Roots of Humanistic (Cognitive) Psychology in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Tradition

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The essence of Judaism as a religion, in my conception, is not faith in a philosophic sense (the adopting of correct philosophic propositions) and not ritual but moral and spiritual guidance especially in the realms of psychology and ethics.  Further, the realms of psychology and ethics provide a context that is common to both Jews who define themselves as religious and secular allowing for the bridging of gaps between religious and secular.

 

Background about psychology

 

Psychology is a very ancient field, and through the ages the field has been referred to as the science of the soul (the literal meaning of the term psychology).  The spiritual father of psychology as a modern discipline is Sigmund Freud.  Today in the modern field of psychology there are three major streams of thought – the psychoanalytic stream (based on the thought of Freud), the behaviorist stream and the humanistic (cognitive) stream.

The essence of the psychoanalytic or Freudian conception is that the fundamental causes of our personality and behavior are unconscious causes that we are not aware of on a psychological level.  The roots of these causes are in very early childhood and stages of development on a psychological and sexual level that a small child passes through (such as the oral stage, anal stage and genital stage).  According to the psychoanalytic conception our personality is formed already at a very young age (by the age of about 5), and the personality is seen as being divided into three parts – the ego (reason or adult part of personality), superego (conscience or parent part of personality) and id (drives and passions or child part of personality).  The function of the ego is to mediate between the id (that seeks pleasure) and the superego (that is the source of moral judgment and feelings of guilt).  Psychoanalytic treatment is intended to increase awareness in relation to unconscious causes and motives of our personality and behavior, and in relation to the internal conflicts between the parts of our personality, in order that a person may develop greater mastery over his or her life.

The essence of the behaviorist conception is that psychology is not the science of the soul (a religious concept) nor of the mind or personality (also unscientific, non-empirical concepts) but of human behavior.  According to the behaviorist conception, behavior is the result of a learning process – of conditioning (stimulus and response).  Behaviorist treatment is intended to influence the environment through the use of positive and negative reinforcements in order to change patterns of behavior.

The essence of the humanistic (cognitive) conception is that our personality and behavior is not only a result of genetic influences and influences from the environment but in the main the result of our conceptions and attitudes regarding ourselves and the world around us.  Humanistic treatment focuses much more on the present and is concerned with self-esteem, self-confidence and self-awareness in order to help a person more fully realize himself or herself as a human being.

 

Adlerian psychology

 

I identify with a humanistic (cognitive) conception in general, and with an Adlerian approach in particular (which is today considered a humanistic approach by Adlerians).  The Adlerian approach is based upon the thought and theories of Alfred Adler who was a colleague of Sigmund Freud in Vienna, Austria.  Adler was the first thinker to have fundamental disagreement with Freud in the field of modern psychology.  Already during the early 20th century an orthodox psychoanalytic approach (on the basis of the thought of Freud) developed, and in religious language Adler could be termed a heretic – and he left Freud’s circle.  He developed his own approach, and actually was the first to develop a humanistic (cognitive) approach in distinction to the psychoanalytic approach.  The orthodox psychoanalytic approach was dominant especially in universities, and until this day in universities introductory psychology courses and introductory books usually classify Adler as belonging to the psychoanalytic stream (as opposed to belonging to the humanistic stream), generally dedicate less material to Adler (in comparison with other great thinkers in modern psychology) and minimize the disagreements between Adler and Freud (as if they are not of a fundamental nature) – and, most importantly, Adler is generally not given credit for being the first to develop a humanistic (cognitive) approach.  However, Adler was a truly revolutionary thinker, and great thinkers within the humanistic (cognitive) stream (Abraham Maslow, Victor Frankl, Rollo May, Albert Ellis) did give credit to Adler as having developed a humanistic (cognitive) approach with some even basing themselves upon the thought of Adler in developing their own theories and approaches.

I want to present here several very important concepts of psychology that Alfred Adler introduced, and which are of central importance in an Adlerian conception of psychology.  Adler introduced the concept of inferiority feelings (and an inferiority complex).  Adler argued that we as human beings are born with inferiority feelings – and inferiority feelings are natural and something that we all have to a certain extent as opposed to an inferiority complex that is a severe problem of low self-esteem.  The moment a baby comes out of the womb he or she naturally feels inferior as he or she enters so small and helpless into a relatively huge world.  According to Adler, the human being strives for power (as the most important motivation of human behavior) in order to overcome natural feelings of inferiority.

Oftentimes Adler’s concept of the striving for power is presented, and misunderstood, as a will to power in the sense of an innate drive.  However, Professor Rudolf Dreikurs, the great student of Adler, argued that this is a misconception (Fundamentals of Adlerian Psychology, P. 22-23) because Adler changed his thinking in his later works and conceived of the striving for power not as an innate drive but in the sense of overcoming feelings of inferiority implying a process of development and self-realization – a conception that is consistent with a humanistic orientation to psychology.  Professor Dreikurs also points out (Fundamentals of Adlerian Psychology, P. 22-23) that the striving for personal power over others is only a mistaken form of compensation for feelings of inferiority – the appropriate and healthy striving for power is in the sense of significance and a sense of worth.

Adler also introduced the concept of social belonging and social interest, which is a feeling or attitude that gives power in the sense of significance and a feeling of worth.  According to Adler, the human being is a social creature (as Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, argued), and therefore we as human beings have a basic psychological need to feel a sense of belonging in every social context in which we find ourselves and to feel a sense of social interest in contributing to the welfare of others – in order to overcome feelings of inferiority.  A feeling of social belonging and social interest is the appropriate or healthy psychological expression of the striving for power that gives us a feeling of significance and worth.  In Adler’s conception, the essence of psychological health is a sense of social belonging and social interest characterized by the ability and desire to cooperate with, and contribute to, others.

By the way, letters in Hebrew have a numerical value and words have a numerical value based upon the letters making up the word.  The numerical value of the word hand is 14, and if the word hand in Hebrew is written twice consecutively it spells the word friend in Hebrew, and the numerical value of the word friend is then 28 – hand (14) + hand (14) = friend (28) – and 28 is also the numerical value of the word power in Hebrew.  The Hebrew thus expresses a fundamental idea of Adlerian psychology – true power is not physical, and not personal power over others, but the power of friendship and good social relations between human beings.

Adler called his approach individual psychology, and the meaning of the term individual is not in the sense of a single person but in the sense of a whole person – in the sense of the unity of the human personality.  While Freud conceived of the personality as divided into three component parts (ego, superego and id) that are in conflict, Adler conceived of the personality in a holistic sense.  The meaning of the term holism is not that there are not components of a particular phenomenon but that we must view the particular phenomenon as whole – and not merely as a collection of components without seeing the relationship between the components in the context of a larger and complete system.  For example, when speaking of a holistic approach to medicine, the intent is that a human being is composed of body and mind as components of human life – and there is a reciprocal relationship between body and mind in which the body influences the mind and the mind influences the body.  Therefore, issues of health and illness cannot simply be reduced to underlying biological or physiological causes (as is so widespread in conventional western medicine).  Rather, issues of health and illness from a holistic perspective can only be properly understood by viewing the human being as a whole person in which there is a reciprocal relationship between physical and mental (including emotional) factors influencing a particular person.  In a similar way, our personality may be viewed as consisting of various components (reason, conscience and drives and passions), but according to Adler these components of personality are not necessarily in conflict as in a psychoanalytic conception and Adler emphasized the unity of the personality (in thinking, feeling and action) that is revealed in the lifestyle (personality) and direction in life of a particular person.

For Freud, the fundamental conflict is intrapersonal – an internal conflict within the personality between component parts that are in opposition.  The essence of psychological health is an internal harmony between the components of personality.  By contrast, for Adler, the fundamental conflict is interpersonal – social conflict between people.  The essence of psychological health is a feeling of social harmony in which a person’s relationships with others are characterized not by conflict but by cooperation with others, contribution to others, mutual respect, tolerance and equality of worth.

One last thing regarding disagreement between Freud and Adler – Adler did not reject the notion of unconscious.  However, he did use the term in a different sense than Freud.  It seems that Freud conceived of the concept of unconscious in the sense of a noun (something that exists) – as a part of our personality.  The image often used to illustrate Freud’s conception of personality is that of an iceberg – only a small conscious part of personality is above the surface while a large unconscious part is below the surface.  The Freudian view that there is such a thing as unconscious that exists is a matter of speculation that cannot be verified or refuted from an empirical, scientific perspective.  By contrast, it seems that Adler conceived of the concept of unconscious merely in the sense of an adjective describing so many of our thoughts, feelings, wants, needs and drives – that we are simply not aware of them.  I am using the term unconscious here in an Adlerian sense as a description (of thoughts, feelings, wants, needs or drives that we are not aware of), and not in a Freudian sense as something that exists as part of personality.

Adlerian psychology is a value laden approach that presupposes and is based upon democratic values such as cooperation, contribution, mutual respect, tolerance and equality of worth – and such a conception is compatible with my conception of the essence of Judaism as a religion.  Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest of the Talmudic rabbis spoke about moral decency as the essence of Judaism and religion (“what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and “love your neighbor as yourself”) – and moral decency presupposes such democratic values that are the basis of Adlerian psychology (cooperation, contribution, mutual respect, tolerance and equality of worth).  Adler was the first great thinker in the field of modern psychology to emphasize the social aspect of psychological health.  According to Adler, a psychologically healthy person has a feeling of social belonging and social interest characterized by cooperation with, and contribution to, others – and such a feeling necessarily expresses itself in good relationships with those around us.  Adler himself wrote that the essence of religion is the verse (cited by Rabbi Akiva as the essence of Judaism) “love your neighbor as yourself”, and it can be said that for Adler the verse expresses the essence of psychological health (What Life Should Mean To You, P. 253).

It perhaps sounds easy to fulfill the words cited by Rabbi Akiva as the essence of Judaism and religion “love your neighbor as yourself”, and to have good relations with those around us.  However, it is not an easy matter at all.  First, the verse assumes that we love ourselves, which is not an easy matter from an Adlerian point of view in requiring of us to overcome our natural feelings of inferiority.  Second, loving others is certainly not an easy matter – today we are plagued by social conflict of epidemic proportions, and we are especially plagued by conflict with those closest to us (husbands and wives, parents and children) tragically characterized by physical as well as verbal violence.

 

The fundamental principle of humanistic (cognitive) psychology

 

The fundamental principle of humanistic (cognitive) psychology, which in my eyes characterizes humanistic (cognitive) psychology more than any other idea, is that our internal experience and feelings as human beings come from thoughts.  According to humanistic (cognitive) psychology, our internal experience and feelings are not a direct response to external causes in the environment; and, events or situations that occur in external reality do not cause our feelings – as people are widely accustomed to think.  We as human beings are thinking (cognitive) creatures, and we interpret events and situations that occur in external reality – in distinction to all other animals who merely respond to external stimuli in external reality.  Therefore, the cause of our feelings as human beings is not events or situations that occur in external reality but our thoughts in relation to those events and situations.

Let’s take the example of a dog in order to make clear the fundamental difference between human beings (as thinking creatures) and all other animals.  If I give a dog biscuit to a dog (and the dog is hungry), the dog will smell the dog biscuit and if it smells good the dog will feel joy and eat the dog biscuit.  The internal reaction of the dog of joy is a direct response to the external stimuli of smelling the dog biscuit and in being given the dog biscuit – and, the dog cannot feel otherwise.  The dog does perceive external stimuli through its senses; but, the dog does not think in the sense of interpreting external stimuli.  However, if we offer cookies to a human being, it is not at all clear what the internal reaction of the person will be in response to being offered the cookies.  The internal reaction of the person is not a direct response to the external stimulus of being offered the cookies, and the person as a thinking creature will not necessarily feel joy in being offered the cookies.  The person as a thinking creature may refuse the offer of the cookies for any number of reasons such as being on a diet to lose weight or considering the cookies unhealthy even if not on a diet – all such considerations (as a result of our thinking) are something uniquely human that a dog cannot consider.

Furthermore, the joyful reaction of the dog is an immediate and fleeting response to the external stimulus of being given a dog biscuit.  As soon as the external stimulus disappears (the dog eats the dog biscuit) the dog no longer will feel joy – and the same is true of fear, sadness or anger that a dog may feel in response to some external event.  If a dog is in a threatening situation, the dog will respond by feeling fear (and perhaps anger) and by attacking or fleeing (fight or flight response) – but, as soon as the threat disappears the dog will no longer feel any fear (or anger).  Animals have basic animal feelings of joy, fear, sadness and anger; but, animals have no existential (uniquely human) feelings that are a product of thinking such as anxiety, worry, boredom, shame, guilt, grief, admiration, anticipation, appreciation, thankfulness as well as depression, stress or panic attacks among other things.  Suppose I withhold a dog biscuit from a dog – the dog incapable of thought will not conclude that it is unlovable and unworthy, and you will never see a dog sitting on the edge of a cliff pondering Shakespeare’s ultimate question “to be or not to be”.  However, if we fail to offer cookies to a fellow human being, the person may interpret this as an insult or sign of rejection, and the person may hold this against us for a long period of time as our feelings are a response to our thinking (and not an immediate and fleeting response to external stimuli as in the case of animals).

A dog perceives, and responds to, external stimuli.  If a dog perceives external reality as desired reality such as in the case of being offered a dog biscuit when it is hungry, then the dog in wanting the dog biscuit will necessarily feel joy in receiving the dog biscuit – and, the dog cannot feel otherwise; it cannot feel negative feelings such as fear, sadness or anger.  If the dog perceives external reality as unwanted reality, and the dog does not receive the dog biscuit when it is hungry, then the dog will necessarily feel negative feelings such as sadness and anger – and, the dog cannot feel otherwise; it cannot feel a positive feeling of joy.  By contrast, we as human beings interpret external reality, and do not merely respond to external reality like a dog.  Even in the case of apparently desired reality such as my being offered cookies by a host when I am hungry (and I really want the cookies) but am on a diet; I may not only reject the cookies but even interpret the offer as an insult in that the host knew I was on a diet – and, thus, not only do I not feel joy upon being offered the cookies, and not only do I feel anger and upset toward the host as a result of my negative interpretation that the host has insulted me, but I may even hold a grudge against the host.  Even in the case of apparently unwanted reality, such as my not being offered cookies by a host in which my immediate animal reaction is anger in not being offered the cookies; my animal feeling of anger is not only an indirect reaction to not being offered cookies but a direct reaction to my negative interpretation that I have been insulted – and, I may change my negative interpretation to a positive one that the host simply forgot to offer me food or drink and had no intention to insult me in which case I will have a positive experience of understanding and forgiveness toward the host significantly minimizing if not eliminating my initial reaction of anger and insult.

Our feelings as human beings result not only from our immediate response to reality but from our interpretations of those events and situations in external reality.  Beyond our basic animal feelings that we share in common with other animals (fear, sadness, anger, and joy), existential feelings that are uniquely human are a product of thinking – and, even our immediate animal reaction (fear, sadness, anger, and joy) as human beings is filtered by thinking and interpretation.  Negative interpretations cause us to experience existential despair, anguish, anxiety or upset beyond our animal and fleeting feelings that are merely a response to external reality.  Positive interpretations allow us to experience existential feelings of thankfulness and forgiveness beyond our animal and fleeting feelings that are a response to external reality.

I want to give an example to make clear that we as human beings do not directly respond to events and situations in external reality.  Let’s imagine an imaginary situation that I am walking down the street happily immersed in my own thoughts while not paying attention that approaching in the opposite direction is a total stranger who suddenly gives me a slap in the face.  My immediate reaction is to feel angry and upset.  What caused me to feel angry and upset?  We are accustomed to think that the cause of my anger and upset is receiving the slap – for, prior to receiving the slap I was not angry or upset, and without receiving the slap I would not have become angry or upset.  Yet, this is a misconception that receiving the slap was the cause of my anger and upset.  I will slightly change the imaginary situation – let’s now suppose that happily immersed in my own thoughts I do not pay attention that approaching me is my good friend who then gives me a slap in the face.  In all likelihood, I will not become angry or upset, but will be very happy to see my good friend.  What is the difference between the two situations?  There are actually two differences.  One difference is in the external circumstances – in one case a total stranger gives me the slap; while in the other case my good friend gives me the slap.  The other difference is in my thinking – in the case of the stranger my thoughts in all likelihood will be negative (how dare he strike me, who is he to strike me, what right does he have to strike me, why me, it’s not fair and so on and so forth); while in the case of my good friend my thoughts in all likelihood will be positive (of course the slap was a friendly slap, my friend is always joking around by hitting, and how great to see my good friend).

The slap (whether from a stranger or friend) is merely a trigger for (and influence upon) my internal reaction in terms of feelings; the cause of my feelings is my thinking and interpretation in relation to the external event.  What proves that the external circumstances of an event are merely a trigger and not a cause of our internal reaction to the event, and that the cause of our internal reaction is our thinking?  In the case of receiving a slap from a total stranger, if I increase my self-awareness and pay attention to my thoughts that occur on an unconscious level almost simultaneously with the receiving of the slap, then I can change my thoughts from negative (causing me anger and upset) to positive (minimizing, if not eliminating, my anger and upset).  That is, I can interpret in a positive way that this total stranger is simply not sane (at least temporarily in this moment of giving me the slap), that the stranger may have been through many difficulties in life and that the stranger really did not intend to hurt me – in which case not only will I minimize, if not eliminate, anger and upset but I will feel compassion and understanding toward the stranger.  Conversely, in the case of my good friend giving me a slap, if my thoughts are negative (even in the case that my good friend did indeed only jokingly give me the slap in the face), I will feel anger and upset.  Thus, the external circumstances of the event (whether the slap in the face is from a total stranger or good friend) are merely a trigger for (and influence upon) my internal reaction; the cause of my internal reaction is my thinking – if my thoughts are positive, my feelings (no matter who gave me the slap) will in turn be positive (or at least I will minimize bad feelings); and if my thoughts are negative, my feelings (no matter who gave me the slap) will in turn be negative.

This fundamental principle of humanistic (cognitive) psychology that our internal experience and feelings as human beings come from thoughts means that our thoughts function as a screen and filter between external reality and our internal experience, and thus we do not experience external reality in a direct sense but only indirectly through the screen and filter of our thoughts:

 

Event in external reality

Thoughts and interpretation

Reaction and response – feelings and actions

 

In Hebrew the first letters of the words event, thoughts and reaction spell the word truth – and the truth is that we as human beings have an intervening stage of thoughts that function as a screen and filter (between external reality and our feelings) by which we interpret external reality in distinction to all other animals who lack such an intervening stage and merely react to stimuli in external reality (without the ability to interpret external reality).  This also means that we as human beings as thinking creatures can transcend our animal nature by consciously choosing to act not according to instinctual and immediate animal responses to events and situations in external reality – in distinction to animals who merely react to stimuli in external reality and cannot consciously choose to act in any other way.

Ancient Greek philosophers distinguished between theoretical reason (as a source of truth and falsehood) and practical reason (as a source of good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly).  There is then a rational aspect to emotional intelligence in that our feelings are a direct result not of events and situations that occur in external reality but of our thoughts – and the source of our thoughts that determine our feelings is practical reason.  Theoretical reason is abstract and divorced from feelings and actions; practical reason is necessarily connected to feelings and behavior.  When we judge something as good, we feel good (or at least minimize bad feeling); and when we judge something as bad, we feel bad.  Actually, our screen and filter by which we interpret reality is a grid (of latitude and longitude) of judgments of right and wrong, and of good and bad as well as true and false (though our feelings are a result of our judgments not of true and false but of right and wrong, good and bad).  A person who displays a high degree of emotional intelligence judges on the basis of practical reason in a favorable, positive light leading to positive feelings (or minimizing bad feelings); conversely, a person with a low degree of emotional intelligence judges on the basis of practical reason in an unfavorable, negative light leading to negative feelings.

Humanistic (cognitive) psychologists use the famous analogy of a cup filled half with water (whether the cup is half full or half empty) in order to exemplify that our internal experience and feelings are a matter of thought and interpretation (or perspective).  It is possible to measure the amount of water in the cup, which is a factual and quantitative matter; yet, the question of whether the cup is half full or half empty is not factual or quantitative but one of subjective value judgment and interpretation.  Events and situations that occur in external reality are a factual matter – and not good or bad in an inherent sense in and of themselves.  The concepts of good and bad are a matter of subjective value judgment and perspective – and good and bad do not exist in external reality.  Likewise, the concepts of opportunity and problem are a matter of subjective value judgment and interpretation – and opportunities and problems do not exist in external reality.  Events and situations exist in external reality from a factual point of view – but, they are neither good nor bad, and neither opportunities nor problems.  If we interpret a given event or situation in a positive way (a cup half full) as an opportunity (and every event or situation no matter how difficult may be viewed as, at least, an opportunity to learn and grow), we will feel positive feelings such as excitement, anticipation, appreciation, thankfulness and so on (or at least minimize negative feelings); conversely, if we interpret a given event or situation in a negative way (a cup half empty) as a problem, we will feel negative feelings such as anger, upset, discouragement, fear, anxiety, worry, despair, dejection, depression, stress and so on.  We do not always have the power to change (or even influence) external events (as things often occur beyond our control); but, we always have the power and freedom to choose whether we will interpret circumstances and events positively (as opportunities) or negatively (as problems) – and, this power to choose how we will relate to external reality applies even toward unwanted external reality.  Even if unwanted external reality presents us with objective difficulties, nevertheless we may view the event or situation as offering an opportunity to grow and learn, in spite of, or even because of, the difficulties.

By the way, people widely think mistakenly (in my view) that such phenomena as depression, stress and trauma are things that happen to us as if they are phenomena that exist in external reality and as if we are victims of such things.  But, such phenomena do not exist in external reality – just as problems do not exist in external reality.  Such phenomena do not happen to us and do not victimize us; rather, we cause ourselves such things.  Just as problems exist only in our minds and are experienced only as a result of a negative interpretation (a cup half empty); so too depression, stress and trauma exist only in our minds and are experienced only as a result of a negative interpretation (a cup half empty).  There can be no event or situation in external reality that is depressing, stressful or traumatizing because events and situations are merely factual in nature; and the words depressing, stressful and traumatizing reflect subjective value judgment in viewing a given event or situation in a negative way.  No event or situation can possibly occur in external reality that will necessarily cause me to experience depression, stress or trauma; I will experience depression, stress or trauma only if I view a given event or situation that occurs in external reality in a negative way.

I will give only one example in this regard – the tragic death of a loved one.  Such an event cannot cause me depression, stress or trauma unless my perspective toward such a death is negative.  There is a Talmudic teaching on the Biblical verse (Genesis 1, 31) “behold, it is very good”, which God says in looking over all of creation, that this includes even death.  The teaching, in my mind, is not coming to say that the death of a loved one is good from a philosophic point of view.  Rather, the teaching is saying, in my mind, that from a psychological point of view we must view death as part of life and creation, and as part of life and creation death is good – for, there can be no life without death and no death without life.  If our psychological attitude and perspective is positive in appreciating that death is a part of life, we can then accept our suffering with a joyful heart not in the sense that we will sing and dance when a loved one dies but in the sense that we will not despair in the face of life’s difficulties – and we will thus not allow ourselves to be depressed, stressed or traumatized by the tragic death of a loved one even though we will feel unpleasant feelings such as sadness and grief.  A positive attitude and outlook does not mean that we will not experience unpleasant feelings in the face of life’s difficulties; it means that we will be able to minimize as much as possible such unpleasant feelings and not allow them to paralyze us or to cause ourselves much greater difficulties such as depression, stress and trauma.

Feelings are not positive or negative in an absolute sense.  For example, anger is not inherently negative; anger is not positive or negative but merely a feeling that we experience in response to events and situations.  Anger is like fire – it can warm or burn.  The crucial question is how we express our anger.  If we irresponsibly dump our anger and upset upon another, or if as a result of our anger and upset we insult another or even worse we are violent physically, then it is not our anger and upset that is bad or immoral but our resulting behavior (and the fire of anger will burn due to our immoral behavior).  If we express our anger and upset to another in a responsible, considerate, respectful and issue oriented way, then our anger and upset may actually contribute to enhancing and improving our relationship (and the fire of anger will warm due to our moral behavior).  Furthermore, feelings are appropriate and inappropriate only in relation to a specific situation.  Feelings such as joy and excitement are usually viewed as inappropriate in relation to the death of a loved one; while, anger is in my eyes appropriate in relation to social injustice.  However, in a general way there is no question that we experience as negative such feelings as anger, upset, sadness and worry and we try to avoid or at least minimize them; and we experience as positive such feelings as joy, excitement and anticipation and we try to experience them even more.

Usually, we are not aware of the thoughts by which we interpret external reality.  Our thoughts in this regard are largely of an unconscious nature.  However, we can increase our self-awareness of our thoughts by which we interpret external reality.  If I feel negative feelings in relation to some event or situation, then my starting point is my negative feelings and I can infer that my thoughts are negative regarding that event or situation – and I can in turn examine my thoughts and bring those thoughts that were previously on an unconscious level to consciousness.  We have no direct control over our feelings, and we do not choose our feelings.  We experience feelings.  We have direct control over our speech and behavior, and we choose what we say and what we do – I want to leave aside such a difficult philosophic problem as to whether we do truly have freedom of choice in our behavior; in any case our psychological experience is that we do consciously choose our speech and behavior in distinction to feelings.  Regarding our thoughts, we do not choose thoughts (and especially unconscious thoughts) just as we do not choose feelings, and our thoughts are a response to events and situations; however, in distinction to feelings, we can increase our awareness of our thoughts and change them from negative to positive.  In such a case that I feel sad, I cannot simply become aware of my sadness and tell myself that I will no longer feel sad but happy; I can, though, become aware of my negative, unconscious thoughts leading to my sadness and change them from negative to positive thereby eliminating or minimizing my sadness.  Therefore, by increasing our self-awareness of our thoughts we can (indirectly) develop greater self-control over our feelings.   

 

Roots of humanistic (cognitive) psychology in the Bible and Jewish tradition

 

The principle of humanistic (cognitive) psychology reflected in the analogy of a cup filled half with water (whether the cup is half full or half empty) that our feelings come from thoughts is actually a very ancient idea, and the modern humanistic (cognitive) psychologists did not originate such an idea but drew it in the main from the ancient Greek culture.  This idea is found in cultures even more ancient than Greece – it is found in the ancient Jewish culture, in ancient India and in ancient China.

Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) expresses such a conception in The Guide of the Perplexed (Part 3, 10), where he deals with the philosophic question of evil.  According to Maimonides, evil has no positive existence in reality.  Evil exists, Maimonides argues, only in a negative sense as an absence of good, just as illness is an absence of health or darkness is an absence of light.  He quotes a statement of the Talmudic rabbis that “no evil comes down from Above”.  According to this rabbinic source, God is good, and all that God has created is good – therefore no evil can come from God Above.  In this rabbinic view (constituting a rabbinic precedent for the humanistic conception that problems are a matter of perspective), what we, as human beings, may perceive as evil, is only the result of our own lack of philosophic knowledge and understanding in not appreciating that all that God has created or decreed is good.

In my opinion, Maimonides’ argument here that evil has no positive existence in reality is a very powerful argument psychologically (whether or not it is satisfying philosophically), and it is the very same argument of the modern, humanistic psychologists.  Humanistic and cognitive psychologists argue that problems do not exist in external reality but only in our minds reflecting a negative perspective (and if we shift our perspective to a positive one we will see opportunities rather than problems); while for Maimonides (and according to the rabbinic source that he cited) evil has no positive existence in reality but is the result of ignorance and lack of understanding philosophically.  Yet, despite the difference in vocabulary, the basic idea is the same.

In Maimonides’ conception, happiness and the ability to overcome suffering and hardship psychologically, is the result that emanates from philosophic enlightenment, as he makes clear in commenting upon the Book of Job (The Guide, Part 3, 23):

 

This lesson is the principal object of the whole Book of Job.  It lays down this principle of faith … that we should not fall into the error of imagining His knowledge to be similar to ours, or His intention, providence and rule similar to ours.  When we know this we shall find everything that may befall us easy to bear…And as our rabbis say:  “The pious do everything out of love, and rejoice in their own afflictions“.

 

I want to point out two things in relation to this passage.  First, in Maimonides’ religious conception, the ultimate goal is philosophic enlightenment, and the main lesson of the Book of Job is a philosophic teaching (that Divine knowledge is not similar to human knowledge).  Second, the result of such philosophic knowledge and enlightenment (in understanding that what appears to us as evil from a human perspective is not necessarily evil from the point of view of God) is that what happens to us is easier to bear psychologically.  Thus, in Maimonides’ conception, true faith, conceived of as intellectual and philosophic enlightenment, necessarily results in the ability to bear life’s occurrences more easily psychologically and to experience happiness even amidst afflictions.

I want to cite two Biblical sources and a rabbinic midrash, which reflect humanistic, psychological ideas.  The first source is the Biblical story of Noah.  God decides to destroy the world because of the wickedness of human beings (Genesis 6, 5-7) – “And the Lord saw that the wickedness of the human being had increased on earth, and every inclination of the human heart was only evil“.  After God destroys the world with the flood, Noah offers a sacrifice to God, and it is written (Genesis 8, 21) – “And the Lord said in His heart I will no longer curse the ground on account of the human being because the inclination of the heart of the human being is evil“.  Strikingly, the reason that God decides to destroy the world is the very same reason that after the flood God swears never again to destroy the world – because of the evil inclination of the human being.  In response to human wickedness God does not change human nature characterized by an inclination to do evil – and human nature remains the same after the flood as it was before the flood.  The only change is on the part of God.  Before the flood God complains about the wickedness of the human being because of the evil inclination of the human being and after the flood God is understanding of human nature characterized by an inclination to do evil, and God swears to never again destroy the world on account of the human being.  The change is that God’s attitude and outlook toward the human being and human nature changes from one of complaint (a cup half empty) to one of understanding (a cup half full).  It is possible that in response to the sacrifice of Noah (Genesis 8, 21) God’s attitude and outlook change; but, if so, the sacrifice is only an external influence upon God and at best a trigger for the change on the part of God – perhaps making it easier for God to view the human being and human nature in a more positive and understanding light.  The sacrifice will influence God in a positive way only if the attitude of God toward the sacrifice is positive (that the sacrifice is a sincere offering) – if God were to view the sacrifice in a negative way (as a kind of bribe), then the sacrifice would not influence God in a positive way.

A second source from the Bible is Psalm 13 (composed of 6 verses) – in my view, made up of 3 parts:

 

  • To the chief musician, a psalm to David
  • How long Lord, will You forget me? Forever?  How long will You hide Your face from me?
  • How long will I take counsel in my soul? Having sorrow in my heart daily?  How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
  • Look and answer me Lord, my God, enlighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death.
  • Lest my enemy will say I have prevailed against him, those who trouble me will rejoice when I fall.
  • And I have trusted in Your kindness, my heart has rejoiced in Your salvation, I will sing to the Lord because He has recompensed me.

 

In the first part (verses 2 and 3, as verse 1 is merely a dedication), the speaker complains to God about his or her suffering, and is angry at God – and each complaint begins “How long?”.  The second part (verses 3 and 4) is a prayer and request of the speaker directed to God, and begins “Look and answer me Lord”.  In the third part (verse 6) the speaker suddenly expresses trust in God and suddenly the speaker is happy and thankful to God.

The obvious question is – what happened and what changed between the first and last parts?  In the first part the speaker is complaining and angry with God (a cup half empty), and suddenly in the last part the speaker is happy, trusting in God and expressing thankfulness to God (a cup half full).  There is no hint of any change made by God in response to the complaints or prayer of the speaker regarding the external situation of the speaker (and also no hint that the speaker changed external reality) – external reality remains the same.  The only change is internal on the part of the speaker – the internal experience and feelings of the speaker have changed in relation to external reality.  I want to suggest that in the course of the prayer the speaker changes his or her attitude and outlook toward external reality.  The Hebrew word prayer comes from a root “to judge”, and is a reflexive verb that one does to oneself – and thus the Hebrew word prayer literally means to judge oneself.  Prayer according to the literal Hebrew is not a time to wait with arms folded, as if by some magic, salvation will descend from Above; rather, prayer is a time of self-examination.  In Psalm 13 the prayer of the speaker is formulated as a request of God; however, in my view, this request should be understood metaphorically as an invitation to engage in self-examination.  In any case, though, even if we understand the prayer in a literal sense as a request of God, there is no hint that God changes external reality; the only change is internal on the part of the speaker in changing his or her attitude and outlook toward external reality.  Salvation is experienced by the speaker only after the speaker changes his or her attitude and outlook to one of trust and thankfulness.  People ordinarily think mistakenly (in my view) that first comes an act of salvation in response to which we feel thankful; but, Psalm 13 teaches that it is just the opposite, and we must first have an attitude of thankfulness in order to experience salvation.

There is a midrash (teaching) of the Talmudic rabbis, which is an elaboration upon the Biblical story of the great miracle of the crossing of the sea.  According to the midrash, when the Israelites arrived at the sea, even after the waters parted, the Israelites were complaining and angry because of the mud.  The midrash is making clear the same message of Psalm 13 that in order to experience a miracle or salvation one must first already have a positive attitude of thankfulness, and not a negative one of complaint.  According to the midrash, the Israelites do not experience a miracle or salvation but only a problem of mud.  The cause of the anger of the Israelites is not mud but their negative attitude of complaint.  The mud that the Israelites see is a fact and reality; there is mud in life, and this is a reality.  However, mud as a part of external reality is merely an influence upon us and does not determine our internal experience and feelings; rather, our attitude and outlook toward mud and toward external reality determines our internal experience and feelings.  If we view mud as bad and a problem (making us dirty), we will experience negative feelings such as anger and upset; conversely, if we view mud not necessarily as good but as at least not so terrible (we can wash ourselves of the mud) we will be able to minimize if not eliminate negative feelings such as anger and upset.

Mud exists in external reality – and, we have a question as to whether mud is desired reality or unwanted reality.  Pigs perhaps experience mud as desired reality; and, there are little children (maybe not all children but at least some children) who experience mud as desired reality (as fun), and it doesn’t bother them to get dirty.  Most of us as adult human beings experience mud as unwanted reality, and thus in response to such an unwanted reality we will feel as a part of our animal nature negative feelings such as anger and upset in response to the mud.  The fundamental question is one of attitude toward such unwanted reality.  If the Israelites according to the midrash imagine a problem in response to the mud out of an attitude of complaint, then they will indeed experience a problem to cross through the mud to escape to freedom; and, they will significantly increase their animal feelings of anger and upset in response to mud preventing them from experiencing salvation even should they overcome the problem and escape to freedom.  If, instead, they imagine a wonderful opportunity out of an attitude of thankfulness in response to the mud, then they will experience no problem in crossing through the mud to escape to freedom; and, they will significantly reduce their animal feelings of anger and upset in response to the mud allowing them to experience salvation.  I have consciously and purposely used the term imagine here in regard to these two possibilities of opportunity (cup half full) and problem (cup half empty) – as problems and opportunities do not exist in external reality, and are a matter of imagination (thinking).  Mud exists in external reality, and even if we experience mud as an unwanted reality, we nevertheless have the power as human beings to decide how we will view such unwanted reality and what our attitude will be regarding external reality – we have the power to decide whether we will imagine a wonderful opportunity (thankfulness) or a terrible problem (complaint).

People think mistakenly (in my eyes) that happiness is a response to events and situations in external reality – we experience an event or situation as good (desired reality), and then in response we feel happiness as if our happiness is a response to the event or situation rather than to our interpretation of the event or situation.  In response to desired reality we will feel joy (the same joy that a dog will experience in relation to desired reality) only if our attitude toward that reality is a positive one of thankfulness, and not complaint.  By contrast, in response to unwanted reality, if we as human beings have a positive attitude of thankfulness rather than complaint, then we will experience happiness (fulfillment as opposed to joy in an animal sense) even in relation to unwanted reality and even while at the same time experiencing negative feelings on an animal level such as fear, sadness or anger (and a dog is incapable of experiencing such happiness).  Our happiness as human beings is a direct response not to events or situations in external reality but to our interpretation of, and attitude toward, those events and situations.

People speak of finding or pursuing happiness as if happiness is something external to us hiding under some unturned stone.  Yet, happiness is not something external to us but an internal attitude and outlook toward life in which we view events and situations in external reality (especially unwanted reality) in a positive and favorable light as opportunities (a cup half full) and not problems (a cup half empty).  Incidentally, in traditional Judaism we make blessings on a constant basis, and our traditional prayers are filled with blessings – we make blessings connected to food and eating, we make blessings upon seeing wonderful sights, and we even make a blessing upon going to the bathroom (expressing thankfulness for our bodies that are viewed not as sinful as in Christianity but as a gift of God).  I want to suggest that the reason for so many blessings is in order to help us shift our attitude from one of complaint in which we perceive curses and problems to one of appreciation and thankfulness in which we perceive blessings and opportunities.  The terms Jew and Judaism come from a root in Hebrew (הודיה) meaning thankfulness.

 

Two conceptions of positive thinking that must be distinguished

 

I want to distinguish between two conceptions of positive thinking.  First, there is a popular and unscientific view that is a distortion of the Freudian concept of unconscious thoughts and feelings.  According to this popular view, if we develop positive thoughts on an unconscious level, then these thoughts will cause good things to happen to us in external reality, such as concerning health and livelihood.  Such a view is at best speculation whether unconscious thoughts directly influence external reality, and it is impossible to bring any evidence either to demonstrate or refute such a claim.  Such a popular view is a distortion of the Freudian conception according to which unconscious thoughts and feelings are a cause only of our behavior as human beings, and unconscious thoughts are not a direct influence upon external reality.  Second, there is the view of humanistic (cognitive) psychology that I have presented – according to which our internal experience and feelings are the result of our thoughts, and if we develop positive thoughts we will in turn feel positive feelings or at least minimize bad feelings.  Positive thinking in this sense will not directly influence external reality but only at best indirectly – if one’s attitude and outlook is positive we are much more likely to experience greater health physically and emotionally, and we may increase our chances of succeeding in terms of livelihood as well (yet, there are nevertheless things that happen in external reality beyond our control).

 

Positive thinking and eastern mysticism

 

I also want to distinguish the concept of positive thinking as I have presented it (according to the principle of humanistic and cognitive psychology that our feelings come from thoughts) from a widespread approach of living in the here and now, which is an influence of eastern mystical religions of India and China.  There are those who on the basis of such an eastern mystical approach advocate that we should live for the moment in the here and now free of judgment and evaluation.  I am not sure that it is really possible for us to live in the here and now as the present is fleeting – the moment that we become aware of the present moment, it is already past.  Incidentally, Hebrew has no verb to be in the present tense.  In Hebrew, I can say in the past I was here, in the future I will be here, but in the present tense if I want to say I am here the formulation is without the verb to be (am) and would literally mean “I here”.  Thus, Hebrew grammar and the Hebrew language seem to reflect a philosophic view that we actually cannot be in the present or present moment.

What characterizes eastern mysticism is that mystics conceive of a personal, subjective experience of enlightenment as the essence of religion – in distinction to the Biblical conception of religion in which the essence of religion is conceived as good deeds (especially in a moral sense) as in the verse from the Book of Deuteronomy (6, 18) “And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”.  Eastern mystics who claim to achieve enlightenment experience not only a deep sense of happiness (often times in spite of surrounding poverty and degradation) but also many mystics claim to attain an experience of living in the here and now and experiencing the here and now free of judgment and evaluation.  Furthermore, widespread among mystics is a view that due to the very personal and subjective nature of a mystical experience, such an experience of enlightenment cannot be described in words or language.

In my view, there are several problems with such eastern mystical approaches and conceptions.  First, how can mystical teachers claiming to have attained enlightenment presume to teach others how to attain enlightenment, and especially how can they write books presuming to teach how to attain enlightenment or how to live in the here and now (and there are many such books that have been written by mystical teachers), when they acknowledge that they cannot describe the experience of enlightenment or living in the here and now in words and language?  In speaking about their alleged experience of enlightenment, such mystical teachers by their own acknowledgment are speaking about an alleged experience that not only cannot by described in words and language but cannot be verified in any way or by anyone else – and, this is as if they are speaking about unicorns.  Second, such mystical teachers in presuming to have attained enlightenment, which contains within it the word light, necessarily assume that those who have not attained enlightenment (who they presume to teach how to attain enlightenment) live in darkness or at best fog – and, this in my mind reflects an attitude of condescension and superiority.  I cannot resist pointing out that the spoken word mysticism as it is heard contains within it the word mist suggesting perhaps that mystics (though they seek enlightenment) may themselves also be living in mist and fog like the rest of us.  Third, and most important, I reject the notion of enlightenment characterized by experiencing the here and now free of judgment and evaluation as the essence of religion.  The most essential trait distinguishing human beings from all other animals is our ability to judge and evaluate not only true and false, but especially right and wrong and good and bad – and, thus, I identify with the Biblical conception of religion as moral character and moral action (“And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”).

There is a central idea of the Jewish tradition, which has deep roots in the Bible – the repair of the world.  Indeed, in my view, the concept of repair of the world is the central concept of Judaism even more than the concept of belief in God (and shortly it will become clear why I say this).  The concept of repair of the world is unique to Judaism, and especially distinguishes Judaism from eastern mystical religions.  The Biblical roots of the concept of repair of the world are in the opening account of the creation of the universe – and the idea of the repair of the world is in my eyes the most important message of the story.  After God creates the universe, God says “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31).  Strikingly, God does not proclaim that the world is perfect or even excellent but merely very good – meaning less than perfect, or imperfect in need of repair and improvement.  In the conclusion of the Biblical account of the creation of the universe, God says (Genesis 2, 3) “because on it (the 7th day) He ceased from all His work which God created to do” – God creates a world then that is imperfect in need of repair in which there is what to do for the human being created in the image of God (to repair and improve the world).  The human being created in the image of God is the only animal who has the power to take what is God given such as wheat and to transform it into something even better such as bread – and, the concept of the repair of the world implies a moral obligation not only to overcome hatred, injustice, violence and cruelty in the world but a moral obligation to use scientific knowledge and its practical application of technology in order to improve the quality of human life (such as overcoming poverty and disease).

Shortly before the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham has a Divine revelation in which God appears to him (Genesis 18, 1).  Suddenly Abraham sees three men, and he leaves the very presence of God in order to welcome them.  There is a remarkable midrash (teaching) in which the Talmudic rabbis learned from this that “greater is the welcoming of guests than receiving the presence of God”.  According to this midrash, faithful to the Biblical conception of good deeds (and not faith) as the essence of religion, good deeds takes precedence over a mystical experience of being in the very presence of God – and, it is on this basis that I claim, as I earlier said, that the concept of the repair of the world, as the greatest moral expression of good deeds that Judaism demands, is even a more central concept in Judaism than belief in God.  As far as I am aware no such moral obligation to repair and improve the world exists in eastern mystical religions.

Moreover, eastern mystics hold up as an ideal as the essence of religion an amoral experience of living in the here and now free of judgment and evaluation.  Let’s consider a case of social injustice – the wronging or injuring of another.  The mystic who lives in the here and now free of judgment and evaluation cannot judge the action of the wrongdoer as immoral – and, if the mystic were to judge the wrongdoing and injury done by the wrongdoer (which is now an act done in the past) as immoral the mystic would no longer be living in the here and now (in judging the past wrongdoing as immoral).  The mystic who is living in the here and now free of judgment and evaluation cannot judge in such a case that there is indeed a moral obligation imposed upon a wrongdoer to make redress.  If a wrongdoer has injured another should not the wrongdoer as a matter of moral obligation and responsibility be required to make redress – and pay for medical costs, loss of work, and other such damages as result of the injury that the wrongdoer inflicted?  The eastern mystic will in response to such social injustice live in the here and now free of judgment and evaluation experiencing a deep sense of happiness in spite of social injustice – but, is such happiness appropriate in the face of social injustice especially when others (who have not attained such a mystical experience of living in the here and now) suffer in the face of social injustice?  Do we not as human beings who in distinction to all other animals have the ability to judge right and wrong, good and bad have a moral obligation and responsibility to overcome social injustice?  In response to social injustice we will necessarily and justifiably (in my eyes) feel some anger or sadness.  In my eyes, such anger and sadness is appropriate and justified even if it means that I will experience less personal happiness.  I do not want to eliminate such anger or sadness that is a motivation or stimulus to act in overcoming social injustice – I want only to reduce my anger or sadness so that I can control my anger or sadness and be able to express my feelings in a responsible way.

Regarding helping professions in the field of psychology such as therapy, counseling and life coaching, I am opposed to a medical model using medical terminology (such as therapy, therapist, patient and treatment) that in my mind is condescending (in assuming that the therapist is healthy and the patient sick); I advocate a teaching model of counseling a client, as part of a learning process in which both the counselor-teacher and client-student (both with their own psychological difficulties) learn and grow together.  In my view, the goal of a counselor-teacher is not to teach how to attain a mystical experience of enlightenment but how we can more effectively deal with our feelings and psychological difficulties thereby at least reducing (and not necessarily eliminating) our emotional suffering.  Positive thinking, as I have presented it (according to the principle of humanistic and cognitive psychology that our feelings come from thoughts) allows us to develop more self-control over our feelings – and to reduce, if not eliminate, negative feelings and needless emotional suffering.  Most important, not only do I not advocate seeking an amoral experience of living in the here and now free of judgment and evaluation, but in my view as a result of a counseling process a client should emerge with a more positive outlook – allowing for greater rational judgment and evaluation and less irrational judgment and evaluation, in addition to improved social relations with one’s fellow human beings.  By the way, the term judgmental is often used in a negative sense as if being judgmental is something bad and to be avoided.  However, in my view, being judgmental is our nature as human beings separating us from all other animals who do not have the ability to judge true and false, good and bad, right and wrong.  Being judgmental is only negative in my eyes when our judgment is negative in viewing others or situations in a negative and unfavorable light, which will lead us to experience negative feelings and conflict; when our judgment, though, is positive in viewing others and situations in a positive and favorable light, then our feelings will be positive enabling us to experience better social relations with others.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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