Chasidus and Contemporary Psychology: A Dialogue with Rabbi Alter Metzger
Chasidus and Contemporary Psychology: A Dialogue with Rabbi Alter Metzger
Volume 2 , Issue 2

metzgerphotoThe following is a dialogue between The Jewish Review's editor, Sandy Drob and Rabbi Alter Metzger. Rabbi Metzger attended Yeshiva University. He received his B.S. in psychology and two masters degrees, one in psychology and an Ed.D. in Guidance, in 1964. His dissertation was a translation of a book by Ray Kook on Repentance which also provided a delineation of the psychological concepts and placed this work in the context of Chasiddic works, particularly The Tanya. Over the years, Rabbi Metzger has provided counseling services and has lectured on a variety of psychological topics. He has also served on the simultaneous translation team for the Luhavitcher Rebbe's farbengen--chasidic gatherings--translating them from Yiddish into English.

Jewish Review: Do you believe that there is a Chasidic point of view in psychology?

Rabbi Metzger: Very emphatically so. Basically in psychology we can consider three types of schools: The Freudian, which conceives of man as basically self-gratifying, an animal, we might say, with a mask, the behavioral school, which sees man as subject to all kinds of conditioning and then the humanistic school (Mowrer, Maslow, Homey) where man is seen as having the capacity for creativity, good, and meaningful human relationships. I would say that Chasidus is actually sensitive to all three of these viewpoints. It is very much conscious of man's capacity to be dominated by both his instinctual and his self-actualization aspects. If we were to use the Freudian framework of ego and id, whereby according to Freud you have the surface (the ego) and then you have the basement (the id), Chasidus says that you also have a subbasement which contains the core identity of the Jewish soul, a soul which has the inherent capacity for goodness. Indeed, the individual has to struggle with the more external aspects of his identity, his physical and psychological determinants, for example, the extent of his craving for sensuality, but essentially Chasidus views man as good.

Now psychology speaks of itself as non-judgmental and of course [as religious Jews believing in the Torah ethic] we must be judgmental, but what Chasidus says is that all Jews from the most eminent scholar to the individual who is imprisoned ultimately have this capacity for good. Notwithstanding all the ways a person acts out we still regard him as good in the innermost dimension of his personality.

Jewish Review: Do you feel that Chasidus or Orthodox Judaism is compatible with psychoanalysis in particular and modern psychology in general?

Rabbi Metzger: Modern psychology has made a value system from a non-value system. It has taken laissez-faire from economics and transposed it into the psychological realm. As a result things which were regarded as unacceptable in the past, promiscuity, homosexuality, have suddenly become supposed norms. In this way statistics rather than absolute principles have come to deter-mine morals. Therefore Chasidus would say that psychology has created an intellectual atmosphere which has facilitated a breakdown in morals. IfChasidus is to be reconciled with psychology it must be a psychology which rests on a moral foundation.

Let me tell you something about the significance of Chasidus. In other moral systems we find that a person is considered either moral or immoral, perfect or imperfect. Chasidus says that the moral struggle itself is significant. Chasidus says that there are two ways of relating to God. One way would be taking the evil impulse and subjugating that impulse, through repression. A second way is more difficult but it involves the transformation of that impulse. It is this transformation which is important, not whether the individual has a bad inclination to begin with. Now, according to the author of The Tanya (Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, the founder of Chabad [Lubavitch] Chasidus) a person should not feel bad or have an inferiority complex because he has a certain inclination. This is simply how he was created. Some people are created on one level, others on another level, but it is the moral struggle to deal with our inclinations that is important in the eyes of God.

Jewish Review: While we are on the subject of Tanya. One who reads this work may get the contrary impression, that its author has indeed put forth a very harsh morality and psychology. In the early chapters it is said that a tzaddik (the highest moral level) is an individual who has no evil deeds or evil thoughts, whereas a beinoni (a person who is neither good nor bad) is also on a very high level, he has no evil deeds. The impression one gets is that everyone who has even a single bad deed is a rasha (an evil person).

Rabbi Metzger: The level that a person is. whether he is a tzaddi, a rasha or a beinoni is much less important than the direction in which he is going and the struggle he has in getting there. We also have to clarify something about the nature of the tzaddik. He's like an accomplished tightrope walker who in order to maintain his level must constantly work very hard. The tzaddik is not retired. The struggle for the tzaddik is still there, its just on a much higher level, and its this struggle which is in reality the important thing. A tzaddik, in essence,must constantly be a baal teshuvah, teshuvah in the sense of ?return? and of constant ascent to a higher level even if he is devoid of sin.

metzgerphoto2Jewish Review: The issue that troubles me is this. Ordinarily we learn in psychology and, I thought, also in Judaism, that it is the behavior of a person that is most significant, yet in Tanya there is an indication that a person is also accountable for his thoughts. Bad thoughts will make a person a rasha.

Rabbi Metzger: Well, basically in Judaism we do find that principle the God does not punish evil thoughts, but there are exceptions to this principle. There are two kinds of thoughts. This is found not only in Tanya, but also in Maimonides. If a person permits himself to dwell on certain thoughts that are evil in nature this is not right. On the other hand, if a person attempts to repel them he cannot be blamed for them. Repelling such thoughtsof course, is a psychologically difficult task, and one may need to use what Victor Frankl paradoxical intent by, at times, permitting them. The skillful therapist will tryto defuse the hyperanxiety associated with an evocative fixated thought by diminishing the threat and guilt associated with it by his client. Yet purity of thought would seem to remain a perennial problem. We're living in a culture in which the individual is bombarded with sensuality and violence. There is a built in manipulative element in our advertising oriented culture which bombards the individual with thoughts of a violent, materialistic and sensual nature. One should not, on top of that, take such thoughts on willfully, by, for example, going to an X-rated movie, etc.

Jewish Review: It is said that there are some parallels between psychotherapy and the relationship which a rebbe has with his Chasidim? Could you comment on this?

Rabbi Metzger: Yes, there are definite psychological dimensions to the relationship between a rebbe and his Chasid, but there is something beyond that as well. Actually, the rebbe has a certain advantage over the psychologist because he is a towering spiritual authority figure and what he says will perhaps be heeded to a greater extent and for a more sustained period of time. But this also places a tremendous burden and responsibility on him as well. The Tzemach Tzedek, for example used to sweatprofusely when people came to see him. When asked why this was so, he stated that every time a person came to see him he had to project himself into the existential identity of the chasid in order to understand him, and then revert to his own sense of identity. From a psychological point of view, there are many cases where the rebbe will attempt to diminish a person's anxiety, for from the time of the Baal Shem Tov, Chasidus has emphasized simcha or joy. On the other hand, the rebbe may actually increase anxiety. There is a famous story of how Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi responded to a Chasid who had requested certain blessings: ?What you truly have a need for, you have no concern,? and the Chasid fainted in his presence.

Sometimes you find that people try to manipulate the Chasid-Rebbe relationship, but the authentic Chasidic rebbe will see to it that even then there will be an actualization of the person's true self of what the person can really accomplish.

Jewish Review: Is that then the basic function of a Chasidic rebbe?

Rabbi Metzger: His function is to aid the individual in his maximal realization of both selfhood and spirituality. ?Selfhood,? in every sense of world, primarily spiritual but in every sense. If one of the greatest tzaddikm in the world came to the Lubavitcher rebbe, for instance, the Rebbe would find yet another task to improve this person's soul.

Jewish Review: Do the hasidim hold the Rebbe to be on a higher spiritual level than the rest of the world?

Rabbi Metzger: Most definitely. This concept is Biblical. The Tzaddik concept is Talmudic. It is found in Maimonides, Nachmanides, etc. The concept I speak of, is that there are some people who, by virtue of their actions, are on a higher moral and spiritual level. Now, obviously for Judaism, man is directly related to God. Rashi in commenting on the verse in Psalms ?For with You (God) is forgiveness that you may be feared,? states that the authority for forgiveness is not relegated to any human intermediary. Thus man, in Teshuva, relates to God Himself. The Rebbe essentially acts as a guide in one's relationship to God. There is a link between each Jew and God and it is the Rebbe's goal to get the person in the right track. For instance the focal point in Tanya is the complex doctrine of tzimtzum which speaks of God's omnipotence and omnipresence and of God's need to conceal Himself lest mankind and indeed all of creation be nullified by their impulse to revert to their primary source. But despite His concealment, God is omnipresent and hidden and the Rebbe's job, the job in fact of every Jew, is to reveal the concealed divine light. We, ourselves, have a Godly soul within us which the Rebbe helps reveal to us. The purpose of every Jew, of every person, is to maximize his potential for existence, or expressed mystically, to reveal the Godliness within himself and the world about him.

Jewish Review: Psychologists often place a great deal of significance in dreams. Does Chasidus see a religious significance in dreams?

Rabbi Metzger: There is of course a great Jewish interest in dreams going back to the bible, and dreams are dealt with at some length in the Talmud with varying views expressed on this subject. I would say, however, that the difference between a rebbe's and a analyst's approach to dreams, is that many analyst would say that in a dream the ?id? is expressing itself, expressing impulses which the dreamer wishes to conceal, but the rebbe or spiritual mentor would say yes that while these impulses exist within the individual, there is potentially another dimension. If the dream is a spiritual one, the rebbe would glean or distill these elements from the dream which provide the dreamer with a spiritual message, but doing this is like separating grain from a mixture of grain and pebbles.

Jewish Review: Could you tell me something about the relationship between Chasidus and Kabbalah, Jewish mys?ticism?

Rabbi Metzger: It has been stated that whereas Kabbalah was concerned with the mystical cosmology--out there--Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov and later Chasidic masters were concerned with the spiritual nature and psychology of man--down here. Chasidus, especially Chabad Chasidus, attempts to express kabbalistic ideas so as to place the emphasis on the individual. For example, the doctrine of tzimtzum is not conceived of as an abstract notion about the cosmos, but is seen as having implications for the individual Jew. If God is omnipresent, what does this mean for me, here and now?

This is reflected in the explanation of the Biblical verse ?A tzaddik lives with his faith.? The simple interpretation of this, is that he lives with faith in God. But the Chasidic interpretation is that ?faith? refers to tzimtzum, to God's omnipresence. The author of the Tanya says that if God is indeed omnipresent, the Jew should always have a joyousness, a gladness, for being close to God. This is interesting when you juxtapose it on the Mussar school in Judaism which came later. Early Mussar, in particular, was very, very harsh, very punitive and they interpreted the faith of ?A tzaddik lives with his faith? to refer to reward and punishment, with a particular emphasis on punishment. So getting back to your question, Chasidus took the cosmological principles of Kabbalah, ideas like that of tzimtzum, and brought them down to the level of the psychology of the individual Jew.

metzgerphoto3Jewish Review: I want to ask you a question that has always disturbed me as a practicing psychologist and Orthodox Jew, one which speaks to the question of being ?harsh? and ?punitive:? Psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, is said to have liberated us from the Victorian, puritanical views of sexuality, particularly the view that masturbation is physically and psychologically harmful. Yet we find in The Zohar, the classic work of Jewish mysticism, that masturbation is the worst of sins. How can we approach this difficulty and what do we as Orthodox Jews tell our children, for example, about this subject? Don't we run the risk of making ourselves and our children neurotic by adhering to the Zohar's view?

Rabbi Metzger: Onanism is already biblical in its prohibition (See, Genesis 38:9,10) Masturbation is actually part of the whole sexual continuum. God has given us various capabilities and you need to ask yourself: How do you perceive the sexual act? Is it basically for personal gratification or is it essentially for the purposes of procreation? The Jewish view is that sexuality is something holy and that the individual who adopts it purely for his own gratification has taken a very unique gift or capability and profaned it. Once we create a laissez-faire attitude toward masturbation, we run the risk of approving of promiscuity and other forms of supposedly self-gratifying behavior. Take a look at the Jennifer Levin case which was the ultimate result of the permissive attitude towards sexuality. Having said this, however, I agree that there is a danger on the ether side of creating a neurotic person by making him so concerned with an issue like masturbation. There was a man once who wrote a whole work on all of the various prohibitions against masturbation. He came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe with this work and wanted this work to be distributed, studied and encouraged. The Lubavitcher Rebbe's response was that there are certain kinds of thoughts which a person should not wrestle with too much. If one does, these thoughts can become self-generating and you defeat your entire purpose. Again, the goal is not to simply suppress one's forbidden impulses, but rather to sublimate them or on a higher level: to redirect and transform them. There is an interesting story in the Midrash which relates to this question. The Talmud describes a man who wanted to have an illicit relationship with of a woman who was on a tier of seven gold mattresses. The man was tempted by this woman and then resisted the temptation and at the last moment left her. The woman asked ?who is this person and what is the source of his moral strength?? When she learned that he was a Jew, she went to the Yeshiva, acquired knowledge and insight into Judaism and converted. Subsequently, the man married this woman and the relationship was consummated on the very same seven mattresses. The rebbe asked, ?why didn't they burn these mattresses, after all they were synonymous with illicitness and filth?? The answer is that in the profoundest sense we're not looking to destroy our illicit impulses, but rather to transform them for good. A contemporary example of this would be the rock and roll singer who comes to realize that the culture's messages about drugs, sexuality, and acting on impulse has led to chaos and tragedy. One alternative is for him to smash his guitar into so many toothpicks. If, however, he is capable of authentic self-transformation, then he can use his music as a means for inspiring others with a Torah ethic.

Jewish Review: So the emphasis is on sublimation and transformation?

Rabbi Metzger: Sublimation, in the Freudian sense of the term, is not quite right because it suggests that you admit that underneath your Torah activities, for example, their remain primitive sexual urges. In Chasidus we prefer to speak of an elevation or a regeneration where something that was originally a power for evil is actually transformed into a force for good. Of course we cannot be too ambitious. There is a story about a Chasidic rabbi who said ?In the beginning I thought I would change the world, then I limited myself to my family, and now I am working on myself.? Well even the transformation of one's self is a difficult task, and an individual must be careful not to deceive himself. It must also be remembered that Chasidus places a great emphasis on expressions of joy, spontaneity and happiness, preferring these, whenever reasonable, to repression and a life based solely on constraint and self- denial.

Jewish Review: So work on the self is the starting point of Chasidus?

Rabbi Metzger: Yes, but in a particular kind of way. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once spoke about the difference between Chasidus and Mussar, by saying that while Mussar emphasizes ?tur meira,? turn from evil, Chasidus speaks of ?Asay toy? (do good). It's a very positive doctrine which a person can strive to fulfill in every single moment of his life. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was once asked: ?What is the purpose of man's existence?? and he replied simply, ?To spread light.? Anyone knowledgeable in Chasidus understands that this is to be understood on many levels: mystically, philosophically, psychologically, etc. In a similar manner, I hope that the printing of this interview will provide seeds of light for those seeking to enrich their lives by exploring the Chasidic dimension of their Jewish heritage.

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