Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Psychology of the Hebrew Bible

The Jewish scholars Matthew Schwartz and Kalman Kaplan find in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, a satisfying alternative to the Greek inflections of even the most modern secular psychology. We can hear this by, among many other ways, contrasting the pathology of the Hippocratic oath with the holistic care articulated in the physician’s prayer attributed to Maimonides.

 For Hippocrates, the physician serves nature and regards the disease as the enemy, along the way enlisting the patient’s aid and cooperation and refusing to do any harm, if no good is possible. But for Maimonides, the physician serves God by caring for God’s creatures, regards the disease as a messenger of God sent to warn the patient of danger, and along the way prays to God that he or she might care for the patient without the frustrating interference of the world.

 Such a different understanding of disease and the role of the patient continues today in our possible understandings of psychology. For example, Freudian insight, while astute, remains shaped by the confines of tragic Greek myth. These stories of belief favor insurmountable fate, the cold comfort of suicide, and the inescapable pathology of psychoses. Yet a psychology based on Hebrew myth would emphasize hope, meaning and purpose, and human responsibility in free service to God and others. The Hebrew Scriptures look dimly on suicide, and believe that body and soul should act together in obedience to God’s commandments.

 These assumptions carry through many areas of psychology. For example, Hebrew scripture may be said to approach the subject of self-esteem by asserting that humans are created by God and in God’s image. God grants each human gifts and talents to be employed for good and for which they are responsible, rather than insurmountable flaws which doom persons to resignation or despair.

 We can see this in the Hebrew and Greek tales of Adam and Narcissus, particularly. Narcissus, the product of the rape of a nymph by a river god, spurns all his potential lovers, only to fall prey to a vain self-love. In the end, we find that this was neatly circumscribed by the prophecy at his birth that he would live to old age so long as he never knew himself. Adam, on the other hand, is uniquely valued by God as the first of the highest form of creation, and is cared for when God gives him Eve as a helper and companion. And though Adam also fails, he does not pine away unto death, but fulfills his purpose of fruition through children with Eve.

Other narratives of the Bible speak to many other themes that are perhaps not quite as emphasized in Greek stories and Western secular psychology. Joshua demonstrates loyalty by completing Moses’ vision and leading the Hebrew people to the promised land. Solomon asks for, and receives, the unqualified benefit of wisdom, and successfully employs it to resolve the seemingly insoluble problem of the two harlots and the dead child. Jepthah’s foolish and arrogant oath that leads to the sacrifice of his own daughter and reveals the folly of trying to ingratiate oneself with God or others.

Hezekiah’s trusting obedience to God in removing Judah’s illegal altars ultimately trumps the cynicism of Rabshakeh when he construes Hezekiah’s act as sinful self-promotion. And Jacob’s individual blessings of his many children formally recognizes the unique character and talents of each, refusing to either privilege one over another or to fail to differentiate them entirely. Many of these notes resound through much ancient and religious literature, but hardly appear at all in secular psychology.

But we can perhaps see the greatest contrast between Greek and Hebrew understandings of human nature and health in the narratives of Oedipus and Abraham and Isaac, respectively. Schwartz and Kaplan point to the work of Eric Welisch, whose Isaac and Oedipus imagines a psychology based on Hebrew story rather than Greek myth, and one that offers better resolution.

The love displayed between father and son and the ultimate mercy of God certainly contrast markedly with the enmity between Oedipus and his father and the uncaring doom of prophecy. Though himself a Jew, Freud may have preferred the Oedipal tale because it asserts nature as primal even to the gods, and Greek origin myth itself in the tale of Chronos and Zeus offers severe father-son antagonism. Foundational Greek myth is itself deterministic.

Yet the Hebraic origin myth is quite different. God precedes nature and endows humankind, which barely factors in Greek origin myth, not only with God’s own image, but also with responsibility and the choice that makes obedience valuable and possible. Such is the foundational tension of the Hebraic origin story: not, why can I not escape my fate, but instead will I do the right thing? Will I obey God? And it is that anxiety instead of the Oedipal one which echoes in the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. 

Such ability to change, to act rightly, contrasts markedly with the Greek anxiety that all is determined by nature, even the gods. Of course, as a Greek-inflected European rather than a Bible-inspired Jew, Freud preferred the latter. And all psychology which focuses on pathology more than health, on natural determinism more than free responsibility, has been influenced by this choice.

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