REVIEW: Attached: Connecting to Our Creator

Sara Wolkenfeld Tradition Online | August 21, 2023

Yakov Danishefsky, Attached: Connecting to Our Creator: A Jewish Psychological Approach (Mosaica Press), 166 pp.

What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, the person will always be obsessed with this love as if lovesick. [A lovesick person’s] thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman (Maimonides, Hilkhot Teshuva 10:3).

Maimonides invokes passionate love between people as a key metaphor for the human relationship with the Divine. This way of thinking about the human-Divine connection, one also widely explored by midrashic interpretations of Shir HaShirim, provokes questions about how love is nourished and how it functions. Equating the love of God to that of romantic partner demands a lot of people in both types of relationships.

The challenge of relating to God is unique: God is infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, and takes no physical form. However, relationships with physical, finite, fallible humans are also difficult, and we work to perfect them throughout our lives.

The thesis of Rabbi Yakov Danishefsky’s Attached: Connecting to Our Creator: A Jewish Psychological Approach is that the skills we develop in relating to the people around us, particularly our romantic partners, can help us craft a relationship with God. Rather than thinking of these relationships as occupying fundamentally different parts of our personalities, we can think of all relationship-building as essentially working the same muscles within our souls. The strategies that allow our human connections to thrive can also be a source of strength to connect with the Divine.

At the core of this book is a belief that strong relationships are central to human flourishing. As important as they are, these relationships can easily founder, even when all those involved in them mean well. Attachment theory, first formulated by the psychologist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the mid-twentieth century, posits that from the time they are born, humans need to be deeply connected to others in order to survive. From physical health to emotional stability, attachment experiences determine a person’s ability to thrive in the world. As Danishefsky says, “Maslow’s basic needs category includes food, shelter, and safety. These are basic needs, but relationships belong right there with them.” In a society that is currently obsessing over an epidemic of post-pandemic loneliness, it is easy to relate to the necessity of healthy relationships in all of our lives.

In this, his first book, the author draws on his experiences as a psychotherapist, his training as a rabbi, and his skills as a teacher of Torah to create a readable book that presents the basic components of healthy connections and their resonance in Jewish thought. It is clear that the encounters he has had as a therapist and as a teacher (I know him from our time as colleagues in a yeshiva high school setting) have given him real insight into the problems that plague teens and adults alike when they contemplate a relationship with God.

Attached is structured around the key components of a human relationship, and includes examples of the challenges that couples encounter and how they work through them to become more supportive, engaged, and fulfilled lovers. The book is divided into three main sections. It starts with “The Good Stuff”—chapters that focus on the value of relationships and what it might look like to apply these ideas to a search for God. He then covers “The Hard Stuff,” meaning the obstacles that inevitably arise when forming intimate relationships. Finally, we reach “The You Stuff,” which looks at the components of our own inner lives that must be navigated in order to maintain a meaningful connection with the Divine.

Danishefsky synthesizes academic research, pop psychology, and rabbinic tales, framing each chapter around one or more engaging episode of relationships and their pitfalls. Anecdotes about patients who have come to Danishefsky for help connecting with others are intertwined with Jewish ideas that illustrate similar principles.

However, it would be a mistake to read this book simply as a work of spiritual self-help where a few well-worn modern principles are given credence through selected, acontextual quotations from wisdom literature. Such works generally focus on extrapolating from psychological theories and providing uplifting anecdotes and encouragement for the reader. Attached is accessible, but provides broad context for the ideas and concepts from which it draws, and does not shy away from introducing complex source texts. The full depth of the work is revealed in the footnotes, which make it clear that the author is translating concepts from a wide array of rabbinic sources into modern psychological terminology. While the body of the work is framed as a direct appeal to ordinary experiences that apply equally to the learned and the novice, the footnotes demonstrate that a lifetime of careful study informs the work.

The interplay between text and footnote in the chapter on “Body Wisdom” serves as a rich example of the ways in which these notes deepen the reading experience. The chapter describes the subjective human experience of knowing that there is God, but not being able to justify the belief. In the body of the work, Danishefsky states that “I know there is a tree in front of me because my body is directly and immediately experiencing this tree. Likewise, I can know that God exists because my body is directly and immediately experiencing the existence and presence of God” (34). As the author himself acknowledges, this kind of personal encounter is difficult to discuss in the realm of logic or philosophy, and the reader is left to accept or reject this assertion about the immediacy of God, depending on one’s own inclinations and experiences. Enter the footnotes, which add nuance and depth to this argument. The footnote on the passage quoted above is almost two pages long, and explores sources ranging from R. Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, to Rav Kook, to R. Eliezer Berkovits, concluding with a quote from R. Soloveitchik’s And From There You Shall Seek: “Just as consciousness of the world in general, and of the self in particular, do not involve logical demonstrations but constitute the spiritual essence of man, so too with the experience of the Divine.”

This window into a world of philosophical discussion about the relationship between faith and reason gave me a very different perspective on the idea of “body wisdom.” I imagine many readers would be content to enjoy the lively writing and ignore the footnotes, but I found those references and excurses to be the key that unlocked my ability to fully engage with the messages of the book. Even when I did not share the perspective of the “Jew on the street” described in the chapter, the perspectives these notes provide into a world of philosophical discussion situated me within the conversation.

Despite the richness of Danishefsky’s footnotes and the power of some of his interpretations, two aspects of his use of gender and gender relationships kept jarring me out of my reading. First, he always genders God as male and, while this is a common stylistic choice in traditional Jewish texts, it feels odd in a book that draws heavily on male-female relationships to make its points. As a heterosexual female reader cultivating my own relationship with the Divine, I would have preferred to have a distinction between the language that describes crafting a romantic relationship and that which refers to one’s religious life. Danishefsky’s own, extremely nuanced relationship with a male God is both compared to and distinct from the heterosexual paradigm that is his central metaphor. For readers for whom God as male is less relatable, the constant presence of male pronouns can occasionally distract from the very real work of building that relationship.

In addition, while the analogy between the man-women relationship and the human-Divine relationship is strong, one does not map exactly and entirely onto the other, as Danishefsky is quick to point out. One of the most powerful moments in the book is his description of the piyyutAnu Amekha” recited prior to vidui on Yom Kippur. It lists the many different relationships that we have with God, by way of a long list of metaphors for that relationship. Danishefsky notes that he and his wife have this piyyut framed in their home, and even offers his own poetic addition to the end of the piyyut. He asks: “[H]ow could a relationship with God be likened to all of them? Because it’s actually like none of them. It is all of them and more” (75). Given that awareness, it was notable to me that the examples in the book of people trying to work through attachment issues were almost exclusively focused on intimate relationships between men and women. As Rabbi Danishefsky himself acknowledges in his discussion of this piyyut, there are many other forms of connection and intimacy—many of which are explicitly recognized by Jewish sources as paradigms for the Divine-human relationship. Parenthood comes to mind as foremost among other possible paradigms. Mara H. Benjamin’s book, The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press, 2018), is an example of constructing theology using a model of parenthood for God’s relationship with humanity. I appreciate Danishefsky’s deep investment in the paradigm of finding the right life partner and building that relationship, and it works well as a construct for the book. Nonetheless, the many allusions to emotional neglect in all its forms—including examples of children whose parents never properly expressed their care—made me curious about mapping these concepts onto other kinds of relationships.

Of course, this critique may reveal as much about my own challenges relating to the Divine as it does about the experience of reading Attached. Perhaps Rabbi Danishefsky’s greatest gift is his open discussions of his own relationship with God and his struggles on that journey. I suspect that many of us have friends with whom we can discuss the daily hiccups of being in a romantic relationship, or the mishaps and victories of trying to attain one. How many of us, though, have the space to open up a conversation about how our relationship with the Divine is progressing this week, or about how God is showing up for us in our daily lives? Attached demonstrates the importance of having a thought partner for these discussions, and a conceptual framework for thinking about how to deepen this relationship.

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