Book Review of Stages of Spiritual Growth

by Rachel Wizenfeld

For today’s Jew seeking to grow spiritually, there’s mussar, and then there is modern psychology. Armed with 20th century research on how behaviors develop and how humans create internal change, today’s Jewish do-gooder has an arsenal of tools beyond Pirkei Avos and the mussar masters to work on problems like, say, gossiping or overeating.

Many frum authors, notably Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski and Miriam Adahan, have blended mussar and modern psychology in their works.

Now, a new book takes this genre a step deeper – offering a serious and comprehensive approach to self-growth that includes deep Torah concepts, mussar applications and proven psychological realities.

Stages of Spiritual Growth: Resolving the Tension Between Self-expression and Submission to Divine Will, authored by Jerusalem-based teacher Batya Gallant, reads like a thoughtful, insightful class lecture, and is meant to be a manual for honing one’s spiritual essence throughout the decades of one’s life.

Gallant uses the text from an essay by R’ Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900) to develop a lifelong Torah-oriented approach towards spiritual growth for the reader, using her background in psychology to add insight, depth and practical applications.

The thesis of the book, drawn from R’ Tzadok’s essay, posits that spiritual growth follows a predictable sequence through the primary middos of chesed, gevurah and emes, roughly translated as loving-kindness, strict authority and truth/integrity, respectively.

Gallant explores the deeper meanings of these traits as well as the different levels inherent in each one and ways for individuals to master them. She also explains how people have natural orientations to different traits and how various stages of life are more amenable to growing in one trait than another.

The section on gevurah, for example, notes the natural sequence of accepting and submitting to authority: a child first accepts authority from his parents, teachers and society. As he matures and moves forward on the gevurah-spectrum, he begins to take responsibility for his decisions and choices, and, hopefully, finds the courage to submit to G-d as the absolute authority.

However, if the individual is stymied by fear of responsibility, he will refuse to choose his own values and think for himself. Thus, this person will never be able to free himself from the dictates of society and make his own choices, which is a prerequisite to submitting to the authority of G-d.

“R. Tzadok’s essay gives the work structure, but I did not study his essay and then decide to explore it in depth,” says Gallant, in describing how the book came to be. “Instead, I came across R. Tzadok’s essay after years of studying the Torah perspective on spiritual growth. R. Tzadok’s essay provided me with a framework that integrated all I had previously studied about chesed, gevurah and emes.

“My perception that this book needed to be written stemmed from my feeling that others were searching for the same clarity that I myself wanted: an understanding of spiritual growth as a task that is assigned to every human being on the one hand predictable and structured, yet on the other hand flexible enough to incorporate one’s individual path.”

Gallant had taught much of the material in Stages of Spiritual Growth to students at the Darchei Bina Women’s School for Advanced Torah Studies in Jerusalem, as well as other classes and forums, and says her students have found that the blend of psychology, mussar and Torah-philosophy yields a very satisfying feeling of comprehensiveness.

From The Jewish Press.com

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