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Friday, 31 August 2012

Judaism and psychoanalysis

The great Jewish-American literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote that Freud's conceptual explorations of the human psyche "have begun to merge with our culture, and indeed now form the only Western mythology that contemporary intellectuals have in common" (1986). Yet a quarter of a century on from Bloom’s grandiloquence, the idea that any single over-arching narrative through which humanity can understand itself seems both dated and - fortunately - redundant. We are all, willingly or not, postmodernists now. 

As a rabbi and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist I find myself working within two intellectual traditions that offer contrasting (yet over-lapping) modes of story-telling as the means by which people can be helped to think about their lives and construct meaning out of what occurs. Psychoanalysis, like Judaism, is a vast meaning-generating system. Whether meaning lies within the unconscious or in God's hands (to use one of the anthropomorphised poetic images that the Judaic myth offers), both systems are conceptual enterprises designed to cajole us into viewing life as being composed of events which have meaning – or out of which meaning can be made. Both suggest that everything that we do and everything that happens to us can be thought of as part of a larger picture, of which we can only know a part. Both help us defend ourselves against the fear-filled alternative: meaninglessness.

Like the psychoanalytic myth, the mythologies and theologies of the monotheistic faiths involve strenuously creative attempts to deal with the potentially overwhelming, annihilatory anxiety of tohu va'vohu : the formless, chaotic black hole at the very beginning of Genesis (1:2) - which is analogous to (and a metaphor for) aspects of early infantile experience. Within the Biblical/Judaic myth, God fills the emptiness with creative activity, just as we have to fill our lives with acts of creativity (and love) to generate meaning in the face of the void.


One of my recurring hopes is that in my rabbinic work I might be able to help Jews grow up. For, emotionally and psychologically, many Jews seem to me to live in a pre-modern world, with infantile beliefs about God continuing to dominate thinking as if Kant and Kierkegaard and Freud had never existed. Immersed in inherited ways of believing and hallowed ways of behaving, such religious adherents - as well as their secularised co-religionists - continually romanticise and sentimentalise the Jewish past, or ‘tradition’, or ‘ritual’, or attachment to Israel, as ways of avoiding the anxieties and demands of the present.

Individually or collectively, this "compulsion to repeat" is, as Freud recognised, a resistance to remembering traumatic pain. This might be personal pain rooted in family life, or collective pain left over from the Holocaust. (I simplify: this is a complex topic). But what we end up doing is unconsciously re-enacting that unresolved pain in the present: in family life, in Jewish communal politics, in relation to the Palestinians.

Bringing psychoanalytic thinking to bear on the realities of Jewish life – helping people understand projection, splitting, displacement, etc - is an endless struggle against entrenched defensiveness and denial. For a rabbi it is sometimes, as any analyst will also know, a rather thankless task. And yet, as in the Biblical myth, revelations can occur. That there might be better ways to live; that compassion and forgiveness and generosity (towards one’s self as well as in relation to others) are not only prophetic demands on the community but personal qualities that can be nurtured and that can be transformative; that sustained attentiveness to, and the interpretation of, the unfolding mysteries and dreams of everyday life is a psychological and spiritual discipline: all this involves acts of faith. And, in particular, the faith that if we listen in carefully enough – “Shema, Yisrael” : “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4) - “the pattern will emerge” (Freud).

As the New Year beckons, we begin to ask ourselves again - individually and colectively - about the patterns of our lives: what shape are we in? what motifs do we detect? what image will we leave behind?

3 comments:

  1. Thank you. I feel renewed hope after reading this, and other entries on your blog plus some of the original sermons, that meaningful engagement with a religious, or spiritual, dimension of Judaism is possible for me. I write as someone who is not Jewish but curious and with a growing personal interest in Judaism, but also as someone who, not having been a member of any organised faith previously, is struggling to connect with traditional notions of God and religious belief with any sincerity. Psychoanalytic story-telling is much more familiar – I was going to say comfortable, but then thought no, I can’t honestly say that!

    In bringing these two intellectual, meaning-making traditions together for the benefit of your fellow Jews, you are also bringing an engaging, often moving, and spiritually rich Judaism to one grateful ‘outside’ reader. I am also starting to see my psychoanalytic ‘faith’ from new perspectives, enriched by stories, meanings and values from the other ‘myth’. Wonderful. I look forward to more.

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  2. Yes, but am a bit concerned about our ability to receive what you are bringing us. As you say, "many Jews seem to me to live in a pre-modern world". That seems to ring more true than your opening contention that "We are all, willingly or not, postmodernists now." I'm not sure that we are ALL anything now, except human, and I'm even less sure that I would want us to be.

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