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Psychology Today

by Rabbi Simon Jacobson


Library » Philosophy » Torah vs. Science | Subscribe | What is RSS?


It is commonly accepted that the age of modern psychology began at the end of the 19th century. The way we understand ourselves today is very much defined by the thinking of William James, then Sigmund Freud, who some call the Father of Psychology, followed by Carl Jung, BF Skinner and other great psychologists of the 20th century.

I would like to submit that the Father of Psychology is actually a man who lived a century earlier, and has yet to be recognized as the true pioneer of modern psychology.

That man was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), and he offered the most sophisticated and comprehensive view to date on the nature of the human psyche and its struggles.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s (also known as the Alter Rebbe) immense contribution can be appreciated by contrasting it with the prevalent view on the psyche.

The big issue facing psychology is of course the human struggle between our conflicting drives. On the lowest end of the spectrum is our selfish need to survive and experience pleasure. On the next rung, our practical need to co-exist, to love and be loved and live productive lives. Then we have our ethical values and our conscience. And finally, our higher, spiritual and transcendental dimensions.

Human anxiety is a result of our conflicting voices. How we treat and mistreat others is determined by which force controls our behavior. Vulnerable and impressionable children, of course, are the first to suffer the consequences and are hurt the deepest by our clashing drives colliding with each other. And we all begin our lives as children. Then, these children grow up and have to pick up the pieces, try to heal from their wounds and rebuild their lives.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s immense contribution can be appreciated by contrasting it with the prevalent view on the psyche
The rest is history – your history and mine, the history of every person alive today struggling with the disparate forces that shape our personalities and define our life choices. A vicious cycle indeed.

Plaguing thinkers from the beginning of time is the million-dollar question: Who is the real you? Or more precisely: Which of our drives is the most powerful one? Which is most dominant?

The prevalent theory – which can be coined the Darwinian-Freudian model – argues that the most powerful and most basic human drive is selfish survival.

Humans are fundamentally no different than other creatures, and indeed have evolved from the same ancestors. According to Darwin's theory of Natural Selection, variation within species occurs randomly and the survival or extinction of each organism is determined by that organism's ability to adapt to its environment. Another name Darwin (1809-1882) gave Natural Selection was "the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."

Darwin did not speak in psychological terms. Indeed, he avoided applying his theory to the social and religious arena. It was apparently British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who first used the term "survival of the fittest" as a central tenet of what became known as "Social Darwinism." He applied (or some say misapplied) Darwin's idea of natural selection to justify European domination and colonization of much of the rest of the world. Social Darwinism was also widely used to defend the unequal distribution of wealth and power in Europe and North America at the time. Poor and politically powerless people were thought to have been failures in the natural competition for survival. Subsequently, helping them was seen as a waste of time and counter to nature. Rich and powerful people did not need to feel ashamed of their advantages because their success was proof that they were the most fit in this competition.

In the psychological realm, Freud (1856-1939) posited that the most basic of all human instincts is the "Id," the primal, unconscious source for satisfying all mans' basic needs and feelings. It has only one rule: The "pleasure principle:" "I want it and I want it all now." The id wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the reality of the situation or the good of others.


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Posted by: yo on Dec 11, 2006

why take it all from rav shneur zalman?

why not from the baal shem tov who was father of all the rebbes?!

Editor's Comment

The Chassidism of the Baal Shem Tov primarily focused on an 'emotional' involvement in the worship of G-d. Rabbi Shneur Zalman introduced to Chassidism a method of 'intellectually' and 'psychologically' engaging G-d.


Philosophy » Soul
Chassidism » Chassidic Perspective

A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
The 6th month on the Jewish calendar, normally corresponding to August-September. This is the month which precedes Tishrei, the month of the High Holidays, and is a month of introspection and repentance.
One of the 24 books of the Bible. This book of wise sayings was authored by King Solomon.