Judaism and Psychology

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jessica Kraft

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