Judaism and Psychology

Reference: My Jewish Learning

By Jessica Kraft

Jewish psychologists and the influence of Jewish tradition have been instrumental in creating the field of modern psychology.

The fundaments of several psychological movements can be traced directly to Jewish values, ideas, and practices, and Jews in the 20th century were at the forefront of research about the psyche and the varieties of human behavior.

Jewish psychologists founded several branches of psychological inquiry. All of the major theorists of the Gestalt school, except Wolfgang Kohler, were Jews. Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Lewin, and Kurt Goldstein posited theories of perception and understanding based on holistic understanding, rather than a previous model based on the computation of parts.

Psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud and, with the notable exception of Carl Jung, most of its early proponents were also Jews.

Why the Jews?

Some intellectual historians speculate that it was particular Jewish personality and cultural traits that led Jews to lead the field of psychology in its early days.

In a social psychology study of Jewish families, researchers F.M. Herz and E.J. Rosen found that in contrast to some other ethnic groups, Jews on the whole tend to choose verbal expression as a way of expressing emotions, particularly negative or painful experiences. Historical circumstances of oppression, segregation, and confined living conditions often resulted in close-knit communities of Jews who felt their pain deeply and expressed it to one another plainly.

According to studies conducted by Mark Zborowski, an anthropologist who investigated cultural aspects of pain, Jews respond more quickly to physical discomfort than non-Jews. Jewish families often discuss issues and problems in great detail, and suffering individuals are encouraged to “let out” their feelings and achieve catharsis through communication.

According to Peter Langman, “Jews differ from many cultural groups in that they place less value on self-reliance and are less suspicious of taking their problems to professionals.” Thus, the traditional role of rabbi/rebbe involves extensive counseling or psychotherapy.

Traditionally, there was even what today we would call an “intake.” The gabai (rebbe”s assistant) met with people before they met with the rebbe, and then: “After interviewing the supplicant about his family, his background and his troubles, the gabai delivers the kvitl [written description of the presenting problem] and an oral report to the rebbe” (Zborowski & Herzog, 1995, p. 172).

Psychoanalysis and Freud

But it took Josef Breuer, an assimilated Jewish doctor living in Berlin, to apply this “talking cure” with his Jewish patient, Bertha Pappenheim, to ignite the practice of psychoanalysis. These two understood that when they talked about her symptoms, and particularly their origin and emotional side effects, she would feel better. Pappenheim, a notable figure on the scene of Berlin’s intellectual salons, is also well-known as Freud’s case study about Anna O.

Sigmund Freud’s Jewishness is a hotly debated subject. He always described his father’s background as Hasidic, and his mother was raised traditionally Jewish. Though by the time he was growing up the family had partially assimilated, Freud acknowledged how influenced he was by Jewish thought, and the mystical tradition in particular.

David Bakan, in his 1958 book, Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition showed that Freud was familiar with, and interested in Kabbalah. Bakan advanced the idea that Freud’s psychoanalysis was a secularization of Jewish mysticism.

According to Langman and Dana Beth Wasserman (1990), Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was based on interpretive methods used to understand dreams in the Talmud. The aspects of Freudian dream psychology that seemed perhaps shocking to the gentile public were already part of Jewish text: symbolism, word play, enactment of taboos, and numerology.

Psychoanalysis, as it then developed into a standardized practice, was dominated by Jewish men; Sandor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Hans Sachs were a few of the 17 initial members of the Psychoanalytic Society in Vienna. Peter Langman has written that, contrary to a prevailing notion of this group’s secular orientation, “the analysts were aware of their Jewishness and frequently maintained a sense of Jewish purpose and solidarity.” …

Jewish Texts and Ideas

All of these psychologists received a solid Jewish education, at least during their childhood years, and for some of them, this exposure to Jewish mores and stories influenced their later work by providing archetypal human relationships, such as the conflict between son and father, represented in Abraham and Isaac, and the lament of childless women like Sara.

In particular, Adler used the original family networks of the Torah to illuminate contemporary family dynamics. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, along with other forefathers and mothers, provided models for kinship behavior.

Furthermore, Jewish involvement in the development of psychology in the early 20th century helped to create a more tolerant culture than in Western Europe. As Jewish psychologists participated in researching and defining human nature, they also sought scientific justifications of the role of the Jew in modern society. …

Issues in Jewish Psychology Today

Some Jews have since seized upon the insights of modern psychology to address issues of mental illness in the Jewish community. Their specifically Jewish psychology infuses a scientific understanding of the functioning of the mind and emotions with an appreciation of God and Jewish history.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, for example, has done much to educate these communities about addiction and domestic abuse, even drawing specific parallels to the practices of Alcoholics Anonymous and wisdom in the Talmud. Other practitioners like Rabbi Harold Kushner and Dr. Joyce Brothers have applied Jewish wisdom and insight to modern relationships, and have gained a huge following among Jews and non-Jews alike.

And yet many observant Jewish communities have been slow to take on the insights of psychology, remaining in denial about specific mental health issues. This might be because psychological theories can conflict with traditional Jewish ideas. The Jewish system of mitzvot, commandments, presumes that individuals have agency and free will. Classical psychological concepts like the unconscious and contemporary approaches that stress psychopharmacology and the physiology of psychological disorders may challenge traditional Jewish notions of “freedom.”

In the secular world, however, Jews have assumed a central role in the formation of new psychological theories and applications to this day, and the continuing contribution of Jews to the field of psychology is a testament to the perceptive position of the Jewish people and the emotionally astute cultural heritage that binds them.

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