Professor Mordechai Rotenberg. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Jewish psychology without Freud
By Richard Mather
For over a century, Sigmund Freud has cast a shadow over Western psychoanalysis after developing the theory that humans have an unconscious in which sexual and aggressive impulses are in conflict with the defences against them. Most notable is his hypothesis that a son experiences feelings of jealousy and hate toward his father because of an unconscious desire for the exclusive love of the mother. This is known as the Oedipus complex.
But Professor Mordechai Rotenberg, an Israeli professor of social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Freud’s adoption/adaption of the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus is not just erroneous and morbid, but runs counter to the Jewish tradition of mutual responsibility, optimism and teshuvah (repentance, literally “turn”).
Whereas Freud theorised that the past cannot be changed but only killed in order to build a new present upon it, Professor Rotenberg, who has developed a socio-psychological model derived from Hasidic and Midrashic concepts, believes that life is like a text and that the past can be changed or redeemed by rebiographing it.
We all have the capacity to “recompose” our individual biographies by rereading life’s events and finding the interpretation that allows us to integrate the stories of the past in our general life story, says the professor. This re-biographing principle is based on the Jewish concept of midrash, from the root דרש which means “to search,” “to seek,” “to examine,” and “to investigate.”
According to Professor Rotenberg, an individual needn’t be trapped by past wrongdoings. Rather than trying to eliminate earlier negative actions, we can integrate the sins of the past by giving them the space to exist in our psyches, while seeking out positive features of the past, and committing ourselves to a better future. This is what he calls teshuvah or repentance.
In rejecting Freud’s Oedipus complex, Professor Rotenberg opts instead for the Hebraic narrative of the Akedah or akedat yitzhak (the binding of Isaac). According to the Torah, God commands Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham takes Isaac to the place of sacrifice and binds him (va-ya’akod) on the altar. But the angel of the Lord bids Abraham to stay his hand and a ram is offered in Isaac’s place.
Whereas Freud’s Oedipal hypothesis proposes a dialectic resolution in which the son (the present) prevails only when he kills his father (the past), the resolution of the inter-generational conflict in the Akedah story is dialogical because it favours father-son (past-present) continuity between Abraham and Isaac.
In other words, whereas the Freudian-Oedipal model proposes annihilating the past in order to build a new life, the Akedah model allows the past and present to co-exist.
In language reminiscent of the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Rotenberg calls Freud’s theory an example of “I or thou” thinking in which a conflictual dialectical pattern of strong versus weak is created. The Akedah, by contrast, allows for an “I and thou” dialogical mode of thought in which both parties – Abraham and Isaac, past and present – co-exist despite the tensions between them.
Rotenberg bases his dialogical approach on the Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum or contraction, a concept made famous by the sixteenth century Jewish philosopher Rabbi Isaac Luria. According to Rabbi Luria, God constricted Himself in order to make room for the created universe.
“In the beginning, a simple divine light filled the entirety of existence,” says Rabbi Luria. “When there arose in His simple will the desire to create the worlds, He contracted His light, withdrawing it to the sides and leaving a void and an empty space in its centre, to allow for the existence of the worlds.”
In Rotenberg’s philosophy, the concept of divine tzimtzum serves as a basis for tzimtzum on the human level. Tzimtzum may be articulated in psychological terms (what he calls the “reorganising” of one’s psyche) but also on an inter-personal level, between parents and children, between spouses, between colleagues, between nations, between friends.
This brings us back to Rotenberg’s concept of “I and thou” whereby the individual and the Other act in co-existence, with the “I” making space for the “thou.” In the “I or thou” pattern that dominated Freud’s thinking, there are hostile relations between the “I” and the “thou,” and one will always be at the expense of the other.
Healing or tikkun is achieved in concert with other people. One way of redeeming the past is to go out and help other people. This alter-centric (rather than ego-centric) approach of mutual responsibility echoes the Talmudic dictum, “all of Israel are responsible for each other.” As illustrated by akedat yitzhak and tzimtzum, the individual is not obliterated but “contracted,” thereby facilitating the mutual “I and thou” relationship.
The Talmud (Shevuot 39a), in discussing the domino effect of sin, concludes with the Aramaic phrase, Kol yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. There is some uncertainty whether it is actually “zeh la zeh,” which holds that each individual is a separate unit but is responsible for other members of the community, or “zeh ba zeh”, which implies that all Jews form a single entity known as Klal Yisrael.
Professor Rotenberg believes his Jewish psychology can be applied at a socio-political level in Israel. “As a national movement of liberation, Zionism means not only collective freedom from discrimination and persecution, but the ability to create a new, value-oriented national Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael,” he says.
He adds: “Only by being mutually responsible — the individual and the group — can one feel a sense of belonging. Case histories have demonstrated that soldiers in the IDF whose parents lived abroad, and who contemplated suicide, reversed this self-destructive urge when they were befriended by other soldiers and their families. They regained a sense of belonging.”
To belong to the Jewish people and to be wanted by fellow Jews are major factors in one’s mental health, he explains.
In 2009, in recognition of his research into social welfare, Professor Rotenberg was awarded the Israel Prize, which is presented every year on Israeli Independence Day. He continues to communicate his theory of Jewish psychology through books and articles, and also via the Rotenberg Institute, which was established in memory of his soldier-son Boaz Rotenberg who died aged eighteen during an IDF mission in Jericho during the first intifada.