Religion and Belonging

A 17-year-old boy, smart, very self-aware and insightful came to see me because his parents thought he was depressed. They are caring, nurturing and concerned parents who will spare no expense for the well-being of their children. The young man has many friends, does well in school and abides by the center right orthodoxy that his parents follow.

What triggered the parents to suspect that their son would benefit from a few therapeutic sessions with me was the fact that he said to his father that he had questions about religion. I spoke with both parents and the father admitted that he too had questions about religion especially when he was younger and was raised to believe that while it is an imperative to lead a Torah based life it is also very appropriate and normal to have questions. Why then were these parents so concerned about their sons’ questioning? They expressed a fear that because he was so smart, intellectual and philosophical that his doubts might lead him very much astray. It is not usually in the realm of a psychologist to be the tool for a parent’s desire for their child to maintain a specific religious lifestyle I told them, but they were also very much concerned that his uncertainties were driving a change in his mood, a change that, they feared might lead to a depression.

I met with the fellow a few times to assess his mood and found that he was not really depressed at all. Perhaps a bit obsessive in his thoughts about several of life’s philosophical dilemmas but not so severe as to warrant a major concern. We discussed his issues and doubts about the world and what life might mean from the perspective of a developing teenager; what his objectives might be and some long-term goals. We worked them through rapidly.

And then came the issue of religion. I repeated to him the concerns his parents expressed. He told me that he put on tefillin daily, davened three times daily mostly with a minyan and set aside time to learn beyond what his yeshiva required. “I like learning” he said. “I just don’t know what I am gaining from this.”

I allowed him to express his doubts, suspicions and the misgivings he had. Then he asked me a very pointed question. “Why do you do it?” He knew that I attend the same minyan almost every day because when he is off from yeshiva he sometimes finds himself there. He also knew that I learn with the same people that I have for a good many years. “So why do you keep at it?” He wondered.

I paused for a few seconds to think of the best way to answer. During that half a minute I had to remember that I was not his parent, nor his rabbi. I also went over the classic debate that those of us in the same profession who are Orthodox struggle with that might impact my response “Are you a frum therapist or a therapist who happens to be frum?” I also have mentored many to remember that it is important to be both as we take an oath to the profession and maintain a strong belief in the life we lead.

I said “There are two reasons that I am in the same place every morning. I have friends, some 20 years older, some 20 years younger, who meet with me in the same place every day. The sense of community, bonding and support is extremely enriching and fortifying. The other reason is that daily prayer is my morning meditation. It keeps me grounded and aware of who I am and the life I want to lead.”

And then I thought to myself – the last two Shabattot we had lunch with friends. Most of these friends lead the same lifestyle we do. We don’t necessarily agree on everything nor do we necessarily have the same exact expression of our beliefs. But we are like a family. We are supportive to one another, share in good times together and help one another out. We belong together.

Perhaps the social and meditative reasons will seem insufficient in the eyes of some of my co-religionists. Perhaps some might say that it is a betrayal of what our religion is about. Frankly, I really don’t care about those arguments. Socialization, being a part of something greater, is one of the most important components of maintaining a healthy life. Yes, my religious beliefs go well beyond those points, but they helped to steer the young man toward a sense of belonging to something greater than himself. And he responded, “I guess if you don’t have that you really don’t have much.”

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York. He is the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."
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