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  • Writer's pictureShalvi Waldman

Divine Attachment? G-d Transference? What's that?

Updated: May 23





בצל כנפיך תסתיריני...


As frum Jews, religious and spiritual beliefs are an essential part of our very being. And sadly, sometimes the very beliefs that should be sources of connection and comfort can be a source

of pain and distress.


What do we do then?


Life is not easy, we may find ourselves wrestling with difficult questions about God, suffering, and divine purpose. As humans we can feel anger or betrayal, sometimes in relationship with HaShem, and sometimes towards religious institutions or leaders. How we experience and relate to HaShem is an essential part of our identity, shapes our daily experience, and perceptions of the world around us. When we feel loved and precious to HaShem, it can be a deep and meaningful source of joy, comfort and connection. And what happens when we don’t? Is there room to even speak about those experiences? These are sensitive and deeply personal issues, making it important to have a safe and non-judgmental space to discuss them. But where? And with Whom?

 

Before we go any further, will you join me in a little experiment?

 

What happens when you find yourself fully alone with HaShem? What happens when you stop interacting with the world outside of you, take a moment alone, with no technology or distraction, and focus inward and take a look around? It’s just you and G-d in there. How does it feel? Can you feel the Divine presence within? How close or distant is it? How warm or cool is it? Does the presence feel approachable and accepting? Or cold and distant? Does the Omnipotence feel welcome or intrusive? Is it encouraging or critical? Humorous or dry? When you feel yourself being seen and felt by HaShem, what happens? Do you feel safe and invited to reach out and connect or does it feel somewhat unsafe? Can you feel your uniqueness and preciousness present and perceived by Hashem? Do you feel moved to convey deep gratitude, praise and appreciation? Does it feel safe and welcome to vulnerably ask for my needs? Can I trust that those requests, and my presence are met with grace?


Before you read on, please pause for a moment and just notice what goes on inside as you sit with those questions? You may notice thoughts, emotions or physical sensations. Can you allow them into your conscious attention for a moment before reading on?


Whatever you just perceived and experienced was deeply personal. Where do these perceptions come from?


Our Torah sources teach us about HaShem, and then there are understandings that we experience within. There are a wide variety of characteristics attributed to HaShem, with a wide range of sentiment attached to them - ranging from the Biblical descriptions of HaShem’s thirteen attributes of Mercy to HaShem’s Charon Af (Anger) and Jealousy. Why might one person experience G-d as Warm, Merciful, and Encouraging, with a touch of Mischievous Humor, and another person experience G-d as Distant, Cold and Vengeful? How come some of us have wide fluctuations in our experience of G-d from day to day? Are these perceptions coming from an absolute, objective reality? From the recesses of our soul? From the fallout of the parenting that we received? Can something be done to heal the relationship when our experience of this Ultimate Primary Presence is not as nourishing as we would like?

Someone once said to me, “What I really need is a good family therapist who can sit down with me and G-d and help us sort some things out.” What a profound statement. It acknowledges how powerful, primary and important the human – Divine relationship is, and how painful and broken it can sometimes be.


When is the last time that you took some time to honestly consider the status of your Divine relationship? Have you considered the place of that relationship in your life? You may have friends, partners, siblings and parents with whom you are very close. They accompany you at significant moments of your life, but none of them will always be there for you from birth to death. And even afterwards, as far as I can see, HaShem is our most likely companion.


Is this relationship worthy of your contemplation and investment? I believe so. I am writing with the premise that HaShem is an Omnipotent and Omnipresent Divine Force that is worth reaching out and connecting with.


I first became aware of how important this primary relationship is to me when I was seventeen. I had made Aliya and was learning Torah intensively in the Old City of Jerusalem. It became clear to me that HaShem most certainly exists and is interested in having a relationship with me. At the time, that realization was very intimidating. Some of my previous life experiences had left me wary of authority and patriarchy. I was not ready to completely transform my lifestyle overnight. I knew very well that I was full of blemishes, and being seen so intensely and completely was downright scary. I remember sitting with a friend who was much more learned and asking how I could know that HaShem loves me. To be in a relationship that was so vulnerable and eternal without the guarantee that I am loved was viscerally terrifying. My friend answered with quotes from the text and by explaining that the intricate beauty of nature was surely witness to Divine Benevolence. It didn’t help, I felt more isolated in my pain.


Years later I was teaching in a seminary, and had a student who wanted to know how it could be that G-d let Abraham marry Hagar. I offered many explanations ranging from Ramban to Kaballah, but none satisfied her. She seemed more pained and frustrated. At the time I was too stuck in my own desire to have all of the answers, to simply ask her what was bothering her. Weeks later I heard from a staff member that her parents recently divorced after her father had had been unfaithful. Whether she knew it or not, what she was really asking was not about Avraham and Hagar, but where HaShem was in the destruction of her family. I missed an opportunity to really connect and help that young lady, it was only years later that I understood how impactful it could have been if I had had the tools and the courage to open that conversation.


Many of us have issues with HaShem. How many have the courage to take those issues up with Him directly instead of using them as excuses to ignore, dismiss or denigrate HaShem? Or the value of our own spirits? How many of us believe Divine Attachment is even an option?

Miriam came to me for therapy after her psychiatrist diagnosed her with OCD. She complained of thoughts that would get stuck, going around and around in her head making it difficult for her to function. She found herself doing irrational things in order to make herself feel protected. While those symptoms could easily be considered OCD, I tried to look deeper to understand what was really going on in Miriam’s mind and heart.


“Today I was bother by the thought that I’m not special to G-d. I know that sounds silly.

But G-d has billions of people in the world. My father is dead, my mother never understood me. My husband is a good man but he is emotionally distant and never really understood me. If I’m not special to G-d then I have nobody. That thought paralyzes me and I just can’t function.”


Miriam gave a lot of thought to her Divine Attachment experience. Sometimes however, the questions lurk in the subconscious. Our minds strive to keep us safe from thoughts, memories and ideas that we are unable to metabolize. But when we have the permission, tools and opportunities to face those dark places, tremendous healing is possible. The processing that attends this healing can be very painful, but ultimately can be phenomenally satisfying. And can have wide ripple effects to many areas of our lives.


Let’s step back for a moment.


As I see it, there are two ways of learning about G-d – from the outside or from the inside. These two modes parallel teaching and therapy, the path of Netzach and the path of Hod. Netzach, or Victory, is the Kabalistic sephira associated with Moshe Rabbeinu, the Ultimate Teacher of the Torah. He had victory over the angels in capturing the Torah from Heaven and manifesting the Torah on earth. He transmitted this Eternal teaching to the Jewish People. Aharon HaKohen, associated with Hod, could be called the first Jewish therapist. He loved and found beauty in everyone and helped them heal towards each other. Hod encompasses the gratitude, admission of weakness, and turning inward essential to Aharon’s service as the Kohen Gadol, whose service has become the prototype for modern prayer. We have both of these prototypes within us, and at times we call upon the Netzach within us to learn and grow, and at times we call upon our inner Hod to hold space, acknowledge and connect. Hod aligns with deep internal experience, and is the sephira directly above Yesod, which holds intimacy, foundation and connection.


It seems to me that much relational healing aligns with the power of Hod. Yes, we can read books and gather information about how to be in relationship, but until we practice implementing it, it’s irrelevant.


I have worked as both a therapist and a teacher. As a teacher, if I can be on fire about a Torah concept, and connect to Netzach, the eternal message that the Torah is sharing with us, it can be a wonderful, exciting and empowering class. But if what I’m trying to teach doesn’t align with the emotional experience of the students, while what I’m teaching may be true, and even straight from Torah sources, it may not be able to be absorbed by my students, it isn’t metabolized. If I teach about HaShem’s rachmanus, or His capacity to answer prayers, and a student is feeling distance and disappointment that her prayers have not been answered compassionately, if I don’t address her experience, my teaching will at best fall to the wayside, and at worst make her feel even more rejected. She may leave the class feeling that what I’m teaching is true for everyone else, but it obviously doesn’t apply to her. Instead of bringing her closer, I have added to the pain and dejection already simmering beneath the surface. Hod is the splendorous experience that comes when the ideas and torah of Netzach can be translated into gratitude, and embodied experience. When we can take it all the way in, down to our knees.


When it comes to building a relationship with HaShem, the therapeutic approach has definite advantages over the teaching approach. What if we integrated it a bit more into our lives?

Sometimes we can turn the thoughts, feelings and sensations of how we relate to HaShem into prayer dialogues can be extremely powerful, healing and connecting. And sometimes it’s not enough, or we just don’t have the capacity to do it alone.


If a person believes that their voice is never heard, that they aren’t loved or important enough to HaShem to matter anyways, it will be nearly impossible for them to engage in such a conversation. If they see HaShem as an angry, vengeful, chaotic or critical G-d, the last thing they will want to do is approach.


Transference and Attachment theory


The field of psychotherapy has long established that early life experiences, particularly in the first two years of life, have long-term consequences. Children raised in a securely attached, loving family, capable of meeting their basic physical and emotional needs, are able to internalize that sense of security, and are more likely to seek out and find secure, loving and well attached relationships later in life. Children who experience fear, deprivation, neglect and insecurity are likely to carry those feelings into their adult lives. Since what we feel inside colors the way we view others, such people are less likely to trust and more likely to feel vulnerable. They have less of what I like to call “emotional Teflon.”


Attachment theory, it’s implications on relationships, and how it can be healed have long been a major topic among therapists and psychologists, now with decades of research on different attachment patterns and how they can be healed. And the good news is that they can be healed.


Psychoanalysis addresses this by using the relationship between the client and the therapist as an opportunity to explore how the client experiences the presence of others in their life. They call this transference. When a client feels that a good-natured therapist is judgmental, lacks understanding, or doesn’t really care, most likely the client is reexperiencing with the therapist what they know from earlier life relationships. We all make assumptions based on what we already know. We see the world through history-colored glasses. We can walk into a room and know that doors can be opened by their handles, that chairs can be sat on, and when we greet others, it is polite to say hello or nod. We know this based on lots of past experiences, stored in our implicit memory.


If the therapist is able to remain present and open in the face of the client’s negative expectations or experiences of them, discussing the issues in a caring and accepting manner, there is a chance for real healing. When the pain from the past is dumped into a relationship in the present that is strong enough to metabolize and heal it, that healing can be projected onto other relationships as well, giving the person profound opportunities to heal old wounds and move on with newfound resilience.


Other treatment approaches, such as the trauma treatment modalities of EMDR, IFS and Somatic techniques, take a more direct approach, looking at the sensations, emotions and beliefs that show up for clients when they think about, or experience themselves in significant relationships. In these approaches, other tools are used to directly address and heal the painful beliefs stuck in the client’s ‘operating system’ from their early attachment experiences.

Early attachment affects our relationships with our friends, spouses, colleagues, therapists and others - it makes sense that it will also affect how we perceive and experience relationship with HaShem.


Each person has their own unique-as-a-fingerprint experience of HaShem. Do you remember how you perceived HaShem as a child? And how that has changed over the years? How was that perception shaped?


Perhaps by parents, teachers and rabbis, and of course your own experiences of tefilla, connection, contemplation and understanding. And yet I am convinced that another critical element is our preverbal experience of how we were received in this world. For those who were blessed with a loving and safe entry, they may not understand what it’s like to feel perpetually unsafe, unseen, worthless, voiceless, or unwelcome here. For you readers who came into this world under more complex circumstances, or have suffered life altering trauma, I would guess that you know exactly what I’m talking about.


It is only natural that the old wounds that we are carrying make themselves known within the scope of our relationships. Our brains are built to adapt to the circumstances we are in. Babies born into famine have bodies that carefully conserve calories. Babies born in surroundings lacking physical safety will be more hypervigilant. We know how to adapt in ways that are most likely to ensure survival. But those ‘adaptations’ which may safe an infant’s life, can become painful later in life, when the child born in famine wants to lose weight after giving birth, and the child born in a warzone finds herself responding to everyday triggers with crippling anxiety.


These adaptive learnings remain present in our lives. How could they not? Perhaps they are begging to be healed. When we allow ourselves to be fully aware of our perceptions of HaShem and courageously enter the dialogue with the Divine, we are creating the ultimate healing relationship, one which has the capacity to reflect many of the ails that show up in other areas of our lives. A relationship which when addressed and healed, has the power to affect all our other relationships in the most wonderful ways.


Attachment Theory discusses the power of the “attachment figure” in a child’s life. An attachment figure serves as a secure base with whom we seek and maintain proximity, who can serve as a safe haven, a source of greater strength and wisdom, and a comfort during times of grief or loss. One needs to look no further than the book of Psalms to see how HaShem fulfilled those roles for David HaMelech. I believe that HaShem is ready and willing to serve those roles in our lives as well. In fact, in Tehillim chapter 2:7, the pasuk says, “HaShem said to me, ‘You are my child; today I have given birth to you.” Each day and each moment HaShem reaches out to us in desire to nurture us as a mother nurtures and cares for her infant. How will we respond? The psalm continues, “Ask of me and I will give you… Happy are those who find shelter in… [HaShem].”


I remember a very powerful conversation I once spent with a couple who had been through some of the harder things that life had to offer, and had made some very painful and regretted mistakes. The husband shared that when he had davened that morning, he noticed that in starting his Amida prayer he had taken three full steps back and three smaller steps forward. In that moment, he noticed his discomfort in approaching HaShem. Who am I to speak with Him? He knows my shameful regrets… With tears in his eyes, he asked for help, said that it was time for him to heal, to fully step forward.


Try to conceptualize an issue in your own life that affects both your relationship with HaShem and with others. Can you imagine the benefits of sitting with HaShem to discuss and to heal? Could you have that conversation alone with HaShem? Or would you benefit from having someone there to help and facilitate?


Here we have a gaping hole. Who can help guide, facilitate and accompany these conversations? A Rabbi or teacher? Rabbis and teachers are trained to teach, to answer questions with information. Few are trained in facilitating challenging or conflict-ridden conversations. Rabbis can offer answers to the painful questions, like why hard things happen to good people. Most aren’t trained to facilitate a process of healing that touches the depths of how people are affected when those hard things happen, and how it affects their faith in themselves and HaShem, and impacts how they show up in the world.


Therapists?


Traditionally, therapy has leaned towards secularism, emphasizing the separation of religious beliefs from the therapeutic process. However, as the field of psychology evolves, it's becoming increasingly evident that religious ideas and spiritual matters play a significant role in the lives of many individuals. Yet who has heard of a therapist training program that gives professionals skills to navigate this sacred and vulnerable territory? Therapists may not have deeply considered their own attachment relationship with the Divine and may find themselves at a total loss if their clients bring religion into the sessions. Moreover, therapists are trained to be very careful about applying our value systems to our clients’ lives, which can create an odd reality in which professionals who are fully comfortable discussing intimacy, addiction, trauma and fears, feel uncomfortable in conversations about attachment to G-d, and the pain, loneliness, confusion and shame than can occur when something goes wrong.


So what can be done? I believe that we can all benefit from taking a good, fresh look at our relationship with HaShem, our beliefs about that connection, and how much comfort, support, connection and even intimacy it entails.


What can therapists to do help?


First and most important, keep on doing what you do best! Hold a safe, non-judgmental space in which clients can share, explore, struggle and discover. As religious as you may be, you don't need to protect HaShem from the anger, rage, fear, and distress that His children express in their efforts to heal their relationships with Him. Hold space, believe in the innate capacity for love, understanding and connection. It is inborn, our souls are a portion of HaShem, eternally attached to their essence, the Ein Sof. Facing the rage, anger, fear and distance doesn't need to be scary. They aren't barriers, they are the path through, towards connection.


I would love to see a reality in which our standard intake questions, which include details about relationship history, parents and health, will also include questions about spiritual wellbeing, religious goals and concerns, and convey to the clients that they’re whole selves are welcome in the therapeutic process, including whatever feelings or unfinished business they have with HaShem. Working with G-d transference is similar to working with any other transference or attachment issue. Just as you would work with a client who has unresolved attachment issues, anger or grief from their relationships with their parents, many of the same tools can be used to help people heal their spiritual lives. And you will likely find that as you work on early attachment issues with parents, the client’s perception of HaShem is likely to change. The other way is also true. If your client wants to work directly on their relationship with HaShem, in time you may also find subtle shifts in their perceptions of their parents.

It may be worth speaking to a supervisor or a colleague and taking a look at the state of your own relationship with HaShem, perhaps doing so will give you more confidence in your capacity to help others do the same.


I would love to see a training program that give therapists the tools they need to affectively and confidently facilitate deeper deveikus and satisfaction in the human/Divine partnership, and do ‘family therapy between clients and G-d’. Perhaps someday…


What can Rabbis and teachers do to help?


Keep your antennae up. If students ask questions repeatedly around the same theme, and don’t seem satisfied by the answers you offer, get curious. Ask a few questions, try to understand a little bit deeper into your student’s experience.


“It seems like these questions have deeper relevance to you personally, can you tell me more?”


“How is that answer landing with you, you don’t seem satisfied.”


“There seems to be an intensity about how you are asking about this. What can you share with me about that?”


Obviously, it isn’t the job of a rabbi or teacher to step into the therapist role, but sometimes just a little bit of exploration can go a long way, and help the student express what’s really on their minds, opening an experience of Hod that will allow the Netzach of Torah to penetrate more deeply. Remember, we aren’t teaching material, we are teaching Toras Chaim, a way of life, a language of attachment and connection. If educators approach these conversations with the belief that we are here in this world to be in relationship with HaShem, we can invite students to grow, ask questions and develop those relationship skills, as we would expect them to grow and learn everything else that we are teaching.


If your antennae are picking up that your student’s soul is really hurting underneath the questions, pay attention. Keep tabs. Check in with them. And if needed, find them appropriate help.

 

Some thoughts for people who want to be closer to HaShem:


I really hope that’s everyone. If you aren’t sure if that’s you, why not? What would being closer mean? Go back to the questions at the top of this article, what happens when you open yourself to their impact? Could you take the time to have a talk with HaShem? Talk about what is working for you in your relationship? Have the courage to face what isn’t? If there is work ahead of you to be in a better place, can you have the courage to do it? Can we learn from Rebbe Nachman and the Chofetz Chaim who taught us the power of speaking to Hashem directly? Talk about what ails, and what we would like to heal?


What would you do if you wanted to build or heal a relationship with a human being? You would sit down and have a conversation with the person. You might start with the history of that relationship, how things started out, what your experience has been, what your hopes are for the future. Explain how you feel, what you want, and why it is important to you. Show as much honesty and vulnerability as feels safe, and create an opening for that person in your heart. Then listen. Why not try the same thing with HaShem?


If you think back now to the questions at the top that may have brought up some less than positive feelings, can you see how it might make sense that you would feel that way, given your previous life experiences, the parenting that you received and the attachment adaptations that those created?

 

The incredible power of doing healing transference work, is that it is transferable. When we heal our capacity to be in relationship with HaShem, to the same degree, we increase our capacity to be in relationship with others.


Let me share some of Chana’s story with you. Chana was born and raised in Bnai Brak. When she came to me for her first therapy session, I was surprised to hear a fully chassidish looking woman tell me, “Whatever you do, please don’t talk to me about HaShem. We aren’t on good terms, the whole thing is just upsetting to me.” When I heard more about her traumatic and neglectful upbringing, that made more sense to me. Her mother was a cold and critical woman, an only child born to holocaust survivors. Her father was distant and immature, and paid little attention to Rachel and her siblings. It was better that way, as the attention that he did pay was always negative and sometimes painful. She had internalized that the world was not a welcoming place. Anyone who looked at her was likely to do harm.


She came for therapy as she had many anxious symptoms. Leaving her home, taking busses and other public interactions caused distress, and were avoided whenever possible. We built a therapeutic alliance, and used trauma techniques to address her symptoms, and the early attachment wounds. Six months into our work, when she came back after a break for the chagim, I was surprised to hear her speaking about the closeness to HaShem that she had felt in her sukka, her gratitude to HaShem for her growing family and new grandchildren, and I was surprised by her willingness to speak of HaShem at all inside my office. It seems that that as her internal operating system had integrated and generalized the work that she and I had done together, it had updated it to all of her relationships, including with HaShem. I was deeply touched to see that.


Many years had passed since the conversation with my friend at age 17, when I asked how I can know that HaShem loves me, yet the question was still raw. As a young mother, therapist in training, and chassidish woman, I spent many intense moments over a span of years - talking, begging, crying, and pleading with HaShem to show me His love, so deep inside that I feel it in my kishkes – so that I will not feel bulldozed by the criticism of others, so that I will feel safe and secure, to experience myself as a necessary and helpful participant in His Magnum Opus, and to have the joy of knowing that I’m living my own little portion of Tikun Olam B’Malchut Sha-dai  (fixing the world in the Kingdom of G-d). I can’t say that it’s a happily-ever-after ending, but it is a meaningful work in progress, and my own experience has helped me to serve as a guide and support to others.


I have met many people whose hearts are breaking, who held fear, anger, frustration and disappointment in their relationship with HaShem. Many of them didn’t have the language to express what they were experiencing, and others had tried, only to be shut down by the quotes and injunctions of well-meaning others who didn’t ‘get’ the experience. My desire is that this piece may give language, direction and hope to others on a path of healing.


Go ahead, give it a try, open the conversation…



(Photo credit - Moshe Chaim, Tzfat)



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