Remembering the Great Rabbi and Psychiatrist Abraham Twerski

February 15, 2021 | Edward Reichman and Menachem Butler
About the author:

Among those who have lost their lives to the coronavirus since the year began was Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, the scion of a major ḥasidic dynasty, the author of some 80 books, and a psychiatrist who ran a world-famous addiction clinic. Twerski, who died in Jerusalem at the age of ninety, developed a particular worldview that drew on impressive knowledge of the Jewish tradition, the practical wisdom of the twelve-step program, and the simple life lessons of the comic strip Peanuts. But Twerski’s path was not an easy or foreordained one, note Edward Reichman and Menachem Butler, pointing to his correspondence with the renowned Israeli halakhic authority Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, in which he sought advice about whether to pursue a career as a physician. In 1959, Twerski’s graduation from medical school was the subject of a short profile in Time magazine, which Reichman and Butler have uncovered:

Twerski is a Jewish rabbi like his father, two uncles, father-in-law, two older brothers, and (when they finish their studies) two younger twin brothers. And to keep the Torah as an Orthodox Jew for six years of studies in Milwaukee’s Roman Catholic Marquette University was something like running a sack race, an egg race, and an army obstacle course at the same time.

First there was the problem of keeping his religion from growing rusty: he rose each day at 5:30am, put in an hour’s study of the Talmud before [the] early service at Milwaukee’s Beth Jehuda Synagogue, where he is assistant rabbi. Medical-school classes began at 8am, and here real complications set in. His full black beard was a sanitary problem in surgery, requiring special snood-like surgical masks. His tallit katan, a small prayer shawl worn by many Orthodox Jews under their shirts, had to be made of cotton instead of wool—which might set off a static spark and ignite the anesthetic in an operating room. Religious holidays sometimes required months of advance planning.

In the midst of his studies, Twerski found himself unable to keep up with tuition payments, when administrators at Marquette mentioned his case to the Catholic comedian Danny Thomas—then at the height of his television career. Thomas put forward $4,000 to cover Twerski’s tuition.

Read more on Seforim: