The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Therapy for the Jewish Soul: Mussar as Psychology and Psychology as Mussar

The paper explores the theoretical and historical intersections between the fields of musar and psychology by analyzing two case studies.

Assuming that the conventional (post Wissenschaft des Judentums) equation musar = Jewish ethics does not embrace the full range of musar`s conceptual and phenomenological nuances, I suggest categorizing musar literature as a contribution to a non-Western-centered history of psychology (intended as logos for/on the psyche). The object of musar, like that of psychology lato sensu, is in fact to investigate and possibly medicate the psyche, i.e. the constellation of cognition, volition, and action that encloses the human self.

Speaking of Jewish specificity in approaching spiritual medication, the intersection between musar and psychology can be investigated also specularly. Intellectual attempts at synthetizing psychoanalysis with Jewish religion – thriving between the seventies and the nineties of the 20th century – can be explained as contemporary developments of musar (intended as the Jewish discipline treating the religious self).

The overlapping between musar and psychology will be probed through the reading of two examples: an early modern musar bestseller, Shevet Musar by Elijah ha-Cohen Itamari (Istanbul, 1712); and a manifesto of Jewish psychoanalysis, Religious Objects as Psychological Structures, by Moshe Halevi Spero (Chicago, 1992). On one hand, topics such as the psychagogic function of emotions, the management of human interaction through the reflection on self and otherness, and the intertextual and interlinguistic shaping of a collective consciousness will help contextualize Shevet Musar in the intellectual history of psychological discourses. On the other hand, themes such as the functional necessity of a divine reality, the formulation of an epistemic system based on rabbinic tradition, and the scientific/religious mediation role of the therapist will be used to understand Spero’s halakhic metapsychology in the cultural frame of Jewish thought on spiritual therapy, or refu’ah la-nefesh.