Torah and Psychology


Moshe Ben-Chaim


Reader: I have read a number of the articles on your site. I must applaud your work. While I don't think I agree with all of it, many points that are made are truly excellent and seem true. It appears that you are honestly seeking the truth, and I pray that you find it in all of your searches.


My question to you is, why do you use psychology in so many of your explanations? I have not studied psychology to any considerable extent, so I may be ignorant of its supposed scope and predictions, yet it does not seem to me to be a factor in meaningful behavior as such. Allow me to explain myself. As I see it, most people make rational decisions. When they do not, the decisions are either following a habit or falling prey to the instincts. Now, one could call this a natural human thing, or the result of his failure in his use of free will. This summarizes human action. How is this psychology? Why should it affect the statements of the Rabbis or the mitzvot of the Torah? Again, this may be a question asked out of pure ignorance of what is meant by psychology. Still, as I see it, why should one use an explanation from psychology as opposed to the explanation of behavior given by the Rabbis and the simple observations that I summarized above?



Mesora: Your error is your ignorance that Chazal were in fact most adept at psychology.


Man includes intellect as the source of perception and analysis. With it, he identifies concepts, judges their credibility by comparing them with his truths, and then incorporates them into his thinking as new truths, or fallacies. When it comes to acting upon such truths, man then engages another faculty known as freewill. He may then act in accordance with such accepted truths, or be swayed by his other faculty, which we call the instincts, emotions, or the "yetzer hara".  This part of man, the instincts, include a multitude of types; anger, jealousy, pride, hate, love, embarrassment, etc. The area of study of how these emotions work is what psychology addresses.


The Rabbis desired to know and teach the true understanding of man, and what God desired for man's lifestyle, i.e., "the good". Therefore they studied human behavior in their own terms, referred to us as "psychology".


The Torah is a perfect system for man to achieve the happiest and most fulfilling lifestyle. For man to be happy, he must engage his intellect in study as his core and essential activity. But to do so, man must conquer all his emotions so his decisions are not knee jerk reactions to his feelings, but the result of analysis of what is best for him. The Torah and the Rabbis discuss many personalities and prescriptions for our behavior, so as to teach us of man's makeup (psychologically) for us to be aware of our own faculties. Knowledge of our psychological faculties is essential if we are to perfect ourselves.


We read of Joseph cunningly advising Pharaoh, about Avraham's dealings with Avimelech, with Jacob's bribing of Esav, and of Esther's discussions with Achashverosh. Thereby, G-d teaches us what faculties are at work in man, and how a truly wise person will deal with such emotions, internally, and with others.


Psychology is endorsed by G-d's Torah accounts, Torah laws, and in the Rabbis’ sayings. These are all essential areas of study to learn about ourselves so our lives are guided not by emotional impulses, but by rational considerations.