Judaism and Psychology

Jews have engaged with and steered psychological inquiry since its inception.

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Jewish psychologists and the influence of Jewish tradition have been instrumental in creating the field of modern psychology. The fundaments of several psychological movements can be traced directly to Jewish values, ideas, and practices, and Jews in the 20th century were at the forefront of research about the psyche and the varieties of human behavior.  

Jewish psychologists founded several branches of psychological inquiry. All of the major theorists of the Gestalt school, except Wolfgang Kohler, were Jews. Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Lewin, and Kurt Goldstein posited theories of perception and understanding based on holistic understanding, rather than a previous model based on the computation of parts.

Judaism and psychology

Psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud and, with the notable exception of Carl Jung, most of its early proponents were also Jews.

Why the Jews?

Some intellectual historians speculate that it was particular Jewish personality and cultural traits that led Jews to lead the field of psychology in its early days.

In a social psychology study of Jewish families, researchers F.M. Herz and E.J. Rosen found that in contrast to some other ethnic groups, Jews on the whole tend to choose verbal expression as a way of expressing emotions, particularly negative or painful experiences. Historical circumstances of oppression, segregation, and confined living conditions often resulted in close-knit communities of Jews who felt their pain deeply and expressed it to one another plainly.

According to studies conducted by Mark Zborowski, an anthropologist who investigated cultural aspects of pain, Jews respond more quickly to physical discomfort than non-Jews. Jewish families often discuss issues and problems in great detail, and suffering individuals are encouraged to "let out" their feelings and achieve catharsis through communication.

According to Peter Langman, "Jews differ from many cultural groups in that they place less value on self-reliance and are less suspicious of taking their problems to professionals." Thus, the traditional role of rabbi/rebbe involves extensive counseling or psychotherapy.

Traditionally, there was even what today we would call an "intake." The gabai (rebbe"s assistant) met with people before they met with the rebbe, and then: "After interviewing the supplicant about his family, his background and his troubles, the gabai delivers the kvitl [written description of the presenting problem] and an oral report to the rebbe" (Zborowski & Herzog, 1995, p. 172).

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Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.