America on the Couch: Jews and the Shaping of Therapeutic Culture

Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the 20th Century

By Andrew R. Heinze

Princeton University Press, 456 pages, $29.95.

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The convergence of religion and psychology is one of the signal facts of 20th-century Western culture. In retrospect, the relationship seems obvious: On the one hand, many functions once performed by religion have become the province of psychologists, social workers and popular advice manuals; on the other hand, 20th-century religious institutions are often engaged in therapeutic counseling and in dispensing marital or parental advice. Many cultural historians have studied the convergence of Protestantism and psychology, most notably in studying the “mind cure” movement in early 20th-century America that paved the way for psychoanalysis. The originality of Andrew Heinze’s book, “Jews and the American Soul,” lies in its exploration of this convergence in the Jewish community, both religious and secular and, even more, in the influence that American Jews have had in shaping 20th-century therapeutic culture.

The terrain covered by the book is vast. First, Heinze describes the moral advice or Mussar literature of the Haskalah, the 18th-century Jewish enlightenment movement, emphasizing the concept of “the evil inclination,” which Heinze believes paved the way for a Jewish approach to psychology. Even in the 18th century, as he shows, Haskalah reformers were taken with such American texts as Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

Much of Heinze’s book is devoted to the early 20th-century immigrant experience in which the Jewish struggle for acceptance supposedly converged with the evolution of American liberalism and tolerance. Not only did immigrant Jews continue the Haskalah traditions of self-examination — for example in the Forward’s famous “A Bintel Brief” — but progressive-era Jewish psychologists also paved the way for new approaches to the assimilation of immigrants and other outsiders into American life.

Heinze also devotes considerable attention to the growth of a reform-oriented psychology during the interwar period. Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany used group dynamics or other psychological theories as a means of combating racial prejudice or criticizing conformity. After World War II, a new generation of psychologist-rabbis and TV shows popularized psychoanalysis. While Catholic spokespeople, like Clare Booth Luce. mocked psychoanalysis, which they felt was connected to liberalism and left-wing thought, humanist Jewish psychological thinkers — including Erich Fromm and Abraham Maslow — pioneered a “post-Freudian” psychology of optimism and “growth.” According to them, the Freudian psychoanalytic on sexuality was too limited. Instead, they sought to develop a form of psychotherapy that spoke to the “higher” needs of men and women: the search for meaning generally associated with religion.

For example, Joyce Brothers, another Jewish therapist, saw herself as improving on Freud; drawing on woman-centered ideas within Judaism, she rejected what she saw as the patriarchal bias of psychoanalysis in favor of a feminist psychotherapy based on women’s need for careers and other forms of accomplishment. And Elie Wiesel took a concept previously restricted to psychology, namely trauma, and showed how it could be applied to a whole people’s social experience.

But there are some problems with Heinze’s analysis. The fact that many Jews were Reform oriented or psychologically minded does not mean that many others were not Conservative, reactionary or deeply anti-psychological. And though there were strong reformist currents among Jews, there were equally strong reformist currents among Protestants. How did Franz Boas (Jewish) differ from William James or John Dewey (Protestant)? Heinze never really gets at what, if anything, was distinctive about Judaism’s contribution to modern American psychology. In other words, he never hypothesizes, beyond the Jew’s immigrant status, some deeper aspect of the Jewish soul, so to speak, that led so many Jewish thinkers into psychology.

There have been attempts to get at this problem, most notably by Freud. According to Freud, while there could be no cultural differences in the presentation of scientific findings, Jews did have a special gift for introspection that derived from their highly charged, quasi-familial relation to a personal God, a relation that Christianity subsumed and transcended by introducing its famous mediations: Christ, the Saints and the Church. Following his own logic, Freud urged his believers to be tolerant of Carl Jung’s early deviations from psychoanalysis because Jung, the son of a pastor, only found his way to introspection against strong internal resistances.

Heinze need not accept Freud, of course, but he does need to address the question of whether Jews brought something more than marginality, resistance to discrimination and a generally progressive outlook to the problems of modern psychology. Instead, he uncritically folds American Jewish intellectual history into the rise of therapeutic culture. This may be accurate, but if so, it needs both explanation and critique. Heinze’s treatment of Rabbi Joshua Liebman, whose 1946 “Peace of Mind” Heinze describes as “the most popular inspirational book to appear since 1900,” exemplifies the problem.

Like many Jewish thinkers throughout history, Liebman was at root concerned to contest the ur thesis of all antisemitism: that the Jews were a cold, rationalistic and legalistic people who had turned away from the warmth, emotionalism and charity that Christ supposedly introduced. Describing Judaism as a religion of love and positive uplift, contrasting it to a purported Christian proclivity toward guilt and self-deprecation, Liebman enlisted psychoanalysis in Jewish self-promotion.

“Liebman’s remedies for the spiritual and social problems of his age were both Freudian and Jewish,” Heinze writes. “Together, they offered Americans liberation from emotional repression and inappropriate guilt, on the one hand, and guidance to the Promised Land of human solidarity and renewal, on the other.”

There is just one problem: Liebman’s book was a nonsensical mishmash of popular, Protestant-derived uplift psychology, and Judaism is a demanding and sober religion with deep insights into envy, aggression and the tragic aspects of the human condition. Moreover, it was Christianity — at least Catholicism — that elided guilt, and psychoanalysis was in every way opposed to the affirmative culture to which Liebman contributed so much.

Ultimately, “Jews and the American Soul” conforms to the classic trope of all American ethnic literature: It demonstrates the contributions that the immigrant group made to the dominant culture and shows how “Jewish thinkers” and “Jewish values” contributed to modern American “ideas of the inner life.” But to my mind, it doesn’t truly unpack the three essential building blocks of this statement: What is a “Jewish thinker”? What is a “Jewish value”? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the American concept of “an inner life”? In light of the present-day upsurge of American chauvinism and unilateralism, and of the revulsion against psychoanalysis, Heinze’s easy equation of America with a psychologically minded tolerant liberalism needs to be rethought.

“Jews and the American Soul” exemplifies the way in which a main current of 20th-century Judaism flowed into what has been called the civic religion of American culture. It shows how important psychology became to 20th-century America and how formative the immigrant experience has been to the American sense of self. It demonstrates the important role that popular notions of psychology — that is, of a common human nature — played in formulating what has unfortunately been termed our “Judeo-Christian” heritage, a concept first really elaborated by a psychologically minded Jew, Will Herberg, in his 1955 book, “Protestant, Catholic, Jew.”

This is a lot, but the process can’t be merely celebrated. There is a very different tradition of Jewish thinkers who have a great deal to offer psychology: Spinoza, Freud and Scholem among them. Whether this tradition, one that would be critical of a self-congratulatory, therapeutic national culture, has any resonance in 20th-century American cultural history remains an open question.

Eli Zaretsky is professor of history at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of “Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis” (Knopf), published last spring, and “Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life” (Harper and Row). Currently he is at work on a project tentatively titled, “The Place of Psychoanalysis in the History of the Jews.”


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