Ask clinical psychologist Marsha Mirkin, and she’ll tell you that the essential psychology textbook was written more than 3,000 years before the birth of pioneering analyst Sigmund Freud. Freud may have deemed religion “a mass delusion,” but Mirkin contends that the Divine parables of the Torah can provide unrivaled insights into human behavior. In her recent book, “The Women Who Danced By The Sea: Finding ourselves in the stories of our biblical foremothers,” (Monkfish Book Publishing), she parallels the struggles of biblical figures with case studies from her years as a clinician.An infertile Sarah finds herself racked with jealousy and feelings of inferiority when she faces a pregnant Hagar; the tempered pace at which Rebecca approaches her romantic relationship with Isaac allows him time to heal from his near-death at the hands of his father; after 400 years of bondage, the Israelites are overjoyed at the prospect of freedom, yet fear the unknown, and surely treacherous, landscape ahead. Mirkin translates Torah tales like these into modern lessons on power dynamics and empathy in relationships, and resistance to potentially positive changes.
Mental health professionals have long eschewed exploring spirituality and religion within the realm of traditional psychotherapy. “The scientific and research focus of the field made it hard to bring God, and belief, and faith into the picture,” Mirkin said. But there are signs that the church-state-like barrier between psychotherapy and spirituality is collapsing. Recently Mirkin gave the keynote address on “Struggle, Relationship, and Spiritual Connection” at the Boston-based conference on spirituality and religion sponsored by the Harvard Medical School-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance.
At the conference, physicians, nurses and therapists could receive continuing education credits towards renewing their professional licenses.“Ten or fifteen years ago, all of this wasn’t talked about in mental health, and it certainly wouldn’t help you renew your license,” said Mirkin, 51, a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. “As baby boomers come of age, they have started to take religion and spirituality more seriously.”
Dr. David Pelcovitz, professor of psychology and education at Yeshiva University, agreed that, until recently, psychotherapists were uncomfortable probing the nexus of religion and science.“Freud saw religion as some mass obsessive, compulsive neurosis,” Pelcovitz said. “Now the pendulum has swung and people are more open.
More and more, there’s a recognition of that the rational goes hand-in-hand with the spiritual.”Mirkin first became interested in Torah study about 12 years ago when her daughters, now 19 and 16, began Hebrew school at a Reform temple. Traditional interpretations of the Torah text, while they ascribed spiritual qualities to women, often portrayed them as temptresses, tricksters or rendered nameless and invisible. Mirkin saw a need for more progressive commentaries about the women of the Bible, many of whom she saw as compassionate, brave, bold and heroic. “I read the stories through the lens of a psychologist and someone who studies Torah, and I was able to make the connection,” she said. She wrote Hebrew school curricula based on her findings before beginning to teach “Torah for Psychotherapists” to mental health professionals at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. Four years ago she took a hiatus from her private practice to devote herself full-time to lecturing and conducting Biblical psychology workshops for a mass audience.
Ruth Segaloff, a forensic social worker in Boston, has participated in nearly a dozen of Mirkin’s workshops. Segaloff, who works with foster children, said Mirkin’s interpretation of the Book of Esther was particularly powerful. “Esther is making a difficult decision, even though she knows there’s a cost,” she said. “It’s about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” She has recalled the story when she’s had to advise the courts to remove a child from a household. “It’s a hard decision, because you know you are going to hurt someone,” Segaloff said.The title of Mirkin’s book is a reference to the bible’s Miriam, who, timbrel in hand, danced after the Israelites made their way safely across the Sea of Reeds, the same sea where their enemies met their demise. “Miriam’s message was coded in her timbrel,” Mirkin wrote. “ ‘Dance, sing!’ the music cries out, ‘Do what finds favor in God’s eyes. When there is a choice of life and death, choose life. At inspiring moments, celebrate the moment, be grateful for it, find the blessing in it and recognize God in our celebration.’ ”