Strategic Interventions by Rabbinic Leaders:
The Ends Justify the Means
Seymour Hoffman, Ph. D.
This is an elaborated and revised version of an article first published under the title "Rabbinic Insights Into Behavior Change"
in B'Or Ha'Torah,13 E, 2002, Shamir Publications .
Strategic therapy is a direct treatment approach that aims to relieve symptoms, resolve conflicts, and free people from their neurotic morass in the shortest time possible. This approach relies heavily on manipulation to effect change quickly and effectively.
Manipulation in the most concrete sense is the act of controlling with the hands or the mind. The use of manipulation has produced wide debate and heated reaction among psychotherapists of all persuasions. On the one hand, there are those who decry its use because they think it is patronizing, infantilizing, presumptuous, coercive, deceptive, abusively authoritarian, unethical, inconsistent with respect for the client and incompatible with developing a trusting therapeutic relationship.
On the other hand, there are therapists who argue that “life is one big manipulation” and insist that it is involved in all forms of therapy, ranging from analytically orientated to behavioral and strategic, though it may not be equally obvious in all forms. In their view, manipulation is nothing more than influence, and in therapy, “one cannot not influence” just as “one cannot not communicate”. The question is not whether to influence or not but how to do it in the most constructive, humane, non-exploitative, effective, and expeditious manner, in order to effect positive change in the client and help him ameliorate his symptoms and resolve his conflicts. Manipulation in its most benign and simple form is no more complicated than a mother placing a band-aid or a kiss on the wound of a child to “make it all better.” In its more complex form, manipulation involves deception and shrewd, devious, and strategic interventions.
The dialectical cotherapy approach ( Hoffman, et. al., 1994) has been criticized on moral grounds. "It is difficult to accept a method of therapy based on deliberate dishonesty. It is hard to believe that the deception has no long-term ill effects. Even if it succeeds, does the end justify the means?" (Chazan, 2000)
According to this view, treatment approaches that make use of placebos and paradoxical interventions popularized by such prominent strategic therapists as Haley, Madanes, Frankl, Zeig, Lankton, and Milton Erickson, to name a few, would be considered unethical and unacceptable. The paradoxical approach involves deceiving the client, as the therapist suggests a certain behavior but expects that the client will do the opposite, in view of his resistance. Doherty and Boss (1991), state that, "If paradoxical methods are used in a way that invades the autonomy of clients, deceives the client, or undermines the therapist's trustworthiness, then they are unethical. Haley (1976), argues, "If it is essential for the cure that deceit be used, it might be justified on that basis." There are those who claim that the paradoxical approach does not negate the approach that respects autonomy if it causes an in increase in the autonomy and flexibility of the client's behavior. "The ends justify the means." Foreman (1990) believes that "paradox is an ethical technique with resistive clients" and advises that the paradoxical approach be used only after other approaches have been unsuccessful.
Manipulation for therapeutic and altruistic motives has been sanctioned by leading Jewish religious leaders, although it was condemned when used for selfish interests because the values of integrity and honesty are paramount.
(An example of the latter is found in Tractate Yevamot (63a): The wife of Rav (one of the outstanding scholars in the Talmudic era) was in the habit of irritating him. When he requested from his wife to cook for him lentils, he received chick-peas and when he requested chick-peas, he would receive lentils. When his son Chiyah grew up, he reversed his father's requests to his mother. Rav said to his son: 'Your mother has improved'. His son said: 'I reversed the requests to her'. His father said to him. 'This is what people say, that your son teaches you wisdom. Even so, don't do this, because it is written in Jeremiah, 'Their tongues will teach deceitful things' ").
Rashi (11th century biblical commentator) in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers (1:2) records the strategic-manipulative interventions of Aaron the High Priest, who pursued peace and infused love between disputants and between quarrelling spouses, and who antedated Haley and Erickson, two of the most prominent strategic therapists, by 3300 years.
"One man became angry with his wife and chased her out of the house and swore that he would permit her to return only if she spat in the face of the High Priest. When Aaron became aware of this, he summoned the woman and told her that he had an eye infection which could only be cured if she spat at it. After considerable pleading, the woman acceded to Aaron’s request. Afterwards, Aaron summoned the husband and related to him what his wife had done. As a result of this, the couple reconciled".
"When two men quarreled, Aaron would go to one of the disputants and inform him that he had just returned from the disputant’s friend and found him terribly upset and regretful of the pain that he had caused his fellow. Aaron would not leave the disputant until all jealousy and hatred had been removed from his heart. Afterwards, he would go to the other injured party and repeat the same thing to him. When the men met, they would fall on each other’s shoulders and tearfully reconcile.
The most famous and psychologically sophisticated manipulative intervention by a Jewish religious leader recorded in the Scriptures, is described in Kings-1 (3, 15-28), regarding King Solomon’s judgment in the dispute between two women contesting the maternity of the live child.
Several examples are recorded in the Talmud of manipulative behavior by prominent religious figures whose intentions were to help fellow Jews. It is related in Tractate Nedarim (50a) that the Prophet Elijah appeared at Rabbi Akiva’s dwelling (a barn where he and his wife slept on straw) as a pauper and requested some straw for his wife who had recently given birth to lie down on. Rabbi Nissim explains that Elijah did this in order to console the couple and show them there were people poorer than themselves.
In Tractate Yevamot (11b) it is recorded that the Sages advised a woman to “playact” (to cry, tear her clothing, and dishevel her hair) when she appeared before Rabbi Judah in order to convince him that her husband had died, so that he would permit her to remarry.
In Tractate Arachin (23a), it is related that Moses the son of Etsri was the guarantor for the marriage contract of his daughter-in-law. His son, Rabbi Huna, was as a scholar with little financial resources. Abaye said: "Is there no one to advise Rabbi Huna to divorce his wife and since he is without means, his wife will collect the money from his father and afterwards Rabbi Huna will remarry her. This way he will be able to support her and himself." The Talmud explains that this kind of conspiracy is permissible when it is done for the benefit of a son who is a scholar.
Rabbi Ezkiel Landau, (18th century) author of "Nodah Biyhudah", did not believe in amulets or in other supernatural remedies. Once he was consulted regarding an amulet. A distinguished woman was seized by a spirit of insanity. She felt that her condition was critical, and that she could be remedied only with an amulet prepared by Rabbi Ezkiel. Rabbi Ezkiel took a blank piece of parchment, wrapped it in a small pouch, sealed it with his personal signet, and said:"This amulet should be worn around the neck of the woman for thirty days. After thirty days, open the amulet. If the writing disappeared and the parchment is blank, it is a sign that the woman is remedied. And so they did. After thirty days they opened the amulet and found the parchment blank with no sign of any script. The woman entirely recuperated from her illness.
An example of a psychologically more sophisticated intervention by a prominent rabbinic figure of the 19th century, is recorded by Karlinsky. (1984) The incident took place in Warsaw in 1877. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, an outstanding Talmud scholar, religious personality, and leader was overcome by a deep depression upon the incarceration of his highly revered and beloved mentor, Rabbi Joshua Leib Diskin, on false charges by the anti-Semitic authorities. On the Sabbath Rabbi Soloveitchik ate only the minimal amount of food necessary to fulfill the requirements of Jewish law. He isolated himself in his room and refused to receive any visitors, not even his closest students and colleagues. He discontinued going to the synagogue and teaching. A specialist who was called in to treat him recommended total rest, but added that if by chance the rabbi’s spirit could be suddenly stimulated, healing would take place in a matter of minutes.
Attempts by his family, friends, students, and colleagues to pull him out of his depression failed. Even the efforts of the renowned scholar and hasidic leader, the Master of Gur, failed to lift his colleague’s depression through encouragement, support, and intellectual stimulation. One day, upon hearing about Rabbi Soloveitchik’s deteriorating mental and physical condition, Rabbi Meir Simha Ha’Kohen, a brilliant scholar and student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, hurried to visit his teacher. Rabbi Meir attempted unsuccessfully to engage his rabbi in a talmudic discussion, as the latter was totally engulfed by worry for his beloved colleague. At one point, Rabbi Meir quoted some of the Torah novella that he had heard from Rabbi Diskin when he had visited him in jail some months previously. As Rabbi Meir discerned some reaction from his teacher, he began to challenge and criticize Rabbi Diskin’s new insights and interpretations on certain talmudic topics and vigorously disputed the conclusions. Upon hearing criticism of his beloved teacher, Rabbi Soloveitchik began to defend him by quoting texts and rabbinical authorities and explaining and analyzing his teacher’s Torah. Instead of remitting, Rabbi Meir continued to challenge Rabbi Diskin’s Torah, which prompted Rabbi Soloveitchik to raise his voice and marshal all his brilliance, analytic skills, and energy to refute his student’s arguments and prove that his mentor was correct. Rabbi Meir soon began to raise other talmudic topics to which Rabbi Soloveitchik also responded in an increasingly intense manner.
After concluding their talmudic deliberations, Rabbi Soloveitchik accompanied his visitor to the synagogue, where he had not gone for a long time. Shortly afterward, Rabbi Soloveitchik resumed his teaching and regular activities as the spiritual leader of his community.
Another example of a creative manipulative intervention on the part of a respected rabbinic figure is an incident related about Rabbi Mordechai Lebton, the Chief Rabbi and head of the rabbinical court in Syria in the nineteenth century. One day a distraught couple appeared before the rabbi for a divorce. Though the couple had been happily married for many years, during the last year the husband had become depressed, angry, and impatient with his wife because she was barren and therefore decided to divorce her. The rabbi unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the husband to reconsider his decision since his wife was a fine meritorious person.
The rabbi, a highly intelligent and perceptive person who was able to penetrate the inner recesses of people and discern their dynamics and weaknesses, decided on a plan of action to cause the husband to revive his affection and appreciation of his wife. He instructed the couple to return the following day for the purpose of arranging the divorce procedures.
The next day, as the rabbi was preparing to divorce the couple, his student (upon pre-arranged instructions) barged in and whispered into the rabbi’s ear. The rabbi unexpectedly began scolding and yelling at his student to the astonishment of the estranged couple. When queried about his unusual behavior, the rabbi explained that his student had crossed the line of propriety. “My student had the audacity to ask me to hasten the divorce proceedings so that he could propose marriage to this wonderful woman.”
Upon hearing this, the shocked husband informed the rabbi that he decided to return to his wife and asked the rabbi for his blessing. The following year, a son was born to the happy couple.
The “Hafetz Haim” (the most prominent rabbinical authority of the 20th century) was consulted about how to help a young scholar, who had a fine personality, came from a good family, but was of short stature, which made it difficult to find him a suitable wife. The rabbi advised that he should wear elevated shoes at the first meeting in order to give him a taller appearance but not afterwards. The explanation given was that the potential mate should not be repelled and discouraged on first sight and that after getting to know him, his physical stature would not be a significant decisive factor.
Several years ago a professional-halakhic question was directed to a prominent rabbi and arbiter. A religious Jewish female patient confided to her therapist that she had ceased performing monthly immersions in the mikveh without informing her husband, thereby causing her husband to transgress a Torah prohibition. Is the therapist obligated to inform the husband and thereby betray professional confidence, which invariably would cause the patient to terminate vital psychological treatment and also possibly discourage other potential patients from seeking his help?
The rabbi’s solution was highly original, daring, non-conventional and manipulative. The rabbi opined that the therapist was halakhically obligated to inform the husband, but he recommended that it be done in an indirect manner. The rabbi prepared a signed letter addressed to the couple which read: “Yesterday I dreamed that you had a problem of family purity, and since the majority of my dreams are correct, I felt it proper to make you aware of this…” and recommended that it be sent to the couple. This way, the therapist could continue his professional duties while also fulfilling his halakhic obligations. (For other views regarding this professional-halakhic question, see the author’s article, “Therapist-Friendly” and “Therapist-Unfriendly” Rabbinic Responsa, B’Or Ha’Torah, 2008, 18).
It appears that the rabbinic attitude regarding the ends justifying the means is quite flexible, as they sanction and use manipulation when noble goals are involved such as the enhancement of people’s emotional and social well-being.
Chazan, R. (2000) Book Review: "Cotherapy with individuals, families and groups". Israel Journal of Psychiatry, 37, 1.
Doherty,W. J. & Boss, P. G. (1991) Values and ethics in family therapy. In A. S. Gurman & D. P. Kniskern (Eds.) Handbook of family therapy (vol. 2), New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Foreman, D. M. (1990) The ethical use of paradoxical interventions in psychotherapy. Journal of Medical Ethics, 16, 200-205.
Haley, J. (1976) Problem-solving therapy. San-Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Hoffman, S., Gafni, S. and Laub, B. (1994) Cotherapy with individuals, families and groups, Northvale, New Jersey, Jason Aronson, Inc.
Karlinsky, C. (1984) The first of the Brisk dynasty. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute. (In Hebrew)