|Under his portrait drawn in pen and ink by Robert Kastor in 1925, for inclusion in a book on the greats of the world, Sigmund Freud wrote: "There is no medicine against death, and against error no rule has been found."|
By Rabbi Louis Jacobs
Originally published in A.J.A. Quarterly, 2:2 (1956), pp. 7-13.
Most people know of the Freudian attack on religious belief. In his Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1928), and Moses and Monotheism (1939), Freud claims that religion is an illusion, that it is a lingering childish desire for a father substitute, the fruit of repressed desires and infantile impulses; and that the day must eventually come when men will rid themselves of this unreal prop and learn to stand on their own feet. Freudian ideas have by now penetrated to the market place so that one encounters increasingly the suggestion that religious faith is nothing more than wish-fulfilment, that we believe because we want to, not because there is any true reason for believing, like the fox-hunter who believes that hunting is good for the fox or the cigar addict who believes that the ash h drops is good for the carpet.
Religious thinkers counter the Freudian onslaught by pointing out that Freud was convinced that religion is an illusion on other than psycho-analytical grounds. The question Freud sets out to answer in his work on religion is, seeing that God does not exist, why do men believe in Him? But the theist would reject this basic premise as a quite gratuitous assumption. For him religion rests on surer grounds than the desire to believe; he is convinced that there are at least as good grounds for belief as for unbelief.
Perhaps the best popular exposition of the religious reply to Freud is that of Leslie D. Weatherhead in his Psychology, Religion and Healing. Weatherhead, of course, writes from the standpoint of his own faith; indeed he claims that in his views on religion Freud is rebelling against the over-severe Orthodox Judaism he had known as a child; but, in fact, Weatherhead’s threefold answer is applicable in even greater measure to Judaism. Following Weatherhead we can say:
1. To desire a father does not invalidate the fact that he may exist, any more than to desire food is proof that food does not exist. Some have argued that the very hunger for God is an indication of His existence. As Bosanquet put it: “The instinctive appetite or demand for God is a proof of the reality of the Deity in the same sense in which hunger is a proof of the existence of food. In rerum natura an instinct implies an object.” If we are to reject as false every opinion which gives pleasure or satisfaction to those who hold it we should be compelled to reject much else beside religious ideas.
Even so severe a critic of the belief in a personal God as Professor Broad is constrained to conclude: “On the whole, then, I do not think that what we know of the conditions under which religious beliefs and emotions have arisen in the life of the individual and the race makes it reasonable to think that they are specially likely to be delusive or misdirected. At any rate any argument which starts from that basis and claims to reach such a conclusion will need to be very carefully handled if its destructive effects are to be confined within the range contemplated by its users. It is reasonable to think that the concepts and beliefs of even the most perfect religions known to us are extremely inadequate to the facts which they express; that they are highly confused and are mixed up with a great deal of positive error and sheer nonsense; and that, if the human race goes on and continues to have religious experiences and to reflect on them, they will be altered and improved almost beyond recognition. But all this could be said, mutatis mutandis, of scientific concepts and theories. The claim of any particular religion or sect to have complete truth on these subjects seems to me to be too ridiculous to be worth a moment’s consideration. But the opposition extreme of holding that the whole religious experience of mankind is a gigantic system of pure delusion seems to me to be almost (though not quite) as far-fetched.” (Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research).
In other words, to argue that because our minds may be emotionally condition our religious beliefs are false, is to undermine the validity of any of the truths we affirm because with regard to them too way may be so conditioned. It is said than an undergraduate once said to William Temple, “You believe what you believe because of your early upbringing.” Quick as a flash came Temple’s retort “And you believe that I believe what I believe because of my early upbringing, because of your early upbringing!” (Quoted by Gordon W. Allport, The Individual And His Religion).
2. Judaism is a historical religion, not a religion created to fill a need. It is more than a little difficult to see how Judaism could have come about, how the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets, so different from contemporary views of religion, should have emerged and persisted over centuries unless the idea of divine revelation is accepted. A whole people from the beginning of its history recognises God and brings paganism to an end. Israel’s monotheism, as Ezekiel Kaufman and others have convincingly demonstrated, has no roots in the pagan world. Even if Freud is right that religion arose out of the fears of primitive man in a world filled with terrors, it is no more helpful to overlook its finest flowering than it would be to ignore modern medicine because of its origin in the strange incantations and weird murmurings of the shaman and witch-doctor, or to fail to appreciate the art of a Titian or a Rembrandt because painting began in the Paleolithic caves. Add to this the astonishing persistence of Judaism and the stubborn survival of the Jews in the teeth of adversity and it can be seen how much of the truth there is in the saying, attributed to Napoleon’s page, that the strongest argument for the existence of God is the existence of the Jews!
3. Judaism is too austere in its demands to be the kind of illusion men invent. If one thinks of the martyrdom of Jewry throughout the ages, of the denial of millions of ordinary Jews in submitting to the difficult Torah discipline, of the Torah students who spent laborious days and nights in the study of Talmud, of the many Jews in Western lands who sacrificed the most lucrative careers and promising ambitions rather than be faithless to their religion, then it is hard to see why, if an illusion had to be invented, it should be such a rigorous one. There are comforts of religion but, on any elevated view of faith, these are its by-products, not its aim.
The Jewish liturgy speaks not only of God as Father but as King, Who makes demands on His subjects. And the Rabbis surely recognised the distinction between the true saint and the man who uses his faith as an emotional prop, when they stressed the difference between Abraham who “walked before God” and Noah, who “required a support” and could do no more than “walk with Him.” In fact, many have argued that far from religious belief being an illusion, unbelief is an attempt to avoid the difficult demands of the Torah by denying the premisses upon which they are based. For many people the idea of irresponsibility implied in the atheistic philosophy, the assurance that, in the words of the Rabbis, there is “no judge and no judgement,” is far more comforting than the knowledge that a man’s life is given to him on trust by a divine Creator before Whom we must render his account.
In this connection the verse has been quoted, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts” (Isaiah lvi. 7), i.e. the thoughts of the unrighteous, his denial of God, is the fruit of his preference for an evil way, so that if he will abandon his way his thoughts will automatically leave him. In the same spirit, the saintly Haphetz Hayyim removed the whole question of unbelief from the intellectual onto the moral plane when he said that for the man of faith there are no problems, while for the man of no faith there are no solutions. This is to go too far in the opposite direction. After all there are honest doubters, men who would love to believe if only they could, but the point is well taken that there are as good grounds for suggesting that atheism is an illusion as for suggesting that religious belief is an illusion.
It is not alone Freud’s general view of religion as an illusion which requires to be met by religious people. His theories with regard to man’s mental processes obviously have bearing on the teachings of religion concerning sin and virtue. The theory of the conflict in man between the super ego and the id, for example, appears to be quite compatible with Jewish views of human nature. Weatherhead compares man to one who inhabits a room on the ceiling of which the super ego in the attic knocks, demanding him to come up, and on the floor of which the id in the cellar knocks, demanding him to come down and respond to its needs, so that he is distracted and torn asunder. The way to mental health is to recognise both elements, and then make terms with them. A man must not yield to either completely, for neither would let the other have it all its own way. That which he ought to do and that which he wants to do must be co-ordinated in an ego-deal, and then harmony will be restored.
It is fruitful to compare this with rabbinic views n the conflict between the good and evil inclinations, between the yetzer tobh and the yetzer hara’ and the frank recognition of the validity of the latter’s claims within the sphere of the licit.
One or two typical passages of the Rabbinic literature, relevant to this theme, may here be quoted. These have a remarkable affinity with some aspects of Freud’s teachings. The greatness of Freud consists not so much in the complete originality of his ideas―some of which were known to, or, at least, perceived by, the ancients―but in providing them with empirical verification. However, in quoting these passages there is no need to go so far as to suggest that the Rabbis anticipated Freud but that they too know of the early conflict in man on the deeper levels of the mind and were not blind to, or shocked by, the evidence of his perversity. (It is said that when the Rosh Yeshiba of Mir heard the Freudian theories for the first time he remarked: “Brilliant! But it seems to me that Freud seizes the soul by its underpants!”).
Reminiscent of the doctrine of the unconscious is the Rabbinic saying that one of the names of the yetzer hara’ is hatzephoni (from a root meaning to hide) because it is “hidden in the heart of man”. The doctrine of sublimation is mirrored in the Talmudic passage about dragging the yetzer hara’ to the House of Learning―“My son, if this repulsive wretch assail thee, lead him to the House of Study; if he is of stone, he will dissolve; if iron he will shiver into fragments”―and in the frequently quoted saying of R. Judah in the name of Rabh that a man should always occupy himself with the Torah and with good deeds, though it is not for their own sake, for out of doing good with an ulterior motive there comes doing good for its own sake. The Rabbis were no believers in the innocence of little children. The verse: “Better is a poor and wise child than an old and foolish king” (Ecclesiastes iv. 13) means, according to the Midrash, that the yetzer tobh―the good inclination―is better than the yetzer hara’. The latter is called an old foolish king because it is present from the birth of a child, while the good inclination is a child because it does not emerge until later.
The Talmud abounds in reference to different kinds of insanity and how far people afflicted with them are held to be accountable for their actions. This gives us the key to the solution of the problems connected with the relationship between sin and mental sickness. According to one Rabbinic teaching all sin is due to mental disease―“No man sins unless a spirit of folly has entered into him”―but obviously there are degrees of responsibility. It seems clear that there are people who do wrong out of compulsion. These people may be healed by the ministrations of the psychiatrist while the admonitions of the Rabbi will be totally ineffective. On the other hand, it is just as clear that after the psychiatrist has succeeded in uncovering the roots of a neurosis, its victim has still to make his choice in the problem before him and here he can draw on his religious resources. There is no valid reason in either the Jewish tradition or psycho-analytical practice why the Rabbi and the psycho-analyst should not work hand in hand. (Lack of space prevents dealing with the fascinating question of the psycho-analytical interpretation of Jewish ritual; see Theodor Reik’s Ritual and Dogma and Compulsion; Abraham Cronbach’s Psycho-analytic Study of Judaism in Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. VIII-IX, 1931-2; Alter Druyanov in Reshumotz (Heb.), Vol. 1, Odessa, 1918, Vol. II, Tel Aviv; and my article Psycho-analysis and Faith in the Jewish Chronicle, Friday, 8th May, 1953).
The Torah was not given to the ministering angels, say the Rabbis. Judaism controls life but does not deny it. Every part of human nature can find fulfilment within its range. The recognition of the tension which exists in the human soul, far from being detrimental to the religious life, is an essential ingredient to it. As Reik, a disciple of Freud, finely puts it, in the conclusion of the psycho-analytical interpretation of Kol Nidre, “The Brith between God and Israel, is renewed on Yom Kippur, which begins with the gloomy sounds of the Kol Nidre, telling of oppressive guilt, but expressing submission and repentance, in order to end in the loud announcement of the uniqueness of God.”_____________
 In a recent article (Commentary, May 1956) Freud’s niece, writing from her personal experience, states that Freud was not brought up in a pious household. H. J. Philip in his critique of Freud’s anti-religious views (Freud and Religious Belief 1956) suggests that it was the free-thinking atmosphere in Freud’s home which gave him his atheistic bias!
Louis Jacobs CBE (17 July 1920 – 1 July 2006) was the founder of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and theologian. He combined "immense erudition with the ability to inspire... he has shown it is possible to be Orthodox without being superstitious."