Male Therapist, Female Client: A Torah Perspective

The greatest rabbis of today say it’s forbidden for a woman to see a male therapist or a man to see a female therapist, says Dr. Michael Bunzel, head of Psychiatry at Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center.

In the past, rabbis applied the ‘doctor’s heter’ [heter-miktzoah] to inter-gender therapy, i.e. that it’s permissible to see a doctor of the opposite gender if they are the best professional to treat your medical condition. But Dr. Bunzel explains that rabbis understand that therapy today involves an emotionally intimate relationship between therapist and client, and they are firm that this relationship is forbidden between men and women.

Dr. Michael Bunzel addressing the Charedi Therapists Organization Conference in Bnei Barak

Dr. Michael Bunzel addressing the Charedi Therapists Organization Conference. (Photo credit: me. Sorry it’s not that great!)

Dr. Bunzel made these comments to the audience (including me) at last Tuesday’s Charedi Therapists’ Organization Conference, held at Mayanei Yeshua in Bnei Barak. I found the event to be worthwhile and well attended  (the women’s side was more packed than the men’s, as to be expected).

Though I personally don’t see women clients one-on-one in my therapy practice, I’m not out to judge other professionals. I am no posek and this blog is not the place for halachic edicts but I thought Dr. Bunzel’s comments would be interesting to a wider public. There are exceptions to this general rule, and Dr. Bunzel encourages anyone who is considering seeing a therapist or client of the opposite gender to discuss this issue with their rabbi.

Or maybe you can contact Dr. Bunzel himself. He has made it his business to approach many leading rabbis, from both the charedi and dati-leumi sectors in order to gain clarity on this question.

Dr. Bunzel’s is going to head Mayanei Yeshua’s new mental health center, currently under construction, which will be the first in Israel to target the charedi population. I’m sure we all agree that it’s sorely needed.

The plans include a garden and a swimming pool on the roof! It sounds a lot more comfortable than other psychiatric facilities.

Do Charedim Have Feelings?

Another incident from the conference stands out in my mind. The head of a major mental health outpatient clinic located in a charedi population center told us that he did not think that psycho-dynamic therapy would be effective with charedi clients because people in our community are unable to explore their feelings on a deep level.

Yes, you read that right!

Apparently I was not the only one offended by his remarks, as several people made protest. One woman mounted the podium and declared herself a charedi therapist successfully using the psycho-dynamic model with charedi clients. She explained that she was a member of a charedi women’s psycho-dynamic supervision group.

I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but this person highlighted one of the reasons why conferences like this are important. The needs of our community are unique in some ways and we ourselves are the best people to educate others about this.

It also demonstrated the sad reality that mental health professionals sometimes carry disturbing stigma against the people they are supposedly trying to help. I have seen this all too often in my work supporting men who have received a mental health diagnosis. If you follow this blog, you will notice that it’s an issue I will address often, because I passionately believe that a diagnosis does not have to limit a person. On the contrary, a mental health disorder can become an opportunity for growth and change through good therapy.

In this regard, it doesn’t matter if you’re charedi or not. Some things are true for all of us.

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