08/11/2010 05:09 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The evolving relationship between psychoanalysis and Jewish thought

A look at a timely and welcome collection of essays by Jewish psychoanalysts exemplifying the whole range of Jewish denominations including ultra-Orthodoxy.

Freud's The Future of an Illusion is one of the great works in the history of the critique of religion. For Freud all religion was nothing but an infantile fixation to the desire for parental protection and for a privileged place in the universe. While never denied or played down his Jewishness he could see nothing positive in Judaism, as in any other religion. This was, for most of the history of psychoanalysis, the line of psychoanalytic orthodoxy. Those who, like Carl Gustav Jung and Erich Fromm had a more positive view of the psychological nature of religion, were generally relegated outside the framework of organized psychoanalysis.

This began to change in the 1980s, when a number of important psychoanalytic theorists, some Jewish and some not, began to write about religion in a different vein. Answering a Question with a Question: Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Jewish Thought, edited by Lewis Aron and Libby Henik, is a timely and welcome collection of essays by Jewish psychoanalysts exemplifying the whole range of Jewish denominations including ultra-orthodoxy.

Aron and Henik open the book with a lucid account of the history of the originally antagonistic relation between psychoanalysis and Judaism and argue that the time has come to overcome it, and for the Jewish tradition to become a source of inspiration for psychoanalysis. They conceive of the meeting point of Judaism and psychoanalysis as 'answering a question with a question' - a characteristic ascribed to both Jews and psychoanalysts in popular parlance rather than the pathologization of religion.

The topics of the papers range widely from reinterpretating the story of Adam and Eve through discussions of images of transformation in Jewish mysticism and psychoanalysis to a discussion of the character of the Jewish father. The main experience in reading the papers is a merging of the Jewish tradition of hermeneutic exegesis and the psychoanalytic practice of interpreting the ongoing process of the therapeutic encounter.

Many, even though not all, of the contributors belong to the relational school of psychoanalysis, an approach that emerged in the 1980s. Its center is New York and specifically at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis directed by Lewis Aron, one of the collection's editors; but it has followers all over the world including in Israel. In relational psychoanalysis it is the process of transformation generated by the interaction between analyst and patient rather than the literal truth of any interpretation that truly matters. In good analytic work the patient and the analyst are involved in the co-creation of an ever-shifting therapeutic narrative that enriches the patient's self and subjectivity.

Space doesn't allow reviewing the papers in detail, and I will only mention a chapter that makes the affinity between relational psychoanalysis and the hermeneutics of the Midrash most explicit: Philip Cushman's 'A Burning World, an Absent God: Midrash, Hermeneutics and Relational Psychoanalysis'. Cushman gives a reading of two texts, one from Genesis Rabba, and one from Exodus Rabba, and connects it to his experience of doing psychoanalytic work. From this, seamlessly, he moves towards an understanding of the notion of Tikkun Olam that removes this kabalistic notion from the domain of messianic politics, thus merging midrash, psychoanalysis and an ethical vision of the world.

The collection's spirit is inspired by the work of Donald W. Winnicott, probably psychoanalysis' greatest writer after Freud, who created a concept that allowed for a new approach to religion. Winnicott's theory is that the infant can only gradually come to accept that the external world is outside his control and has objective existence. As an intermediary stage Winnicott postulates the existence of a psychological intermediary realm between the subjective and the objective that he calls transitional space.

This transitional realm, in Winnicott's view, persists into adulthood in two central domains. One is the domain of art and culture. We all know the experience of watching a movie, getting deeply involved with the characters and the plot. On the one hand, somewhere, we know that all this is but a fiction created with elaborate machinery. On the other hand we let ourselves be drawn into the experience through what literary theory calls the 'willing suspension of disbelief'. And we also all know how aggravating it is, if somebody insists on interrupting us and shattering the illusion.

The second domain Winnicott interprets through the notion of the transitional space is religion. For Winnicott, in a civilized society, members of different faiths agree not to argue about literal truth or falsity of religious belief. Jews are not supposed to question Christians' belief that Jesus was the savior; Moslems are not supposed to question Jews' practice of putting on phylacteries as a sacred act - and vice versa. For Winnicott, religion is supposed to remain in transitional space from which arguments about reality and objectivity are excluded.

Answering a Question with a Question is infused with the spirit of Winnicott. Aron and Henik are not preoccupied by the literal truth or falsity of any of Judaism's texts. Faith, for them, is precisely the area where the psyche's ability to form images, symbols, metaphors and myths can run free without applying the questions of objectivity that are typical for scientific discourse and questions of power that characterize politics.

Many of the papers succeed in creating a discourse in which psychoanalytic interpretation acquires a feel akin to that of midrashic hermeneutics. Text and interpretation, associations and connections, metaphors and images create a seamless web. For most of the authors, there is indeed an affinity between the goals of analytic treatment as they understand it and the hermeneutic movement of the Jewish tradition, primarily in the Midrash. What they seek is movement towards enriching the psyche, language and discourse. Psychoanalysis, at its best, doesn't pin the patient down to some simple interpretations, but deepens and enlivens the self, unlocking its creative potential; it becomes the Midrash of the psyche.

I enjoyed reading most of the papers greatly, and I could not help comparing the calm, open-textured, playful spirit that permeates this book with the shrillness and violence of arguments about religion and its political impact in Israel's public discourse; a violence that destroys Winnicott's transitional space in which beliefs and cultures can coexist. It is not surprising that Judaism has been much more creative in the US than it is in Israel, because it is less involved in politics (even though American Judaism would probably gain from removing itself even further from politics). Answering a Question with a Question is a reminder of how urgent it is to cherish and nourish this space of civilization, in which the soul can thrive.

Answering a Question with a Question: Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Jewish Thought. Edited by Lewis Aron and Libby Henik. Boston: Academic Study Press.