The Hebrew Bible and the West

When I was an undergraduate student at MIT quite a while ago, I took a four-semester humanities program called Foundations of Western Civilization. It absorbed and fascinated me. However, I noticed that the course material jumped from ancient Greek and a few Roman writers to St. Augustine and other relatively early Christian writers and then on to thinkers of the Middle Ages. I wondered what happened to the wonderful narratives of the books of the Hebrew Bible, what Jews call the Tanach and Christians refer to as the Old Testament.

Being inquisitive, I asked my quite excellent class teacher why we had not covered some biblical counterparts to the Greek stories and narratives. After all, was it not the interaction of those two cultures first, and subsequently Roman, Christian, and European cultures that provided the foundations of Western civilization?

He responded, somewhat sheepishly I thought at the time, that the faculty assumed we students already knew the narratives and stories of the Bible. But did we? First of all, I was not exactly sure which Bible he was talking about -- the older or the newer, or both. Secondly, I knew some, but not much about biblical narratives and thinking, and did not think most students did, raised in contemporary generally secular environs.

Being a student at the time, and having no agenda, I kept my doubts to myself, until recently, when I encountered the writings and thinking of Professor Kalman Kaplan (a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago) and his colleague Dr. Paul Cantz (of Adler University) who seem to completely challenge the assumptions of the designers of my long-ago liberal arts course. These scholars point out that there was a distinct Hebrew-Jewish tradition at the same time and in opposition to the Greek thinkers of roughly the two centuries before the Common Era.

And it is this argument that Dr. Kaplan and Dr. Paul Cantz make in their new book titled Biblical Psychotherapy: Reclaiming Scriptural Narratives for Positive Psychology and Suicide Prevention

Their basic argument proceeds as follows: “Much of modern mental health is implicitly or explicitly based on ancient Greek narratives (e.g., Oedipus, Electra, and Narcissus). Yet the ancient Greek world, despite its unquestioned brilliance, was fatalistic, depressed, fearful of change, and profoundly hopeless. Suicide was typically tolerated and even tacitly encouraged as an escape from a highly-constrictive life. The biblical world, equally brilliant, offers a diametrically contrasting approach, emphasizing free will, optimism (though not naïveté), hopefulness, and an embracement of the future. Since life itself is freeing, suicide and self-mutilation, though expressly forbidden in rabbinic writings, were seldom addressed.” 

Those are strong words; but are Kaplan and Cantz correct? Well, their analysis of the frequency of suicide in Greek tragic plays versus the Hebrew Bible certainly suggests that they may be on to something important. They enumerate and discuss sixteen suicides and self-mutilations in the twenty-six surviving tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. Countless others occurred in actual Greek and Roman societies.

In contrast, the book points out only six suicides are found in the Hebrew Scriptures, while numerous suicide-prevention narratives exist. To combat the suicide epidemic with narratives implicitly based on ancient Greek narratives and pessimism is akin to treating a patient sick with influenza with medicine from a spoon infected by the virus itself.

But the book does not stop there. In many ways it is only a preamble to the main thrust of these men’s work. How do we use biblical narratives to clinically treat suicidal patients exhibiting seven classical Greek syndromes (fourteen are described, two per syndrome), and then treat these patients with therapy based on biblical narratives matched on the same evidence-based risk factor.

These can be delineated as follows:

1) Overcoming feelings of isolation --- Elijah versus Ajax;

2) Overcoming feelings of meaninglessness -- Job compared to Zeno;

3) Overcoming feelings of being an outcast or refugee -- David distinguished from Coriolanus;

4) Overcoming inability to be oneself with others -- Jonah contrasted with Narcissus;  

5) Overcoming insecurity of being adopted -- Moses differentiated from Oedipus;

6) Overcoming the empty nest syndrome -- Rebecca compared to Phaedra;

7) Overcoming an enmeshed (incestuous) family background -- Ruth and Antigone.

This is a book well worth reading by professional and layperson alike, and likewise by those who consider themselves religious and those secular.

As Tevye in the stage adaption of Fiddler on the Roof sings out: L’Chaim, L’Chaim, To Life!!!