Letters / On “Therapy Was Never Secular”
hannah baer’s piece “Therapy Was Never Secular” embraces the re-enchantment thesis, which was developed in philosophy and religious studies using the work of the philosopher Charles Taylor, and which calls for a return to a spirituality that secular modernity has supposedly destroyed. This paradigm imagines “the secular”—a concept that is best understood as a strategy by which Protestant states manage religion—as an unproblematic opposite to “the religious,” and rests on the discredited idea that the secular came into being by way of a previous disenchantment, or a rationalization of all aspects of life. Instead of interrogating the terms of this binary, advocates of re-enchantment reverse the qualitative judgments bequeathed to them by modernity; now it’s the secular that is bad, and the spiritual that is good! Even under this thesis, religions remain too messy for the modern, liberal subject to fully embrace, so they get shorn of power and reduced to utilitarian “spiritual tools,” available for purchase and accessorization by whoever has the power to appropriate them. Jeff Bezos’s love of meditating is not a corruption of some pure “spirituality,” but a paradigmatic example of what being “spiritual but not religious” entails. baer’s desire to excavate the wisdom of Judaism from psychoanalysis in order to use it therapeutically is in danger of falling into this trap. Psychoanalysis, like science itself, has religious roots, but that fact is not necessarily an indicator of liberatory potential. There is little that is practically objectionable in baer’s call for the reform of therapy, but her reliance on the mistaken frameworks of the secular and the spiritual has unfortunate consequences.
As a new therapist who is Jewish and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I found “Therapy Was Never Secular” to be the piece I didn’t know I needed. Like the students hannah baer describes, I was likely first drawn to the mental health field in an attempt to better understand incomprehensible loss and intergenerational trauma—in other words, to understand my family and myself. baer put into words things I didn’t realize I’d been considering, such as the inherent spirituality I feel in my clinical work. While I see that cognitive-behavioral treatments provide relief for many people, I also notice ineffable sacredness, subtlety, magic, and mystery during moments in therapy when I believe the therapeutic relationship itself—in all its pure, mindful presence and psychodynamic imagination—is functioning as the vehicle for healing. When the session ends, I make notes to convey which “medically necessary” interventions I used, sensing a quiet space between what I did and what I can bill insurance for—and I wonder what, if anything, that space means. This piece helped me reflect on all of that in a new way.
hannah baer’s article “Therapy Was Never Secular” cogently calls on psychotherapists to more deeply engage the “sacredness” of their work, insightfully drawing attention to the repressed influence of Jewish mysticism on the emergence of psychoanalysis. One way to bridge the gap baer so poignantly exposes is through the work of Fischl Schneersohn (1888–1958). A scion of Chabad’s dynasty of Hasidic rabbis, he studied medicine at the University of Berlin and carved out a liminal career as a psychologist and novelist who wrote mainly in Yiddish and always kept one foot in the Hasidic world. His most important psychological work, Der ṿeg tsum menṭsh, appeared in English translation as Studies in Psycho-Expedition in 1929.
Rather than reducing psychoanalytic explanation to questions of sexuality (following Sigmund Freud) or inferiority (following Alfred Adler), Schneersohn argued that art and religion provided the keys to the “hidden” and “extraordinary” depths of the human soul. “Artistic intuition,” he wrote, “grasps man in his totality and infinite multiformity.” He termed this sense of all-encompassing intuition “spherical soul-life,” and concluded that psychical pathologies develop when a person’s “spherical quotient” goes unmet. In the spherical state, “the personality becomes free, unhampered, not premeditated, intuitive, and non-rational,” and hence is revealed in its “unrestricted genuineness and pristine integrity.” Elsewhere, he expressed the idea in a more mystical vein: “To become merged in a thing and to resurrect, is the open mystery of all creation, the dialectic aspect of the integral intimate-spherical life of the soul.” He also noted “the spherical impetus inherent in the communal life”—a focus shared by baer’s article.
Although Schneersohn pointed to antecedents for his terminology in psychological literature, it seems quite likely that he derived his concept from the Kabbalistic notion of “spherical” divinity (“or hasovev”) that is emphasized in the Chabad tradition he inherited. His exhortation “to become merged in a thing and to resurrect” echoes the practice—twice daily, in the recitation of the Shema—of merging oneself in the all-encompassing transcendence of divine being. This point deserves more elaboration, but I raise it here as a potent example of what might be gained if we take up baer’s challenge to honor the occluded religious roots of therapeutic practice.