This story is an excerpt from the book My Story 1. Get your copy today at www.jemstore.com.
I was raised in South Africa, where my parents – who were not Jews but Christians, specifically Presbyterians – emigrated from England when I was nine. Eventually, after a lot of searching, I made my way to Israel and in 1965, at the age of twenty-five, I converted to Judaism.
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Shortly after my conversion, I got married. My husband was a Jewish psychiatrist at the Sha’ar Menashe Mental Health Center near Haifa, where I worked as a social worker. At first I was very enthusiastic about Judaism but after interacting with many non-observant Jews who questioned my observance, I became confused and riddled with doubts.
Fortunately, two years later, we moved to South Africa. There, I was able to restore my faith and my Torah observance after coming in touch with Chabad. This led to my desire to meet the Rebbe, which I first did in 1972.
In advance of that audience, I had written to the Rebbe. I had been told to limit my letter to one page, but I had so much to say and so much to ask that I wrote in very tiny script to fit it all in. When I presented this one-page letter to the Rebbe, he actually took out a magnifying glass in order to be able to read it.
Among the many things I wanted to know was, “Can I really still count myself as a Jew?” I was worried that my lapse in observance had disqualified me somehow.
The Rebbe looked at me as if he was seeing through me. His eyes were so bright and full of light, I felt as if he was seeing my soul. And then he said – after noting that my conversion by the Haifa Rabbinical Court was sound in the eyes of Jewish law – “You most certainly can count yourself as a Jew. Indeed, you must. But how good a Jew you are going to be – that is up to you.”
I replied, “I want to be one completely.”
Then the Rebbe asked, “What does your husband think about your Torah observance?” I explained that since coming to South Africa, my husband had also become fully observant and that he was happy about it.
My next issue concerned my studies – at the time I was working on my thesis for a master’s degree in psychology and I was contemplating going further, to obtain a Ph.D. as well. The Rebbe approved of this and stated that a doctorate was important “for prestige,” as he put it. When he said that, I was surprised and asked, “After reading so many Chasidic teachings that stress humility, wouldn’t ‘prestige’ be the wrong motivation?”
The Rebbe replied, “What I mean is that if a Jew came to ask for your advice, he or she would be more likely to listen because you had a doctorate. That’s why I say it is important to have a Ph.D. for prestige.”
This led to my asking questions about my responsibilities to the patients I counseled.
The Rebbe spoke about those patients who question the worth of life. He said that I should tell my Jewish patients that following the Holocaust, with so many millions of our people murdered, those alive today have a double duty. They must live not only for themselves, but also for those who are not here. When they realize this, they will find that their own turmoil will pass.
As for my non-Jewish patients, the Rebbe said I had a responsibility to make sure they understood that they had obligations in this world. Non-Jews are required by the Torah to observe the Seven Laws of Noah. And he stressed that it was the duty of every Jew to teach non-Jews about these obligations.
WHILE WE WERE DISCUSSING NON-JEWS, I cited an example of a suicidal patient of mine, whom I managed to get to the hospital in time, saving his life. Afterwards, he came to me and said, “You are responsible for my being alive. Now give me something to live for.” I had not known how to answer him, and I asked the Rebbe what I should say to a patient like this.
“Tell him that he is part of G-d’s world,” the Rebbe responded. “And that means, he has to answer to G-d.”
The Rebbe continued, “When dealing with suicidal patients, you, as a psychologist, need to get them to understand that suicide is the same as murder. This is because our bodies do not belong to us. They are not ours. We cannot hurt our bodies in any way, and we certainly cannot deprive them of life.”
I then admitted that I, myself, was hard on my body, subjecting myself to twice-weekly fasting.
The Rebbe did not approve of this. He said that as Jews we are required to fast six times a year, but beyond those dates, fasting is not productive. “If you want to deprive yourself as part of your repentance,” he said, “then forgo something you crave – that would be more difficult than simply not eating for six hours. But don’t make a vow to do so. Vows are also not productive.”
I confessed that I had already made a vow not to eat twice a week. Hearing this, the Rebbe urged, “Go to a rabbi this very day – tonight – and have the vow annulled.”
I also confessed that I got up in the middle of the night to learn Torah. I found that it made a big difference in my life and that, when I overslept, I missed it very much.
He asked, “If you didn’t deprive yourself of sleep, could you not do more good? Are you not excluding yourself from the world by this behavior?”
“Doesn’t a person draw strength from exclusion?” I countered. “Don’t we all need a time for exclusion and a time for inclusion?”
The Rebbe didn’t argue this point. He said, “If you enjoy doing this and it doesn’t impair your family relationships nor your health, then you can continue.”
THE MEETING ENDED with the Rebbe giving me a blessing and saying he looked forward to reading my master’s thesis.
Earlier he had told me that, as far as my thesis was concerned, he was not in favor of my delving into religious topics, because this would require me to examine the theology of other religions. Anyone reading my thesis later on might become confused. And going on his advice, I changed my topic.
Three years later, when I was doing my doctoral dissertation, I came to see the Rebbe again. And again he urged me not to delve into non-Jewish philosophies. “You may be strong in your faith,” he said, “but those reading what you write may not be as strong and may be led astray.”
Furthermore, he advised me to be sure to keep my entire readership in mind. I should not address what I wrote to Jews alone, he said. At first, I wondered why, because certainly the readership of a doctoral thesis is very limited. But later on, when I began to write books for the mainstream market, I realized the wisdom of his advice.
And he was very specific in that advice. He said, “Whatever you write, in the first few pages, don’t say anything about Torah or Judaism so as not to put off a broader audience. Instead, take a universal approach, and only further in, once you have established your credentials and gained the readers’ trust, should you broach these deeper subjects.”
Only later, when I started to write for both the Jewish and secular markets – and authored many professional works, as well as more popular books for adults and children – did I realize how wise his advice was. Of course, all his advice was wise, as well as sensitive, insightful, and life-transforming.
Dr. Ruth Benjamin, a clinical psychologist practicing in South Africa, is the author of over forty professional and popular works, including children’s novels and popular psychology books. She was interviewed in Brooklyn in September of 2014.