Walter G. Wasser

Talmudic Wisdom on Projection and Psychology

As we celebrate Shavuot, a festival commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, it’s fitting to reflect on the enduring wisdom of our ancient texts and how they continue to illuminate our understanding of human nature. One such profound insight from the Talmud aligns closely with a concept recognized by modern psychologists and philosophers: projection.

Talmudic Roots: Kol Haposel, Be-Mumo Posel

In the Talmud, Kiddushin 70a, we find a compelling narrative that illustrates the principle of projection. The story involves a man from Neharda’ah who, while visiting Pumbedita, insulted Rav Yehuda bar Yehezkel. In response, Rav Yehuda excommunicated him. The visitor was known for accusing others of being from a family of slaves. Rav Yehuda, invoking Shmuel’s teaching, declared the man to be a slave, explaining, “Kol haposel, be-mumo posel”—whoever accuses others of a fault is often reflecting their own flaws.

Rav Nahman, in a court hearing, questioned this ruling, suggesting that Shmuel’s statement was a psychological observation rather than a legal judgment. However, the man’s own claim of descent from the Hasmonean kings—a claim associated with slave ancestry in Shmuel’s tradition—reinforced Rav Yehuda’s decision.

Modern Echoes: Projection in Psychology

The Talmudic principle resonates deeply with the psychological concept of projection, first introduced by Sigmund Freud. Freud described projection as a defense mechanism where individuals attribute their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and motives to another person. This insight has been further explored by other prominent figures:

  • Sigmund Freud: Freud, S. (1911). “Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides).” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works, 1-82.
  • Carl Jung: Jung, C. G. (1945). Psychology and Religion: West and East. In Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 11. Princeton University Press.
  • Karen Horney: Horney, K. (1945). Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Melanie Klein: Klein, M. (1946). “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms.” In Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. The Hogarth Press.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche: Nietzsche, F. (1883-1885). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Translation by Walter Kaufmann, Modern Library (1995).

These references provide foundational texts for understanding the contributions of these thinkers to the concept of projection and related psychological mechanisms.

Bridging Ancient Wisdom and Modern Thought

It is fascinating to consider that the principle of projection, recognized and studied by modern psychologists, may have roots in ancient rabbinic wisdom. The Talmudic narrative from Kiddushin 70a provides a rich example of how ancient teachings prefigure and complement contemporary understanding. These concepts may have influenced other cultures and religious traditions over time, even if they weren’t directly credited due to translation barriers or the diffusion of ideas across civilizations.

The intersection of Talmudic teachings with modern psychological theories highlights the universality and timelessness of these insights into human behavior. It underscores how our Jewish tradition has long engaged with deep psychological truths that continue to resonate in today’s world.

This reflection is vividly captured in Liel Leibovitz’s recent book, How the Talmud Can Change Your Life: Surprisingly Modern Advice from a Very Old Book (W.W. Norton & Co., 2023, New York, NY). Leibovitz demonstrates the relevance of the Talmud’s wisdom to contemporary life, drawing connections between ancient stories and modern experiences. A recent review highlights how Leibovitz makes the Talmud accessible and meaningful, showing its unique ability to convey universal truths through particularistic narratives​.

Reflection for Shavuot

As we study the Torah and Talmud this Shavuot, let us appreciate the profound insights our sages have provided and their relevance to modern concepts. The principle of projection teaches us about self-awareness and the importance of introspection. It reminds us that our accusations and judgments of others often mirror our inner struggles.

This Shavuot, let’s commit to a deeper understanding of ourselves and others, guided by the timeless wisdom of our tradition. May we strive for personal growth and compassion, recognizing that the flaws we see in others may reflect our own and that true wisdom lies in addressing these within ourselves.

Chag Sameach!

About the Author
The author is a specialist in nephrology and internal medicine and lives with his wife and family in Jerusalem.
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