Healing, Jewish mystical-style

Patients of therapist Estelle Frankel get more than just tea and sympathy in their sessions. Sometimes they get a Bible tale.

As a lifelong student of Jewish mysticism, Frankel finds some patients benefit from a Chassidic tale, a myth from the Zohar (the classic kabbalistic text) or a retelling of the Exodus story. That’s because she views such stories, as well as her patients’ own life histories, as divine.

“I often feel when listening to someone tell their story, that I’m studying a sacred text,” says the Albany-based therapist. “When people start to view their story as sacred, it’s a holy experience in itself.”

Frankel recently published her first book, “Sacred Therapy.” Part autobiography, part spiritual guidebook, the book is the culmination of 30 years as a healer and teacher.

“I found the two were coming together,” she says. “People would come out of my Jewish mysticism classes and say they were healing. In therapy, I would hear a voice in my head saying, ‘Share this story; it will help.'”

Frankel does not believe introducing a spiritual element into a therapy session crosses a line. In fact, she points to dozens of recent studies that show a link between spirituality and mental health.

“There’s a revival of interest in spirituality,” she says, ” particularly in psychology. But there hasn’t been much written on the integration of Jewish mysticism and psychology. My book makes the teachings friendly and real.”

One way she did that was to include stories from her personal life, both the good and the bad. Frankel is quite open about her failed first marriage and other bumps on the road to her spiritual evolution.

“It does feel a little vulnerable,” she acknowledges, “but we all have our own broken pieces. It’s through them that we break through to a place of connection. The universe itself is a shattered vessel.”

Despite the phenomenal popularity of Kabbalah these days (you can buy a bottle of “holy” Kabbalah water online at $25 a pop), Frankel refuses to jump on the bandwagon, even though she is schooled in kabbalistic thought. Instead, she judiciously teaches those aspects of Kabbalah that advance her aim of emotional healing.

Says Frankel, “I’m interested in the myths of the Kabbalah and their therapeutic value, but I agree with the Orthodox that you can’t separate Judaism from the practice of Judaism. The mitzvot are the way we bring the Infinite into our lives.”

Having lived much of her life within the Orthodox community, Frankel understands that commitment. She discovered Jewish mysticism at age 16, long before Madonna ever strapped on tefillin, and moved to Israel as a young woman to delve into it further.

After nearly a decade in Israel, Frankel parted ways with Orthodoxy, troubled by what she calls “sexism and ethnocentrism” She went on to study other traditions, from Buddhism to Sufism, but she says she never left Judaism.

Back in the United States, she studied to become a psychotherapist and went on to launch a thriving practice. Over the years, she noted how for some patients sharing Jewish teachings seemed to break open the therapeutic process. “This is what gave me the courage to do sacred narrative therapy,” she says. “It led to breakthroughs where people were stuck.

She also says this approach isn’t for everybody: “I don’t bring Jewish teaching into every session. I only do it where it’s part of the explicit contract of why a person sought me out. I would never bring religion into a therapy session if there weren’t an interest or desire.”

It isn’t only patients she hopes to reach with her book; it’s colleagues as well. As a faculty member at Chochmat HaLev and Lehrhaus Judaica, Frankel believes her approach could work for other therapists, even those who prefer to bring in their own spiritual traditions.

To sweeten the offer, she is offering continuing education credits for licensed marriage and family therapists and clinical social workers who study her book in an online course. But most of her energy goes into her patients.

“My work,” she says, “is about helping people appreciate the healing contained in Jewish sources. Its spiritual practices are rich and valuable. Spirit heals, and with a larger spiritual perspective, people can come to see themselves through God’s eyes, not their parents’ eyes.”

Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness” by Estelle Frankel (304 pages, Shambhala Publications, $24.95).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.