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God on the Couch

Finding room to talk about the divine in psychotherapy

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
March 04, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Not long ago, a colleague referred a woman to me who asked my help as a psychotherapist to cure her husband. “He is not well, and he makes my life miserable,” she said. “Half of the time he is sad and depressed, the other half he is angry and bitter. I cannot bear the man I married. He is awful. He is incapable of giving me pleasure. He is incapable of giving me anything at all. My days end in a bed of tears. Yet I stay with him. I have no idea why.”

She urged me to take him on as a patient.

“But I need to speak to you, too,” she added, “because I suffer so much because of his illness. You must see us both.”

Soon, I was suffering, too. Their marriage was saturated with legitimate grievances that brought me to despair of the healing powers of my profession. What’s more, my sessions with her were interspersed with accusations against me. You don’t believe me. I am in agony and you are indifferent. You have got to do something. I pay you to make things better. Yet you do nothing.

Psychotherapy is an honorable and even noble craft, and I have been privileged to do this work. Yet psychotherapy is made of hard stuff. Even though it is most often done sitting in a comfortable place with two people talking (or one talking and the other listening), a rigid, insoluble substance often develops: A position is dug. Vocabulary becomes entrenched. An impasse—sometimes a cold war—can develop between therapist and patient. It is not uncommon that a rigor mortis sets in. One feels as though one were imprisoned in a morgue. The soul is under siege—maybe two souls.

That’s what happened with this particular patient:

“Can you help me learn more about the texture of your marriage?” I asked her. “Can you give me the details, the blow-by-blow? What kind of words are exchanged when you get up in the morning?”

“That’s a stupid question! It doesn’t matter what I say or what he says. He tortures me. He finds a way. If I say, ‘Nice tie,’ he will find a way to say you are only saying that because you feel sorry for me.”

“What do you say in return?” I asked.

“Don’t you understand? I am not the problem. The dialogue is not the problem. He is the problem. You should explain to him that he is the problem and that this predates our relationship. He needs help.”

Truth was, I needed help.

I consulted with my psychoanalytic supervisor, the psychoanalyst/mystic Michael Eigen.

“I’m not helping her,” I told him.

He made a face. “So what else is new?”

“But she complains nonstop—she accuses ...”

“Nu?” he said. “Why hasn’t she found God?”

“God?” I wondered. Wasn’t psychoanalysis supposed to be a ritual without God?

Psychoanalysis, the now famous method of treatment, was founded more than 100 years ago, by a militantly atheistic Jew from Vienna, Sigmund Freud. Freud had a deep distrust of all things religious. He was certain that belief in God was a relic—in his words, “a cultural neurosis,” a holdover from dark, unenlightened times.

I could imagine the withering scornful looks I would get from my patients if I brought up God unprompted with any of them. Were we going back to the old days, they might ask, when people sought shamanic, false verdicts from totemic gods? They would be damned if they were to place trust in an authority outside of their own convictions. Such a prescriptive way to “find God” might be considered a betrayal of them by me.

Eigen’s suggestion of course, was more like a nudge than a command. Its design was to make me think, to consider something: Psychoanalysis, if nothing else, is the science of surprise. For life and relationships to flourish, we must surprise one another.

Eigen’s own life was changed decades ago when as a younger man he met the famous analyst Wilfred Bion. The WWI tank commander-cum-psychoanalyst said to Eigen, “You are a Jewish man. Why don’t you study the Kabbalah?”

For life and relationships to flourish, we must surprise one another.

Fifty years later, the question is still a shocker in psychoanalytic circles because most of the early practitioners in the field were deracinated Jews who repudiated the doctrines and even mysticism of the “false” sentimental God of the shtetl. The God of the Jews was an embarrassment to a newly enlightened people of fin-de-siecle Vienna who had a new gift to bring to the world—a new way of living that did not enshrine God, but rather placed the “sacred” sovereign self at its center.

Consequently, psychoanalysis derived its power not from some enchanted, divine source, but rather from the telling and retelling of the story and major events of the patient’s early life. What was her mother like? What was her father like? What were the facts of her life? This was the trodden path, the tried-and-true in the talking cure.

Yet, as the Rebbe of Kotzk once quipped, di oysgetrottene veg is far ferd—the trodden path was made for horses. A person makes his own path. Such a remark might have been tailor-made for psychoanalysis. One enters analysis not knowing what may unfold. There is no textbook. In the course of conventional conversation—what were your parents like, what in this world makes you want to live—both therapist and patient stumble down blind alleys. In a good analysis, sacred cows are sometimes sacrificed. God, love, and death are put on the table for the taking—and leaving.

Even still, for all its potential freshness, the directive “Go find God”—or some variation my supervisor recommended—was far too coarse for the complexity and pain that most people experience. When there’s a surplus of pain and suffering, any “God” remark will likely be experienced as moralistic and offensive.

But a new understanding came to me in psychoanalysis—as always, by accident. A patient for whom I have great fondness lives a great life, without God. All kinds of success. But after many years of a good marriage, his wife took sick with a debilitating disease. His days are filled with caretaking. A Jew by culture, he nevertheless possesses no religion. He is a pragmatist to a fault, with a pragmatism that seals out God. A native of Brooklyn, he would say, “God and a subway token will get me on the D train.”

Time wore on. His beloved wife had become progressively senile. How loyal did he have to be to his marriage? Recently, an old flame from 30 years ago sent him a message. Nothing flirtatious, yet such an unexpected message, a missive from the clear blue sky sent him into musings about God, about the universe. About the force in human beings that make them desire to connect or disconnect. He went back and forth.

Finally, he concluded that God did not exist. Romance was romance. It had its own logic, as did loyalty. He was a loyal man; he also still had hungers. He was a human, devoid of God, but not sinful; a human being with a conflict, that’s all. “I suppose God is a possibility, but I land firmly on the side that there’s no God. In fact, I’m certain that there’s no God, absolutely certain.” Ironically, he pronounced this with rabbinic deliberateness and judgment.

But then he turned to me and asked, “But you, you’re not so sure?

“There’s an old saying that God is wherever you let him in.”

“You don’t think I let him in?”

“It’s worth considering as a possibility,” I told him.

The next session he told me the following tale: “My father threw God out of our house. How do I mean?” He proceeded to recount: “My father had attended synagogue as a child and on holidays the priests blessed the congregants during the service. According to lore, heavenly divine light shone through the priests’ hands. If you looked with the naked eye under their prayer shawls, it was said you would go blind. He looked and nothing happened. He looked again and again and nothing happened. He looked on Yom Kippur and all the festivals and nothing happened. Therefore, he told me with the greatest of confidence, ‘There is no God.’”

I wondered if psychoanalysis itself, in its earlier forms, pushed belief in God underground. This is a crucial question, because by the tenets of psychoanalysis, what’s repressed and suppressed will always return.

“So would you say that belief in God had been suppressed by your father when you were growing up?”

“Precisely. We were forbidden to believe. Belief was heresy. If I had any belief in God, I repressed it out of respect for my father.”

I wondered if psychoanalysis itself, in its earlier forms, pushed belief in God underground. This is a crucial question, because by the tenets of psychoanalysis, what’s repressed and suppressed will always return.

Yes, by the lights of Freud’s early writings, God had been banished by psychoanalysis. The Jews had thrown Him out, but in fact, it was the gentiles who gently schlepped God back into the treatment room. They were the psychoanalytic giants of yesteryear—most famously Fairbairn, Jung, Bion, and Winnicott. It was a loose gang of goyim who nudged people in a spiritual direction. For Jung and others, health seemed to exist in a middle ground—a “transitional space” in Winnicott’s words, where culture, spirituality, and religion were experienced. Perhaps no one was at the center, neither God nor the self; or maybe everyone was at the center, or they took turns at center stage like actors in a play.

Not so, however, for the Jews. Especially after the war, psychoanalysis—closely tied with the arts—was convinced that God, at least the Jewish God, had died, and if he hadn’t, he should be avoided like a crazy uncle or an out-of-touch old man.

Eigen’s question hovered over my sessions. Not just this man’s, but many others as well. Occasionally, some patients asked me about my own beliefs, but though I had grown up in a profoundly religious milieu and am a believing Jew, my God was not a suitable one for most of the people I worked with. He was far too specific, his demands too sharp and exacting. Instead, I would just reflect back to them: What kind of God were you given? What kind of God would you like to have?

Outside of a very few people like our forefather Abraham, no one has access to God except through other people. Living out a smooth flow between God, self, and other becomes more likely when God is mediated by the love of people and the love of people is mediated by some sense of godliness. If one is in a cruel zone, there is no access to God or people.

To my patient “stuck” in her marriage, the conversations did not budge.

“I don’t think I can cure him the way you want me to,” I told her. “His depression is characterological—but I might be able to help you.”

She did not seem interested.

“Should I help you leave him?” I ventured to ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Should I help you tolerate him better?”

“I don’t know.”

“Should I just listen and encourage you to be ambivalent for as long as needed?”

“I don’t know.”

Eigen has written comprehensively on the damaged bonds that both enslave and protect the patient. Someone who says “I don’t know” instead of “If I do this, I will feel this way” or “If I do that, this will be the impact” telegraphs that the underpinnings of her life, the pillars that support her personality, her desire and dreams for pleasure, are damaged. The personality is set against growth. Even dreaming of growth is prohibited.

At such times the patient needs the therapist to be an auxiliary dreamer. To subtly dream the dreams that the patient won’t dare to. Perhaps something like this:

“I don’t know about you, but I am able to dream of a life where you are not in pain, where the best of you is enjoyed, where you choose whom you want to love and be with.”

Therapy offers a potential bond to support the growth of dreams. In a healthy person, reality and fantasy are not enemies. They see things differently, but they can work together. In the ill person, the personality sees the dreamer and the dream as damagers. It is no accident that God appears to figures in the Bible, nearly always in a dream. To support a dream is to support a person to see more.

Perhaps in the case of the woman I presented to Eigen, she will one day feel enough love so that she can answer the God question for herself. It’s too early for her now. In her life, her will supplants her feelings, her will tyrannizes instead of liberates. She persecutes with self-commands: Do this, do that, make it better. God is the cruel conductor of the symphony of her fate. He put me in this position. I think Eigen was suggesting that she could only get out of herself by slowly going toward Him, or at least wondering about Him.

How does one dare to offer a “God” cure to a cankered soul? The hallmark of a good analysis is that proudly, we don’t attempt to persuade. Instead, we try to reflect what is real for people and make it stand for them in the here and now.

And yet, there is an unheard scream at the end of nearly every psychoanalytic session. Eigen suggests that is the scream of something—an essence that is elusive, something perhaps of the soul, a yearning for something that exceeds the material body. After all, we know too much, we live with the presentiment of the body with its frailty and built-in expiration date—we cannot live only in our bodies, we need a home. We know that our essence cannot reside in these frail bodies for too long; we must return somewhere to the dust and the ether that has not been reached or gotten to.

The Jewish sages have taught that at the time of death—when the soul separates from the body and goes to God—there is also a scream. By tradition, this sound of separation, soul from body, is one of the six sounds that reverberate around the universe but is not heard, except maybe sometimes: whisperings of God, a yearning for him, an awareness of him, maybe, just maybe in the treatment room—if we listen.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.