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Anna Olswanger

The Meaning of Jewish Narrative
An Interview with Dr. Hillel Grossman

Dr. Hillel Grossman is Co-Director of the Clinical Research Core of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and Clinical Director of the Mount Sinai Memory and Aging Center. Before enteringmedical school, he studied in the graduate program in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and in the smicha program at Yeshiva University. A contributor to Kaplan and Saddock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, he is the author of a number of articles in research journals.

Anna Olswanger: Do you see a connection between narrative and Torah?

Hillel Grossman: Torah is attentive to complex structural rules, perhaps all the more striking when they're violated. But Torah is attentive to content as well. When you look at the book of Leviticus, it's all rules and laws. It has little narrative, but it's bounded by a narrative structure. It starts with: "Moses is called, and this is what he is told." That's an unusual way to lay out rules, but that's the way the Torah chooses. Even its driest and most legalistic portions are bounded by narrative structure.

Olswanger: Does that mean that Jews and narrative are innately connected?

Grossman: As a psychiatrist, I see a connection between Jews and narrative. Jews of this century and the past century championed "narrative therapy," so much so that psychoanalysis was derided by the Nazis as a Jewish therapy.

Olswanger: What is narrative therapy?

Grossman: In medicine we talk about two different approaches, "disease" and "illness." That's from Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and anthropologist. The distinction is that disease tends to be objective, and has little to do with the individual. In the case of lung cancer, it doesn't matter whether a fifty-year-old white male executive or a twenty-year-old African-American woman has it. It's lung cancer. In the disease perspective, the logic is scientific. It looks at the symptoms and tries to congeal those into a syndrome, then looks to find the pathobiology and asks what the broken part is.

The term "illness" incorporates the disease, but pays more attention to the individual who has it. So it's no longer a case of lung cancer, but it's "Mr. or Ms. So-and-So." I think it's fairly well appreciated that if you're just going to treat disease, you may be effective, but you may not. And in psychiatry—despite clear-cut brain diseases like schizophrenia—if all you know how to do is give out medications, you're not going to be effective.

So the techniques that we use in psychiatry—narrative therapy or "life story techniques"—are techniques that help patients develop an accounting which is their life story, and help them understand how they came to be where they are. The hope from there is that once they appreciate that, they can go through life with a greater sense of self-awareness and—very important for psychiatry—self-mastery. If you know your story, maybe you have the ability to edit it.

Olswanger: Does studying Torah help us to edit our life stories?

Grossman: I think that's very much the case.

Olswanger: How?

Grossman: Torah is written in a sparse, read-between-the-lines fashion, so that you have to enter into it. Torah pulls you in, and you bring yourself, along with modernity. You don't want to make the mistake of trying to impose a modern sensibility on a biblical character who clearly didn't have that. On the ther hand, I'm not so sure that modern sensibility is new.

And as with any good literature, you read Torah to see how you identify with, or don't identify with, the characters. I think that is the objective of an honest reading of Torah. Things get distorted nowadays when people read Torah in a way that is entirely allegorical. That's not just with poetry like Song of Songs. People read stories in Genesis and ignore the most obvious interpretations.

Olswanger: Has Torah helped you edit your own life story?

Grossman: I think that Torah wants me to be involved in "correcting the world." And psychiatry gives me the opportunity to be involved in this on an individual basis. It's not just that I've got the generic mandate, but I've got a specific project on a day-to-day, even hour-to-hour basis with my patients. Like anyone else, though, I'd like more time to think and be creative—in my case, to write.

Olswanger: Doesn't a psychiatrist accomplish more than a writer in correcting the world?

Grossman: I hold the writer at a higher level. The physician is replaceable. If it's not you, it's someone else. You hope that you have your own way of doing medicine that's more compassionate, smarter, more insightful. But ultimately, if it's not you, someone else will do it almost as well. That's not true of the writer. That story that you have, no one else can write it. No one else is going to bring that particular meaning to the world. That's about as individualistic as it gets.

Olswanger: How would you define "Jewish story?"

Grossman: Cynthia Ozick defines Jewish story as story that has moral seriousness. She considers George Eliot a Jewish writer, even though Eliot wasn't Jewish. I don't know if Ozick goes through modern authors, but I don't imagine she would regard Philip Roth as a Jewish writer. His stories don't have moral seriousness. They're not concerned with being good, or being better. They're out to critique, but the critique is superficial. "These are disgusting fat people who make pigs of themselves," he seems to say, but even disgusting fat people have some psychological depth. That doesn't mean that a story has to ave a good ending, or all good people, or any good people, in order to be "Jewish." It just has to have moral depth.

Olswanger: Does Jewish story have an ultimate purpose?

Grossman: I think Jewish story helps people find meaning, which is what the Torah sets out to do.

Text copyright © 2000-2010 Anna Olswanger and Hillel Grossman