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Psychotherapy and Prayer

November 2, 2009 | by Dr. Jeffrey Last

Breaking free from our own harsh judgments.

While the concepts of psychotherapy and prayer may seem to be very different, it appears to me that the two are really quite related. In recent years in my psychotherapy practice I began to notice a number of similarities between the issues brought up by my patients and the themes expressed in the central prayer of the Jewish service, the Shmoneh Esrei (the Silent Amidah).

The Shmoneh Esrei, literally 18 (referring to the original number of blessings contained in the prayer) was written by the Sages approximately 2500 years ago. In it we address God with our most personal needs. It stands to reason that there should be a connection between this and the very personal communication that goes on in psychotherapy. While the Shmoneh Esrei is structured as a communication between the individual and God, a closer examination of this prayer indicates that it has tremendous relevance for our relationship with our fellow human being as well as our most private communications within our own heart.

The Shmoneh Esrei is structured around three main ideas. The first expresses looking upward to God in a way that we recognize the Almighty’s awesome might in giving to us, controlling the world and creating a fabulously intricate, working universe. The second idea speaks to our request for the range of our human needs, both spiritual and material. The third relates to gratitude.

I praise You, I need You, I thank You.

Let us look at one example of how this connection between the Shmoneh Esrei and the issues of psychotherapy works. In the second section of personal requests is the blessing labeled "Restoration of Justice," or in Hebrew Shoftanu (Our Judges). The blessing reads:

Restore our judges as in earlier times and our counselors as at first, remove from us sorrow and groaning, and reign over us, You, God, alone with kindness and compassion, and justify us in judgment. Blessed are You, God, King, Who loves righteousness and justice.

In this blessing we request the return of our wise judges and counselors and the removal of sorrow and groaning. God will then compassionately reign. Our judges will help resolve matters among the people and our counselors, the Prophets, will help to solidify our relationship with God.

We may ask, “What is the connection between judgment and the removal of sorrow?” One understanding is that without proper guidance we are destined to make decisions that we will regret. We can also feel deep sorrow that we don’t merit more effective guidance in our generation. So the saying goes, “You get the leaders you deserve.”

However on a more personal level we can also see that misguided judgment indeed can be a major source of sorrow. We can become trapped in our false, rigid judgments about ourselves and the world. This can cause us incredible grief. Conversely, clarity of judgment allows us to be aware of many options in meeting our personal challenges. As the blessing indicates, judgment is clearest when informed by a generous spirit of kindness and compassion.

Practical Application

I had a patient, let's call him Joel, a recently married young man who was urged to consult with me by his wife. He revealed in the first session that while he had criticized his wife about her suggestion that he come in, “deep down” he knew she was right. We later discovered that his hesitation to come in on his own stemmed from his sense that he was really “too far gone” to get any help.

This initial presentation encapsulated the primary features of the problem and his treatment. He was overly critical of himself and others, yet “deep down” there was a more generous spirit that we would try to access. His harsh judgment indeed caused him much sorrow. Joel continually focused on the faults of everyone. This harshness flowed from his rigid standards for behavior, thinking and feeling. He consequently felt a continual sense of disappointment about his life.

Joel secretly yearned to be more carefree, yet was truly afraid of it.

In our work together, we came to identify certain unrecognized assumptions that guided much of Joel’s outlook. He held the belief that without these very rigid standards his own “wild side” would break out and create “havoc in the world.” He had to maintain rigid self-control. Others also “needed” to know when they were getting too wild. He saw this as a difficult yet ennobling task. There was certain sense of pride in being the “watchman of destructive forces in the world.” He often spoke of “increasing the forces of goodness in a dark world.” It took awhile for him to see that in reality he felt more burdened than ennobled by this task. Instead of creating more goodness, he was creating resentment and irritation.

In a “moment of weakness” (i.e. strength) Joel revealed that he secretly yearned to be more carefree, yet was truly afraid of it. He acknowledged his own resentment of his self-imposed mission. He began to talk about his sense of misery that flowed from his rigidity. After vacillating for a long time, he started to test out the effects of judging himself and others more kindly.

Making it Real

The ability to make judgments is one of the essential qualities of being human. Besides knowing the difference between a delicious apple and one that is rotten, we use this faculty to come to conclusions in terms of our interactions with others. Let’s say I plan to meet my friend for coffee at 10 o'clock in the morning. At 10:10 he is not there and I’m getting impatient. By 10:20 I'm starting to get a bit irritated. I give him a call, no answer. By 10:30 I’m mad. I begin to question our friendship and by 10:40 I question his worth as a human being. Then I start to get down on myself, wondering if I've really been a good friend. Finally I come to a judgment that zaps us both: “He never really cared about me and he's a pretty irresponsible guy anyways."

Infusing my judgment with a little compassion would have made my morning a lot more pleasant.

An hour later I find out that he was in a fender bender on the way to meet me. Oops! My initial judgment was hardly tempered with compassion. I saw my friend as someone who didn't care and I began to see myself as someone who didn't deserve it. Had I taken a little extra time to infuse my judgment with a little compassion, for both of us, my morning would have been a lot more pleasant.

The blessing of Restoration of Justice in the Shmoneh Esrei is just one example of how this powerful prayer can lead us to a richer examination of ourselves. We can introspect about the nature of our judgments of others and ourselves. Are we judging with compassion? Can we give the benefit of the doubt or do we use our judgments to put ourselves and others into boxes that end up causing us needless grief?

This is one example of using the Shmoneh Esrei for personal growth. Those interested in a fuller discussion of this may download my eBook Psychotherapy and Prayer, Insights into Personal Growth through the Shmoneh Esrei, at


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