Psychoanalysis: A Jewish Science?

By Yehudah Mirsky
Friday, June 11, 2010

How Jewish was your childhood home? To this query, Anna Freud responded: "more than people think, and less than I remember."  Her quip does double duty: illustrating the porous boundaries of memory, fact, and interpretation that psychoanalysis has sought to clarify and disturb, and highlighting a question surrounding the enterprise since its inception. How Jewish is it?

Sigmund Freud, Anna's father, was unmistakably a fin-de-siècle Viennese Jew—an ironic intellectual outsider in love with wit and literary interpretation, committed both to the liberating power of science and to the social norms of the bourgeoisie. But as for Judaism, he famously regarded it, like all organized religions, as one of the problems his insights were meant to neutralize and dissolve. At first, he saw religion as a neurosis-like expression of unresolved conflicts between instinctual drives and society-ordained values. His later view, famously expressed in Moses and Monotheism (1939), was that religion is an illusion, the projection onto the universe of an omnipotent and guilt-inducing father. 

A  new volume, Answering a Question with a Question, comes upon the heels of shifts in psychoanalytic theory that now enable religion to be studied, understood, and worked with rather than simply overcome, and that likewise enable Jewish scholars to see in psychoanalysis a reservoir of concepts and techniques that can enrich their own work. The essays here collected—by clinicians, researchers, and scholars of literature, Bible, and Jewish thought—trace the avenues along which psychoanalysis and Judaism can meet.

A number of the volume's contributors are drawn to the work of the British analyst D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971). For them, his depictions of childhood development—and by extension, adult life—can function as a lens through which religious life reveals itself as an endless negotiation and play between received traditions and present realities, between distancing from and union with God.  Thus, developing Winnicott's characterization of parenting as a kind of "holding," Joyce Slochower explores the unique healing power of Jewish mourning rituals like shiva. For others, the recent "relational" theories of Stephen Mitchell, in which analyst and patient together re-create a life story, provide a space for religion as an integrating element in such stories.

Some classical Jewish texts—think of the Bible's family narratives, talmudic passages on dream interpretation, or the cosmic parental dynamics depicted in the Kabbalah—seem to cry out for the insights of psychoanalysis. But legal texts, too, as Seth Aronson contends, can be illuminated by psychoanalytic perspectives on discipline and desire.

There are limits, of course. One of the book's strongest essays highlights the difficulties that psychoanalysis, with its relentless focus on the individual psyche, has in explaining the broader social phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Another, invoking the Jewish ethics of the French philosopher Emanuel Levinas, calls upon analysts to display greater engagement and self-sacrifice.

Psychoanalysis is just one, admittedly arresting, element in the effort to understand, build, and live in the world.  Freud hardly provided the last word on human experience. But in forging a hugely influential path to certain kinds of wisdom, he created, as Auden wrote, "a whole climate of opinion." Is or was psychoanalysis, however, a Jewish science? To do a turn on Anna Freud: perhaps less than some imagine, perhaps more than others remember.

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