Elchanan Poupko

Why Jews Excel in Psychology

Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, center, poses with his daughter Mathilde, left, and Dr. Ernest Jones on his arrival at his Hampstead home in London, England, on June 6, 1938.  Freud, 82, traveled from Paris after emigrating from Vienna to escape Nazi persecution.  (AP Photo)
Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, center, poses with his daughter Mathilde, left, and Dr. Ernest Jones on his arrival at his Hampstead home in London, England, on June 6, 1938. Freud, 82, traveled from Paris after emigrating from Vienna to escape Nazi persecution. (AP Photo)

It has been noted that about 40% of Nobel laurels in economics are Jewish. What is fascinating about the case of Professor Daniel Kahneman’s winning is that he was able to bring pride not only to the disciple of economics but also to the field of psychology. A cognitive psychologist by training, Kahneman’s breakthroughs are very much in the field of psychology, yet with significant implications for economics as well.

Another amazing thing about his Nobel prize is that while Nobel prizes are given only to the living, yet in his case, it was given with high praise to his partner Amos Tversky who passed away a few years before the prize was given.

Finally, another inspiring fact about the prize is that while Jews are represented beyond our proportion in the Nobel, Jews in Israel are underrepresented in the Nobel (only 0.7%). While Kahneman and Tversky worked at Princeton, Berkeley, and other US Universities, they both great up in Israel and met (3 of the 5 Israelis who received the prize were peace prizes)

The decision of the Nobel committee states: “Daniel Kahneman has integrated insights from psychology into economics, thereby laying the foundation for a new field of research. Kahneman’s main findings concern decision-making under uncertainty, where he has demonstrated how human decisions may systematically depart from those predicted by standard economic theory. Together with Amos Tversky (deceased in 1996), he has formulated prospect theory as an alternative that better accounts for observed behavior. Kahneman has also discovered how human judgment may take heuristic shortcuts that systematically depart from basic principles of probability. His work has inspired a new generation of researchers in economics and finance to enrich economic theory using insights from cognitive psychology into intrinsic human motivation.”

If Jews receive such high percentages of Nobel prizes in the fields they have, there is no question that if there was an award in the field of psychology, Jews would be there in overwhelming numbers. As Rabbi Sacks once said: “you take a look at all the founders of psychology, and they are all Jewish. Even the one non-Jew who is there is there because he did not fully figure himself out yet”.

There is no need to wonder what the connection between Judaism in psychology is; I will give a few examples.

The idea of Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Ra–a good inclination and a bad inclination that are decided on by our conscious sitting there in the middle. The Hasidic and Kabbalistic ideas of a person having a “Nefesh Elokit–a Godly soul” and a “Nefesh Behemeet–an animalistic soul” and that we need to balance them all, ideas about guilt, integrity, moral choices, and so on, are defining factors of Judaism’s day to day life.

Jessica Weiner from NYU writes about the difference between the public Freud and the private one and his fascination with Kabbahala. Freud was in possession of a German translation of the Zohar and confessed his affinity to Jewish mysticism. Several scholars have pointed out that the ideas of the Id, Ego, and superego are deeply grounded in Jewish mysticism.

The following story told by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, captures the essence of the difference between dreaming, and treating those suffering from their dreams: Rabbi Sacks shares:

“I once heard a wonderful story from Eli Wiesel. There was a time when Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl lived in the same district of Vienna. “Fortunately,” he said, “they never met. Can you imagine what would have happened had they met? Herzl would have said: ‘I have a dream of a Jewish state.’ Freud would have replied: ‘Tell me, Herr Herzl, how long have you been having this dream? Lie down on my couch, and I will psychoanalyze you.’ Herzl would have been cured of his dreams, and today there would be no Jewish state.” Thankfully, the Jewish people have never been cured of their dreams.”

Another idea with deep Jewish roots is the idea of a projection; someone says something about someone else that really reflects their own thoughts. The great Medieval Rashi on Dvarim chapter (1:27) comments on the verse that says the Jews said God took us out of Egypt because he hates us saying that what is in people’s heart on someone, they say of that person. The idea of projection that Freud mentioned is very much grounded in Jewish tradition.

This same is true of the concept of a Freudian slip. Fascinatingly, Rabbi Sacks points out that the greatest Freudian slip in history has actually come from Freud himself. Freud’s last book was published in Vienna in 1938. It was around the same time that Freud refused to leave Vienna even in the face of rising Nazism, and his friends took him out almost by force only after the Gestapo arrested his own daughter. Freud wrote about how he believed Moses was really an Egyptian; it made no sense to him that someone who grew up in the royal court of Pharoah should want to identify with a nation of slaves.

Rabbi Sacks points out most brilliantly that, in fact, Freud was talking about himself, as his desire to identify with German and Austrian culture was far greater than identifying with the Jewish people. If Freud was in the place Moses was, he clearly would have opted for the Egyptian culture; he would have considered superior the way he wished he could have fully assimilated into Austrian society. What Freud failed to understand about Moses is that it is far better to identify with a nation of slaves with a strong identity and moral mission than with a materialistic master culture in which might makes right.

While Freud pursued one path, another Jew charted a very different path in the world of psychology. At a time many understood psychology only in the context of solving problems Vienna-born Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl changed that all.

Frankel had a visa to America, but his parents in Vienna didn’t. One day he came to his parents’ home, about to announce if he would be leaving or not. On the table, there was a marble tablet his father took from the site of a vandalized synagogue. The tablet was a piece of the ten commandments on top of the ark. Frankel asked his father which commandment it is and was told it was: “Honor your father in mother so that your days are longer.” Frankel decided to stay right then. Eventually, Frankl ended up in Auschwitz, where he realized the only way to survive was by giving meaning to the suffering and having meaningful plans after liberation. He went on to write “Man’s Search for Meaning” and is the father of positive psychology.

If there is any field in psychology that is easy to connect to Judaism, it is that of Frankl. The idea that we do best when we do what we believe is right, the idea that humans are not simple pleasure-seeking creatures, and the idea of believing in the future in order to survive the present are the essence of Judaism.

When speaking about the Jewishness of the field of psychology, Rabbi Sacks speaks of the Jewish tendency to reframe bad situations. When meeting with his brothers, Joseph goes on to tell them they thought of selling him into slavery for bad reasons, but God thought of it for good. (Genesis 50: 20)

This ability to reframe what we see is true not only in the context of individuals in Jewish history but also in our collective history. As Frankl is standing in the freezing cold in Auschwitz for hours, he survived by imagining himself lecturing about the experience in front of a class full of his medical students in the future. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s first with to Vespasian was, “Ten Li Yavneh Vechachameha–give me Yavneh and its scholars”.

From the hope of the return to Jerusalem to the focus on building the sanctity of Jewish homes and communities, Judaism was able to survive by always looking to rebuild. Even the recitation of the prayer of Alenu Leshabe’ach–thanking God for the merit of serving him–was instilled as a daily prayer during the crusades, when life as Jews in Europe became almost completely unbearable.

Judaism and positive psychology did not end with Frankl. Building on the work of Frankl in finding meaning, Jewish psychologist Martin Seligman continued to trailblaze the field of psychology. After being a pioneer in discovering learned helplessness–the sad reality that people who are helpless often enough cease to try ways out even when those are possible, Seligman went on to be the father of modern-day positive psychology. A profoundly Jewish way of transforming from focusing on pain to focusing on joy. Seligman pursued a formula to a happy life that included what he called PERMA (Positive emotion Engagement—Relationships—The presence of friends, family, intimacy, or social connection Meaning—Achievement)

Needless to say, Freud, Frankel, and Seligman were not the only Jews to revolutionize the field of psychology. Margaret Mahler, who narrowly escaped the Nazis’ reach in Europe, came to America and taught us so much of what we know about child development. Abraham Maslow, whose parents escaped the pogroms in Kyiv, came and taught the world about our hierarchy of needs. Melanie Klein taught the world about child play and therapy; Daniel Golman, in our generation, taught us the importance of emotional intelligence, or EQ, and not just IQ.

Yet most recognized for a Nobel was Daniel Kahneman, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1934 to a Lithuanian Jewish family that was living in France at the time, visiting Israel. Little Shlomo was a nephew of the famous Rabbi Shlomo Kahneman, the Ponovizher Rabbi. The family moved back to France. When the Holocaust began in France, Daniel was seven years old.

At the time, Jews were required to wear a big yellow star and were forbidden from walking in the streets after 6 PM. One night after playing at the home of a non-Jewish friend, young Daniel realized the curfew time had passed. With trembling hands, Daniel turned his sweater inside out so the star is not seen and walked back quickly towards his house. Walking down the street, he suddenly saw a German soldier walking towards him. He was wearing the black Gestapo uniform, which was extra scary. Daniel started walking faster, but the SS soldier signaled to him to come over.

Terrified of the possibility the soldier would see the yellow star, he came over. The soldier spoke to him in German with passion and love, picked Daniel up, hugged him, put him down, opened his wallet, and showed him a picture of his own son. The soldier gave him some money, put him down, and sent him home. That is when Daniel is more certain than ever that humans are fascinating and complicated. After the Holocaust, Daniel moved with his mom to Israel, where he got educated, served in the army, taught in Hebrew University, and was even part of Israel’s negotiating team with Egypt in 1975.

While at Hebrew University, Kahneman met his friend Amos Tversky, a sabra, the son of a Knesset member, and a cognitive psychologist. In one of his IDF operations, a soldier of his activated a large explosive and froze. Tversky stepped in with cool thinking and saved the lives of his soldiers. The two came together and produced some of the best research on decision-making, for which they eventually won the Nobel. He later worked with Richard Thaller on the economic decisions we make and how they can be irrational. Some of their work focused on Heuristics, ways in which we make irrational decisions.

One of the ways our minds work, Kahneman researched, was how our brain uses the availability of thoughts in an irrational way. It is the part of us that spends more time worrying about being eaten by a shark—a very unlikely event, than it does over being careful on the roads and with cars—a statistically much likelier way humans get hurt. An example for this can be found in the great Medieval scholar Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.

The Torah says: “And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they drew near before the Lord, and they died.” (Leviticus 16)

Rashi comments on the verse, saying: “What does this teach us [when it specifies “after the death of Aaron’s two sons”]? Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah illustrated [the answer] with a parable of a patient whom a physician came to visit. [The physician] said to him, “Do not eat cold foods, and do not lie down in a cold, damp place.” Then, another [physician] visited him and advised him, “Do not eat cold foods or lie down in a cold, damp place, so that you will not die the way so-and-so died.” This one warned that patient more effectively than the former. Therefore, Scripture says, “after the death of Aaron’s two sons” [i.e., God effectively said to Aaron, “Do not enter the Holy in a prohibited manner, so that you will not die as your sons died”]- [Torath Kohanim 16:3].”

Another way Kahanman showed we are irrational is by thinking with our body, not just our brain. A famous experiment done with this logic showed that if you take a piece of paper with a picture of two eyes and hang it above a vending machine or a place where people are selling food with an honors system, people steal less. We know with our brains that those eyes are just on a piece of paper, but we also think with our bodies, not just our minds.

This idea is very much behind the biblical commandment of Tzitzit. The Torah commands (Numbers 15):” Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner….So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments, and you shall be holy to your God.”

The Talmud (Sotah 17A), in explaining the reason for walking around with this blue string, explains: “Rabbi Meir would say: What is different about sky-blue from all other colors such that it was specified for the mitzva of ritual fringes? It is because the sky-blue dye is similar in its color to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Glory”.

The Torah knows we know about God in our brain. Yet there is something about a constant reminder in front of our eyes that can change the way we behave.

The great Medieval philosopher, Moses Maimonides, applies this same logic (Mishneh Torah, hilchot Mezuza 6: 13) to the commandment to have a Mezuza on our doorpost. Maimonides states: “A person must show great care in [the observance of the mitzvah of] mezuzah because it is an obligation which is constantly incumbent upon everyone.

[Through its observance,] whenever a person enters or leaves [the house], he will encounter the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and remember his love for Him. Thus, he will awake from his sleep and his obsession with the vanities of time and recognize that there is nothing that lasts for eternity except the knowledge of the Creator of the world. This will motivate him to regain full awareness and follow the paths of the upright.”

Both Tversky and Kahneman carry with them the story of the Jewish people. Whether it comes from surviving the Holocaust or being a Sabra in the IDF, their pride in their Judaism, their names, and their family legacy continue to inspire Jews around the world. Jews who changed the field of psychology did so because of the centuries of lessons from our Torah, our ability to cope with difficult conditions, and our understanding that humans are sacred and, therefore, complex.

The article is based on my notes for my lecture series “Jews of the Nobel” given in Park East Synagogue, New York.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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