Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Judaism as Psychology

When we stop believing in religion, religion doesn’t go away, it becomes a servant of psychology. For example, books like Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman, and Robert Johnson’s She, He, and We take the Gods and myths of ancient Greece and turn them into modern psychological archetypes. The same thing may be happening with liberal Judaism as well.

In the current issue of Reform Judaism magazine Alan Morinis, founder and dean of the Mussar Institute, and one of the most creative voices in contemporary Judaism, offers an insightful essay on the meaning of Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays.

“Embedded in each of our holidays,” Alan writes, “are the messages they hold for us.” Purim’s message is “It’s time to be joyful!” Tisha b’Av tells us its time to be sad. “If you are a person who is always or often sad, then Purim comes to help you usher in some happiness. Or perhaps you live your live (sic) experiencing great joy, and here comes Tisha B’av (sic), saying “You should learn to know sorrow, too.”

Hanukkah it turns out is about trust which is why the photo accompanying the essay is of a young woman hanging from a harness over a gorge of some sort. Maybe she is lighting candles each time she approaches the ground, I don’t know. Or maybe lighting candles is irrelevant to the theme of trust.

Let me be clear: I’m not criticizing Alan’s approach. I know him and have only the greatest respect for his work. All I’m doing is pointing out that this is what we do when we no longer believe. The hope is that in this way Judaism will take on a new life as a system of metaphors for psychological insight and wellness. If this is what is happening to liberal Judaism it will no longer be a religion, but a self–help therapy.

I can imagine a questionnaire to help you determine if you are a Purim Person or a Tisha B’Av Person, etc. and then, based on your profile, you will determine which Jewish holidays you ought to celebrate. This may give Judaism a role to play in the future, but it won’t be the one it was meant to play.

Something similar is happening in evangelical Christianity where Jesus wants you to be happy and rich rather than saved, and in Buddhism where Buddha nature is that special something you are meant to actualize in the world, and meditation is no longer a tool for enlightenment or even the ending of suffering, but a means to reduce stress, heighten our capacity for concentration at work and in school, and generally make us more productive producers and consumers.

There may well be a future for religion, but it may be that the religions we have now are headed the way of Olympus.


Fraser said...

A lot of psychotherapists who were also religious types eventually moved away from psychology and back to religion in it's broadest sense as they felt that sacredness was better expressed that way. I prefer being a weird expression of the divine myself than a set of psychological problems to be sorted through and solved. Gerald May was one of these ex psychotherapists and in his book 'Simply Sane' he spoke for leaving ourselves alone. Once 'being still' happens in any way psychology reaches the end of it's usefulness and wonder starts up along with religion in sometimes really simple forms like bowing and calling out. I think the religious forms must die or transform in some
way but psychology just won't do when pouring out a bowl of water in thanks for the miracle of rain is called for.

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