Psychoanalysis and Kabbala (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A book that brings together the many strands of two complex disciplines, psychoanalysis and kabbala, and demonstrates how they can reinforce each other despite their different starting points. Forget Madonna (a.k.a. Esther), put away your red thread, disabuse yourself of the belief that merely touching the words of a sacred book will lead to Nirvana. Kabbala is not a rich person's plaything but rather - according to Dr. Joseph Berke at least - a source that "touches the issue of the human soul - and the characteristics of the Divine, known as sephirot." Similarly, "psychoanalysis, too, addresses the inner working workings of the mind. There's a natural divergence between the two - it's like a jigsaw puzzle - in which one provides the missing part for the other." Berke, an American-born, London-based physician and psychoanalyst, was in Jerusalem recently to launch his latest book, "Centers of Power," about psychoanalysis and kabbala - alongside co-author Prof. Stanley Schneider. When we met, he recalled his own beginnings in both fields. "I was studying at the Albert Einstein Medical School, specializing in psychoanalysis, but I had become extremely depressed. My high ideals - to be a humane family doctor - had been shattered. I was confronted with chemical diagnoses, blood chemistries - but also indifference. The school was interested in pathologies, not people. So I began to seriously doubt my calling. When I went into psychiatric practice, I met a Puerto Rican man who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but - despite what the textbooks said - I could talk to him. I became scared; if I was able to talk to a schizophrenic, maybe I was one! Then I came across R.D. Laing's book "Divided Self." It was a revelation - here was someone talking about the whole person - not just about the illness. "I wrote to Laing and said I wanted to work with him. He never wrote back. I went to Europe anyway and worked in Scotland with Maxwell Jones, a social psychiatrist. Then I wrote to Laing again and he replied: 'Come and see me, if you must.' So I went to London and we hit it off. Once you got through the initial barrier, he was great." At the time, circa 1963, Laing was running "The Philadelphia Centre." In 1965, he acquired a place in East London called Kingsley Hall, which was where Gandhi had stayed when negotiating with the British. This served as his headquarters and attracted many people from the counterculture. "Laing," recalls Berke, "pointed out the existential dilemmas in which we all live. This is also the focus of kabbala - and why I find both areas so riveting. One of Laing's own teachers, the neurologist Dr. Joseph Schorstein, was from a hasidic background and used to sing hasidic music to his young student. So maybe there was already a connection back then! Laing himself was very sensitive to mystical experiences - especially Christian mysticism." Berke's professional concern with mysticism was to come much later, but in retrospect it is clear that his time with Laing helped lay the groundwork for this involvement: "At the time we met, psychoanalysis was highly reductionist, talking about the id and drives and so forth but never the person. What Laing introduced was the idea that the world in which we live is one of both an actual universe and a fantasy one. Some people live as split personalities - living in several universes. "In our book we refer to quantum physics as a model for human lives for this very reason. Quantum physics proposes the existence of other universes parallel to our own. In individual terms this might be seen as the conscious and unconscious levels of our minds. What Laing saw was the way in which the modern world had become characterized by this divided self, or split personality; indeed it almost becomes its symbol." Having introduced Laing to New York in 1964, Berke returned to London to complete his medical training and stayed. Of his relationship with one of the great gurus of the 60s, he now says: "The Jews (myself, David Esterson, and others) discovered Laing as much as he discovered us!" Berke's encounter with Laing opened the way to meetings with many of the leading lights of the 60s counterculture, many of whom were trying to create a new synthesis in such areas as psychology, psychiatry, politics and philosophy. Berke helped organize a conference at the Round House in North London called "The Dialectics of Liberation" and it attracted the leading radical lights of those heady days - Herbert Marcuse, Gregory Bateson, Paul Goodman, Jules Henry, Stokely Carmichael, David Cooper, as well as Laing himself. Although Berke admits that the counterculture movement fizzled out, he maintains that his own work is a direct continuation of it: "I established the Arbours Groups as an alternative mental hospital for people who were in various painful psychic states." The Arbours Crisis Centre in London, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, is still thriving and was recently the subject of a BBC TV documentary. "But," observes Berke, "it has to be said that much of the counterculture succumbed to the dark side of perverted drug use, sexual profligacy and so on. You can't open psychic spaces without bringing in the dark forces. We see this in Judaism in the story of Shabbtai Zvi. He opened up lots of positive energies but also a lot of darker ones. Because of Shabbtaism, the rabbis put kabbala back in its box. They tried to freeze the dark spirits, the shaydim." In some ways Laing, too, manifests both sides of this equation: "I was with Laing from 1963 to 1969, when he took off for India because of his interest in Eastern mysticism. He was the sort of guy that, if you were his student and he turned right, you had to turn right; you had to follow him. He went through various permutations and by the time he went to the East we had parted company. He was one of the most brilliant men I'd ever met. But he was also self-destructive." During these years with Laing and the counterculture, Berke's interest in Judaism had waned somewhat. He had grown up in a Jewish traditional family in New Jersey and during his student days kept kosher and celebrated the holidays. "Oddly enough," he recalls, "there was no Jewish content in the medical program at Yeshiva University. No Rambam on medicine, for example, or discussions on Jewish ethics. Maybe things have changed since. "When I came to the U.K., everything dropped for a while. I got married and had children. Over the years I became increasingly observant - it was important to me. But the big leap started only after I was divorced and went through a personal crisis. I met a group of some 50 Jewish psychoanalysts whose director was an Argentinian, Eduardo Pitchon. He introduced me to Warren Kenton (Halevi) who taught kabbala in English. I thought that kabbala was off limits, open only to those who knew Torah, and who were 40 years old. But Kenton showed me another way." "At one meeting, Eduardo said that we had to reach out to all parts of the Jewish community, including Chabad. All the 50 psychoanalysts said in unison: "Not Chabad!" Naively, I asked why not and they said because they're going to grab you. To which I responded: I'm a big boy, I can look after myself. So I met the Chabad people and - guess what? They grabbed me!" It would take him some years, though, before he made a connection between the various aspects of his life and work. In the present book (he has authored or edited a dozen others), he shows how he connected the concept of tikkun (repair) in kabbala with repairing the damaged soul (tikkun hanefesh), which is at the basis of psychoanalysis. One of his inspirations was Frieda Fromm-Reichman, who developed the old Jewish idea that to save one person is to save the world. (Fromm-Reichman was the wife of Erich Fromm, the renowned German-Jewish psychoanalyst and student of Freud. In the 1920s, the Fromms had a therapeutic community for religious Jews in Heidelberg, which lasted for a couple of years, before the Fromms left for America.) Mordechai Beck is a Jerusalem-based artist and writer. Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.