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How does the The Torah deal with behavior modification? From the bottom up

Recipe for Successful Behavior Modification

Recipe for Successful Behavior Modification


The Two Souls

Many neurologists argue that the brain cannot explain itself, unless another, non-material element can be taken into account, that which we call the mind. As a rabbi, I call this a soul. It is this incredible underlying factor that gives us purpose, meaning, transcendence and spiritual connection. It is this human software wherein the driving forces of life originate and from whence come the impulses for our thought, speech, and action.

In the Chassidic classic, Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi cites Kabbalistic sources expressing the Jewish tradition that every one of us is operated by two general souls. The first is the "animal soul" or life force that drives the base aspect of the person, including all bodily functions and desires ranging from hedonism, arrogance, ego, anger, laziness, depression to natural kindness and goodness. The second is the G‑dly and pure soul from which all transcendent, selfless, and spiritually motivated manifestations originate.

The soul is further subdivided into five segments, each serving as the power source for the various aspects and functions of the person:

Nefesh is the basic life force that vivifies physical existence. It is related to the blood.

Ruach is the operating system of our emotions.

Neshamah drives our intellect.

Chayyah is the foundation of our wills and desires.

Yechidah is the connection to the essence of all life and being—G‑d.

Generally the two souls function through the mechanism of thought, speech, and action. Some human actions seem self regulating, such as the heartbeat, breathing, and hearing, while others are specifically directed and caused, such as speaking and walking. The chain of command to a directed action originates in the person's desire, which activates the will, which manifests in the mind, which stimulates the emotion, which gives birth to the thought, which then can become words or deeds.

It is the nature of man, states Rabbi Schneur Zalman, for the mind to dominate the emotions and all the resulting behavior. Consequently, when we want to modify our behavior (thought, speech, and action) we can do so either by addressing the act itself or by focusing on the primary origin of the act. For example when you feel the onset of rage and anger, you can clench your teeth or bury your head in a pillow to stifle the potential outburst; or you can make contact with the inner software where the anger was conceived and given life and switch it off at its root.

The benefits in the latter approach are obvious and manifold as you thus avoid contaminating the various aforementioned links by anger. Physiologically, as well, this way your inner personality remains free of the ravages of anger. In the former method, while the anger does not express itself externally, it has erupted internally.

The Torah Method

How do we identify the internal switches that operate the source of all actions, and do we have the mechanism to manipulate and control them?

It can be argued that while the mind certainly can dominate the person, nurture and habit have the power to effectively neutralize the mind's independence. Proof for this is the ease with which we make good, sound resolutions and the difficulty in keeping them. Behavior patterns, whether intrinsic or learned, can be otherwise described as addictions. While some addictions are chemically or psychologically motivated, others are a result of regularity and repetition.

One of the reasons postulated why successful dieting can be a greater challenge than rehabilitation from drug or alcohol addiction is the fact that you can completely eliminate drugs and alcohol from your regimen, but you cannot stop eating. Instead, you must modify and transform your attitude towards eating. It requires a lifestyle change. Many credible studies and much experience show that it would be futile to heal addiction to drugs or alcohol by modifying their consumption. In life most of the traits or actions that we want or need to change cannot be completely eliminated. For instance, if you want to stop gossiping, you must modify your communication pattern. You do not stop speaking entirely.

Hence we need to address the intended behavior that we want to change by knowing and activating the source of that particular behavior. Let us consider the two human software components, namely the animal soul and the divine soul, and analyze how they affect extremely different results in the hardware or body.

The way we modify our bodies is analogous to how we can modify our souls. If we wish to develop certain muscles, we repeat a specific exercise frequently. If we wish to reduce part of our anatomy, we repeat different specific exercises regularly. So, too, our internal operating systems (souls) respond to different stimuli to achieve different results.

Each of our two souls seeks to control the functions of the body according to its own agenda. The animal soul, seeking to express its brute animalism, becomes more emboldened and dominant by the very behavior it activates. The divine soul likewise becomes stronger and more dominant when the behavior it motivates is performed.

From the moment we are born, the animal soul is closer to our consciousness and sensations—eating, sleeping, enjoying, playing. The exercise that nurtures it and makes it grow derives from the natural instinctive aspects of existence. Thus when the human animal wants something, it employs all of its faculties, including intellect and emotion, to achieve the desire. (Though the mind is the domain of the divine soul, it can be overcome by a more powerful animal instinct and used for its hedonistic fulfillment. It is this level of intellect that Chassidism refers to as immature intellect that can be manipulated.)

The divine soul in its holy distinction also evokes behavior that when carried out strengthens its influence on the personality. Its exercises are the spiritual acts of G‑ds directives—the mitzvot, or Torah commandments. Performing mitzvot utilizes the animal soul to perform its necessary function but subordinates its will to the divine soul.

When the divine soul dominates a person, his/her behavior pattern operates in purity for good purposes. Spiritual acts habituate a person to behave in a G‑dly directed manner.

Since the revelation at Mount Sinai, G‑d has been commanding us to behave in a way that reverses the natural internal chain of command. (See Figure 1.) Generations before Sinai, our forefather Abraham began his process of spiritual growth the natural way, starting with his intellect. Maimonides states that Abraham began to wonder about the universe—contemplating about it for more than fifty years—and concluded that there must be a Creator. He then promulgated his findings and conclusions by teaching and propagating G‑diness to the world. Only at the age of 99 was the Divine command of an action conveyed to him, when he was directed to circumcise.

Action (mitzvot)
Speech (emotion)
Thought (intellect)

Figure 1.

The Torah system of behavior modification reverses the natural hierarchy of the chain of command within the human personality.

The seemingly natural chain of command in human behavior is reversed in the Torah-directed system of how to live. Instead of thought (intellect) leading to speech (emotion) that ignites action, the Torah way requires action (mitzvot) first, which then opens the doors for speech (emotion) and thought (intellect). This is most fundamentally demonstrated by the commitment of the Jewish people at Sinai to do before we understand.

In the Jewish life cycle, we start with action. At the age of eight days a boy must be circumcised. Then from the time a child learns to say "Daddy" or "Mommy", s/he begins to learn the words of the Torah. Only at a more mature stage does the child decipher true understanding and feeling from these words. The meaningful continuity of the Jewish people as a unique nation is proof of the success of this method. The act of performing commandments is the critical element that touches and affects our inner being, which in turn affects behavior.

Application of the Torah Method of Behavior Modification to Prisoners and Their Families

We have employed the Torah method of behavior modification with prison inmates and received extraordinarily successful results. Although the success of our experiment is validated by anecdotal record rather than statistically controlled studies, the results speak for themselves.

For over eighteen years the Aleph Institute in Miami has been working with more than ten thousand Jewish inmates in US prisons. The difficulties of prison life—ranging from family disruptions to shame and everything in between—create a condition referred to in Jewish law as in some instances harsher than death.

Penologists, social scientists, and psychologists have struggled to find how to bring some purpose and meaning to the dead time of incarceration. High rates of recidivism point to the inadequacies of programs that try to make jail an experience that has some positive results.

A human being sentenced to serve time in prison undergoes fundamental change. The inmate suffers from helplessness, lack of choice, forced inactivity, loss of family involvement and environment, lack of purpose and motivation, and, in many instances, a loss of desire to live.

Though some effort and research has been initiated to understand the prisoners, the inmate's family has not been addressed at all. This area is at least equally important.

Recognizing the unnatural environment of prison and the bizarre, tragic realities faced by the families of prisoners, the Lubavitcher Rebbe urged the introduction of Torah study, prayer, and mitzvah performance to the prisoners and their families. Responding to this mandate, the Aleph Institute organized trained rabbis and volunteers utilizing audio-visual equipment, books, and mitzvah articles (such as phylacteries and prayer shawls) to bring the Torah way of life into prisons. More than ten thousand men and women and their families have been exposed to Torah study, mitzvah-observance, and prayer with various levels of intensity.

The results, as reflected by thousands of letters, personal accounts, and professional reactions of penology and criminology experts have been nothing short of phenomenal. We have records of individuals who entered prison totally dejected finding new meaning and purpose directly proportional to their spiritual involvement.

These positive results affected the lives of both the prisoners and their families, not only during their sojourn behind bars but even after they returned to a normal environment. The following personal account by a former prisoner helped by the Aleph Institute shows the strength of this approach:

When I was arrested, convicted, and then incarcerated, I felt confused. I wasnt sure how, or why, my life had taken this turn—what was I doing in prison? What had happened, and was happening to me? What about the rest of my life—did I have a life anymore?

The Chaplain told me that there were Friday night services for Jewish inmates, and on my first Friday night in prison, I went. The Rabbi gave me an aliyah, and I met a few other Jewish inmates. Some of us eventually formed a group, we ate together, and we discussed the reading materials that each of us had received from Aleph—we never asked one another why we were there, or what our lives had been before. Soon, my life in prison, my inner life, revolved around my Judaism. I began to study Torah and to daven daily, then twice daily. I began to reflect on my circumstances in the light of the Torah portions. I began to sort out responsibility. I began to find meaning in my circumstances. I came to realize that I did have a life, and that I would have a life when my sentence was completed. It was up to me to behave in a way that made my incarceration meaningful—a chance to redirect my life to those things that were truly important.

I am now out of prison for two years. I daven, wrap Tefillin, and study Torah daily. I have a strong family life, and a growing business. Interestingly, my most lasting impression of my incarceration is that somehow, while living through the most degrading and shameful time of my life, I emerged with a sense of renewal, rebirth, and self-redefinition. I look back at the time I spent in prison, and find a sense of meaning. Innocent or guilty, I had taken wrong turns in my life. I am thankful that I had an opportunity to reassess who I am, who I ought to be. The materials sent to me in prison by Aleph, the Chumash and Torah commentaries, and the Tefillin and prayer books made available to me through the prison chaplain changed my life.

I just wanted to write this to you to tell you that I will never forget that the Aleph Institute helped during the only time in my adult life when I felt helpless. You made me feel important, you helped me to restore my sense of self—or perhaps what I really mean is that you helped me to find my real self—reassess my values, what is really important. Through my incarceration I gained a new sense of what this life is really about. I am a better person for it. If I could go back in time, I would nor want to undo it—I found something so valuable, so real, so relevant.

Judges and prison officials have lauded the achievements of the Aleph Institute. If this approach can have a positive impact on the most extreme situation of prison, it can surely succeed in regular circumstances.

Activating the G‑dly soul through performing mitzvot and opening the doors for its expression brings about positive change in human behavior.

Rabbi Sholom B. Lipskar an emissary for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he founded the Landow Yeshiva Center in Miami Beach in 1969, and in 1981 he founded both The Shul of Bal Harbour in Surfside, Florida and the Aleph Institute and the Educational Academy for the Elderly. He may be reached directly at
From B’Or HaTorah Journal: Science, Art and Modern Life in the Light of Torah. B’Or HaTorah is an English-language journal for wondering Jews, scientists, artists, teachers and students. It examines personal and intellectual concerns through the microscope and telescope of the scientist; the algorithm of the mathematician; the discourse of the philosopher; the imagery of the artist, poet and photographer; and the tested faith and learning of the Torah-observant Jew.
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yaakov lexington,virginia,24450 March 21, 2017

You saved my life in there...Torah rabah שלום Reply

Myrna Solganick Madison wi February 24, 2017

Wonderful! So very inspirational. Reply

Anonymous October 14, 2015

Very interesting words of wisdom, but I felt compelled to point out that the distinction between a passion-drive soul and a G-d-ly soul was first described by Plato, thousands of years before Tanya was written. Reply

michele ann garris-barlow santa monica, ca July 16, 2012

action & feeling

the age old discussion of nature vs nuture

seeking to know more of this topic

found this essay to be food for thought

thanks Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman July 21, 2011

Re: Making erroneous statements... Thank you for pointing this out. I have modified the opening lines accordingly. Reply

AF Brighton, MA July 20, 2011

Making erroneous statements is a form of chillul H "Neurological experimentation has confirmed the presence of the soul--also known as the mind."

Please avoid making statements about matters you have little direct knowledge of.

First of all, the mind and the soul are different things. Just like the RPMs of the engine and the guy pushing the pedal are different things.

Second, the science did not confirm the existence of the soul.

Third, the existence of mind is known from psychology and philosophy, not from neuroscience. You can say that electrophysiological recordings have confirmed that brain matter has physiological function, but that function "creates" or "underlies" mind, just like movement of molecules underlies temperature. (So, we knew about temperature long before molecules).

Fourth, "neurology" by convention refers to the medical discipline of treating nervous-system–related disorders (or finding out new ways of treating them). Study of nervous system (including its disorders) is known as neuroscience or neurobiology. Reply

David Toronto November 25, 2010

NOTE Re "It is the nature of man, states Rabbi Schneur Zalman, for the mind to dominate the emotions and all the resulting behavior. " --

WDR, Wrong. It is the nature of the AUTHOR of the Tanya and people with a similar personality (intellectual) as him. He is generalizing. By some people it's the emotions that dominate the mind (eg. artists) and instincts and by yet other people it's their natural instincts that dominate their mind or emotions (eg. many athletes). Reply

Eliyahu Walla Walla, WA July 30, 2010

While the earliest prison programs in the US were, indeed, religious, the Philadelphia model, as it was known, also included total isolation of each prisoner, a ban on speaking or having contact with anyone else, and was, essentially, a sensory-deprivation model guaranteed to induce insanity.
Unfortunately, we've become accustomed to thinking of prison as the punishment of choice, rather than being the punishment of last resort. As a result, we lead the world in number of prisoners, per capita incarceration and length of sentences, and are the only western nation whose prisons fail to meet UN standards for jails and prisons. As Rabbi Lipskar points out elsewhere, there is absolutely no Torah support for prison as punishment, as it acts as a barrier to reconciliation between offender and victim, offender and society, and, in the absence of religious programming, between offender and G-d. If we want men to improve while in prison, we need to make available the means of improvement. Reply

Anonymous Canada November 4, 2008

in very "rough terms"... This was most educational!

As a fitness trainer for several years, i have educated adults on healthy lifestyles - eating and exercising. They didn't believe me. Because they didn't lose weight immediately, they felt somehow it didn't work.

I would tell them, don't believe me, in fact don't THINK about it at all. Just DO IT.

In fitness we would call it "fake it till you make it" (i think some self help books say the same thing).

I wouldn't say "fake it" when it comes to Mitzvot or the Torah, but i would almost describe it as not OVEr thinking it. Learn it, Be it. (actions). One you are living the Torah (again, action), your feelings will change (it does for me!) -

For my clients who exercised (reluctantly), eventually noticed they felt better (more that there was an absence of pain), and then told me so.

Oy a bit of a rambling.

Thank you for the most amazing website. I am learning so much! Reply

Eli Federman Milwaukee, WI November 16, 2004

Constructive Crtique Fabulous upbeat tone! Well done Rabbi Lipskar!
It’s important to remember that the first prisons mandated religious programs (whence the term ‘penance’ is derived from ‘penitentiary’). They were built under the philosophy that only through intensive “bible” (not the Torah—these were Quakers) study could inmates truly reintegrate into society. The consequences were deleterious.
Many religious programs in prisons have failed (as stated in the article, no research has established a link between reductions in recidivism and increased religious programs).
Another concern is that prisons are public institutions, and having religious programs funded by the state often blurs the separation line b/w church and state delineated in our constitution.
Some relegious programs have unwittingly opened the door for evangelics proselytizing behind prison walls, with the states stamp of approval, under the guise of voluntary religious programs, resulting in disaster for some misguided Jewish inmates Reply

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