Finding One's Jewish Self

Thomas R. Hersh, Ph.D.
Published in: Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer 1991, pp 89-94.

Article Intro

Thomas R. Hersh was born in New York City in 1943 and was raised in California. He has 2 Ph.D.s, 1 in philosophy and one in psychology, and a Master's degree in marriage counseling. He was also an Associate Professor of philosophy for about 10 years at Cal State, Northridge, as well as Associate Professor of psychology, part-time, at Immaculate Heart College. He has a full-time private practice in clinical psychology and lectures at local colleges and universities. His research involves approaching early Jewish Holy literature from the point of view of psychology. He has also written on California Indian religion and is writing a book on the subject of senility. His hobbies include organic vegetable gardening and oil painting.

The Article Itself

It is interesting that Jung, a Christian by birth, "initiated" many alienated and assimilated Jews back into the fold of Judaism. I do not mean that he got them to believe in the literal truth of the Bible or that he encouraged them to follow Jewish law or even that he made them go to synagogue. Rather he helped them find their own connection to their Jewish past so that they could stop running from being Jewish.

It is an interesting fact that in modern American society, there are many Jews (I would not want to guess just how many) who have turned to other religions or to drugs to fulfill some longing in their souls. It is as if they went to temple with their bodies, perhaps forced to do so by family pressure, but their souls remained outside. For example, one young man who was forced to go to a Reform temple, used to sit in the back row with his friend in the required Friday night temple services in preparation for their Bar Mitzvahs. They felt that they were imprisoned in the plush seats until the end of the service. One day they started to giggle. Something struck them as funny, and they could not control themselves. The rabbi got furious and made a sarcastic comment, but this only made them giggle more, and they had to get up and leave. The giggling was more real and more satisfying to them than the talk.

It is just this type of experience that left many Jews feeling empty or questioning or feeling misunderstood by their religion. Many turned to Zen Buddhism or Hinduism for an answer. It was here that they could take seriously something in themselves that was denied by both family and synagogue. Whether the other religions were just using them or whether they really contained what the young people thought is another question.

In his own alienation from the Protestant Church, Jung sought solace in Hindu meditation. He traveled to alien cultures and found them to be in many ways more spiritually satisfying than his own. He became friends with an Hopi Indian medicine chief, and, on a trip to Africa, he befriended an African medicine man.

When Jung was young he had an experience that alienated him even further from his religion. He was on a train going past the cathedral in Zurich, and he looked up and saw God defecating on the church. He had many other experiences, often in dreams, that he dared not tell his father, a Reform Church parson. He also could not ask his father questions that came to his inquiring mind. There was always a line over which he could not cross. It was only when he met Freud that he found a man who would listen to everything in his mind and soul. But Freud too seemed to have an agenda that allowed only for a certain approach to the material, and eventually Jung was "excommunicated" from the Freudian school. It was at this time, when he was spiritually and intellectually alone, that he began his great work on himself where he found something that he believed was in all people, there for them to find.

At the same time he found that there were traditions within Christianity that were not heretical, though they were underground, that paralleled his own thought and made him feel less alone. He spent much of his intellectual life exploring these areas (for example, Alchemy) that had been ignored or neglected or put down by orthodox Christianity and by twentieth century rational Christianity.

The modern Jewish searcher may be in a similar position as Jung. I treated a young Jewish man who told me that what he remembered most about his Bar Mitzvah was the unpleasant body odor of the rabbi who was blessing him. I have also recently heard of a Bar Mitzvah that proceeded as if nothing had happened in spite of a bitter divorce going on. The emotional reality was ignored, and there was no attempt to spiritualize the pain. The focus was on the high cost of the lavish celebration and on the handing down of the honorable family tradition. Though this may have cemented the Bar Mitzvah boy's outer commitment to Judaism, his soul would still be aching to fly as far away as possible to find some solace. I am sorry to present these unpleasant stories, but they are real and represent the shadowy side of the Bar Mitzvah experience.

Alienated from Judaism by thoughts, feelings, ideas, and experiences, refuge may be sought in the religion of the American Indians or in Zen Buddhism. Jung thought that though these other religions were very profound and, in a sense, more real and honest and deeper than his own, the answer was not to go to these religions. This would increase the alienation from ones deepest self and not decrease it. For one thing, to understand Hinduism, for example, Jung thought a person had to be from the Orient. The meaning of the words and rituals is so deeply embedded in the past of that culture that foreigners would project all their own meanings onto it.

An example from the reverse angle may illustrate the point. I once treated a black woman who had gone from an evangelical Christian church to a Buddhist sect to Catholicism. At one point she came to me, knowing that I was Jewish, with an ad from a Jewish newspaper for a very expensive hand-painted ketubah that promised the owner a divine blessing for married life. This lady had no idea as to the history or meaning of ketubah, and to spend her money on such an object, in order to receive a blessing, would have been a waste. She had no knowledge of or interest in African religions, and, in fact, she had an active dislike of everything in this area, and, buying a ketubah, would have been an expression of her self-alienation.

Speaking of Europe Jung wrote,

Spiritual Europe will not be helped by a mere sensation, a new thrill. Rather we have to learn to earn in order to possess. What the East has to give us can only be of help in a labor that is still before us. What good is the wisdom of the Upanishads, what good are the insights of Chinese yoga, if we forsake our own foundations as though they were mistakes we had outlived and rapaciously settle on a foreign coast like homeless pirates?....What we need at present is European wisdom concerning ourselves. Our way begins with the European reality and not with yoga exercises intended to blind us to our own reality. (quoted by Wehr, 1989, p. 84)

To Jung, the answer was not to run back to ones own religion and to try to find the answer there, by fitting oneself into the mold, but to look deeper within ones own self. The way within was through the dream. It was in this vast interior of the collective unconscious that a person could meet his or her god and find the answer that he or she had been looking for from other people and from external religion. This was the only true foundation stone for ones own individual work and the only place from which one could be secure.

Among all my patients beyond midlife, that is, over 35, there is not a single one whose ultimate problem is not connected with his approach to religion. Indeed, in the last analysis everyone becomes ill because they have lost that which living religions have provided to their believers in all times; and no one is really cured whose connection to religion has not been restored — which of course has nothing to do with any particular religion or affiliation with a church. (quoted in Wehr, 1989, p. 99)

It was of great interest that Jung did not try to bring his own experiences and answers to bear on his patients. This would have been to start another religion. In Japan every year there is something like 100 new religions formed based on the mystical or spiritual or visionary experiences of one person or another. Jung did not want to or try to set up a new religion. What he did was encourage each person to go into him or herself to find their religion.

I do not wish to show anyone else the way, because I know that my way was dictated by something far beyond me. I know that all sounds hellishly grand....It is grand, and I am only trying to be a humble tool and feel myself to be anything but grand. (quoted in Wehr, 1989, p. 111)

Jung was perhaps the first advocate of absolute freedom of the imagination. He was an anti-fascist freedom fighter, not for political freedom or freedom of thought (battles which were on the road to victory), but for freedom of imagination. He did not impose an iconography or a myth on anybody but encouraged each person to find his or her own myth and symbols. Jung was for the individual and advocated a process he called individuation which involved hard work on the images that came to one in dreams.

Turning to another religion is not the answer and taking drugs involves no work and is unpredictable. Jung encouraged people to look within. But then in what way did Jung encourage alienated Jews to return to the fold? If anything he pushed them away by saying that the answer did not lie outside but within. The answer is that he encouraged people to read and study the roots of their own religion. First of all, a genuine study of ones own religion reveals that it began in experiences that were very much like ones own inner life and, further, that there were branches of this religion that valued the inner experience. In Judaism we would have to point to the early Merkabah mysticism and Kabbalah. For most modern Jews, these areas are as foreign as Hinduism, and our prejudice against them is from the rational side of our natures, the very side that stands in the way of the inner life.

It is not that the answer to a Jew's personal search is in Kabbalah but that the study of Kabbalah is of use in coming to an understanding of ones own experiences and ones place within Jewish history and that there were those within orthodox Judaism who fought for our right to inner freedom. It is like trying to understand ones own parents in order to understand oneself better.

Further it is not that one is limited to reading holy texts and reinterpreting them in ones own way. The answer need not come from the texts themselves in any sense. This is hinted at by an anonymous medieval Kabbalist (quoted in Idel, 1990, p. 67) who said that the original Torah was different from the one we have in our possession, and implied that to find the original, a person must travel to the land of the dead. The "land of the dead" is an old-fashioned way of saying the imagination, and so this is a statement of a very radical nature: that it is okay for orthodox Jews to find (not make) their own holy book in their dreams and visions. Revelation or prophecy has not stopped.

It is the very finding of ones own answer and finding ones own soul that frees a person from preaching and trying to convince others that their own experience is the true one. Preaching is a form of tyranny, an insecurity that looks outside for support instead of looking to the God within, who appears in ones own dream.

The "down" side is that what one finds is ones own and cannot, and should not, be foisted on others. The "up" side is that if one has truly found ones own answer, it is a secret that one does not need to foist on others.

Once all this is said, however, we must remember that Jung was also a scientist who discovered something extraordinary. To be a scientist does not mean that you are automatically anti-imagination. For example, Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." What Jung found was that if you look objectively at dreams of many people over many years, there is a pattern that emerges. Certain images and feelings occur over and over. This is true all over the world and at all times, but it is also true within one group or religion. What this means is that, by a strange twist, if a Jew truly and totally dives into his or her own dreams, then what is found has a Jewish content. For example, the Jungian analyst, Dr. James Kirsch told me that the dreams of his Jewish patients often recalled the 430 years of bondage in Egypt, a collective memory embedded in each Jew. And I have found that the idea of being one of God's chosen people is deeply ingrained in even the most materialistic Jew, and it causes no end of trouble as well as feelings of exaltation and exhilaration.

A friend of mine who is a Jungian analyst was very good at working with the Sand Tray. This is a Jungian technique whereby a child places toy animals and soldiers and the like in a tray filled with sand. All kinds of amazing scenes emerge from this work. Once she was working with a young boy who was having some sort of problem. One day she asked the parents if they had told her everything about him that was important. She asked if the child was adopted. The answer was "Yes. He was adopted at birth." She said, "Were his parents Navajo?" Again the answer was "Yes." She had seen Navajo mythology in the sand trays of the boy. [Apparently the boy appeared caucasian.]

Once Jung analyzed a very materialistic and very unhappy Jewish woman. Soon he found that her ancestors were Hasidic rabbis. This unlocked the secret for her eventual satisfaction, not in a return to Hasidism, but in the fact that she was a very spiritual person and that her happiness lay in the discovery of her own inner life.

The sea creature, the chambered nautilus, automatically spins out its beautiful and elaborate chambered nautilus shell by just being itself. A Jew who is true to his or her own inner nature spins out Jewish dreams, just by going deeper and deeper.

There may be lucky Jews who are completely satisfied with the intellectual and religious answers of their fathers and forefathers. Others turn from religion and find a secure place within secular society. But there are those who find themselves looking for something more. It is to this last group that Jung spoke by encouraging them on to their spiritual independence.

The References


Idel, M. (1990). Golem; Jewish magical and mystical traditions on the artificial anthropoid. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Wehr. G. (1989). An Illustrated Biography of C. G. Jung. M. H. Kohn (Trans.). Boston: Shambhala.