A Different Kind Of Vision
09/19/03
Staff Writer
The publisher wanted a suggestion for the cover of a forthcoming book with a religious theme. The publisher turned to the book's author, Rabbi Dennis Shulman. Think of Rodin's "Hand of God," said Rabbi Shulman. iUniverse, the publisher, liked the suggestion. So on the cover of "The Genius of Genesis: A Psychoanalyst and Rabbi Examines the First Book of the Bible," which was published this summer, is a drawing of a hand, representing God's, holding two human figures, representing Adam and Eve. The artwork is patterned after August Rodin's marble sculpture in the Rodin Museum in Paris. They're not an exact match. The hand in the statue is vertical; in the drawing it's horizontal. But Rabbi Shulman was pleased. Although he never saw Rodin's sculpture or his book's cover. The rabbi, 53, of Demarest, N.J., who practices psychoanalysis there and in Manhattan, started losing his eyesight as a child to degeneration of the optic nerve. By his late teens, by the time he was in college and toured Paris with a friend and "saw" Rodin's works with his fingertips, he was totally blind. Friends described the cover to him. With the help of Braille texts and hired readers, and in recent years of a computer with simulated speech, he graduated college (a bachelor's degree from Brandeis University and a doctorate from Harvard); trained in psychoanalysis (at The National Institute for the Psychotherapies in New York); studied for the rabbinate (at the Academy for Jewish Religion, with a private ordination this summer from a Reform bet din); and wrote his book (on a laptop computer adapted with a few Braille keys). Now he's at work on his next book, on the weekly Torah portion. "I'm a good typist," Rabbi Shulman says, deflecting attention from the accomplishment of a blind person writing a scholarly tome. He shows a visitor his Braille Lite device, a combination notebook/speech synthesizer, smaller than a cigar box, on which he takes notes by pressing a combination of six buttons. He tells of recorded books provided by the Jewish Braille Institute. He tells of the growing availability on the Internet of the classical commentaries he needed to consult for his book. "Everything I want, I get: almost," he says. Other rabbis, sighted rabbis, ask him to find sources on-line. "I live in a sighted world, more than other blind people," Rabbi Shulman says. And he operates as a sighted person, traveling by bus from New Jersey, using only a cane (New York is too rough on guide dogs), and leading weekly Shabbat services, as volunteer, at Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine, N.J. (His only concession: He lets someone else hold the candle during havdalah services Saturday night). Rabbi Shulman looks you in the eye (rather he looks at the sound of your voice) while speaking, not letting his eyes wander, as many blind-from-birth people do. "It's second nature," he says, from his years with sight. "I often get visual memories," he says, his mind imagining what his eyes once saw. Raised in a Reform home in Worcester, Mass., where "Judaism was a central part of our lives," he considered becoming a rabbi as a teen. He had a crisis of faith when his girlfriend died of leukemia, found his life's meaning in working with the mentally handicapped, turned to psychoanalysis for a career in a "search for complexity," and found himself lecturing about Judaism and psychoanalysis. "Even without faith," Rabbi Shulman says, "I was always extremely interested in Judaism." He found the story of the Akedah, Abraham's binding and near-sacrifice of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, particularly fascinating. "Without knowing it, I was being a rabbi. My lectures started to have a rabbinic edge to them," he says. "They started feeling like sermons." You should become a rabbi, his friends old him. "I was the last to know it," Rabbi Shulman says. He taught himself Hebrew through Braille, then for five years attended classes in his spare time at the Riverdale-based, nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion. "I wanted to study more seriously," the rabbi, who teaches at the New York Kollel at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, says of his decision to enter formal rabbinic studies. Even before his ordination be began leading services, giving weekly divrei Torah at Beth Shalom. "I'm an observant Reform Jew," he says. "I pray every day. I memorized" the prayers. And his crisis of faith? "Sometimes I pray knowing there's someone listening," Rabbi Shulman says. "Sometimes I'm struggling to be a believer." A psychoanalyst who is a rabbi raises some obvious questions: Isn't that a contradiction? How does someone from a field that historically rejected religion embrace a life as a clergyman? What would Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, say? "Freud grew up in the 19th century. When he grew up, science" (Freud envisioned psychoanalysis as a branch of science) "and religion were opposites," the rabbi says. "Freud would say my ethics are right. He might see me as a little too idealistic. He would be in disagreement with the content" of the rabbi's work. "He would be in agreement with the tone." In Rabbi Shulman's view, religion, at least the Jewish religion, and psychoanalysis complement each other: both offer "complex" explanations for human behavior. His book, which emphasizes a religious perspective on psychoanalysis instead of a psychoanalytic analysis of the Torah's early figures, grew from his lectures on the topic. (Information about the book is available at www.dennisshulman.com.) He writes about Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. "The psychoanalytic attitude toward the clinical material and the commentator's attitude toward the sacred text have much in common," he writes in the introduction. "I would summarize both sets of attitudes, while standing on one foot, by stating that there is no such thing as nonsense." In other words, every facet of an individual's behavior is significant, every letter and word in the Torah is necessary. "Dennis has a great reverence for the text," says Daniel Victor, an old friend from Worcester who now lives in Manhattan and has met Rabbi Shulman for a weekly, early-morning study session over the last three years. Victor, an attorney, is Orthodox. He and the rabbi have learned Talmud, the writings of Maimonides, the weekly Torah portion. "He's very precise and exacting in reading the text, as the traditional meforshim [commentators] would be," Victor says. "The fact that he is not Orthodox is pretty irrelevant." The rabbi, at work on a book about the weekly Sabbath portions, wrote "The Genius of Genesis" in about five months. "The hardest part," he says, "was the last chapter," which summarizes his melding of Judaism's ancient traditions and psychoanalysis' contemporary outlook. Choosing the book's cover was easy, Rabbi Shulman says. He talked with the publisher by phone or Internet. "The publisher did not know that I was blind. I don't think the publisher knows to this day," he says. And Rabbi Shulman says he knows what "Hand of God" looks like. "I remember the Rodin statue," he says. "I know exactly what it looks like. I know again because it is sitting across from me and I can go over and touch it."

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10/27/2009 - 09:21

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