Jewish psychology: Recomposing life without Freud

LAST UPDATED: 03/26/2014 15:53


Freud and Madonna Kabbala connection Photo: REUTERS

If your view of Jewish psychology is a patient laying down on a comfortable couch and sharing their problems with a Rabbi, think again.

Drawing on literature from Kabbala and the Midrash, Professor Mordechai Rotenberg, the world's leading expert in this field, has developed innovative theories on the philosophy of psychology and Judaism.

They are Tikkun (repair), Yetzer-Yetzira (desire and creation) and his original term Shilchun (recomposition).

Known as the father of Jewish psychology, the 82-year-old professor suggests rereading one's life story instead of reopening past wounds.

"I discovered that behind the psychology there is Christian theology and it is as simple as that," Professor Rotenberg says.

Professor Mordechai Rotenberg"Christianity says that the original sin is biological and in psychoanalysis you go back and excavate your past and discover the guilt so you know why what you suffer today is the result of that original sin. This is a very typical process of confession and the basis of psychoanalysis is that everybody has original sin, Oedipal guilt – it is Freudian and it is something about what can be cured," Professor Rotenberg says.

In Jewish psychology, this idea grows into Tikkun Olam – the concept of repairing the world and a concept psychologists such as Isaschar Eshet draw on in their psychotherapy treatments.

"What we see in Judaism in guilt is a precious feeling that we don’t have to ignore, we have to take it and try to understand what we did wrong and then start a process of forgiveness and sometimes to also do something good to the person we hurt," Eshet says.

"When man fixes things he is not just fixing himself but he is helping to repair the world through Tikkun Olam. Psychology through Judaism is all about Tikkun Olam - it means we will make peace not war, help save the world and the universe, to be good to each other, and this is what is written in one way or another in the Bible and also in the Talmud and the Mishnah," Eshet says.

Professor Rotenberg agrees and says when going through the community a person is able to help himself.

"Jewish psychology is about looking into the future," Professor Rotenberg says. "It is community based so instead of looking into your past and what troubles you, you have to be concerned about other people. As it says in the Talmud - anybody who prays for others will be helped first." 

So how does it work? 

Through drawing on Kabbalic conceptions of recomposing, Professor Rotenberg teaches patients how to reread their own biography.

"You can reinterpret your past – you change the reading and the meaning of it and this is based on a biblical conception and I call this Shilchun – recomposing the past," Professor Rotenberg says. "To make from the older tunes a new melody of your life." 

Professor Rotenberg does this through teaching clients to take the same letters of a word and rearranging them to make a new word.

"It appears in the Kabbala like the word Nitukk which means separation, and I rearrange the letters and recompose and you get Tikkun – repair. Every client that comes to me, I tell him to write his problems in one sentence and I tell him to take one word like in Scrabble and rearrange the letters. He arranges it and then I show him how you can change the way you view your biography, your problems and we start from there and we start to see many traumatic experiences in his life in a new way. I show my patients that you can live with your past in a way you can live with it," Professor Rotenberg says.

Another method of Jewish psychology Professor Rotenberg uses is the concept of Yetzer and Yetzira – the desire-creation model which is the basis for a unique approach to sexuality and creativity.

"The fact that Yetzer, evil desire, is the same letters as Yetzirawhich is creativity means that the evil desire, whatever it is, such as sexual passion on the physical level, can be reworked into creativity," he says.

"It means that the same energy can be used not for physical desires but for spiritual achievement. There's a saying in the Jewish heritage that if there wouldn't be an evil desire, a sexual desire, the world would not exist. This is the basic drive and energy for life and Kabbalists say that someone without sexual desire is like an animal. This desire is energy and you have to channel it in a wise way," Professor Rotenberg says.

Eshet says through Jewish psychology he hopes to deepen his clients' religious beliefs.

"My version of Jewish psychology is something where I take things from Judaism and if there is evidence and research I take it and I work with it. Judaism asks all the time what did you do, if you acted in a moral way or if you did something that does not have Tikkun Olam. What I do is psychology that helps people to be also more religious as Jews," Mr Eshet says.

Professor Rotenberg, however, says whether a client believes in God or not is irrelevant to his methodologies.

"I don't know what God wants and if a person says my belief in God is enhanced by your interpretation of psychology and Judaism, then good for you, but I can't tell you what God wants, that is up to you to decide.

What differentiates me from other psychologists is that I don't preach, I teach using my own psychological model." 

Professor Mordechai Rotenberg has written 13 books on the practice of Jewish psychology.
The Rotenberg Institute for Jewish psychology was established in Israel in 2006.




"To a certain extent. The center I am now establishing that bears my son's name - I am trying to turn it into a legend."

Talking to the spirits

Prof. Mordechai Rotenberg, the father of what is referred to as Jewish psychology, suggests reworking one's biography instead of picking away at the scars of the past. Call this irrational or kabbalistic - it doesn't bother him.

By  Oct. 18, 2007 | 12:00 AM

Four years after he retired from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he taught in the social work school, the criminology institute and the department of psychology, Prof. Mordechai Rotenberg was asked to return.

"For 35 years I was 'hospitalized' in the university and I didn't think I would want to go back," he says with characteristic humor. "My mother always told me, 'When you finish your schoolwork, go and play.' Well, I had already finished my schoolwork and wanted to play. Suddenly they remembered to call back to the flag a Jew of 75. So why did I go back? Because they told me, 'It's boring here without you.'"

Rotenberg, who views himself as an avowed enemy of Freud, invented a school of psychology that has gained recognition mainly abroad. His books have been translated into English (and sell well in the United States), as well as Japanese, French and Portuguese. He has student disciples, has been awarded prizes (the Jerusalem Prize, the Fulbright Award for international research), and now Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, an institute of Jewish and Zionist studies, has established a program to teach Rotenberg's unique Jewish psychology. As for the Hebrew University, it is contemplating the creation of a master's degree track based on his approach ("If we can find the budget," says Prof. Gail Auslander, director of the university's Baerwald School of Social Work). In any case, mainstream psychologists in Israel take little interest in Rotenberg, but also have tried not to get in his way.

Prof. Gary Bornstein, the head of the psychology department at the Hebrew University, where Rotenberg worked, doesn't understand what the fuss is all about. Prof. Giora Keinan, Bornstein's counterpart at Tel Aviv University, barely knows who Rotenberg is. "It's my fault," Rotenberg says. "On the one hand, I didn't step on anyone's toes, and on the other, I didn't do public relations for myself, while for their part they made no special efforts to accept me. I don't blame them ... They have pretty much ignored me and did not slander me particularly. I looked for enemies who would try to battle me unto death, but none could be found. In a way, that is an insult, too."

According to Yoram Bilu, a professor of psychology and anthropology at the Hebrew University, Rotenberg does not quite fit in anywhere, because the discipline of cultural psychology is not as developed in Israel as elsewhere. "Perhaps Jewish psychology falls into the same slot," he avers.

Could it be that Rotenberg is ahead of his time?

Bilu: "Maybe."

Prof. Yisrael Orbach, from the psychology department of Bar-Ilan University, is familiar with Rotenberg's theories and regards him very seriously.

So why is he ignored?

Orbach: "People are afraid of innovation, so they tend to defend the old and reject new approaches. Besides, it takes a great deal of time before a new method becomes consolidated. But I wouldn't say he is being ignored. As far as I know, he is held in high regard by those who are familiar with his method."

Original sin

According to Rotenberg, his Jewish psychology has nothing to do with religion. "I do not want to convert psychology to Judaism," he says emphatically. On the contrary: His type of psychology, he explains, is far more humanistic and far less religious than the psychology propounded by Sigmund Freud. It is an alternative, trendy psychology with a New Age flavor. He became enlightened while working on his doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley. "In the 1960s, when the students in America took to the barricades against everything that smacked of the establishment," he recalls, "they also came out against psychiatry, saying it was a conspiracy by the establishment to lock up people with a schizophrenic label in state institutions. I started to scratch and discovered that what underlies Western psychology is Christian theology, which holds that every human being is born cursed because of the original sin."

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Rotenberg: "That one has first of all to die and only then be born again. Classic psychology says that you cannot change things, you just have to accept them. There is something very deterministic and pessimistic about it, and the source of it all is religious. All of life is Judgment Day. I revealed that secret and the shame of the psychologists, and I wrote and lectured about it and began to be invited to conferences of the psychology community. I made a career out of it and became a rising star and the subject of a great debate."

What does Jewish psychology say?

"I started to examine whether there is a psychology behind Jewish theology as well, and I discovered that there is. From the Jewish tradition I developed the idea of tshuva (repentance) - not in the religious sense, but in the sense of a return, with a circular element. A person can go to his psychologist and say, 'I am here so that in the future I can have a better past.' That is possible. With the classic psychologist you cannot correct the past, but only die. That is the only solution that exists in Christianity and for Freud's Oedipal person. Oedipus had to kill his father in order to develop. That is a distinctly dialectical conception, like the Hegelian and Marxist conception. I say that one can constantly correct.

"The Jewish model," he continues, "is based on intergenerational tension between the Abrahams and the Isaacs. Abraham wants to eradicate Isaac; there is almost a sacrifice, but at the last minute there is a reorganization and a compromise, and a promise of Jewish continuity is found. The connection between the Abrahams and the Isaacs continues. We find that throughout our literature - how to correct the past. The best example is Sholem Aleichem's 'I'm fortunate, I am an orphan.' Being orphaned is sad, but he connects it to optimism and gives it a new reading.

"On that basis I invented the concept of 're-biography' - rereading one's biography so it becomes possible to live with the text. All of life is a text, and I am proposing a new term - recomposition, rewriting the melody of life. You do not have to erase the past, but it can be re-composed, and to that end I cite examples from the Gemara."

Such as what?

"The text states that King David fornicated with Batsheva. However, the Gemara states, 'Anyone who says David sinned, is wrong.' Now begin the acrobatics: a new reading of the verses. It says there that every man who took part in David's wars left a writ of divorce for his wife, in case he did not return, so she would not become an aguna [a woman who is unable to remarry because - in this case - there is no verification of her husband's death]. Thus, Uriah the Hittite gave his wife, Bathsheva, such a writ and she was divorced, as it were. It doesn't sound good ethically, but this is a model of how to read a text differently."

Recipe for potatoes

Rotenberg proposes rereading the texts concretely in therapy sessions. He asks patients to tell him their story and the reason for their distress, and looks for positive points that he can seize upon. For example, a woman who came to him for treatment in the United States did not have one good word to say about herself. Rotenberg asked her what she had in the bag she was holding. "Potatoes," she said. From there the conversation moved to what can be cooked with potatoes, and the woman told him about a recipe of her mother's, and the therapy then took a surprising and optimistic turn. The woman derived a certain measure of grace from her biography, and her story unexpectedly assumed a positive meaning for her.

One of Rotenberg's techniques is using anagrams. "I ask couples or individuals to write a sentence about their problem. Then I suggest that a word, let's say nituk (severance, separation), be rearranged to get tikkun (correction, healing). I then ask them to reread the sentence, which takes on a different meaning, and if they are responsive I can start to work with them."

That is mysticism, not psychology.

"The possibility of reading your biography anew with the same facts and the same letters does in fact begin in kabbala, where combinations of letters are important. I have no problem with that. If meditation concretely helps a person to reread the facts of his life, that is also fine with me. From that mysticism I extract an active and effective psychological principle. A Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) couple came to me. He was from Switzerland and she was from Bnei Brak. They experienced terrible tension and wrote the word ichpatiyut (caring), and I told them that they had to cut the word into two - to i-kfiyatiyut (non-coercion). We tried to see how they could avoid forcing their religiosity on each other, and it worked."

Is that what all the celebrities are looking for in kabbala?

"Their lives lack the emotional, mystical side. Karl Marx was right when he said that religion is the opiate of the masses, but he did not understand how much the masses need that opiate. The Nietzscheans can kill God as much as they like, but humanity will always reinvent him, because people need to communicate with the unknown."

What is the difference between you and Freud?

"Freud was occupied not with healing, but with psychoanalysis. He took his patients from the wretched present into the past in order to find the Oedipal guilt there. How much energy he wasted putting the parents in the dock. According to Freud, the past cannot be changed, but only killed in order to build a new present upon it. Some people find this helpful, and I do not reject it - I posit an alternative. I say that the past can be changed by rereading it so that you can live with it."

It sounds as though you are legitimizing the irrational.

"Yes. I worked with people who come from countries where people who hear voices, for example, are institutionalized. And I say that this can be normalized. I treated a woman who had a lover at an early age and remained single all her life. After she was fired from her job she became mentally distressed and heard her lover talking to her. I told her that in the Jewish tradition there is the notion of hearing a bat-kol (divine voice), and that I also heard voices. I taught her to approach it with equanimity, not as something out of the ordinary. And it worked."

Boy with a bottle

Mordechai Rotenberg was born in Bratslav, Germany (today Wroclaw, Poland). His father was from Warsaw - descended from the family of the founder of the Gur Hasidic sect, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter; his mother was from Galicia. His father owned a large printing press and publishing house in Bratslav. In 1939, on the eve of the war, the family managed to leave and travel to Palestine. Rotenberg's father opened a small printing press in Jerusalem. Rotenberg grew up in a glatt kosher Haredi family, with three brothers and a sister, but he was considered something of an anomaly in the local Haredi landscape. "I was always the 'white sheep' of the family," he muses.

In elementary school he became active in the Gadna (Youth Battalions) organization, and at about age 14 dropped out of school altogether. "Things were very hard at home," he recalls. "I was afraid of my father and quarreled with him. Then I found out that my older brother was attending a yeshiva with a boarding school. I went there, too, because that way I could attend training sessions at night. It was one big summer camp for me."

Summer camp ended with the outbreak of the War of Independence. As a Gadna activist, Rotenberg took part in the defense of Jerusalem. Among his other missions he rebuilt positions that the Jordanians blew up, and transmitted messages between outposts. One day he found himself in Notre Dame monastery in the city.

"It was around May 15," he remembers. "I found a crate of Molotov cocktails there, got really scared, and hid it. The Jordanians tried every possible way to break into the city, and on that day armored vehicles arrived via Damascus Gate and took up positions below the windows of the monastery. Someone shouted from the street, 'Hey, kid, where are the cocktails?' I didn't know what to do, so he explained to me how to throw them. From the window I threw one of the bottles onto the first armored vehicle, which immediately started to burn, and the Jordanians beat a hasty retreat. Afterward people wrote that the Molotov cocktails saved Jerusalem, because otherwise the Jordanians would have entered the city. I pretty much forgot the whole thing, but one day I heard a tour guide telling about the boy with the bottle, and I came out of the closet and said, 'I am that boy.'"

After the war, Rotenberg worked with his father in the printing press and was drafted into the first Nahal paramilitary brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, which established Kibbutz Sha'alvim, near present-day Modi'in. During his military service he took part in cross-border reprisal raids.

"It was the period of the wild West," he says, recalling in particular one operation from which he barely emerged alive. "I dedicated my book 'Bereavement and the Living Legend' [in Hebrew] to five soldiers who extricated me from a lynching and helped me create the legend of my life," he says. "In one raid we were discovered by the Jordanians and they started firing at us from every direction. Our soldiers ran off and I was left alone ... Five soldiers saw what was happening and gave me cover."

Tall and theatrical, with a mischievous spark in his eyes, Rotenberg combs the ends of his mustache upward. He used to be a theater actor. In elementary school and in the army he was considered the official clown at various celebrations, and later was one of the founders of the theater at Sha'alvim. He says he was invited to join the Nahal entertainment troupe, "but I was a fighter who took part in reprisals, and to sing with girls seemed to me not manly enough."

After the army he had a hard time making up his mind about what to do. He was drawn to the theater, but was afraid of his father's reaction. He thought about university, but didn't know how to go about it; he had not attended high school for even a day and had no matriculation certificate. "Never at any time in my life did I follow the beaten path," he says. "Already in kindergarten I threw a ball at the teacher's head and she chased me through the streets and threw me out of the kindergarten."

Rotenberg took courses in physical education at the future Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports, and for a living taught physical education in Jerusalem schools. He also began going to night school to obtain a matriculation certificate, while channeling his love of the theater into dramas broadcast on Israel Radio, where he was Winnie the Pooh and the police officer in the Paul Temple detective series.

"Someone told me, 'If you want to get into academia, you have to undergo a metamorphosis and stop being a clown,' but in my own eyes I remained a clown for a long time afterward."

He entered the academic world by chance ("There are no creatures like me in university"). In the course of his work as a probation officer at the Welfare Ministry, he decided to try to get admitted to the Hebrew University. "At that time, anyone who had completed four matriculation subjects was admitted, on condition that he complete the rest during his studies, and I did so."

After getting an undergraduate degree in sociology and educational psychology in 1960, he obtained a master's in social work and criminology from New York University. It was then that he also removed his skullcap for good, though he did not exactly become a heretic.

"I never left anything," Rotenberg explains. "I took off the skullcap when it became a party or political symbol. I felt that I could not wear it and could not bear the thought that it marked me and that I could no longer say what I wanted. Throughout, I have been an anti-religious observer of the precepts. I do not believe in God, but at the same time I do not believe that God does not exist.

"The religious idea kills me," he continues, "because all the wars are fought in the name of religion. Allahu akbar - that means my God is greater than your God, meaning monotheism failed. In the East I am consumed with envy, because there, everything goes: They are more pluralist than the monotheists."

'My real self'

In 1962, after obtaining his master's degree, Rotenberg returned to Israel and worked as the Welfare Ministry's inspector of closed institutions for juvenile delinquents. For his doctoral dissertation he studied inmates in San Quentin Prison in California. Drawn to the margins of society, he formulated a theory in the wake of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, holding that it is possible to learn about a society through its deviants. "The big question I dealt with was what would happen if a person like me was thrown into jail - would I survive? From my acquaintance with criminals, I thought I would probably play the game of the tough guy in order to survive, but who says that is my real self?"

Rotenberg examined the concept of the "significant other" in regard to the way a person perceives himself. He showed that in simulation exercises, prisoners chose to play criminals when their audience was made up of fellow criminals, and nice social workers when the audience consisted of students. His conclusion: There are no born criminals, only actors for different situations.

Under the inspiration of kabbala he developed the concept of "contraction" and applied it to Jewish society's attitude toward deviants. "When Judaism was in crisis due to Sabbateanism [the movement initiated by Sabbatai Zevi, who declared himself the messiah in the 17th century] and the pogroms perpetrated by Chmelnitzki [in Poland in the same century], the Baal Shem Tov [founder of Hasidism] strode onto the stage of history and proclaimed that the important thing was to pray piously, which is something anyone can do. It was a revolution of the poor that succeeded in making the 'common people' equal in terms of realizing the Jewish ideal. The system had to contract and make space for the 'common people' to enter. There are no inferiors or ostracized castes in Jewish society. Every deviant can realize himself in his own way, not just the rich capitalist."

Returning to Israel in 1970, he joined the faculty of the Hebrew University. In 1980 he was appointed a full professor. Rotenberg's wife Naomi is a nurse by profession, and they are parents to Michal, 49, a psychologist; Yael, 45, a teacher; and Ami, 42, who is the head of a kollel - a yeshiva for married men - at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has 18 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, "and I don't always know who they are or whose they are," he laughs. "I am a sandwich: My father was a rabbi and my son is a rabbi."

'How the mighty fell'

Nineteen years ago, Rotenberg's son, Boaz, was killed (the new institute at Beit Morasha bears his name) by friendly fire during his military service in an elite unit of the Paratroops. But it was only two years ago that Rotenberg published his book about bereavement.

"People, my students, urged me to write about bereavement," he says. "At first I said, 'I am not a 'bereavist' - I don't want to make a career out of it.' After the shiva (seven-day mourning period), the first thing I did was go to Raful [the late former chief of staff Rafael Eitan]. 'Help me,' I said. 'You are not identified with bereavement. How does one do that?' And he helped me."


"He said he had been able to convey to people that inner bereavement is private and not connected to anything that happens outwardly. 'Do you want to talk to me? Talk straight to the point and don't whisper behind my back.' That is the