Judaism and Psychology

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

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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. 

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Jessica Kraft

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