Jews and the American Soul

Jews and the American Soul

Tova Reich

JEWS AND THE AMERICAN SOUL: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century. By Andrew R. Heinze. Princeton Univ. Press. 438 pp. $29.95

Read Time:
3m 55sec

In a brief paragraph early in this study, Andrew R. Heinze disputes scholar Peter Gay’s assertion that there is little connection between Sigmund Freud’s Jewishness and his “thinking as a psychiatrist.” While acknowledging that Gay may be correct with respect to the link between Freud’s faith and his psychoanalytic theory, Heinze says that “Gay misses the presence of Jewish moral values in the mind of this secular thinker.” Because Freud was, until the recent medicalization of psychiatry, the major reference point in America’s long-running romance with mental health, a Jewish connection here is critical to Heinze’s over­arching thesis. That thesis, which Heinze claims has never before been illuminated, can be summarized as follows. Contrary to the popular belief that the American psyche or “soul” has been shaped overwhelmingly by Protestant values, there has been a second dominant influence: the acquired Jewish “ethical gene”—the deeply inbred tradition of Jewish rational moral values, a turning inward to family as a context for emotional fulfillment and outward to community for social action and a sense of relatedness.

Heinze, a professor of American history at the University of San Francisco, where he is also director of the Judaic Studies Program, supports his argument by elaborating on the disproportionate presence of Jews as practitioners and popularizers of psychology. Citing historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s assertion that Jews who had lost their faith sought “secular Jewish surrogates” in such movements as Zionism and socialism, he proposes “psychoanalytic moralism” as an additional surrogate. The Jewish boy who might have grown up to become a rabbi became a shrink instead; the Jewish girl reared to rule her household with a mighty hand morphed, in the worst-case scenario, into Dr. Laura. Heinze traces the careers of influential Jewish “psychological evangelists” and “public moralists”—Freudians and protégés of William James such as Hugo Münsterberg, Joseph Jastrow, Boris Sidis, and Abraham Myerson in the first half of the 20th century, and, in the second half, such humanists as Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm, and Abraham Maslow—who, “no less than their colleagues from Protestant backgrounds, . . . wanted to introduce their values into popular thought.”

Curiously, Heinze makes a great point of elevating into this pantheon two seemingly minor figures who, he argues not quite convincingly, were far more influential than heretofore recognized: Boston Reform rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, whose inspirational bestseller Peace of Mind (1946) endorsed self-acceptance through therapy and spirituality, and who, according to Heinze, was transformed by the media into the first postwar “iconic Jew” (the second was and remains Elie Wiesel); and $64,000 Question champion Dr. Joyce Brothers, who evolved into a self-help author and advice-dispensing fixture on TV for more than three decades. Perhaps even more curious, if we accept Heinze’s thesis that Jewish values did indeed shape the American psyche, is his failure to take up rigorously the question of whether those values simply permeated the work of Jewish thinkers by virtue of who they were and where they came from, or whether the thinkers consciously applied a Jewish moral perspective. The evidence Heinze musters never proves that they were acting as Jews rather than as, say, humanists or liberals—even in cases when it might appear to have been in their interest to apply a Jewish perspective, as when they spoke out against mob violence and racial bias.

Heinze is especially struck by the relevance to psychology of the Jewish musar movement, with its emphasis on ethical conduct acquired through self-discipline and the social values of restraint (repression?) and of overcoming the yetzer harah, the evil inclination (the id?). Those educated in the musar tradition will remember very well the mantra “Work on yourself.” This practical approach to psychological needs had its Christian parallels, which Heinze strikingly illustrates by taking us in two directions: back to that most lovable Protestant of all, Benjamin Franklin, whose virtue-by-virtue self-improvement chart (temperance, chastity, etc.) was adapted in the early 19th century for yeshiva students in Poland by Menachem Mendel Lefin; and forward to our own time, to the Christian pragmatism of Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12-step program, a strong influence on the work of contemporary Orthodox psychiatrist Abraham Twerski. Heinze usefully delineates the points at which psychological trends intersect with and resemble Jewish sensibilities, but he is less persuasive in arguing that Jewish values actually shaped either the thinking of many of the psychiatrists and psychologists he mentions or, through them, the American “soul.”

—Tova Reich

About the Author

Tova Reich is the author of the novels Mara (1978), Master of the Return (1988), and The Jewish War (1995).

More From This Issue