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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2008
Number 68
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

On Biblical Personality

By Matthew Schwartz

“Biblical Stories for Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Sourcebook,”
by Matthew Schwartz and Kalman Kaplan, Haworth Press.

“The Fruit of Her Hands: Psychology of the Biblical Woman,” by Matthew Schwartz and Kalman Kaplan, Eerdmans. 

Menorah Review provides a congenial and unique format for discussion on new books in Judaica including, in this instance, some of my thoughts on two books of which I am co-author.   

An American college class that deals with the Hebrew Bible typically includes a heterogeny of Christians, Jews, Moslems and non-believers. A conscientious teacher will hope to avoid insulting students or forcing a narrow argumentative approach on them. In my classroom, I present to students the varying points of view from the most devout and traditional to the most radically untraditional and tell them to make up their own minds. In these two books, we two authors have not argued a doctrinal position as to the origins of the Hebrew Bible. We each have our own ideas as to the authoring of the Bible, and this issue is indeed very important not only to its readers but to world history.  However, this is not our interest here. We prefer to engage our readers as we do our students on the common ground of the Hebrew Bible as offering a unique and significant wisdom.   

Much of the direction of the study of Bible in universities today is in the scientific mode, seeking to define the Bible in terms of archaeology and higher criticism. This is true even in some religious seminaries. Popular books like “The Da Vinci Code” have helped to spur a certain cynicism toward traditional Christianity, and scholarly works like Professor Bart Ehrman’s have hit the best seller list with their questioning of the accuracy of  New Testament texts and their accounts of alternate gospels known to the ancients and rediscovered only recently. 

My colleague, Kalman Kaplan, a psychologist, and I, a historian, have published two books(“Biblical Stories for Psychotherapy: A Sourcebook,” 2004, and “The Fruit of Her Hands: The Psychology of Biblical Woman,” 2007), which follow a literary and psychological approach. The Hebrew Bible is a treasury of human portraits which offers important insights into human personality and history. Our first book argues that modern Freudian based psychology, while offering very significant ideas, is heavily dependent on a view of people that it derives from Greek mythology and theater. Study of characters like Oedipus, Electra and Narcissus draws one toward the tragedians’ view of people, in which one can seek some degree of self-understanding, but in doing so can destroy himself, as Oedipus and Narcissus actually do Devotion to a seemingly noble ideal will involve errors in both understanding and in human relationships that can lead inexorably to suicide as with Antigone, and heroic achievement too must lead surely to death, as with Achilles. The high incidence of suicide and child exposure in both Graeco-Roman literature and history expresses the tone of Greek thought and life. 

The Hebrew Bible offers a very different view of people. Life is not essentially tragic or capricious, but instead has important meaning. One could sit down to a banquet with Abraham or Moses and feel secure that food as well as the conversation will be both tasty and kosher. If one sits to dine with the family of Agamemnon, or even with an Olympian god, one can never be sure that he will not be served poison or even the flesh of his own relatives. People can better themselves by learning and by experience. They should try to be virtuous and God-fearing, not heroic. They must choose life over death, and suicide is not an acceptable option, as it was for so many Greeks and Romans.   

We present 58 stories of Biblical characters, relying freely on the insights of both rabbinic commentators and modern Psychology. How did Biblical people deal with challenges like illness, disappointment, handicaps, freedom, self-esteem, child raising, marriage problems or ageing? We provide also a brief psychological commentary to each story, explaining how the story could be used in actual cases of counseling. We propose that it is high time to develop a psychotherapy which makes extensive use of Biblical personality models.  

The Hebrew Bible is a book of teaching which follows a path very different from the mythological. This is a point recognized by interpreters of the Bible as diverse as Professor Yehezkel Kaufmann and Rabbi Zalman Sorotskin. The Hebrew Bible is for us neither preachy nor rigidly didactic. Its strength for our purposes in this book rests in its psychological insight and its positive, life-oriented, non-mythological, monotheistic attitude.

“The Fruit of Her Hands: A Psychology of Biblical Woman” centers on the theme that Biblical women can have a strong grasp of their place in God’s plan for the unfolding of history. These women feel that history has a beginning and an ultimate goal and that their contribution to that process is essential. A woman can act with wisdom, strength and courage in pursuing those aims. Her relationships with other people and with the daily world are tempered by her own higher purpose. Part of the Biblical woman’s function is expressed in the Genesis II term “help meet opposite” which, translated from King James English into our own, has the connotation of a “suitable help in loyal opposition.” She must meld her independence of thought and act with her genuine support of others, all this set in the context of seeking to fulfill her historical God-given potential and the world’s.

Certainly not every woman in the Hebrew Bible totally succeeds in these tasks. Some fail badly and some are thoroughly rotten characters, e.g. Jezebel or Zeresh, but the best of them score very high and enjoy lives full of purpose. “The Fruit of Her Hands” follows the format of the earlier book, offering portraits of over 50 Biblical women, some good some evil but all memorable. Sarah, Rebecca and Ruth are obvious choices. Rahab, Achsa, Rizpah and Gomer are less obvious but hardly less interesting. The Biblical woman contrasts strongly with heroines of Greek myth and of later Western literature, who seem unable to define themselves other than in terms of  relationships with men be it fathers, husbands, lovers, brothers or sons,  and the relationships are typically unhealthy.  Flaubert’s Mme. Bovary destroys herself and her family in meaningless affairs. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina too abandons her family for an affair and ends by throwing herself under a moving train. In the Greek drama, Iphigenia is offered by her father as a sacrifice, Medea murders her sons, Jocasta, mother/wife of Oedipus, hangs herself, and Pandora is a pretty messenger sent by Zeus in a nasty trick to bring misery to the world.  These women are left frustrated, unfulfilled and often destructive.       

Menorah Review’s format perhaps will allow a personal note. My colleague, Kaplan, is a professor of both clinical and social psychology with many years of experience. We have worked together for 25 years on a variety of scholarly projects. We are very different in our training, our skills, our lifestyles and our personalities, but I respect Kal’s intellectual honesty and openness, and we share recognition of the beauty and depth of the Hebrew Bible as world class literature. We have found that two working together can accomplish more than the mere sum of two parts.

Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor

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