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Chassidus & Psychoanalysis

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.

Chassidus, however, 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.

In 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

Atzvut 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 with grief.

In contrast 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.

Ultimately these different conceptualisations of depressive or low feelings teach us that there are two main kinds of depression or lowness. One is rooted in physical and emotional states beclouded by mixtures of good and evil. This parallels the psychoanalytic concepts of envy and narcissism. And it is close to a psychological understanding of depression - related to guilt, shame and conflicts over need and dependency. The other kind of depression is spiritually inspired and according to the Tanya is not depression at all but rather like an emotional hiccup, a lowness about one's spiritual failings, a momentary sadness, which can then be used as an effective weapon against depressive moments.

Such a mechanism is similar to Freud's early prescription for depression: that one needs to release the 'cathected object,' that is, the focus of one's emotional and mental energies, from one's mind. Sometimes the connection cannot be easily broken. In order to minimise the risks of melancholy developing, which would lead to stuckness and constriction, anger has to occur. Such anger will break the cycle. In the Tanya this process is referred to as: redirecting 'lowness' or depression into soul-searching, , and into anger at the evil inclination. This, in turn, will dispel a person's mundane, if not murderous, mood.

There is a further contribution that Chassidus makes about depression as we have seen from the discussion of bitterness. The condition is not inevitably pathological, or for that matter, even tragic. On the contrary, it may be a painful, but positive experience on the road to learning about oneself and in getting closer to G-d. As Rav Adin Even Yisroel (Steinsaltz) notes in his book, The Long Shorter Way, it may be possible to pass beyond self-pity and self-satisfaction, "only when a person is burned so badly that his skin begins to peel, will he begin to feel himself.

··Here the essential contribution is with (Emes) Truth, the truth of oneself, and the need to break down the partition or veil (or psychic skin) that separates oneself from the Divine."

In this vein it is worth quoting from Psalm 51, "A broken and contrite heart, 0 G-d, thou wilt not despise," to which the alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, replied: "If one does not have a broken and contrite heart, one cannot be said to have a heart at all."

But it is also important to note that there is another side of the coin both in Chassidus and psychoanalysis. These are the perspectives that do not recognise depression or lowness of spirits as potential growth experiences. On the contrary they are seen as necessary, or perhaps unnecessary, conditions that should best be avoided or denied. This is a prominent view among many analysts, especially during the current age of psychobiology, which looks upon depression or depressive moods are symptoms of an illness which have to be 'cured.' Similarly in ChaBaD, and Breslov Chassidus in particular, depression is considered as a kind of evil or sin, that has to be stamped out in favour of joy. One must remains joyful at all costs such as by farbrenging, singing, eating and drinking mashka (vodka). Joy is the key which can unlock the prison of misery.

Having digressed in order to present these contrary but widespread attitudes, I want to return to the main thrust of my presentation: There exist convergent opinions both in Chassidus and psychoanalysis that depression or a broken and contrite heart are conditions which can be faced and overcome. These convictions are reflected in modern psychoanalysis. By this I refer, in particular, to object relations theory, or the English School of Psychoanalysis, introduced by Melanie Klein and her followers. Melanie Klein was born in Vienna in 1882 and lived her formative years there. Many consider her to be Freud's foremost follower. Klein greatly extended his work by developing the field of child analysis as well as by pioneering the psychoanalysis of psychotic patients. Like Freud, Klein had a notable Jewish pedigree. Her father came from an orthodox Jewish family and her mother was the daughter of a rabbi. Although she was not observant or formally religious in adult life, she did have a significant Jewish upbringing which clearly influenced her accomplishments.

Many of Klein's basic conceptualisations have to do with depression, and what she called depressive anxiety and the depressive position. She pointed out that in the first few months of life, the infant felt beset by threats to its existence. She called this persecutory anxiety. (The perceived threat that everyone and everything is out to get you.)

But after a few months of age, when the child begins to realise that parents he or she hates is also the parent 'he' loves, then 'his' primary fears have to do with harming the person he loves, or of not being able to repair the damage that his hatreds can cause. There is a popular nursery rhyme, which I am sure you all know, which reflects these concerns:

"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses and all the King's men,
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again."

The despair in this refrain reflects the difficulty of repairing someone close whom one has loved and hurt. Indeed, Melanie Klein struggled to define the depressive position at a time when she was grief stricken from the death of her 'eldest son in a mountaineering accident. By using her despair, her atzvut, to paraphrase the Tanya's understanding of depressive feelings, Klein developed a formula for putting things right. And if this could not happen in actuality, her son was physically dead, then the correction would happen internally, in her internal world, in that other great dimension of existence, where her son remained very much alive.

Her formula, or prescription has several elements, which, as we shall soon discuss, remarkably parallel Chassidic thinking. Klein established that the depressive experience is rooted in conflict. This occurs between love and hate, or as she put it, between the Life impulse (Eros) and the Death impulse (Thanatos). The latter is synonymous with envious destructiveness. As the result of intense battles between these impulses, severe damage may occur, not only in external reality, but especially to inner representations of people whom one loves, and also to representations of one's self. So the first step is to acknowledge this.

Further sources of conflict have to do with seeing and not seeing what is going on, and between feeling and not feeling the consequences of this conflict, that is, guilt, shame, despair, pain, sorrow and sadness. So the next step is to recognise these feelings, however painful they may be. Essentially Klein said that in order to work through the depressive position, or the specific group of anxieties, relationships and inner barriers which reflect love/hate situations, one has to: tolerate ambivalence. bear conflict and face reality.

This same prescription permeates Chassidic thought, the need to confront oneself. Thus, the alter Rebbe points out in Tanya that this struggle goes on the levels of soul and self, both spiritually and humanly. In the latter instance it is between the Yetzer Tov and Yetzer HaRah, that is, between the forces of goodness (Klein might say gratitude) and evil (ingratitude, envy). In the first instance, this struggle is between the Nefesh HaBehamit, the animalistic part of oneself, and the Nefesh HaElokit, the G-dly soul.

The late Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, explained that the animal soul, the Nefesh HaBehamit, is 'the motor of physical life' that incorporates all the instincts, drives, desires and faculties that one needs for physical survival. In contrast, the Nefesh HaElokit, embodies all a person's yearning for transcendence, for connecting with the Divine. He pointed out that both are indispensable aspects of human existence. Yet, within all individuals a constant battle takes place between a) the sacred,and the mundane, and b) within physicality itself, between the Yetzer Tov and Yetzer HaRah, good and evil. Consequently, the whole of Tanya can be considered a prescription for fighting these battles, and for achieving the deep joy of inner completeness and attachment to G-d.

Not long ago, Dr. Tali Loewenthat old me a story that had been told to him by Rabbi Mendel Futerfas. Rav dendel was one of the great figures among Lubavitch Chassidim. He was a truly righteous man whom I had the privilege of knowing personally in London. He had spent many years in Siberian prisons for teaching Yiddishkeit. One day, while he was in a particularly nasty camp, he saw a fellow prisoner, a Cossack, sitting on a log and weeping. He went up to him and asked, "Why are you crying.?"

The Cossack replied that it was the fall, the time when all Cossacks went hunting for bear. Cossacks lived on bear for it provided meat to eat, fur for clothes and fat for lighting lamps. He himself loved to hunt bear. But, he added, you couldn't kill them directly. If you tried to do so, the bear might run after you and kill you. So you had to hunt stealthily, in the fall, which was the time when the bears began to hibernate. Then the bears would go into a cave with big store of nuts and berries, and go to sleep. Once he located such a cave, he would send in a dog to nip and bark. Then the bear would wake up, go to front of cave, roar and stretch out to see what was happening. It was only at this point that the Cossack felt safe enough to shoot him.

"Ah," said Rav Mendel, "it is the same with us. The bear lives within us. Like you, we have to tease him out very carefully, before overcoming him." What Rav Mendel was referring to was Yetzer Harah, that part of the Nefesh HaBehamit, that contained all one's horrible, nasty, destructive impulses.

Similarly, Tanya talks about the need to reveal the bear, our animalistic impulses, a process which can lead to a spiritual awakening. In order to overcome despair, one has to take one's bearing and come to terms with the contents of the cave, one's inner darkness. In many respects this is what Teshuvah, repentance, is all about: the ability to bear one's sins. Such contrition can also take place during a psychoanalysis, a long way, or during 'Yichidus,' a private meeting with the Rebbe, a short way, when the Rebbe reveals as much as one can possibly bear to know about oneself.

Klein asserts that such self-knowledge, self-acceptance, self-awareness, and self-concern are all essential steps in overcoming depression. For they provide the initial ingredients of what many psychoanalysts consider to be her greatest contribution - Reparation. Reparation has to do with righting wrong, restoring unity, picking up pieces, all part of the continuum of overcoming human destructiveness. It is the means by which depression yields a growth process, in place of pathology. According to Klein reparation is never complete, nor is it ever completed. Rather it is the active process of striving towards completeness, whether of the head, or heart or entire being. Reparation is very much related to the Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun.

The late Israeli poet, Pinchas Sadeh, focussed on, Tikkun Ha-Lev, or Restoration of the Heart. One evening he describes what Tikkun Ha-Lev, meant for him:

"·..while I was still engrossed in thought on a certain topic, a thought entered my mind regarding 'repair of the heart.'

(I thought that)....... powerful forces prevent the possibility of repairing that which is broken. If so, what is possible? What remains for man to do, after all? What can save and rescue the things that are smashed? Maybe only - and even this only through tremendous effort, through difficult struggle, through great pain - this; repairing the heart. "

Sometimes this work can be accomplished by adding or repositioning the letter of a word. The Hebrew language seems designed for this process, which I would like to illustrate. The Hebrew for heavy is Khaf Vet Daled, spelled KaVade ("). KaVade means 'heavy' one of the characteristics of depression. It also denotes the liver, which in turn is related to the gall bladder, or source of black bile, the Marrah Shahchor. It used to be said that an excess of black bile led to a pervasive blackness of the self and of the soul. However, it is possible to elevate this word, and by extension the depressive experience, by adding a Vav, a letter contained in the name of G-d, which expresses G-d-consciousness. Then you arrive at Kh V vav spelled Kavode (1) which means glory, or honour or pride as in KhVode HaShem, the glory of G-d. In this simple manner, G-d's radiance, can pierce and replace the deepest blackness.

For the depressed man or woman the way to accomplish a personal transformation is to add a vav to one's life, to connect with the divine within and without. In this sense, perhaps the most significant aspect of Tikkun, or reparation, is this connecting or reconnecting, implied by the word itself. Repair literally means to re-pair, bring back together, re-connect elements which had originally been one, but which subsequently had been split apart. So tikkun refers to a broken relationship and the need to re-pair the disparate parts. This certainly applies, as Tanya describes, from many different angles, to the relationship between man and G-d. Klein's genius was to show how it applied to the relationships between man and man, the interpersonal dimension, and within the person himself, the intra-psychic dimension.

The Interpersonal dimension is evident in sadness or atzvut, where a deep loss has occurred. The intrapsychic dimension can be seen in Lev Nishbar, where the wrench is between the head and the heart, thinking and feeling. On the deepest levels Klein noted that Reparation is not complete until all aspects of one's inner world have been repaired. By this she meant that it is not enough to re-pair a damaged relationship with mother, or a damaged relationship with father, but one has to repair the damage between mother and father as a couple and in one's relation to them as a couple. By adding this further step, she consciously or unconsciously re-paired her relation with her tradition and thereby with G-d. For the 5th commandment clearly states, Honour your Father and Mother. This is a basic 'mitzvah'. And mitzvah does not just mean commandment, but Chassidus teaches that it signifies a connection. Once you do a mitzvah, you make a connection to G-d. In this way it can be said that psychoanalysis and Chassidus are fundamentally related, they both aim to bring about a relationship with the divine.

Such actions, Tikkun Ha-Guf and Tikkun Ha-Nefesh, restoration and re-pair of the body and soul of the Jewish people are essential components of the living legacy of the 7th Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. From 1950 onwards he lived and worked in the shadows of the Shoah, to repair hearts more than broken, and to re-establish Jewish existence in the world both individually and collectively, In so doing he helped re-pair our people's relationships with and within themselves, as well as with each other, and with the gentile nations, and with G-d.

American psychoanalyst and progenitor of 'self psychology.' Kohut has provided a very 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 G-d is glue."