Richard Gomberg, MD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. His below remarks originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.
Most of us have the experience of reading formative psychoanalytic writers from any era, and recognizing something true, immediate, and contemporary in their ideas. What a pleasure it is to read a paper that helps us understand a patient in a new way and shows us how to intervene, facilitating growth and change. But then, sometimes in the same paper, we may be hurt or disappointed by reading something that is deeply offensive and based on prejudice. Sometimes the objectionable concept is claimed to be central to the writer’s theory. How can we best think about this?
I have found that importing an approach from another tradition, Reconstructionist Judaism, has helped me make sense of my relationship to the psychoanalytic literature. I came to this approach reluctantly. I am a committed atheist from a culturally Jewish family that actively rejected formal affiliation with any religious community. When my wife, Diana, wanted to join a synagogue 20 years ago, I grudgingly went along, primarily as a way to maintain marital harmony. Diana and I visited a number of local temples to see what they were like and to see whether I could tolerate any of them (and whether they could tolerate me!). Diana was committed to joining a community that would not discriminate against gay or intermarried couples (in my naivete and distance from organized religion, I didn’t even know this was an issue). We found a Reconstructionist synagogue which clearly was tolerant in ways that worked for both of us. I had never heard of Reconstructionism, as is probably true for many of you reading this. Reconstructionism has many important qualities and attitudes that help define it, but I believe that one of its central approaches, expressed in the name of the movement, is helpful to me as I try to think about my relationship to psychoanalysis.
Reconstructionism believes that Judaism’s teachings are of deep value, even if they are not divine revelation. The rituals and texts embody important lessons. Every generation can benefit by deeply and respectfully engaging with the foundational texts and customs, with the expectation that these traditions are attempting to communicate some wisdom. But at the same time, there is not a blind devotion to believing the texts literally, and there is no expectation of fealty to them. Instead, there is an active attempt to understand what is of value in this belief system: What does it attempt to explain? In what ways might it be useful? If something seems wrong or misguided, can we try to understand why it seemed right at one time? Then we can make our own judgment about whether to reject it or “reconstruct” it. There is an ongoing need to make traditions relevant to us in the modern age. This leads to a flexibility in how rituals are followed. The “letter of the law” is not viewed as crucial, but we strive to maintain the spirit of the tradition. At times, concepts which were once considered to be vitally important (Jews as “the chosen people,” or rules about the role of women) can be completely rejected without undermining the richness or recognizability of the religion. Other ideas can be integrated into a modern practice in a way that values but updates them. For example, one day a week may be set aside for rest, relaxation, self-reflection, or some other practice, but many of the rules about Shabbat can be put aside as not facilitating their original purpose. Thus, we are constantly reconstructing our theory and our practice.
Psychoanalysis is not a religion, but I have come to believe that these attitudes from Reconstructionism apply to psychoanalysis and clarify how I approach both our foundational texts and our clinical traditions. Every psychoanalytic writer, from Freud to the present, is struggling to share something important that they have learned in their work. Great psychoanalytic thinkers attempt to convey ideas that helped them to successfully treat their patients. They are trying to communicate something of value in their writing. It is imperative for us to take them seriously, to try to understand them in their own terms, and to discover what they have learned. At the same time, they should not be taken as an eternal truth. Their theories need to be engaged with, and we must always take what is of value in them and “reconstruct” it to make it relevant for our current psychoanalytic world. Some parts of their writing, sometimes even concepts that they believed were central to their approach, may not have stood the test of time. But before we discard them completely, it is important for us to make sure we deeply understand why they thought they were worthwhile, and make sure we can address their concerns in some other way. Once that work is done, we may reject some ideas, or “reconstruct” them in a new way, ever striving to improve our theories and technique.
I think this attitude is especially important to our community at present. Right now, maybe partly in reaction to the age of Trump, I experience psychoanalysis both at BPSI and nationally, as deeply searching and reflecting, particularly re-evaluating issues around diversity and inclusion. Issues of race, gender, and sexuality seemed to be especially hot topics at the APsaA Winter Meetings in February. And these topics and others are currently being wrestled with at all levels of BPSI. Some of our foundational texts have content that is clearly offensive to many of us from a contemporary perspective. And yet, at the same time, these writings may have immense value and a great deal to teach us. These psychoanalytic traditions are not only of historical interest, and are not only important as a helpful background to understanding supposedly more correct current theories. The texts demand our respect, our engagement with them, and an authentic attempt to understand what they are teaching us. But then, as a community and individually, we need to reconstruct the ideas into our own psychoanalysis. We must blend the traditions with new concepts and new information, sometimes rejecting parts, to ensure that psychoanalysis can continue to evolve and grow, while not losing what is best from its past. Reconstructionism sees Judaism as a civilization that each generation must actively engage with in order to produce new ideas and contribute to its ongoing evolution. We should expect no less from psychoanalysis.
This is why I now see myself as a Reconstructionist Psychoanalyst.
Richard Gomberg, MD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Dr. Gomberg has a private practice in
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