By: Gavriel Factor  | 

The Commentator Faculty Spotlight: Exploring the Relationship Between Judaism and Psychology: An Interview with Rabbi Reuven Boshnack

Editor’s Note: This interview with Rabbi Reuven Boshnack is the first of a new column of The Commentator called “Faculty Spotlight.” For each issue, The Commentator will be interviewing a member of the faculty at Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Reuven Boshnack (YC ‘98, RIETS ‘04, Azrieli ‘08) joined the faculty of Yeshiva University in Sept. 2022 and currently serves as an advisor and mashgiach ruchani [spiritual advisor] for the James Striar School of General Jewish Studies (JSS) and the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies (IBC). In addition to his numerous degrees from YU, Rabbi Boshnack also holds a masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Touro College. Within the YU community, Rabbi Boshnack teaches various classes, including a prayer workshop, “Chassidut: Faith Through Prayer,” along with a weekly chabura titled “Chassidus and Psychology.” Before working at YU, Rabbi Boshnack was the director of OU-JLIC at Brooklyn College, where he and his wife, Shira, were dedicated to supporting the student community. He has authored several sefarim on different historical Jewish figures and Jewish thought. He is passionate about chassidus, mental health, cooking, and spending time with his family. 

The Commentator sat down with Rabbi Boshnack to speak about his journey and what he does at YU. 

Gavriel Factor: Can you share with us your journey from directing OU-JLIC at Brooklyn College to working with college students in various capacities, including your role at YU? 

Rabbi Boshnack: I have been involved with education since 1995. I was an advisor at NCSY Kollel and NCSY Camp Sports as well as serving as advisor of different chapters over the years. Then I went to RIETS and got semikha from YU where I was a student at the time. I got married and spent a year planning Shabbatonim for Long Island NCSY. From there, I went to Eretz Yisroel for the Gruss program of RIETS. After completing my years of RIETS, I went to Boca Raton and once again I was integrating both formal and informal Jewish education by teaching in the classroom. I was involved in the Katz Hillel Day School of Boca Raton and the youth programming at the Boca Raton Synagogue by running a weekly teen shaleshudis. This progressed by enjoying the formal and the informal aspects of teaching extracurriculars and classroom teaching, which then brought me to JLIC at Brooklyn College where I spent 15 years with my wife, Shira, working on campus doing a lot of informal Jewish education, teaching different classes and helping with interpersonal interactions.

So after 15 years, it was time for a little bit of a change and I rejoined the YU community — the YU Family — and came on board working for JSS and IBC. In these programs, I teach many classes and have informal interactions like the famous chassidus and sushi and psychology. This is not really a class, it's more of a chabura we're learning in a very informal setting. I also help to put on the Shabbatonim and the extracurriculars, which also add another dimension to Jewish education. So it's really been a journey since the ‘90s.

GF: Some of your interests include psychology and chassidus. How would you expand upon the relationship between these two areas and what are some of your favorite topics discussed in your chabura exploring chassidus and psychology?

RB: My chassidus and psychology chabura is really great. The guys are always so interested and it's always a lot of fun to give.

Both disciplines — the discipline of the light of the Baal Shem Tov, chassidus seeks to investigate the depth of each person in Hashem’s world and how we can uncover that depth to inspire us to avodas Hashem [service of G-d]. As we're dealing with the depth of the prayer of the universe and the depths of the person, and how they parallel each other, how they touch each other, how they interact with each other, we will learn about psychologies, those toros haadam, this is the Torah. This is the teachings of mankind. In psychology we use different tools. One part of what psychology and mental health is about is trying to look into the depths of the human condition and see what we can do to make man's life better to ameliorate pain, fear, and anxiety, and to help people live more productive and healthy lives. There's a Venn diagram where they both meet where we're touching the depths of the person. Ultimately, we want people to be healthy and as the Rambam says, you must have a healthy soul in a healthy body. To learn chassidus is to reveal the depths of the person to reveal the Godliness of each person. As a result we try to come close to our essence and the Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe]

One of my favorite concepts I like to do is the idea of “the yes,” and in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) Marsha Linehan's idea that oftentimes a person finds themselves fixed in a position that can only be black or white. Linehan helps us to be able to say yes and the ability to say that I can make sense of two conflicting realities together by saying yes. I also like the idea of the Serenity Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous to understand what I can change and the ideals of radical acceptance. The Jungian shadow self and discussion with the Baal Tanya and the nefesh habahamis was a compare and contrast idea similar to the shadow self, the part of ourselves that we wrestle with and struggle with, like the idea of the yetzer hara or the nefesh habahamis and how we find some catharsis with all that were with their interactions. We've spoken about teshuva and being able to retrace man's steps to learn from failure. There's just such a world of depth in both of these disciplines and it's great to investigate it together with the guys.

GF: As a mental health counselor do you have any recommendations for students struggling with anxiety or adjustment issues, particularly in the context of balancing academic, social, and religious commitments?

RB: In the clinical world, one advice that I can offer you is to not burn yourselves out. Take care of yourselves and if you need help, go seek counseling. Make sure that you take care of your mind and your body. It's the only one that you get. Make sure that when you're having a problem, realize most of the time, 99% or maybe even 100% of the time, you're not alone. Also, give yourselves the room to try new things and also give yourselves the room to know that life is life, and you will fail if you try new things. But what you learn along the way enhances your life incredibly, and you're not expected to have it all figured out right now. 

GF: What inspired you to write your books on Maharal, Sefas Emes, and Izhbitz? Can you give us a glimpse into the themes you explore in them?

RB: Maharal, Sefas Emes and Izhbitz are all very systematic thinkers. When you learn a lot of their teachings, you see that they're working with a system. I like systematic thought where you can see these patterns and you can trace the lines, and how all of it comes together. I originally “met” the Maharal in NCSY and then was exposed more and more in Rabbi Goldwicht’s shiurim and from classes from the YU Judaic Studies department. It is such a stunning world of unbelievable depth, thought, and structure. I want to be able to share this with people who don't have the background in Hebrew or in the language of the Hasidic masters to be able to open these books and draw the same inspiration that I draw.

GF: What is your favorite aspect of being part of the YU community?

RB: It's really so great to be back here at Yeshiva University and be part of the family and the community over here. Number one, to give back to a place that I and my wife, Shira, received and learned so much from and that helped to form much of our lives. And YU is known to be the epicenter of a lot of the leadership of our community. The leaders in our communities were my classmates while I was at YU, and they studied business, rabbinics, science, medicine, and psychology and they were all sitting with me in Furst Hall and Belfer, some of them were in shiur with me and this is where so much of our future leadership is going to be coming from and it's great to have a part in that. 

GF: Finally, what advice would you give to students? 
RB: Enjoy all the different things that make YU, YU. All the different aspects of it, the clubs, the shiurim, the activities, the Shabbatonim, take advantage and make the most of it, you only get to do this once. The opportunities that you have right now, these are unique. At every point in life there's different opportunities and moments but these opportunities are unique to this moment. So enjoy them. You don't need to be in such a rush to finish. Enjoy it. Enjoy being a student leader. Enjoy that once you're an upperclassman you get to help to give the lower classmen the opportunities that you had, and “pay it forward,” as they say. Enjoy your time because these are building blocks. The truth is that all of our lives are building blocks and these are the building blocks into the future. Make sure that you are like they say “carpe diem” [seize the day]. Learn well, study hard and enjoy.


Photo caption: The Commentator interviews Rabbi Reuven Boshnack 

Photo credit: Rabbi Reuven Boshnack