TITLE: A Biblical Injunction for Orthodox Jewish Couples

AUTHOR: Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn, M.S., Ph.D. Candidate, Nova Southeastern University; Clinical Director, CHABAD Family Counseling Services, Aventura, FL.

HOMEWORK: a “noticing” task

OBJECTIVE: to help orthodox Jewish couples understand their conflicts in a different way.


To systemic family therapists with a social constructionist (McNamee & Gergen, 1992) orientation, an arguing couple’s problem is not in any identified individual. Thus, it is not necessary for the therapist to assess who might be right or wrong. The clients most likely do not see it this way. Part of their problem may be the lack of flexibility which has dictated that one person must be right and the other, wrong (Hudson & O’Hanlon, 1991). Their limited number of choices (von Foerster, 1984)–either I am right or you are right–boxes them into this corner. The notion that a shift in their perspective (O’Hanlon & Wilk, 1987) can allow both members of the couple to be right is an incredible idea for a warring couple new to social constructionist models of therapy. A social constructionist framework therefore seems to be a vital basis for marital therapy.

Because social constructionist models of therapy also underscore the importance of speaking to clients in language that makes sense to them (Fisch, Weakland, & Segal, 1982), such models lend themselves to utilizing the Bible as an authoritative resource when working with religious couples (Hirschhorn & Rambo, 1996). Christian counselors have discovered this powerful tool and have applied it using rational-emotive therapy (Johnson, 1993; Young, 1984), cognitive-behavioral therapy (Tan, 1987), gestalt therapy (Cowart, 1980), specially created Biblical models (Carter, 1980), and family therapy (Salinger, 1979). Within the latter, Christian counselors have discussed the ethics of paradoxical interventions (Deschenes & Shepperson, 1983), and analyzed the healing properties of the language of the psalms (Meyer, 1974).

Jewish counselors working with an orthodox population primarily have a psychodynamic orientation (Strean, 1994). Exceptions are systemic family therapists who may (Bilu & Witzum, 1994; Shulem, 1988; Wieselberg, 1992) or may not be orthodox (Friedman, 1985; Nichols, 1995; Nichols, 1996), but who have not drawn on the influence of the Bible as interventive resource. Orthodox therapists who do rely heavily on religious doctrine for authority, such as Radcliffe (1988), often use a tone of gentle coaxing to obtain improved behavior. For example, she cajoles: “A woman must try not to resent the fact that her husband does not always live up to her expectations and standards in his personal conduct. (She herself no doubt disappoints him on occasion as well!)” (p. 16). Her premise, that the husband somehow fails his wife, is no different than that of her clients. She does not promote a meaningful difference in their outlook (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974). It appears that therapists working with orthodox clients have not taken advantage of the power and flexibility of a social constructionist approach in combination with the authority of the Bible as resource.

A social constructionist application of systemic family therapy has the potential to find the systemic wisdom in the couple’s behavior such that neither has to be wrong and neither has to view the spouse as wrong. A Biblical injunction bolsters the shift in position. The intervention thus gains its power from: (1) the fact that nobody is wrong and nobody has to change because the clients are doing exactly what G-d expects; (2) the potency of the Bible as authority; (3) speaking the client’s language (Fisch, Weakland, & Segal, 1982). The intervention described below has worked well with orthodox Jewish clients and those with traditional views of the Bible. I would also invite my Christian colleagues to examine the possibilities of adapting the assignment below to their clients as well.


The intervention occurs in two steps. First is a statement meant to produce an immediate context shift (O’Hanlon & Wilk, 1987). It not only allows, but encourages, opposing views. To my orthodox Jewish clients, I make all Biblical references in Hebrew as follows:

You know where it says in Bereshis [Genesis] that G-d needed to create for Adam an aizer k’negdo, a lot of English translations are happy to call this creation “a helpmeet,” but of course we know that “k’negdo” means “as if against him” (Zlotowitz, 1977, pp. 104-105). Why would G-d want that?–Obviously, the wife is supposed to complement her husband (Hirsch, 1867/1973, pp. 65-66); her job is to bring some perspective into the discussion. So, of course you (as I face the wife) are supposed to think differently! That’s what G-d wants! Two opposing views bring depth to the discussion and produce balance in the relationship.

The partners generally stop short their arguments with the most surprised expressions on their faces. Often they break out into giggles. They always listen attentively at this point to what comes next.

This generally leads to further discussion about the couple’s complementarity. Very often, one of them realizes that at least one of the unwelcome characteristics in the other was precisely what was attractive about the other in the first place. This conversation lays the groundwork for a homework assignment based on de Shazer’s first session formula task (1985) in which he asks clients to “observe what happens in your . . . relationship that you want to continue to have happen” (p. 137). By having clients notice what they like about their situation, the therapist produces a hopeful mindset and positive focus.

Here is the “Mrs. K’negdo (Against)” assignment:

Between now and next week, I would like you to notice Martin’s behaviors that have been really annoying to you until now. I would like you to ask yourself whether they might not just be opposite characteristics from yours, characteristics you were once attracted to for that very reason and which make you “Mrs. K’negdo.”

In this version of the noticing task, clients are directed to focus on their previous positive assessment of what now appear to be annoying viewpoints or characteristics. This desirability constitutes a further context shift (O’Hanlon & Wilk, 1987): Not only is this annoying behavior ok, but it was precisely because of it that a client was attracted to the spouse.


The first moment after the intervention is given initiates followup. de Shazer (1985) points out that the client’s body language indicates whether the intervention was well received. Given the probability that it fits for this person or couple, the following week the therapist must be careful in wording the information-seeking question. It should be something like: “Tell me in what ways you realize how you originally saw yourself as–and always have been–Mrs. K’negdo?” A question focusing on the spouse’s negative behaviors would not be within the spirit of this homework.


Complaints of abuse must be taken very seriously. If the wife’s objections to her husband’s behavior center around verbal put-downs or worse, this activity is not indicated. This intervention is solely meant for couples whose quarrels are over differing points of view. For the same reason, if the objectionable behavior is addiction, philandering, illegal activity, or psychosis other approaches would be more appropriate.

A second category of client for whom this homework is not suitable are people who may state that they believe in G-d, yet not believe that the Bible is His work. Thus, the presence of Jewish people who consider themselves spiritual or religious may not discriminate the believer from the non-believer. It is easy enough to ask a client directly; otherwise clients who call themselves frum, or orthodox, believe that the Bible is G-d’s Word. (Many non-frum people also share this belief, so be careful not to eliminate prospective clients.)

You will notice that the Bible directs the attention to the woman: she is opposite to him. If a woman gives the impression that she does not want to do an assignment or objects to the assignment directed toward her, the intervention could be directed toward the husband. The therapist asks him to notice the characteristics in her that he was attracted to because they are different, making her his Mrs. K’negdo.


Bilu, Y., & Witzum, E. (1994). Culturally sensitive therapy with ultra-orthodox patients: The strategic employment of religious idioms of distress. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 31 (3), 170-182.

de Shazer, S. (1985). Keys to solution in brief therapy. New York: Norton.

Carter, J. D. (1980). Towards a biblical model of counseling. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 8(1), 45-52.

Cowart, H. M. (1980). Towards a theology of preaching and counseling: An exploration of the epistemology common to gestalt therapy and Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. Dissertation Abstracts International, 41(3-A), 1099.

Deschenes, P., & Shepperson, L. (1983). The ethics of paradox. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 11(2), 92-98.

Friedman, E. H. (1985). Generation to generation: Family process in church and synagogue. New York: Guilford.

Fisch, R., Weakland, J. H., & Segal (1982). The tactics of change: Doing therapy briefly. San Franscisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hirsch, S. R. (1973). The Pentateuch. (Vol. 1 Genesis). (Isaac Levy, Trans.). (Rev. ed.). Gateshead, England: Judaica Press. (Original work published 1867)

Hirschhorn, D., & Rambo, A. H. (1996, May 19). CHABAD Family Counseling Services: A synagogue-based therapy program. Paper presented at the meeting of the Florida Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Miami, Florida.

Johnson, W. B. (1993). Christian rational-emotive therapy: A treatment protocol. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 12(3), 254-261.

O’Hanlon, B., & Wilk, J. (1987). Shifting contexts: The generation of effective psychotherapy. New York: Guilford.

Hudson, P. O., & O’Hanlon, W. H. (1991). Rewriting love stories: Brief marital therapy. New York: Norton.

McNamee, S., & Gergen, K. J. (Eds.). (1992). Therapy as social construction. London: Sage.

Meyer, S. G. (1974). The Psalms and personal counseling. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2(1), 26-30.

Nichols, W. C. (Ed.). (1995). Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal. Special Issue: Family Therapy in Israel, Part I, 17 (4).

Nichols, W. C. (Ed.). (1996). Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal. Special Issue: Family Therapy in Israel, Part II, 18 (1).

Radcliffe, S. C. (1988). Aizer k’negdo: The Jewish woman’s guide to happiness in marriage. Southfield, Michigan: Targum.

Rambo, A. H., Heath, A., & Chenail, R. (1993). Practicing therapy. New York: Norton.

Salinger, R. J. (1979). Towards a biblical framework for family therapy. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 7(4), 241-250.

Shulem, B. (1988). The introduction of humor in supervision and therapy–work is depressive enough without being too serious. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies, 7(2), 49-58.

Strean, H. S. (1994). Psychotherapy with the Orthodox Jew. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson.

Tan, S-y. (1987). Cognitive-behavior therapy: A biblical approach and critique. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 15(2), 103-112.

Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J., & Fisch, R. (1974). Change:Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: Norton.

Wieselberg, H. (1992). Family therapy and ultra-orthodox Jewish families: A structural approach. Journal of Family Therapy, 14, 305-329.

Young, H. S. (1984). Practicing RET with Bible Belt Christians. Special Issue: The work of Howard S. Young. British Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 2(2), 60-76.

Zlotowitz, N. (Trans.). (1977). Bereishis/Genesis: A new translation with a commentary anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources. New York: Mesorah.


Feldman, A. (1987). The river, the kettle and the bird: A Torah guide to successful marriage. Jerusalem: CSB Publication.

Hirsch, S. R. (1973). The Pentateuch. (Vol. 1 Genesis). (Isaac Levy, Trans.). (Rev. ed.). Gateshead, England: Judaica Press. (Original work published 1867)

Hudson, P. O., & O’Hanlon, W. H. (1991). Rewriting love stories: Brief marital therapy. New York: Norton.

Schwartz , P. (1994). Love between equals: How peer marriage really works. New York: Free Press.


The author would like to thank Dr. Anne Rambo, Nova Southeastern University, for her helpful comments.


Show Buttons
Hide Buttons