Judaism and Psychology

Jews have engaged with and steered psychological inquiry since its inception.

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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.

Judaism and psychology

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."

Later contributors to the practice of psychoanalysis also included a disproportionate number of Jews: Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm, Otto Rank and Bruno Bettelheim.

In fact, the practice had become so dominated by Jews that Sigmund Freud based his decision to hand over leadership of the movement to Carl Jung partially because he was not Jewish and would therefore refute the position that psychoanalysis was a Jewish conspiracy. Jung, however, became very interested in Kabbalah and continued to pursue this interest, ultimately linking kabbalistic beliefs with his understanding of the "collective unconscious."

Other Major Contributors

Erich Fromm evinced a particularly Jewish ethos in his studies of ethics, love, and human freedom. Fromm had studied Talmud extensively in his youth in Germany, and was guided by his father and grandfather, both rabbis. Though he became largely secular in his interpretations of Hebrew scripture, the influence of biblical stories, particularly in Genesis, greatly impacted his work. 

In the realm of popular psychology, Joseph Jastrow, whose father authored the well-known Talmud dictionary, was the first recipient of an American Ph.D. in psychology in 1898 and established a psychology lab at the University of Wisconsin. With a syndicated advice column and a talk radio show, he was the first psychologist to stir up public interest in psychological inquiry.

During the same time period, Hugo Munsterberg founded American applied psychology and became a well-known figure in America with his numerous books and magazine articles. Boris Sidis pioneered personality studies, entertaining the public with his spectacular cases of split personalities.

Abraham Arden Brill and Isador Coriat brought Freud beyond the European urban centers by translating his work into English. Influential psychoanalyst Alfred Adler also fed the public's hunger for in-depth knowledge of their inner lives by going on lecture tours and giving numerous interviews in which he was helped by his translator, the psychiatrist Walter Beran Wolfe.

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.

Many of them popularized aspects of their studies and advocated against prevailing conceptions about hereditary intelligence, ethnic stereotypes, and particularly Christian interpretations of the unconscious. They also delved into previously taboo aspects of human behavior, producing classic studies of the social psychology of sexuality, deviance, and immorality.

Capitalizing on the wide appeal of their ideas, Jewish psychologists articulated a state of mental health and social cohesion that served the dual purpose of benefiting the Jewish and other immigrant communities, particularly in America.

Jewish understanding of the roots of human behavior as communicated in the Talmud are often more in tune with the revelations of psychological science than other religious frameworks. In Jewish tradition, the impulse to do good, the yetzer hatov, is balanced out by the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. This complex idea that every individual embodies productive and destructive instincts allows for a more nuanced self-development process than a moral compass that sees the pure individual tainted by sin and in need of salvation.

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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Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.