Tag Archives: freud

B’ha’alotcha: On Ritual, Religion, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Freud did not have our sedra specifically in mind when he wrote his treatises on religion. He would have pointed to its demand that the Passover sacrifice be done “in accordance with all its rules and rites” as evidence of his claim that religion is a caricature of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

To be sure, it is a ritual; and the very nature of ritual is that it must be done “just right.” But that was, of course, Freud’s very point.

Still, Freud was not altogether objective in his critique. Lots of things, not just religion, are done “just right,” including Freud’s own writings which follow very strict canons of scientific research and argument. In the government of Freud’s Vienna, everything followed exact bureaucratic specification. And if Freud had consulted his own physician, lawyer, or accountant, he would have noticed all due attention being paid to detail.

As to ritual, whatever academic conferences Freud attended were nothing, if not ritually determined as to such things as who gave papers to whom; and who responded and how. Indeed, the psychoanalytic method has itself been described as a highly ritualized process. It was not, therefore, ritual that Freud found objectionable so much as it was religion, which he had rejected long before he applied his psychological theory to it. Freud’s commitment to scientific secularism had no room for religion, and as time went on, Freud developed theories that justified his objections.

But Freud was a genius and a doggedly accurate observer of human behavior; he was not, therefore, altogether wrong. Sometimes religious ritual does approximate obsessive-compulsive disorder. An example is the way some medieval Jews interpreted the phrase, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.” The 11th-century rabbi, Joseph Tov Elem (or Bonfils, his French surname), incorporated the line into a pre-Passover synagogue poem that highlighted the importance of attending to every detail of Passover preparation. One verse of that larger composition still concludes our Haggadah: “The Passover celebration has concluded appropriately,” we say, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.”

Bonfils had internalized an attitude that pervaded Christian circles in his day: the idea that religious rites (like baptism and Eucharist) achieve their intended impact as an automatic consequence of punctilious attention to detail. By contrast, skipping a single step or doing anything out of order renders the ritual null and void, so at roughly the same time that Bonfils was writing his poem, other rabbis were developing mnemonics to guide Seder leaders in doing everything “just right.” We still have one such mnemonic today: Kadesh urchatz, by Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise. We chant it as the Seder begins just to anticipate what follows, but originally, it was used to guarantee that the Seder not be rendered worthless on account of an error in order.

In its time, this was indeed an obsessive-compulsive attitude, but it is not typical of the mainstream Jewish approach to ritual over the years. Even “in accordance with all its rules and rites” was interpreted to mean more than an obsessive concern for sacrificial detail. Both Rashi and Ramban, for example, think it also entails linking the ritual acts of the Passover sacrifice to the non-ritual aspects of the Passover message — eating unleavened bread, for instance, as a recollection of the haste with which Jews departed Egypt so long ago. Elsewhere, too, the impact of halachic action is not normally believed to follow magically as a consequence of doing it flawlessly.

Of course we perform our rituals “properly.” Otherwise they would not be rituals. But everything that matters deeply to us gets done that way: arranging an anniversary evening, perfecting a golf swing, posing for an important photograph, creating a beautiful dinner: these are all examples of making sure that details do not get overlooked. Far from being obsessive-compulsive behavior, these are instances of artistic enterprise.

The lesson of it all — from the biblical Passover sacrifice to the Seder of today, and every other ritual we have as well — is that human beings have an artistic impulse at our very core. We describe God’s original act of creation as artistry; and we have been partners with God ever after. We love harmonized melodies, complementary color schemes, matching clothes, flowing language, and even coincidences that suggest patterns behind pure randomness. We should conclude (contra Freud) that while people can use ritual to further their own obsessive-compulsive needs, most of us appreciate it for its artistry — the means to express ourselves through what is graceful, elegant, beautiful, and profound.

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The Bible Is Fiction

I once remarked that some of Freud’s work should be filed under F, for Fiction. “Oh,” replied my hearer, “One of my professors does that with the Bible.”

I was wrong and the Bible professor was right – but for an unobvious reason, a reason with deep consequences for the life of the spirit.

Properly speaking, fiction is a judgment we make about literature, not about truth.  “There are plenty of factually true statements in almost all works of fiction,” says Terry Eagleton (The Event of Literature), “but it is how they function strategically or rhetorically that counts.” If I start by saying “Once upon a time,” I invite you into an exercise in fictionalizing, even if what I say next is altogether fact. “Once upon a time, there was a president named Nixon, and he was almost impeached.” All true! But nonetheless, you wonder, “What’s your point? What moral are you pointing to by making it a ‘once upon a time’ statement?”

“Once upon a time” (like fiction in general) goes beyond concerns for the truth or falsity of what really happened. Fiction is like drama, where the historical accuracy behind, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III is not the issue. Richard wasn’t as bad as Shakespeare portrayed him, but so what? Shakespeare’s point is moral, not historical – moral in the sense of providing a lesson about the human condition. Both fiction and drama are presentational modes of communication. They are works of art. They have a presentational point to make.

By contrast, Freud’s Totem and Taboo is not presentational. It is written rather well, even artfully, in places, but its artistry is beside the point, whereas the artfulness of fiction is not. However well Freud wrote it, Totem and Taboo is an altogether specious account of the way ritual developed historically. Freud meant it as science, and its problem, therefore, is that it is bad science, not that it is fiction.

The Bible, however, is fiction, because, overall, its authors meant it as presentation, not as science, or even as history, which is a form of science with its own scientific rules of evidence. Sometimes they accepted the truth of the stories they used, but sometimes, they did not — Job and Esther describe personalities who never lived, and the authors knew it. Some of it reports historical fact, of course: there was a King David, as there was a Babylonian invasion. There was also a prophet named Isaiah, but his prophecies were included in the Bible to give us lessons of morality not of history. The same is true of Genesis through Deuteronomy, Kings, Judges and all the other books, some of whose characters really lived and some of whom didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Fiction can be chock-full of characters who really lived, with a story line of things they really did – and still be fiction.

“Fiction,”  says Eagleton, “is a question of how texts behave and of how we treat them.” The question is what we are invited to do with the biblical text.

Until relatively recently (the invention of printing) The Bible was read and studied, usually out loud, for the moral lessons within it. But then came printing, along with reading as a personal pastime and fiction as what people liked best to read. Fiction was falsely viewed as private entertainment about nothing substantive, hardly the moral equivalent of history, philosophy and science, which were public truths.

The Bible now seemed fictitious because it wasn’t “true” in the way that history, philosophy and science are. Supporters of the Bible bristled at this claim because fiction was considered paltry, hardly what you would stake your life on. The Bible is history, these defenders insisted, fact not fiction.

But that judgment misses the point. Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because of the reason it was compiled, the reason we insist on reading it, and its presentational nature as a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart. If you want to know such things as the point of existence, the meaning of life, and the ways humankind has gone right and wrong, you cannot do a whole lot better than start with fiction: the fiction that is the Bible.