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Spring 2020

Psychoanalysis & Kabbalah

The conceptual threads connecting the two systems of thought.

sychoanalysis is one among several modern disciplines that have changed our understanding of the human soul. In part, this was achieved by making a break with previous religious perceptions of man and his behavior. Today in Israel, or elsewhere for that matter, few people would dismiss the findings of psychoanalysis, nor the field of psychology that is derived from it, yet many would reject religion as an outdated mode of inquiry and pointless superstition. What contribution, if any, can religion—whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism—make today to our understanding of man and his psyche? This is all the more true when we come to examine Kabbalah, the most esoteric element of Judaism. For many, the project of reading psychoanalysis and Kabbalah together is a curiosity at best and farcical at worst, like reading psychology in relation to the daily horoscope.

Despite the expulsion of religious texts from all of the social sciences and humanities and their exile to a small corner of academia called religious studies, a growing number of scholars are reconsidering religion in their interdisciplinary research. Inspired in part by post-colonial critiques of Western modernity and by the reevaluation of Enlightenment secularism, they reject the prima facie devaluation of religious texts. Whether in philosophy, law, or literary studies, scholars have called for reading Western with Eastern sources, and have repeatedly questioned the dismissal of religious texts. The project of reading psychoanalysis in relation to Kabbalah is part of this scholarly turn, an attempt to reevaluate our present understanding of man. Those of us who are engaged in this project are convinced that the examination and comparison of the two fields is mutually enriching.

It is my hope, shared with the scores of scholars who are interrogating anew modern disciplines in light of pre-modern texts, that by placing them side by side and illuminating each field through a consideration of the other we will be able to elucidate the mutual contribution of each discipline. Thus, for example, Kabbalistic study aids us in delving deeper into the psychoanalytic theory of the self and reveals its hidden spiritual side, while impenetrable mystical ideas are clarified through psychoanalytic analysis and the experience derived from the therapeutic practice. Modern conceptions provide new interpretations of ancient works and enable us “to read ourselves” and even to unravel the original intentions of these texts. At the same time, Kabbalah makes possible the illumination of contemporary ideas, as well as the understanding of concepts such as birth and Eros, which are the fundamental axes of our existence. In this short essay I would like to give the reader a window into what we can gain by reading the two together, a taste of where concepts are complimentary or similar, as well as to contrast them and see where they differ. These comparative explorations will, I hope, demonstrate that—while there is no turning back from modernity—by ignoring the wisdom of the ancients we forfeit hard won understandings of ourselves and the human condition.


The profound questions addressed by Kabbalah and by psychoanalytic theory intersect at critical points. Those two bodies of knowledge are concerned with the human spirit, in all its observed and hidden aspects. Even though the Hebrew term we use for “spirit,” “soul,” or “psyche” — nefesh, in Biblical Hebrew a term for “life-force” — has changed over historical time, there are more than a few points of linkage between the concept of one’s nefesh, one’s non-physical self, in these two conceptual worlds. The proximity of those fields is notable in the poetic realm, in mystical symbolism, in the effort to decipher the language of dreams, in the weight attributed to the erotic experience, and the presence of sexuality in the theosophical system and in interpersonal relations (Freud 2000, 1972, etc.). Both in the fields of Kabbalah and in psychoanalysis, the healing and creative power of speech finds expression (Liebes 2001b, Freud and Breuer 1956), and at the same time we recognize the difficulty of describing the fullness of emotional and mystical experience using language, with its partial and limited nature (Bergstein 2015). Another important point of similarity between the fields is the centrality of the body in Kabbalah, which is reminiscent of the semiotic concept of memory, the sense of skin and envelopment, and the discussion of psychosomatic phenomena in psychoanalysis (Bick 1968, Anzieu 2004, Pedaya 2015). In the world of Kabbalah, the body constitutes an instrument of tikkun (restoration) and the point of connection between the human and the divine, similar to the world of therapy, in which the body constitutes a key to the psyche and its secrets.


Freud brought about a revolution by pointing out the influence of childhood and “the beginning of life” on the adult person. Those who came after him in the British school of object relations sought to focus on the stage before the Oedipal drama (Klein, Winnicott, and others). Theorists such as Bion (2012), Piontelli (2001), and Maiello (1995) later explored the infant psyche and dealt with the experience of the fetus in the womb and the prenatal state. These ideas echo Kabbalistic concepts of the divine origin of the soul, the stages of its descent into the world, and the shape of the soul and its parts. These connections deepen in Lurianic Kabbalah, which describes the structure of divinity in light of the secrets of impregnation and reincarnation. A full development of the theory of the soul appears in Hasidism, which suggests a transformational process in which Kabbalistic language is applied to a psychological rubric that focuses on the human being and the improvement of his character.

In medieval Kabbalah, the connection between the human and the divine is woven around the concepts of birth and creation, as a foundation on which the first pattern of relationships is formed. The Zohar often refers to God as “Adam” (human), and “body” (Liebes 1977), and it portrays the divinity as having been born and having grown “in the image of Man.” God is the mystic’s central object of reference, just as the baby sees reality and himself through the eyes of his mother (Winnicott 1996). Despite Freud’s resistance to the “oceanic feeling,” which opens Civilization and its Discontents (Freud 1988), there is a great deal of similarity between mystical concepts that focus on the connection between the finite and infinite, the human and the divine, and parallel concepts in psychoanalysis such as Bion’s “being O,” reflecting the experience of faith and an awareness of the infinite (Bion 1970, 1979).


According to Freud, the parts of the psyche—superego, ego, and id—are built on a model of archaeological layers piled horizontally, one on top of the other. Similarly, the passages between the conscious and the unconscious represent horizontal divisions. In an optimal situation, a connection is maintained between the layers, while in times of illness, the system loses its wholeness and experiences rupture and division between the various parts (Freud 1966, 2000, and others). In contrast to Freud, other psychoanalysts imagine a vertical division, such as Kohut’s “vertical split,” which expresses the relations between developed and regressive parts of the self and the split created in the wake of a narcissistic break. Kohut questions Freud’s assumptions regarding mental health, emphasizing the beneficial experiences of attachment to a “selfobject” that enable the experience of a “merger” with the idealized person. In this scenario by Kohut, the child’s need for omnipotence, healthy narcissism, the idealization of the parent, and the “grandiose” appearance finally receive their real place. When these parts remain unprocessed, a vertical “split of shame” is created, a break that divides the parts of the self (Kohut 2007, Kulka 2008).

From a different perspective, Bromberg suggests that the vertical split expresses “states of self” that are divided not because of a gap between the conscious and the unconscious, but rather as a reflection of a person’s different appearances and roles (Bromberg 1996, 1998). Bromberg and Mitchell dispute the question of whether a constant and continuous core self exits, but they agree that the multiplicity of the self is a sign of mental health, so long as no dissociation arises and the person does not reject any of his parts as “not me” (Mitchell 2003).

Such examples of vertical and horizontal divisions can shed light on some basic ideas in Kabbalistic thought. The distinction between the paternal and masculine in the divine, identified with the power of mercy (ḥesed) on the right, and the maternal, feminine aspect, identified with judgment (din) on the left, represents a vertical division. The relationship between the upper sefirot and the lower sefirot represents a horizontal division as well as the hierarchical gradation hinted at in Freud’s teachings. The “super-conscious” realms of the divine sefirot reflect the subterranean depths of the psyche and the repressed layers related to the id and the unconscious. In both instances, what is essential is concealed and hidden out of sight.

In both fields, unity does not contradict a state of multiplicity: the matrix of the sefirot, whether it represents God’s own self or hypostases of the divinity—God’s instruments and powers—testifies, even in its multiple character, to its unitary origin (Tishbi 1949). The relationship between mother and child can be viewed similarly: in birth, a body emerges from another body, and from then on the baby’s existence represents two that were once one. So it is with the child’s own experience of self. It is precisely in the presence of the mother that the child develops a c­apacity to be alone (Winnicott 2009). The world of the sefirot is a world of “infinite relations,” couplings, and complex interactions of dependency between each sefira and its opposing quality. The individual, in the human world as in the divine, is perceived as “broken” and absent from the part that complements and completes it. Recognition of what is missing lends a paradoxical wholeness to each of the divine qualities.

The perception of evil in Kabbalah, too, reflects models of horizontal and vertical bifurcations. There, the forces of evil are called “the other side” (sitra aḥra), which surround the Shekhina and lies in wait for it and its armies, flows from the sefira of gevura or bina, and is even presented as a system of ritual uncleanness (tum’a) that parallels that of holiness (kedusha) (Scholem 1974, 212; idem 1981, 187). The Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe de Leon calls the forces of evil “another cause,” an epithet that illuminates the connection between the parts that a person adopts and internalizes and those that he rejects and disassociates from. This epithet highlights the similarity between the conceptions of damage and repair (tikkun) in psychoanalysis and Kabbalah. While tikkun comes from the psychic ability to unite contradictory and opposing parts, damage comes from seeing them as divided and focusing on their disassociation. The individual is in infinite motion between integration and disintegration; in Melanie Klein’s terms, this is the motion between the schizo-paranoid position and the depressive position (Klein 2003). Sometimes it is possible to attain acceptance and integration between good and evil, and sometimes the struggle between the sides leads to a breach between the parts and psychic death (Eigen 2010, 2014).

According to Joyce McDougall, every person seeks to connect and make contact between the different aspects of his self, and, as she says, “to bring forth its own Jekyll and Hyde, its own Faust and Mephistopheles, split-off but vital and necessary parts of every self.” Only with the joining together of those parts can “love and hate […] be reconciled, enabling the subject finally to sign the treaty of many years’ silent warfare, which otherwise might lead to exhaustion and death” (McDougall, 1982, 15).

In the mystical world as well, one can find an awareness of the simultaneous desire to both create connections and combinations between different sides and to preserve the distinctiveness of those forces and positions, in order to facilitate a productive tension between the parts of the divinity and the active elements of the human psyche. In the eyes of both Kabbalah and psychoanalytic theory, the fully-formed person is one who can encompass this dialectic within himself and contain the movement between opposites, without subsuming the parts into each other or denying the differences between them.

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Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel

Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel is a faculty member of in the Department of Jewish Thought at Haifa University,  and a head of a Research Group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

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