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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Answering a Question with a Question: Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Jewish Thought, edited by Lewis Aron & Libby Henrik.  Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009.  442 pp.  $49.00.


This book addresses the contentious issue: what was Freud’s attitude to religion, and by extension, to Judaism? On one hand Freud’s biographer, Peter Gay, insisted that Freud was a “Godless Jew,” and that Judaism played no role in the creation of psychoanalysis. On the other hand, Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out that such conclusions emerge from the systematic mistranslations of Freud’s works, particularly by James Strachey. He emphasized the rational over the irrational, or as I would prefer to say, the non-rational elements in his writings, in order to make Freud more acceptable to an American audience. Freud was a wordsmith, perhaps as great as Goethe. When Freud chose to use “psyche,” he specifically meant soul, not mind. Hence psycho-analysis is best rendered “soul analysis,” not not mind or mental analysis, a change which totally recalibrates one’s thinking about Freud’s intentions.

              Freud did disparage God and religion, as Celia Brickman points out in her excellent initial chapter on “Psychoanalysis and Judaism in Context.” But his attitude was rather more complex than most readers realize. Like Torah niglah and Torah nistar, the revealed and hidden observance of scripture, Freud appeared to despise formal practices and simplistic views of God. Thus, after they married, he prevented his wife, Martha, who was the granddaughter of the Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, from lighting candles on a Friday night. She obeyed but was none too pleased. After he died she exclaimed, “That mamzer (bastard), he even forbade me to light candles.” She proceeded to do so for the rest of her life. Yet Freud maintained a lifelong interest in the Kabbalah and, indeed, kept a copy of the Zohar (The Book of Splendor) in his library.

              This book covers many aspects of Freud’s convoluted attitudes to Judaism. At one moment he could deny its importance to him. On another he could strongly affirm his Jewish identity, unlike many of his friends and colleagues who converted to Christianity in order to gain professional acceptance and advancement. The discussion of these issues is so rich that many chapters such as Joyce Stochower, on holding a psychoanalytic lens to Jewish rituals, Tuvia Peri, on a Freudian and Kleinian reading of the Midrash, Moshe Halevi Spiro, on dreaming, and Stephen Frosh, on anti-semitism, could easily be expanded into books on their own right. I particularly appreciated the chapter by Lewis Aron and Karen Starr on transformation in Jewish mysticism and contemporary psychoanalysis. They emphasize the importance, not so much of religion in Freud’s formulations, but of spirituality, and the power of the non-rational in emotional and psychological healing.

              All of the contributors are aware of the major contribution that Judaism has made to both the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. Yes, Freud did appear to shun theology. But at least he attempted to replace God or God’s CEO, Moses, with himself. And he did denigrate formalized religion, but then he proceeded to create a new religion, psychoanalysis. Isn’t it interesting how Freud killed his father with one hand and brought him back with the other. Was Freud the progenitor of the Oedipus complex, dispatching the paternal Godhead? Or was he the embodiment of the Laius complex, the father who killed his children so they could not destroy him. After all, in the original myth, Oedipus tried to protect his father, not kill him off. In a certain sense Freud succeeded in his Laial intent, for it seems that none of his sons or grandsons have remained observant or even maintained an interest in “the religion of his fathers.”

              As for the new religion, Freud was Moses. The founding fathers like Jung or Fenichel, were the elect, the high priests; training analysts became the Koanim; analysis became the ritual, while the couch was the symbol of the analytic process. Not to belabor the point, but the analogy holds true in so many respects. Thus, instead of Torah niglah and nistar we have manifest and latent content, or the conscious and unconscious.

              I do, however, have a bone to pick with this book. Since 1996 my colleague, the Israeli psychoanalyst Stanley Schneider, and I have been publishing articles in psychological and psychoanalytic journals about Freud and Judaism, Freud and spirituality, the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition and psychoanalysis, and so forth. And in 2008 our book, Centers of Power: The Convergence of Psychoanalysis and Kabbalah was published by Jason Aronson. None of our work has been cited by the authors even though our writings complement and enhance the essential areas covered in this book such as the self and the soul, nothingness and narcissism, or reparation and healing, Moreover, we have provided direct evidence that Freud did meet with and had long discussions with Rabbis and Kabbalists. I do hope this omission will be corrected in future editions. That being said, I think this work is a significant contribution to the literature about psychoanalysis and religion, in general, and psychoanalysis and Judaism, in particular. I would heartily recommend it.


Joseph H. Berke, M.D.