Science and Spirituality

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

True Science is Torah

Evidence-based psychology like all true science was revealed by G-d at Mount Sinai and given to Moses along with the rest of the Torah and traditional teachings. The opinion that all knowledge is contained in the Torah was first mentioned by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi and subsequently by many others including the great religious philosopher and physician Moses ben Maimon commonly known as Maimonides.[1] Our Sages want us to benefit from scientific discoveries in medicine and psychology. They said: "Believe the wisdom of the nations." Secular scientific wisdom can certainly alleviate a great deal of human suffering - but it only treats the psychology of a person. Treating a person psychologically without treating his soul can never lead to a permanent cure or soul-correction for that person. A psychotherapist whose practice is based only on natural law will get results that can go no further than natural law. Secular wisdom, no matter how sophisticated and scientifically valid cannot lead to spirituality and supernatural cures. Only the Divine wisdom of the Torah can do that. [2] Any psycho-therapeutic approach that minimizes the complexity of the human soul by undermining the importance of humility and faith to a person's recovery cannot be integrated with our spiritually-based method of C.A.R.E.

Only Torah can Permanently Alleviate Human Suffering

Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato, wrote in his famous The Way of G-d, a Jewish ethical work published in 1738: “Only teachings that are based on the Torah have the power to cure human problems. The only reason why Torah has any power at all is because G-d bound His most precious influence to it. If G-d had not made it so, then the Torah would be no different from any other educational book. These [secular] books may contain accurate and valuable information, but they do not incorporate any significance and excellence into the soul of a person who reads, recites or comprehends them.”

Science Defines Probability Not Ultimate Truth

Evidence-based psychotherapy is based on the best cutting-edge science that presently exists to help people overcome adversity and flourish - but science is only about the average - about what will probably help, not what is still possible but as yet unknown. This seminal truth has even found its way to Harvard University! Dr. Ellen Langer is a Harvard psychologist who says: “Science has come a long way in providing answers to serious and important questions. Nevertheless, scientific data only speak to the general case, to what is generally true. Experiments cannot incorporate all the unknowns, it is with good reason that the findings of these studies are given in terms of probabilities— [only] as general truths.”[3]

Meteoric Increase in Research on Spirituality and Mental Health

In the last three decades, the number of research studies on the effects of spirituality and religion on mental health have exploded by 80-fold. A systematic review of these studies conducted between 1990 and 2010 found that religious involvement was definitely correlated with better mental health in almost all of the studies that had to do with depression, substance abuse and suicide. Religion and spirituality were also found to have the same positive effect in studies that looked at dementia and stress-related disorders.[4]

The strongest evidence for a link between religious involvement and mental health comes from longitudinal research that followed people over the course of their lives. This landmark study found that those people who had more religious involvement during their lives were less likely, even three decades later, to suffer from depression or to have gotten a divorce, and they were more likely to enjoy many more social relationships than people who had not grown up with spirituality or religion in their lives. Also, the religious group were more likely to have quit smoking, increased exercise, avoided weight gain, and decreased drinking. Most strikingly they were more likely to still be alive.[5]

Interestingly, during the same time period in which the field of psychology began to notice the very positive effects that spirituality and religion were having on mental health, another major change occurred within the field of psychology. From its inception, psychology aimed at alleviating symptoms like anxiety and depression. This meant studying the "problem" rather than the solution. So for many decades, psychologists studied problems and, they actually came up with some very effective ways of reducing those problems. In so doing, however, they also discovered that taking away a person's sadness, for example, did not automatically translate into making him a happy person. The field of Positive Psychology was born out of this discovery. Psychologists began to study the happiest, creative people that they could find in order to determine what these people who were living with passion, purpose and integrity were doing "right".

A New Type of Science

​An expanded type of science is needed that is open to, informed by, and ultimately subordinate to the spiritual wisdom that was passed down to us by our Sages. The new science will build on the accomplishments of positive psychology by studying peoples' strengths rather than their weaknesses; but it will also transcend positive psychology by focusing not only on what we know about peoples' current strengths, but on the enormous strengths that science cannot yet see that people possess. For example, when someone with a long history of severe suicidal depression makes a dramatic turn around in a short time, starts living a happy productive life and years later has had no relapses. Traditional science would essentially ignore this one case. The new science would embrace it and wonder how this cure was possible so it could be replicated. This does not exempt psychotherapists from utilizing evidence-based interventions whenever possible to help their clients, but it does indicate the need for a more thoughtful and humbler spiritually-based approach to the science of psychology – what is quite aptly referred to by Ellen Langer as the Psychology of Possibility.

The Science of Possibility recognizes that there is a world of spirituality in which infinite resources and possibilities exist for helping people. Practitioners who remain open to the world of spirituality are able to help those who do not respond to and improve from established treatment protocols in ways that transcend natural law. Dr. Langer continues: “We all pay lip service to the idea that anything is possible. Yet whenever specific instances of “never-before” happenings present themselves, most of us reject the possibility out of hand. Can limbs regenerate? Can paralysis be reversed? Many of us who otherwise agree that anything is possible will respond ‘no’ almost without thinking. Why don’t we allow in practice what we profess to believe? One answer is that the mindsets we form from everyday experience close us off to possibility. Many psychologists presume memory loss is a natural part of aging. For example, an older person who doesn’t have memory loss is seen as an anomaly instead of becoming a model for how we all might be. In the psychology of possibility, the mission is to see if an outcome is possible first. After that, explanations for why and how can be pursued.”[6]

In spite of the limitations of science it is ethically imperative that psychotherapists make use of what science has shown to be helpful in alleviating human suffering and enables people to flourish and live happy passionate and productive lives. Practitioners that eschew scientific truth and invent their own version of spiritual or "Torah Therapy" often do more harm than good. The fact that there can be no permanent alleviation of human suffering by any method that does not have its source in the Torah, does not mean that the average practitioner, even one well versed in Torah wisdom, is able to find in the vast ocean of Torah wisdom, the best approach for each individual in his specific life-situation.

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[1] Meiselman, Rabbi Moshe. Torah Chazal and Science. Israel Bookshop Publications. 2013. (732-901-3009)

[2] Sefer Avi Avi B’ezri, Parshas Tetzaveh

[3] Langer, Ellen. Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. Ballantine Books. P.12.

[4] Bonelli, R.M., & Koenig, H.G. (2013). Mental Disorders, Religion and Spirituality 1990-2010: A Systemic Evidence-Based Review. Journal of Religion and Health, 52, 657 – 673.

[5] Nievwsma, Jason A., Walser, Robyn D., Hayes, Steven (editors). ACT for Clergy and Pastoral Counselors: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Bridge Psychological and Spiritual Care. 2016.

[6] Langer, Ellen. Counterclockwise. P. 13

© 2020 Zev Ballen, Psy.D, LCSW