'So that it shall be good for you'- treating religious compulsions and fears

A readable, informative book on OCD, also meant to enlighten family and friends, involving them in behavior-modifying treatment. Op-ed.

Rochel Sylvetsky ,

yeshiva students
yeshiva students
Torah B'Tzion

In Dvarim, the book of Deuteronomy 10:12, it says: "And now, Israel: What does Hashem, your God, ask of you? But to fear Hashem, your God, to go in all His ways…to love Him…today, so that it shall be good for you."

This verse is quoted at the beginning of "Religious Compulsions and Fears, a Guide to Treatment for OCD" (Feldheim Publishers), a book aimed at the Torah-observant, written by well-known psychologist and prolific author of books on various aspects of psychology as well as enlightening volumes on Rashi and Ramban's commentaries, Rabbi Dr. Avigdor Bonchek.

But what's the connection between this verse and the book's title? A few minutes of reading, makes it abundantly clear that for Dr. Bonchek, attaining that "good" is the hoped-for goal in the treatment of religious OCD sufferers.

Mitzvah observance is all encompassing and demanding, but as religious Jews know, it is a source of joy, satisfaction and fulfillment. It really is "good for you." For the religious Jew suffering from OCD, however, mitzvah observance is an experience filled with recurrent, intrusive and persistent anxiety, painful fear and pangs of guilt about not performing mitzvahs correctly or sufficiently well, with this obsession often leading to compulsive repetition or exaggerated attempts to achieve perfection.

This is not the same as and not to be confused with meticulous performance of mitzvot, as Dr. Bonchek carefully delineates. And, he adds, while all OCD patients experience anxiety and compulsive behavior, the religious Jew with OCD has an additional burden – he feels he is failing in a sacred responsibility that God has bestowed upon the Jewish people and thus is even more stressed than others with the same problem. In this case, what seems like overly frum behavior may lead to the opposite, as the OCD person's life is filled with compulsions preventing his engaging fully in other aspects of religious life.

Dr. Avigdor Bonchek was a talmid chacham and respected psychologist who lived in Jerusalem for many years, serving as a much sought after address for the religious community. (Full disclosure: The above assessment is not a reviewer's blurb – the Boncheks were our neighbors in Jerusalem for the ten years following our aliya, living just eight steps above our apartment. Each of those years, in addition to neighborliness, friendship as families and advice on problems with my students, Vic and my husband built a sukkah together to which we invited the Russian Georgian immigrant family living next door. Sukkot always brings back fond memories of enjoying our own "ingathering of the exiles".)

In the forward to the book, written by acclaimed psychiatrist and author, Rabbi Prof. Abraham Twerski, it is described as a unique contribution to the Jewish community. Sadly, both Dr. Bonchek and Prof. Twerski passed away not long ago, and reading this book, with its complex psychological subject skillfully expounded for the layman, is not only important in itself, but a painful reminder of what we have lost in the passing of these two caring erlich and frum yidden.

Dr. Bonchek introduces OCD in general and goes on to describing its signs in religious contexts. He then discusses the treatments available, including psychoanalysis and medication, with an emphasis on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) which statistically (and also predictively for this reader after reading the explanation of the CBT treatment techniques which seem to plan a step by step road to recovery) is the most successful. He continues with an outline of treatment for specific Jewish religious compulsions and phobias, with case studies to illustrate the effects of therapy. The book is meant to enlighten family and friends, to engage their help and understanding as an integral part of successful behavior-modifying treatment.

In keeping with Dr. Bonchek's practical approach to problems and a wisdom born of long experience, he talks about motivation as the key to change, about overcoming fears of revealing one's "secrets,"and most important, about how to get help. He devotes pages to identifying compulsions and encourages the reader by explaining that therapy is sometimes successful after a short time, but more often is an ongoing process, that there can be setbacks that require renewed help.

At the end of the book is a questionnaire that allows the reader to see if he has cause to consider himself OCD or perhaps decide to suggest that an acquaintance answer the questions.

Dr. Bonchek consults with rabbinic decisors when necessary and quotes their wisdom in an especially enlightening chapter on piskei halakhah (halakhic decisions) and historical precedents for the circumstances requiring a flexibility that halakha itself provides. Especially engaging is a story about the Ponovezher Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Kahaneman zts"l (Dr. Bonchek learned in Ponovezh ). The entire book, while written so that it can be understood easily by the layman, is accurate professionally and also infused with a feeling that the writer is a true ben Torah

Not wanting to rely only on my own judgment as to the professional level of the book, I turned to Dr. Yaakov Freedman, an American oleh and Harvard-trained psychiatrist based in Jerusalem, who works with the yeshivish community and the religious community in general. After reading the book, he wrote "This is a fantastic addition to any mental health professional's library. It's clearly a useful tool for clinicians and patients and their friends and families alike." His wife, a social worker, was especially pleased by the questionnaire which she felt would also be useful with clients.

The religious community and society in general have come a long way in their attitudes to psychological problems and mental illness. Advances in medications have helped make this possible, allowing us to view some previously untreatable conditions as illnesses caused by a chemical imbalance that the right medication properly administered can treat. Psychotherapy and analysis have become accepted ways to provide help for those who need support in learning to lead productive and happy lives. Dr. Bonchek's wisdom is a Torah-true example of how professional care and a supportive environment can lead religious OCD sufferers to a mitzvah-filled life that is "good for you." May all of Am Yisrael have a good and healthy year!

Rochel Sylvetsky made aliya to Israel with her family in 1971, coordinated Mathematics at Ulpenat Horev, worked in math curriculum planning at Hebrew U. and as academic coordinator at Touro College Graduate School in Jerusalem. She served as Chairperson of Emunah Israel and was CEO of Kfar Hassidim Youth Village. Upon her retirement, Arutz Sheva asked her to be managing editor of the English site, a position she filled for several years before becoming Senior Consultant and Op-ed and Judaism editor. She serves on the Boards of Orot Yisrael College and the Knesset Channel.



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