Getting to Know Your Self – Soul Centered Self-Esteem

We’ve talked in the past about the amazing sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (In My Heart I Will Build a Sanctuary) and the need to focus our lives and our mitzvah performance on constant awareness and connection to Hashem. The author, Rav Itamar Shwarz explains that if we don’t consistently and consciously focus on the fact that there is a Creator, Who created us, and is constantly exercising His providence on all that happens, we might live a life full of Torah and Mitzvos, but we will, G-d forbid, find that we didn’t achieve their intended purpose of creating a close connection to G-d in this world and the next.

In his third sefer, Da Es Atzmecha (Getting to Know Your Self) Rav Shwarz shifts the focus from Hashem to understanding ourselves. His first major point is that a person must view himself primarily as a soul wearing the garment of the body. He proves that without conscious effort to adopt this view, we will live primarily as bodies that have a soul and identify more with the body than the soul. The result will be that we will not live the amazing Torah prescribed life that a soul-centered perspective brings.

One major application of the soul-centered perspective is self-esteem. Rav Shwarz points out that self-esteem in the world of psychology and in parts of the Torah world is focused on praising the person’s deeds, their character or pointing out that their low self-esteem is based on an illusion. This method is based on the fact that a person is a body with intelligence and emotions and the focus is on what the person does with their facilities.

If a person has the proper soul-centered perspective, they will see that in essence they are a Divine soul as we say each morning “My G-d, the soul You have placed in me is pure”. Our soul is holy, positive and perfectly good and when we identify with this perfection that is our essence, we will automatically attain a positive self-esteem.

Another ramification is that when a person does an aveirah they must still see and identify themselves with their perfect soul. More than getting us to sin, the Yetzer Hara wants lower ourselves and self-esteem after we sin. In addition, the more the person identifies with their essential perfection, the less likely the will come to sin.

Rav Shwarz does an amazing job of bringing very esoteric concepts to a level that we can all understand with very practical examples. As with Bilvavi, Mesillas Yesharim and any Mussar classic, the key is not just to read it, but to keep on reviewing it (with the author’s suggested exercises) so that we can begin to internalize it. It has recently been published in English and I highly recommend you purchase it, as there are significant sections added that are not available in the translation on the web site.

Rav Schwarz will be giving a one day intensive workshop in Woodmere on Labor Day in Hebrew. He still has some speaking slots available on his US visit – see here.

24 comments on “Getting to Know Your Self – Soul Centered Self-Esteem

  1. Steg,

    And if it were “only” the main purpose for creation, or “only” a major purpose for our creation, l’mai nafka mina? A distinction without a difference.

  2. Another example of this is the fact that we ask Hashem in davening not to be delivered into the hands of “nisayon,” a test. But this tefillah seems to suggest the opposite of the well known fact that the whole purpose of our being created is to face tests in avodas Hashem and then pass them.

    Dixie Yid:

    Maybe that’s not the whole purpose of our being created, then.

  3. “I can’t believe that R’ Svei said that.”

    I should have been more careful and not mentioned R. Svei’s name, as it was something that sticks in my mind from an Agudah Convention many years ago, but my memory may have distorted it!

    I wrote above that I personally enjoy reading certain secular psychology books, and there is good in them. However, I also recognize that that others may have a problem with such readings, and there are certainly valid concerns; hence, I mentioned the “dangers” and the benefit of a mentor.

    This is not a new issue, as Touro and YU both have psychology departments, and there are rabbonim who give guidance to frum mental-health professionals(who have studied secular sources), as well as vice-versa, professionals who guide rabbonim.

  4. Abe, what about content that differs from the general Orthodox hashkafa? (not specific to one Rav or community or “stream”)

    Anyway, it would be more productive to educate us in some valid hashkafa than to try to cut off all access to secular reading material.

  5. I remember R. Elya Svei saying that one of the problems of reading secular material is that people don’t even *know* what’s against hashkafa when reading it.

    “Against hashkafa” ??? I can’t believe that R’ Svei said that. There is not just one allowable Torah philosphy in the world. I know that FFBs and BTs alike want to believe that there is one “right” way to think, but that’s not the case. We are not slaves to one dogmatic belief. We have brains. Shall the anti-rationalists start burning sifrei Rambam? In hashkafa, certainly there is elu v’elu.

  6. On more plug for buying GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF…
    You could just print out the first 10 chapters and put them in a really uncool three ring binder and shlep it around (like I did in the summer of 2008), but the book is much more compact!!!

  7. Steg,

    Back to your first comment, I understand it was just one small point about the post but I wanted to interject something else regarding your question. Oftentimes, in davening we speak according to what we perceive according to normal human understanding of the world, rather than Divine truth.

    Another example of this is the fact that we ask Hashem in davening not to be delivered into the hands of “nisayon,” a test. But this tefillah seems to suggest the opposite of the well known fact that the whole purpose of our being created is to face tests in avodas Hashem and then pass them. The tefillah seems to ask something which is contrary to our very purpose in creation! The answer is that we’re davening not to be tested according to the normal human attitude towards tests. WE don’t want to be tested because we want to stay faithful to Hashem and are afraid we won’t pass them!

    Here too, in Elokai Neshama, we’re speaking from the normal human perspective which unfortunately identifies the “I” with the body, and the “soul” as something inside it.

  8. “He states that he has spent his life learning Torah. ”

    That’s a valid point. Even Dr. Twerski recognizes it.

    On 5/6/07 “FKM” quoted from Dr Twerski in Hamodia:

    Q. On several occasions, you have recommended that the reader should consult a daas Torah. What or who constitutes a daas Torah? Furthermore, since you are a rabbi yourself, why can’t you give the opinion as daas Torah?”

    “A. Although a rabbi may be authorized to give rulings on questions that can be answered by halacha, that does not necessarily qualify him to render an opinion on matters on which there are no halachic guidelines. In such cases, one should be guided by Torah hashkafa.

    There are principles of Torah hashkafa that can serve as guidelines to all situations in life. However, a person giving an opinion must be certain that his opinion is based on pure Torah concepts. This can only be someone whose entire thought process are the result of Torah knowledge.

    I have studied psychology, and it is possible that that my thinking may have been influenced by psychology. Even if I had adequate Torah knowledge, I could not be considered a daas Torah because I have been subject to concepts that did not derive from Torah.

    Therefore, daas Torah is a talmid chacham who was never influenced by anything other than Torah.”

    Again, I’m no expert to render an opinion, but note “FKM’s” comments,who is a ben Torah and no liberal(!) He suggests an answer on his blog, ayin sham for his complete resolution.

    “If it isn’t yet obvious, my bewilderment stems from the fact that Rabbi Dr. Twerski is quite a prolific author of Torah thought. Besides the “Jewish self-help” genre that he has generated single-handedly, he has written extensive commentaries on Torah-only texts like the Siddur and Pirkei Avos, and has entire books that give a detailed outline to what he apparently considers pure Torah hashkafa.

    (To make things a little personal, “Let Us Make Man” and “I am I” were life-changing books for me as a teen-ager, and I have built large chunks of my Torah hashkafa upon those books.

    Now he’s telling me that those books cannot contain dass Torah??)

  9. Just to re-emphasize, I’m saying that it may be a case of Elu V’elu. Belvai may work for some, and Dr. Twerski can inspire others, even if B’lavavi disagrees.

    Someone answered a question about secular vs. “frum” self-esteem on Rabbi Horowitz’s site as follows(“Yetzer’s Playing Field”, Comment # 60):

    ” See “Twerski on Spirituality,” chapter 22, “Humility.” Rabbi Twerski explains the notion that the frum concept of self-esteem–and humility–derives from the reality that we are created betzelem Elokim, with great spiritual potential. As Yoni pointed out in 59, this perspective turns on the expectation of what we are capable of becoming as a result of our spiritual constitution.

    I think it is imporant to note that there exist in the non-frum/jewish world plenty of spiritually oriented individuals who share this elevated view of humanity. And so your quest for a distinction between a secular and frum view of self-esteem relates to an orientation which may not necessarily be externally apparent. In “Happiness and the Human Spirit,” Rabbi Twerski focuses extensively on the idea that spirituality is not limited to the practice of Torah and mitzvos. Rather, spirituality is about becoming the best we can be–“to exercise all the qualities and traits that are unique to humankind and that give us identity as human beings.”

  10. Shades of Grey, the main difference b/t Rabbi/Dr. Twerski, Miriam Adahan vs R Shwartz is that the author of the Bilvavi series, comes from a total Torah background. He states that he has spent his life learning Torah. Both the above mentioned authors have professional backgrounds in mental health.

    As Mark alluded to, in Da Es Atzmecha, the author mentions that most modern day writing on the psychology of self-esteem address the body/physical behavior…the body.

    The following is from Chapter 4 of GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF:
    The problem is that secular psychology does not draw its knowledge from the Torah, which deals with the soul.

    Torah psychology is based on the knowledge of the holy neshamah (soul) that is hewn from under Hashem’s “Throne of Glory.” With the Divine power of the soul, a person can cope with all of his personal problems. Therefore, we will deal with this issue based on the approach we have been presenting from the beginning of this series – man has a body and soul, and the body is only a garment over the soul, and through the light of the soul, one can fix the problems of the garment. This does not happen through external persuasion from the intellect, or from attitudes picked up from one’s friends, but from one’s own inner light. When the neshamah truly gives off its light, it rectifies the garment and all of its faults.

    I hope this explains it, a bit.

  11. “Bilvavi makes the point that much self-esteem psychology comes from non-Torah sources and that for a Jew the proper approach is the one he outlines which he emphasizes is strictly from Torah sources.”

    I don’t have time to read it now, but that’s certainly a valid point.

    I saw the comparison to the books I mentioned as an interesting way of framing the question. Unquestionably, those frum authors, also have expertise, and can offer what is kosher to take out from secular psycholgy.

    Just as an point of comparison, Nathaniel Branden is considered the guru of the contemporary self-esteem movement. Yet, his self-esteem movement has been criticized from *secular* sources as well.

    OTHH, while I am no expert, I have enjoyed and gained certain insights from Branden. I suspect(just a guess) that Dr. Twerski has also learned from him. Like any secular book(even reading the NYT for example !), I would be cautious recommending them to anyone.

    I remember R. Elya Svei saying that one of the problems of reading secular material is that people don’t even *know* what’s against hashkafa when reading it. Obviously people have to deal with such things–and one is lucky if they have a Torah mentor to discuss questions.

    Back to the topic, I suspect that the difference between Bilvai versus Adahan et al, might also be in the extent of what life situation one is dealing with. Some sitautions might require professional advice, not reading a Mussar Sefer, or reading even a frum “Self-Help” book, as insightful as they may be! In such case, the secular sources on psychology might have merit, Bilvai’s point notwithstanding. Obviously, ask a Rav, Nefesh organization, etc., for guidance in such cases.

    Again, I’m no expert on any of this, just thinking aloud.

  12. Great post, Mark.
    The whole “second half” of the published GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF is IMHO worth the purchase. In it, R Schwartz briefly expands on R Dessler’s concept on Givers and Takers. I’m actually finishing up a post on it tonight. :)

  13. Shades of Gray,

    Bilvavi makes the point that much self-esteem psychology comes from non-Torah sources and that for a Jew the proper approach is the one he outlines which he emphasizes is strictly from Torah sources.

  14. Mark,

    Sounds like an excellent Sefer.

    How would you relate the concept of Bilvavi to some of the frum psychology books, such as those by Drs. Twerski, Adahan, and most recently by Dr. Dovid Leiberman(“Real Power”)?

    Is there overlap in some ideas, with Bilvavi being more of a Mussar Sefer?

  15. Mark:

    Although you weren’t going so far, i have actually heard it expressed in absolute terms — ‘you are not your body, you’re your soul’.

    What do you mean by “soul qualities” and “proper soul-oriented focus”? The tapping-into that you describe in the post, it would seem to me, would work whether we see the soul as 100%, 75%, 50%, or even 1% of our identity as individuals. As long as some piece of us is ḥeleḳ Eloa- mima‘al, taking that piece and using it to affect the entire whole should work.

  16. For our soul to have its proper effect on our body, we have to value the soul appropriately.

  17. Steg, not “only” a soul, rather “primarily” a soul. I think that’s a pretty standard understanding. The issue is do we understand and are we focused on our soul qualities, and do we live our life with the proper soul-oriented focus.

  18. Isn’t the perspective that we’re “really” our soul, and our body is just “clothing” for it, contradicted by the very prayer you quote?

    Elo-ai, neshama shenatata bi tehora hi’
    God, the soul you placed in me, it is pure…

    And it goes on like that, throughout the entire brakha — my self is my body, “me”; the soul is a gift, external (“it”) to my identity, that God places inside me, that it’s my job to keep pure.

    I’m not saying that i believe that either — i like to think that identity is a combination of all pieces — soul and body unified, like the mashal about the blind man and the man who can’t walk teaming up to raid the king’s orchard. But i do think that Elo-ai Neshama is a good counterpoint to the “i am only my soul” message.

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