Book Review: Attached by Rabbi Yakov Danishefsky
After World War II, the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) studied child development by observing orphans. He noticed a phenomenon that all the theories of child development at the time could not explain. Namely, even children who were given adequate medical care, nourishing food, and shelter were not thriving. Some even died. In trying to explain why some children flourished while others given virtually the same circumstances perished, Bowlby eventually developed his groundbreaking theory of attachment. Based on ideas from evolutionary biology, ethology, and social psychology, attachment theory proposes that because human beings are born helpless, they are “programmed” to search for and to attach to a caregiver, or multiple caregivers, for survival. Crucially, the nature of the relationship between caregiver and infant makes all the difference in the world. In accordance with how the caregiver provides the infant’s physical and emotional needs, the infant will learn whether to rely on and feel safe with the caregiver. The infant-caregiver relationship, in turn, shapes the infant’s brain and instills within it an implicit set of beliefs and expectancies about future relationships as well.
Attachment theory has become one of the most heavily researched areas of psychology. There is a great amount of literature showing how our earliest interactions with our caregivers greatly colors our future relationships with romantic partners, friendships, coworkers, and even teammates. Yet, one of the most understudied areas of attachment theory is how our earliest attachment schemas impact our relationship with God. Rabbi Yakov Danishefky’s Attached seeks and succeeds at filling this gap.
As both a rabbi and licensed clinical social worker, R. Danishefsky is uniquely qualified to not only elucidate the concepts of attachment theory within a religious framework, but to show how these concepts were always embedded into Judaism itself. R. Danishefsky creatively articulates this concept before the book is even opened; the book’s cover contains the Hebrew subtitle, u’ledavka bo, from the verse, “And to Him [God] you shall attach yourself (Deut. 11:22).” “It’s quite amazing,” writes R. Danishefsky, “that the Torah’s choice of word for connecting to God is literally the Hebrew word for attachment, deveikut.” R. Danishefsky impressively quotes from a wide range of Jewish sources-such as the Talmud, the Zohar, Maimonides, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov- within the narrative of his book to elucidate his points. While the amount of sources are great, the reader does not feel overwhelmed or lost within them; each one is used to make a purposeful point, with more complementary sources quoted in the extensive footnotes.
However, to say this book is about attachment theory and God is a bit of a misnomer. It is so much more. R. Danishefsky introduces a diverse range of other psychological concepts and research and explains how they can be used to enhance our relationship with God. For example, the author cites the research of Drs. John and Julie Gottman who found that, fascinatingly, the question that offers the best predictor of a satisfying relationship is this: When I’m with this person, how do I feel about myself? R. Danishefsy then relates this to our relationship with God: “How do you feel about yourself in the relationship with the God you currently engage? Do you feel loved, accepted, wanted, able to make and own mistakes, confident enough and motivated to expand beyond your comfort zone, and happy being in your own skin? Do you feel that you can be you—without putting on an act?”
In a particularly moving section of the book, the author cites the research of marriage therapist Gary Chapman who identified five primary ways in which people express and feel love, their “love language.” R. Danishefsy ingeniously shows how these five love languages can be present in our relationship with God as well: Words of affirmation can be found in our prayers and blessings; Quality time can be linked to Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and the halachically specified times present in each day of the year; Gifts and Acts of service correspond to fulfillment of Chukim, the mitzvot that seem to lack a rationale; and Touch closely mirrors the physical nature that many of the mitzvot require. There are many other researchers and theorists that the author explores and it is only towards the end of the book where the author gets into the thicket of the different attachment styles and shows how they too are manifested in our religious life. In this way, another subtitle of this book, A Jewish Psychological Approach, is aptly fitting. This book is more about how a diverse range of psychological research on the nature of relationships can inform and enhance our Judaism in ways hitherto unarticulated. When reading the book I couldn’t help thinking of the blessing that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai gave his students before his death: “May it be His will that the fear of Heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood (Berachot 28b).” Although not the simple understanding of the blessing, perhaps what Attached teaches us is that not only should the fear of Heaven be comparable to the fear of man, but that the fear of Heaven, and by extension our relationship with God, should be informed by our understanding of human relationships.
Yet, what makes this book truly enjoyable to read is that it isn’t written from the perspective of a researcher sitting in their ivory tower but by a therapist who sees the issues discussed in this book in real life on a daily basis. In a sense, R. Danishefsky follows in the tradition of the works of famed psychiatrist Irvin Yalom by introducing to the reader the stories of his clients and the struggles they are going through. To name just a few, throughout the book we are introduced to John, a successful forty-year-old man who was unable to engage in new romantic relationships due to a devastating false accusation labeled at him by a previous romantic partner; Corey, a teenager who couldn’t engage in prayer because he couldn’t imagine God caring about what he had to say which, R. Danishefsy discovers, is due to his father neglecting him as a child; and Avi who, despite being highly skilled and diligent at learning Torah in his youth, dropped learning altogether when the responsibilities of married life made it difficult for him to maintain the rigorous learning schedule he expected of himself. Eventually, R. Danishefsky pieces together that Avi’s upbringing reinforced the idea that learning Gemara as the sole way to achieve praise and attention from his family and, by extension, God. When Avi wasn’t able to learn Gemara in the same way he was used to, he assumed God wasn’t interested in any of his religious observances.
While giving the reader a glimpse into the lives of his clients, R. Danishefsy also follows the path of Lori Gottlieb’s bestseller Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by disclosing personal details about his life journey as well. These anecdotes are raw and emotional, but greatly enhance the book’s readability and relatability. Everyone, including rabbis and therapists, struggles with their marriage and with periods of depression. By including these poignant personal examples in the book, the reader perceives R. Danishefsky as someone who “get’s it,” and is person worthy of giving insight and advice.
Relatedly, it’s interesting that R. Danishefsky does not include the existing research on attachment theory and God in Attached. For example, research has found that individuals who hold a secure attachment to God were more engaged in theological/existential exploration, and were curious about and tolerant of alternative views while subscribing firmly to their beliefs. A secure attachment to God has been found to be correlated with lower psychological distress and prospectively predicts increases in self-esteem and optimism over time. While it may have been helpful for these points to be included in the footnotes, I believe that in omitting them from the body text R. Danishefsky follows the path of Shimon HaAmmassoni who said, “Just as I received reward for the interpretation, so I shall receive reward for my withdrawal (Pesachim 22b).” Including more psychological jargon, research, and additional Judaic sources in the body text would, in my opinion, take away from the goal of the book which is summarized by a third subtitle of the book, Connecting to Our Creator. What’s clear from Attached is that it is not meant to be a pretentious tome or a definitive summary of existing research; it is meant to serve as a self-reflective and practical guide to cultivating a relationship with God.
Attached provides the reader a rare opportunity to become informed of psychological research and inspired to improve their relationship with God. Although he presents abstract ideas, R. Danishefsky does an excellent job at providing practical steps to incorporate into our daily lives. Each chapter is laden with thought provoking examples that makes it difficult to put the book down. But what makes this book a must-read is that it captivates the mind and causes the reader to think about it even once it is finished. Since reading this book, I have not stopped thinking about it.