Jung was right!

The great Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, wrote a series of essays after the First World War which were printed in 1933 as Modern Man in Search of a Soul. It was prescient then and just as relevant now. Jung famously parted company with Freud over Freud’s emphasis on sex as the primary influence on psychological development. Jung considered the spiritual quest of the psyche to be the dominant factor. Psychiatry has moved on since then, but I find Jung’s analysis of the malaise of modern society compelling, and his prediction of further calamities frighteningly accurate. Although he wrote from a Christian perspective, he describes perfectly what I think is wrong with Jewish religious life today.

In the penultimate essay, The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, he writes, “The man whom we can with justice call ‘modern’ is solitary.” This term “solitary” is the one word I would use to describe my own religious position. I am not “lonely” in the negative sense of lacking something or someone, nor am I “alienated” in the Marxist usage. I have an identity and a community. I have places in which I feel comfortable, spiritually and materially, both Jewish and non-Jewish. But I do not completely fit in anywhere. Wherever I am, I am solitary. I would not have it otherwise.

I revel in the Jewish spiritual experience. I can see the value of halachic discipline and feel bound by it. But I find current attitudes of most religious Jews I encounter to be unsatisfactory and repressive, preoccupied with performance rather than ecstasy. The overpowering authority attributed to Chasidic rebbes and Kabbalists (and more recently to Lithuanian rabbis) seems to me to be stifling and contrary to the tradition of the accessibility to everyone of God, Torah, and law.

According to Jung, humans have to contend with different circumstances and different influences. The answers to current predicaments cannot be answered simply by looking backwards in time, or to solutions that worked once. Yet neither can one, nor should one, jettison the wisdom or the contribution of the past, because it also addressed similar human problems and human needs. Jung, despite being religious, was alive to the failures of religion. He was aware of the way many of its authorities and spokesmen were selecting inappropriate religious models and giving imperfect religious responses to the challenges of the times.

I am not advocating revisionist or reformist positions. On the contrary, those types of solutions initiated in the wake of emancipation and the Haskalah movement of the early nineteenth century have shown that emasculation and dilution do not usually offer a dynamic spiritual experience. If anything, such approaches impede Jewish religious advancement.

It may be argued that the current intensive and enclavist Orthodoxy, intellectually regressive as it might be, is indeed a suitable contemporary response to the challenges of open, libertarian societies. But it is clear that what works for some does not work for everyone. What I deplore is the subtle and not so subtle suppression of dissent, the social ostracism of rebellion, and the pseudo-intellectual attempt to portray fundamentalism as a genuinely open and legitimate intellectual position. It is no different than the suggestion that Creationism is a scientific theory.

So what is Jung’s prescription? “Only the man who is modern in our meaning of the term really lives in the present. The values and strivings of those past worlds interest him only from the historical standpoint. Thus he becomes ‘unhistorical’ in the deepest sense and has estranged himself from the mass of men who live entirely within the bounds of tradition.”

Modern man struggles, indeed, to cope with the challenges of the present. But this does not mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater, and I don’t believe Jung himself meant that. All he meant was that the mindsets that interpreted religion, the entrenched interests, the small-minded refuge of always looking backwards, of preserving everything indiscriminately, those needed to be jettisoned. Not the great visions or the majestic structures that have been misused and abused.

I value halacha, the constitution, as the safety net, the safeguard. However constitutions are too often misinterpreted. I can find no better example than the way the American Supreme Court, to give a simplistic analogy, comes to conclusions I cannot believe the Founding Fathers intended. And so the solitary man, the solitary Jew finds himself and herself buffeted between the constitution and the vision.

Jung correctly points out that religion can be a dangerous tool indeed. “Every good quality has its bad side, and nothing that is good can come into the world without directly producing a corresponding evil.”

On the other hand, modernity has brought with it scientific arrogance. “Consciousness of the present may lead to an elation based upon an illusion: the illusion namely that we are the culmination of the history of mankind.”

Jung claims we have created a world in which the human psyche, in casting off the past certainties, has lost its security. He argues for psychiatry as a way of restoring a healthy psyche. It is not for me to justify psychiatry. However, it is Jung’s analysis of the failure of religion to meet many of the needs of modern man that I find so compelling and frightening, because religious leadership in Judaism today seems inadequate to the needs of all but a minority.

Millions of Jews are disaffected and voting with their feet. And what is our response? Evangelism is one, and it works for some. But too many fall back onto usage, the familiar. It is often scary and disorientating to venture into new territory. Judaism now seems to have opted for regression, a retreat into the past. This is why the ultra-religious world does not seem to recognize it has a problem. As far as it is concerned, it is fine. It feels safer to think that way. But like those leaders who were overtaken by catastrophe in Eastern Europe 70 years ago, they may wake up to find the boat has left the harbour.