The convergence of psychology and mysticism

Thursday, 9 July, 2009 - 3:58 pm

The convergence of psychology and mysticism


Oxford is less renowned as a bastion for the study of theology as much as it is for philosophy and other areas of the humanities and sciences. However it is a historic fact that the roots of the university are in theology, which is indeed one of the oldest faculties in the university.


One of the first courses of lectures given at Oxford was in theology, over 800 years ago. Alexander Neckham, of St Albans, is recorded as giving biblical and moral lectures as early as 1193, on The Psalms of David and the Wisdom of Solomon. One of the first major university buildings was the Divinity School, begun in 1423 to cater for theology lectures.


Today, too, the university hosts department of theology with well over a hundred tutors, who teach biblical studies and ethics, in addition to science and religion, philosophy, psychology and sociology of religion, Judaism, Christian spirituality, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and others.


It therefore comes as no surprise to live in Oxford and be asked profound questions in theology from a Jewish perspective from students and faculty. One such recent question from a Dphil student was as follows: is it possible to totally eradicate certain desires within oneself, or can the most one should hope for is to merely suppress these desires temporarily allowing the possibility of them influencing the person again in the future?


In this essay I will address some of the issues when attempting to answer this question and suggest that the views of psychology and Judaism don’t differ significantly from each other in this regard.


The soul is pure


The Talmud states [1]“Just as G-d fills the entire world, so too does the soul fill all the body. Just as G-d observes but is not observed, so too with the soul, it observes but is not observed. Just as G-d nourishes the entire world, so too does the soul nourish all the body. Just as G-d is pure, so too is the soul pure”.


What does it mean that the soul is pure? Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles[2] explains that this refers to the state of the soul the moment it is placed into a person before it is sullied by external negative influences.


This means that the human being at its very essence is pure, unadulterated and good. According to Jewish thought, there is no innate bad within the person at birth that can affect the person’s free choice.


There is, according to Jewish though, however, an innate propensity towards good and propensity towards evil. This idea is common in psychology and Judaism, although they may use different terms.


Professor Leo Levy [3]outlines the idea of inborn drives and developed drives within the person and explores the compatibility with this concept in Judaism.


Levy writes regarding ‘intellect faculties’, which allows the person to consider new drives and desires that the person doesn’t naturally have any propensity towards.


How does the process of creating desires work? Levy explains that desire can cause action but equally action and intellect can create desires.


This is recognized in Jewish thought where there is the idea that one is instructed to love ones neighbour and one is commanded to also love G-d. How can one be instructed to love?


According to the above idea one can indeed create desire and love through intellect. If one meditates about the infinite greatness and kindness of G-d, this will create a feeling of love towards G-d[4].


Similarly, regarding a fellow human being; if one contemplates about the purity of the soul of a person and its interconnectivity with other human beings one can bring oneself to have a genuine love towards every human being (Tanya Ch. 32).


Conflicting drives


Whether the desires are developed by ones environment or through contemplation, there can be within the person conflicting drives and desires battling for the person’s attention to be brought into action.


These conflicting drives are a basic concept found throughout Jewish thought and mysticism. The Mishna[5] quotes the verse in Deuteronomy[6] “And you shall love your G-d with all your heart” and points out that the normative way of writing “heart” is with a single Hebrew letter “bet” rather than two such letters. The second “bet” therefore allows for emphasis indicating that as the heart has two ventricles, similarly the person has two propensities; the desire to do good and the desire to do evil.


This idea, then, is the same concept found in psychology that a person can indeed have two opposing drives competing for control. Ultimately the person must choose which one to follow in practise.


This struggle however is not continuous but ultimately one of these desires ends up defeating the other. The more forceful drive is decisive in this struggle. How does one drive become more forceful? It is possible to influence the strength of the drives by the person’s actions or intellect, which overpowers the force of the counter drive and will allow the desired drive to dominate at that moment.


Can desires be transformed?


The question of our article is therefore as follows: when a person is confronted by two conflicting drives, there are two basic choices facing the person towards the, let’s say, the negative drive: reflex or suppression. Reflex allows the person to respond according to the natural bodily desire. Suppression allows the person to transfer the desire to intellect and consider its value. Ideally, a person should allow for the suppression rather than reflex to react to negative desires.


The question is whether when choosing one desire over the other, does that suppress the defeated desire or is there potential to actually conquer and eradicate the rejected desire?


Levy suggests that it is only possible to suppress rather than eliminate ones desire. He says the desire remains and may well influence ones behaviour by the affect it has on the intellect in the future. He also says it is impossible to have full control or gain full support for a chosen course of action. There will always remain a lingering opposing drive trying to influence ones action.


He recognizes however that there is a process for changing the self to the utmost. This is possible through the chain reaction of the chosen drive influencing intellect and intellect in turn influencing desire and desire influencing behaviour. Behaviour then influences and deepens desire.


With enough repeat of this process, the desired behaviour and drive will correspond more and more with the chosen intellect.


The importance of action


The emphasis on the importance of action is a basic concept in traditional Judaism. There is a Talmudic[7]  debate whether action is more important than study or vice versa. This debate can be understood in the above context. What impacts and refines the person more, is it intellect through the study of the Torah or action?


The conclusion of the Rabbis of the Talmud is that intellect in more important as it leads to action. This implies that when intellect leads to action, intellect is more important, as action is the function that is necessary to ultimately affect and refine the person.


Elsewhere, the Talmud[8] writes that if a person gives charity with ulterior motives, either spiritual to receive a portion in the world-to-come or to be rewarded with the health of his or her son, then the person is still righteous.


The Midrash[9] takes this a step further by saying that even if a person loses some money and it is found by a poor person the righteous deed of charity has been fulfilled.


Judaism seems to maintain that it is action of the person that is the most important as it has the greatest impact on the person’s desires and character. The refinement of the desires of the person is the ultimate purpose of Jewish law and ethics.


The sages[10] said that the giving of the Divine commandments in the Torah is to refine human beings. This according to Maimonides is the purpose of the Kosher dietary laws, prohibited relations and other aspects of Jewish law.


Action, as mentioned above, is an important and profound method allowing one to have greater control over the ones drives, and refining ones character, albeit not eradicating undesired lusts all together.


Jewish perspective diverges from above


Jewish teaching seems to uphold and at the same time diverge from the above opinion. On one hand a human being is incapable of eradicating undesired forces, and on the other hand, it makes it clear that one can indeed eliminate negative desires.


When the Torah writes “love G-d with all your heart”, with both ventricles, indicating the evil and good inclinations, this suggests that one can eradicate the evil forces to the degree that one only has a good inclination. The drive of the evil inclination also becomes a force for good desires.


This is what is indicated when the Psalmist king David writes “my heart is void within me”[11]. This is what Jewish mysticism refers to as a righteous person – tzaddik[12].


However, such level of righteousness, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes[13], “not everyone is privileged to become a tzaddik, which consists of truly abhorring evil, nor has a person the full advantage of choice in this matter.”


The level that is attainable by every man and which each person should strive after is to be an “intermediate” (benoni), who struggles and is able to overcome his or her animalistic desires. Even when he has suppressed these desires and is in a state of mediation about the infinite greatness of the Al-mighty during prayer, the negative materialistic desires are not eliminated but rather dormant, as if he is asleep. When the meditation is complete, his urges will awaken as if from after being awoken from sleep[14].


Rabbi Schneur Zalman however qualifies the above by saying that in certain circumstances it is possible for a person to attain the level of tzaddik, which comes after a sustained effort on his part through repeating the process of suppressing negative drives and accustoming oneself to despising evil, which can arouse G-d to respond by bestowing upon him this unnatural ability to attain the level of tzaddik, the eradication of negatives drives altogether[15].


It is however clear from the above that also according to Jewish mysticism it is not within the natural ability of a person to eliminate negative drives however many times the person rejects them and however much one trains ones intellect and drives to be compatible with each other. The highest a person can attain is to subjugate and suppress ones undesirable urges, which according to Jewish thought is a spiritual objective of itself, providing fulfilment.



[1] Talmud Berachot 10a

[2] 1555–1631

[3] Department of Physics, The City College, City University of New York, in his article toward a Torah based psychology in 1977 in the journal Orthodox Jewish Scientists

[4] Tanya Ch. 41

[5] Berachot 9:5

[6] 6:5

[7] Rosh Hashana 28b

[8] Pesachim 8b

[9] Sifri Deuteronomy 24:19

[10] Midrash Tanchumah

[11] Psalms 109:22

[12] Tanya Ch. 13

[13] Tanya Ch. 14

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

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