Self Determination

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Values & Similarities in the Practice of Religion & Social Work



The meaning of the word religion has its roots in the Latin word religiare (to read again and again or the thing that binds), a steadfastness that does not change. The tenets of the practice of the social work profession  are steadfast and applied thus. Relationship is a common denominator between groups of people who practice the Judeo-Christian faith and those who practice social work.  There is a “tie” that binds, a deeper meaning, an understanding that relates one to the other.  Relationship is the most important and the first thing that is essential in being able to have a commonality when  coming close to individuals.  How can the “healer” and the one to be healed understand one another if there is no commonality between them, if they do not comprehend how the injured one feels or what he/she has experienced? It is the proverbial “tie that binds”.  This too is true of a religion that is shared by a segment of humanity.  It is true of the positives and the negative aspects of a given faith.  The positives are obvious.  They are the core of the tenets, the rules, the customs and ceremonies that are prescribed and to be followed.  The negative aspects are so clearly seen by the persecutions that occur and that have occurred.  An example was the holocaust, when the Nazis in Germany annihilated six million Jews mercilessly with brutality because of their religion, without knowing them or caring to know them. Another form of  negative relationships are sado-masochistic ones that are destructive and harmful, and do not encompass what is meant when stressing the importance of positivity  in advocacy in either religious practice or social work. 

In social work an important tenet is to be nonjudgmental.  It is stressed that the practitioners view each human being as unique without having preconceived notions.  The positive aspects must be considered without reservation as to negative images that are unsubstantiated by facts.  The particular individual must be given an opportunity to become a healthy and whole person in his own right by using his innate ability and inner strength.  The client is helped to help himself.  In religion also, each person is given the opportunity to adapt, to change if needed, and to grow at his own pace.  In the Jewish faith the person who has strayed from righteousness, from honesty, from the “straight and narrow,” is given the opportunity to return to that which is good and acceptable until the proverbial hour before his death.  He is to be forgiven for his “sins” - his trespasses -  and be accepted in the “olem habo”, the hereafter, along with his righteous brethren. In the Talmud, the prayer books, the Bible and other religious tracts, it is strongly emphasized that humans are not to sit in judgment over other humans, that Hashem (the Lord) is the only Judge, and that we as people must leave the practice of judgment to G’d.

Self-determination is an essential rule for both social work and religion.  It is a very healthy and rational practice, given normal circumstances (this excludes suicide and other destructive impulses and possible behaviors).  As people we want to make our own decisions in all aspects of our lives, as much as that is possible.  Examples are seen daily.  No one wants to do actions or practices which another dictates to him.  The religion is one that we have chosen (with the input of our parents and traditions).  We cannot be coerced into this.  What is against our “grain” cannot truly be forced upon us in our beliefs.  There are many humorous stories about this .  One such is about a Jewish man who became a priest.  When he first began to stand before a pulpit he addressed the parishioners thus:  Good morning fellow “Goyim” (a Jewish expression meaning outsiders or strangers). Another is the Jewish gentleman who wants to fit in, so he attends lessons with a priest and becomes “converted” to Catholicism.  At the time of his conversion, no meat of any kind could be consumed on Fridays and the custom was that fish must be the fare to be consumed.  The last thing the priest did was to sprinkle holy water from a holy vessel on the person of the convert with the statement:  Once Jew, now Catholic.  One Friday evening the priest visited the convert at home.  He approached his new brother and confronted him with the fact that there was a  smell of chicken in the oven.  The convert denied the allegation.  When the priest opened the oven door and saw a delicious looking brown roasted chicken baking, he confronted the convert with the falsehood.  The convert turned on the water in the sink and sprinkled it on the chicken roast, stating “Once chicken, now fish, once chicken now fish, etc”.  Another example of taking rights / self determination away is by persuasion against the will of a person to move away from his home in his old age.  Children, out of alleged and most often “good will” or good intentions, have persuaded an octogenarian to leave a city in which she has lived all of her life so that she may live near them.  The adults are occupied with their own lives, their jobs, and their duties, and have little time to visit “Mom” (or dad) in the assisted living facility.  The person feels very much alone.  She feels robbed of her friends, her small home, her dog, and all the objects and people that were familiar to her.  She is uncomfortable and out of her element and daydreams of home, where she knew her hairdresser, the neighborhood grocery store, her synagogue or church, and all that which had meaning in her life.  She is unhappy and inadvertently  hastens her own demise. It is better to live one's own dreams than live another person's edicts and well meant directives.

Assisting another in carrying out his or her realistic decisions is a “mitzwa”, a blessing, a good deed.  Except for unusual circumstances and the preservation of life, self determination is an essential aspect of both the practice of religion and the practice of social work.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Deviant Nurses & Improper Patient Care (2006).

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