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Psychoanalysis and Kabbalah,
the Jewish Mystical Tradition

by Dr. Joseph H. Berke, 1996


Psychoanalysis and Kabbalah are theories about the nature of existence. They are also meditations, really methods for restoring shattered lives. These are lives which have been separated from their source. The particular domain of Psychoanalysis is the head and the heart, that is, the totality of an individual's mind and emotions, 'the self.' In particular, I refer to a person confirmed in his subjectivity, as agent of his thoughts and feelings, and confirmed in his objectivity, the object of his own activity and focus of his consciousness.

In contrast the domain of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, is the the soul, a person's holy, timeless essence. I refer to an entity which is both elevated, that is, exists in spiritual realms, and is part of a whole, the primordial source, God.

Needless to say, such a capsule definition is limited and limiting. It doesn't take into account many other facets of Psychoanalysis or Kabbalah. Thus, Psychoanalysis, as currently practised, is not just concerned with an individual man, woman or child. On the contrary, it strives to see this person in relation to his family and friends. And to complicate matters even more, it considers each person to be a dynamic nucleus of relationships. Essentially he is a centre of energies, a world in and of himself, containing and being contained by a myriad of other swirling worlds.

Kabbalah also focuses upon worlds and worlds within worlds. So a further way of looking at both Psychoanalysis and Kabbalah, a further refinement, is that these two disciplines aim to explore the obvious and the esoteric, the conscious and unconscious aspects of existence. But they especially aim to reveal that which is mysterious and profoundly concealed.

In order to contrast the two disciplines, it is important to consider Psychoanalysis from the standpoint of two pioneers, Sigmund Freud, the 'father' of psychoannalysis, and Melanie Klein, his foremost follower. Their personal origins, concerns and methods are intimately rooted in Jewish religious and mystical traditions. To demonstrate this, I shall concentrate on two fundamental features of their work respectively. Each of these has long been recognised as an outstanding innovation and important contribution to our understanding of human nature. For Freud this includes 'free associations,' his basic methodology, and his theory of unconscious processes, the view that reality has both a manifest and latent content. For Klein I shall discuss two of her basic concepts, the container and the contained, and reparation.

Freud's methods are astonishingly similar to those developed by the early Kabbalists, notably the thirteenth century Spanish Kabbalist, Rabbi Abraham Abulafia. R. Abulafia strove to 'unseal the soul, to untie the knots which bind it.' Basically he developed a theory of repression and a means to deal with the effects of repression six centuries before Freud. Firstly, R. Abulafia emphasised 'mystical logic' of letters, the logic of 'God's real world' which for Freud became the logic of the unconscious especially as elaborated by linguistic processes. Secondly, he described a form of free association which he called, 'jumping and skipping.' A comparable method allowed Freud to peel back layer and layer of disturbance, to penetrate anxiously concealed thoughts and feelings and to initiate understanding, first in him, then in his patients. The transformation from sick to sane took place when the concealed became revealed, when the unconscious became conscious, and his patients were able to 'know' themselves. Essentially he discovered a process of de-mystification and de-alienation facilitated by the free association of thoughts and feelings. Or to put it another way, through encouraging his patients to free associate, Freud was able to initiate a process of de-repression. What does this mean?

Freud saw that people lived in two spheres simultaneously. One is the conscious level. He called conscious thoughts and actions the manifest content of our lives. The other is the unconscious level. This is not a static, but a dynamic interplay of experiences which he called the latent content. Freud saw that it is an ongoing effort to keep things latent or unconscious. Indeed, much of one's life may be devoted to this effort, while the outer manifestations of such struggle often emerge as symptoms.

The study of Torah involves an almost identical process. I refer to the interplay between Nigleh, the revealed Torah, and Nistar, the hidden Torah. Traditionally, Jews, including students of Kabbalah, of course, believe that the Torah is the word of God. It contains but also conceals his direct radiance or illumination. By penetrating the outer garments or overt meanings of the word, it is possible to gain a direct contact with God, and therefore, the source of all existence.

The development of Psychoanalysis has meant that Kabbalistic forms of interpretation can be used to understand the profoundly human dilemma of being alive. By this I refer to the almost universal fate of being imbued with life force and simultaneously suffering from a self divided and cut off or alienated from itself and from others, as well as from the source of all things.

The Kleinian contribution relates to the difficulty of containing or holding what the Kabbalists would call the primary radiance of God, or what Psychoanalysts might term man's instinctual forces, and all their derivatives. But together with Klein's views I want to consider the creation of the world, from the standpoint of Lurianic Kabbalah. This is the principle stream of contemporary Jewish mysticism and is a development of the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria. ("the Ari"), who lived and taught in Safed in the 16th century.

The Ari pointed out that in the vacuum left by the original contraction of the universe, light continued to pour in. But it could not be contained by the vessel that was created to contain, limit and shape existence. So the vessel shattered. This is known as shevirath ha-kelim, the breaking of the vessel. The resultant disintegration of the Divine Light resulted in a multitude of shards or fragments of the vessel, also containing bits or seeds of the original light. The fragments with the embedded light are known as klippot or shells and are responsible for the existence of evil. Evil therefore can be seen as the manifestation of uncontainable disintegrative forces, or primary chaos, which, in particular, causes the 'exile of the Shekinah', the alienation of the feminine, receptive aspect of God's presence.

The whole point of existence is to free the light trapped in the shells, undo this exile and re-establish God's unity.

When a child is born, the unity between the child and his mother is broken. Then the child cannot contain the primary impulses, which Freud called Eros and Thanatos, and which Klein recognised as the Life Impulse and the Death Impulse. Essentially we can consider the Life Impulse as the impetus to form and structure, negative entropy, if you will. Concurrently the Death Impulse is the impetus to randomise things, entropy itself.

How does the child re-establish his container and containing function. How can the bad bits become less toxic, more containable? Kabbalists would say that we can undo the broken vessel and subsequent exile, by establishing and re-establishing a close relationship with God. In the same vein Melanie Klein and her colleagues would argue that the child can become a functioning container of his own impulses (and thereby life forces), by establishing and re-establishing close relationships with those who love and care for him.

It is worth asking what happens if the child is not blessed with a containing parent, or the patient with a containing therapist. Usually he will try to project, or evacuate, more and more of his bad feelings, somewhere, anywhere. And even more ominously, he will do this deliberately and maliciously. But, malicious projection is an operational definition of envy. So a failure of containment will lead to the explosion of envy, really evil, the yetzah harah, into the world. A world full of bits and pieces of envious hatred is identical with broken bits of the primary vessels, each replete with embedded chaos. Interestingly, the Chinese world for chaos, luan, also means envy.

The opposite of chaos is order. A strong container and containing function is a prerequisite for such order, which is closely connected with peace and wholeness, Shalom and Shalem.

Perhaps Klein's greatest contribution is the concept of reparation. Reparation is the means of repairing an inner world shattered under the pressure of destructive impulses and an outer world of damaged relationships, peoples and things. Reparation is a goal and the moving to this goal. According to Klein, reparation is never complete, rather it is an active process of striving towards completeness, whether of the head or heart or entire being. It is intimately related to the Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun.

Klein sets out to describe how to overcome fragmentation and loss, evil and exile. Only the terms of reference are different. Klein is concerned with the self, and this self in relation to others. To her, exile may mean separation from Mother. For Kabbalists, evil also means fragmentation, disintegration and ultimately death. Exile means separation from God.

As we can see, Klein's formulations bear an exceptional resemblance to Kabbalistic and Hassidic thought. In particular, I shall refer to the work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov. Rabbi Nachman passed most of his short life in the Ukraine and Russia around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many of his teachings emphasise the conflict between good and evil and the possibility of achieving, Tikkun HaNefesh, restoration of the soul, even after a person has sunk to the lowest depths.

There are people who have done so much wrong that they fall to the level of the concealment within the concealment." Because of this they come to believe that there is no longer any hope for them, God forbid. This is because when a person does something wrong several times, the matter becomes permissible in his eyes. This is the first concealment. But when he does still more wrong, then God becomes hidden from him to the point of the concealment within the concealment. Then it is hard indeed to find him.

How does a person overcome these concealments? Rabbi Nachman speaks of various means, of which the most basic is prayer, especially prayers of repentance. These, such as Avinu Malkenu, Our father, our King, begin the repair, the tikkun, by acknowledging the transgression. So, the first step in overcoming concealment, as with Freud and Klein, has to do with facing reality.

These steps also begin the process of re-pairing, not just between man and man, but between man and his maker, the primal source, the Shekinah. In the Jewish mystical tradition this last step, unification, is a fundamental prerequisite for overcoming man's wandering in the wilderness, the exile, for Jews, and for all mankind.

Unification is the central issue for restoration or reparation, which I have traced according to the formulations of Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis. In so doing, I have shown how these two disciplines are closely related. I would like to conclude by considering how they may differ. That concerns my point of departure, the subject which requires healing or restoration. In Psychoanalysis this is the self. In Kabbalah this is the soul. The self is a slippery entity. Although everyone agrees that it pertains to psychological realms, the term encompasses a plethora of meanings. Most narrowly, these include identity, self-awareness, a part or parts of the mental apparatus (the ego), the subject as agent and the subject as object of his own activity.

Interestingly, the psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut, whom many consider to be the progenitor of self-psychology, contends that the self is essentially not knowable. Before reaching this conclusion he reviews various attempts to refine the term ranging from mental structure to psychological centre. Subsequently he describes the constituents of the self: ambitions, ideals, talents, and skills. A secure self is a cohesive whole. The converse lacks cohesion and remains a fragmented, chaotic mess. Ultimately Kohut refuses to assign a specific, that is, inflexible definition to the self. While he may not believe that the self is ineffable, he does point out that the term is best left undefined.

In contrast, the soul belongs to spiritual realms. The Kabbalah describes five levels of soul: nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chaya and yehidah. For each of these levels, there is a separate degree of healing or tikkun, a separate reparation and re-pairation.

The problem with this paradigm is that it refers to realms which most people don't recognise. Perhaps it is true that self and soul denote different phenomena? Does this matter? Isn't it sufficient to demonstrate the close connection between Psychoanalysis and Kabbalah by noting similar methods and goals? Or, could it be that the differences between self and soul are more apparent than real? Certainly the Swiss analyst, Carl Jung, delineated a link between self and soul. He argued that the self is fundamentally a component of a transcendental entity which he called, the God-image. Furthermore, as we have just seen, Kabbalists themselves equate the self with the second level of soul, Ruach.

But perhaps Heinz Kohut has provided the most moving connection between self and soul, and by extension, between Psychoanalysis and Kabbalah, in his book, "The Restoration of the Self". In the epilogue, he ponders the capacity of art and artists to depict the central dilemma of our age, "How man can manage to cure his crumbling self?" Kohut confides that nowhere has he found a more accurate account of the yearning to restore a shattered self than in Eugene O'Neill's play, "The Great God Brown". Towards the end, the central character, Brown, contemplates his wrecked life and shattered self. Kohut concludes, through the words of Brown: "Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue".

Copyright Joseph H. Berke 1996. All Rights Reserved.

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