden’s worth of fertile soil poised on its own to nourish our inner lives, our interpersonal connections, and our wider community.

 
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