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Joseph H. Berke
The topic of my talk is Chassidus,
that is, Chassidic thought, and psychoanalysis. Is there any connection
between these seemingly disparate disciplines?
In raising this question I will focus
on very personal concerns, sadness, loss, despair, a broken heart.
Collectively these concerns may be included under the category of depression.
So I shall be looking at this issue of depression from the standpoint of
Chassidus and psychoanalysis.
But before proceeding further I would
like to acknowledge my friend and colleague, Professor Stanley Schneider, of
the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. What I will be sharing with you is a
collaborative effort. It is related to a paper which we recently published
about a meeting that took place in 1903 in Vienna between Rabbi Shalom Dov
Ber Schneersohn, that is, the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, also known by his
acronym, the RaSHaB, and "the famous Professor," Sigmund Freud.
At the time the Rebbe was under great
pressure from the Czarist police and anti-Chassidic Jews (mishnagdim).
Although he had already had extraordinary accomplishments in the exposition
of Chassidus, he expressed great dissatisfaction with himself. He considered
that the journey to Vienna was equivalent to going into exile for the
purpose of self-refinement and self-purification.
The person he met, Freud, came from a
long line of Chassidim who, for several generations, lived in and around
Galicia, a centre of Chassidic life. We know that his great grandfather,
Ephraim, was a Chassid and that Freud was named after his paternal
grandfather, Shlomo, also a Chassid and Rabbi. Sigmund is the German version
of Shlomo or Solomon. His father, Jacob, was a Chassid until his adolescence
when he was affected by the Haskalah or secular movement. Although he denied
it, recent research shows that Freud had an extensive, Jewish upbringing,
knew Hebrew, and was knowledgeable about Jewish practices. There is even a
possibility that Freud was familiar with Kabbalah. No doubt all this was of
help to him in his meeting with the Rebbe and in his ability to understand
the Rebbe's condition. After their exchange, Freud concluded: "The head
grasps what the heart is unable to contain, and the heart cannot tolerate."
The word Freud used, in German/Yiddish was fartroght, to carry or to bear.
(German: fertragen, to endure), or to hold or contain. So the statement can
also be translated as: "The head grasps what the heart cannot carry/bear."
or, "The head grasps that which the heart cannot contain/endure."
It is worth noting
that when Freud met the Rebbe, he was working as a psychiatrist and
neurologist, and was still struggling to formulate his theories of
unconscious processes, what we know as psychoanalysis. The transition from
psychiatrist and neurologist to psychoanalyst can be traced to the
publication of his seminal works, Studies in Hysteria (with Joseph Breuer)
in 1893 and The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, and came to a fruition in
1917 with the publication of his landmark paper, "Mourning and Melancholia".
In it he delineates internal and external worlds or spheres, and shows how
the relationship between the two, what he called the identification or
internalisation of the dead object or representation, can lead to extreme
emotional states such as melancholia.
Melancholia is part of a continuum of
depressive conditions ranging from a depressive mood, in popular vernacular,
'the blues,' to full scale depressive state, or depression. This can be
described in terms of experience, behaviour and overall state of being. The
experience of depression includes feelings of heaviness, worthlessness,
hopelessness and helplessness. In terms of behaviour, the descriptions
reflect medical psychology. 'Depressed people' can't work, play, relate or
create. They inhabit an involuted self devoid of energy, a state of being
which is oppressed and oppressive, repressed and repressive, compressed and
constricting. Analysis, itself, seems much more interested in the
intrapsychic and interpersonal mechanisms which lead to these conditions. In
fact, Freud's formulations led to a much greater understanding of depressive
conditions and ways to alleviate them.
provides a wider picture of the depressed state, for it is not only
concerned with the self, but with the soul. And it not only acknowledges
diagnosis, but bitten also prognosis, that is, pointers whereby the
depressed person may step beyond his condition.
the Tanya, the classic work of Lubaviter Chassidic thought written by Rabbi
Schneur Zaiman, the first Lubavitchor Rebbe (the alter Rebbe), we find
several terms that describe a downtrodden, low and depressed spirit.
1. nemichat ruach =
lowness of spirit. This emotion occurs when the person feels that he is not
able to achieve what he would like to.
2. lev nishbar =
contrite of heart. This feeling allows an individual to see his spiritual
inadequacies. However, it can also lead to deep sadness when the person
realises that he is not fighting strongly enough against the evil impulse.
3. atzvut =
depression and/ or melancholy, and is
sometimes called black depression. If the depression arises out of the
awareness of spiritual failings then this can lead to a burst of desire to
change one's behaviour
arises because the soul has two sides: an evil side and a good side. The
evil is the source of depression. The good element gives rise to spiritually
motivated depression. Concomitantly atzvut is synonymous with sadness and
may reflect a deep sense of loss.
4. merirut hanefesh
= bitterness of the soul. This state has to do with being remorseful about
being removed from G-d's presence.
Let me look at these terms in greater
detail: Atzvut means constricted. It is a numbing sense of compression that
constricts one's heart and blocks out all feelings. For atzvut means that
one's heart is as dull as a stone and that it is devoid of vitality or
feeling. This results in a state of emotional despondency and deadness, with
no hope, vitality or holiness, as with with a person who has been stricken
to atzvut, the Tanya describes two conditions where a person is not stuck or
blocked. These are feelings of contriteness and bitterness. Contriteness or
lev nishbar can be freely translated as broken hearted. In this state a
person may be sad, but he has chosen to face his spiritual shortcomings and
is not disconnected from G-d.
The other condition, merirut, or
bitterness, does not necessarily lead to melancholia or the implosion of the
self. It is associated with anger and a welling-up of energy, an inner
stimulus to change one's situation. A sad bitterness which arises from
spiritual stocktaking, and from the struggle with one's standards is not
atzvut, but merirut. The stirring of bitterness is a necessary precondition
for a person extricating himself from despondency.
The term that described the
RaSHaB was nemichat ruach, a lowliness in spirit which is analogous to low
self esteem. This words also denote humility. A person suffering from
nemichat ruach realises that he has a long way to go to reach his goals. For
Chassidim this does not necessarily denote pathology, but rather an
expression of humbleness. Moreover, it may equally apply to the state of the
soul as well as to the state of self.