A ‘Special Conversation’: Freud, the Maharal of Prague and Shabbos

Birthright was in Bayit Vegan a number of weeks ago. We were lucky to have two guests for lunch who–like most of the participants–had never been to Israel.

As we were finishing our meal, Steve (one of the guests) asked ‘so what are you guys going to do for the rest of the day?’ I realized that it wasn’t a question about our shabbos itinerary, but rather: ‘are you guys really going to sit at home and do nothing all day?’ In the end, I gave a list of coming attractions: more food (which he found hard to believe), chavrusas (learning partners), a walk around the neighborhood, maybe a visit to family friends. But the unstated question got me thinking back to our first days of shabbos observance. My wife and I lived on 119th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and though there was a Jewish community life–which centered around the Old Broadway Synagogue on 125th Street–we didn’t then have the network of family and friends we do now. The first year we were shabbos observant, the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, fell on Thursday and Friday–which, followed by shabbos, turned into a three-day holiday. Ernie Banks, the old Chicago Cubs shortstop used to say, out of his love for baseball, ‘let’s play two!’ That year, it was as if G-d were saying to us, ‘let’s play three!’; and we just weren’t ready. Refraining from work seemed merely a pointless non-activity, as Steve’s question implied: ‘just sitting around and doing nothing.’

After shabbos, while mulling over Steve’s question, I was reading Jonathan Lear’s great book on Freud. Searching for a metaphor to describe what he does as an analyst, Lear turns to shabbos: the psychoanalytical encounter, he writes, is like ‘an existential Sabbath.’ This wasn’t so much an Oprah ‘aha!’ moment, but more like a Freudian ‘uncanny’ moment–the experience of the unexpected connectedness between things. Lear turns to shabbos to describe the development of the psyche; but, I thought about going in the other direction: looking to psychoanalysis as a mashal–a metaphor–for shabbos. In a metaphor, Aristotle writes, the ‘unknown or half-known is described and clarified through recourse to what is better known.’ With Tony Soprano in therapy, psychoanalysis, I thought, may help to understand shabbos.

Neurotics (everybody has a friend or relative in this chategory, no?) have a tendency to repeat their behavior. Freud once overheard his father saying of him: ‘the boy will never amount to anything!’; the master of the pscyhe repeated this in psycho-dramas played out through the rest of his life. In Freud’s repetitious behavior, he broke off relationships with colleagues, collaborators, patients and friends, as if to say to them: ‘it’s not me, but you that has not amounted to anything.’ But we don’t need to turn to Freud for examples: we’ve all had the feeling–at least once–that a friend or relative isn’t reacting to what we’ve said or done, but instead relating to us through the lens of another relationship. To which we may respond, ‘hey, I’m not your mother!’ Without being aware of the unresolved tensions that motivate him, the neurotic lives in a world of fantasy, endlessly playing out the same drama.

The ‘sabbath’ of the psychoanalytic session, Lear writes, ‘allows a person to take an hour’s rest from normal life’ in order ‘to experience an interpretive breakdown’–thus allowing for a ‘special conversation.’ Here it seems that any comparisons between shabbos and psychoanalysis should have been put aside. Imagine me saying: ‘you see Steve, the reason we keep shabbos is so that we can have an interpretive breakdown.’ I’m sure that would have done the trick!

But in its way, shabbos does involve its own form of ‘interpretive breakdown’–where refraining from day to day activities, and the habits of mind which accompany them, opens up a space for a ‘new conversation.’ Shabbos cultivates an awareness that the mindset that governs our week, especially our certainty that we are in absolute control over our destinies, is in fact just a fantasy.

The Torah recounts the giving of the ten commandments twice–once in Exodus, and then in Deuteronomy. One of the differences in these separate accounts appears in the fourth commandment: the Exodus version reads: ‘Remember the Sabbath Day’; while the version in Deuteronomy reads ‘Keep the Sabbath day.’ The discrepancy does not cause the Sages to start an Institute for Biblical Criticism, but instead, they explain that the divine utterance included both remember–זכור–and keep–שמור: though there was one utterance, both were expressed. The Maharal explains that though remembering shabbos (zachor) comes first, ‘keeping’ (shamor) is of greater importance. Shamor means refraining from weekday activities; zachor is an active rememberance through, as the Maharal emphasizes, a verbal proclamation (בפה). But without shamor, refraining from labor, the zachor has no effect. It simply get drowned out. You can’t, the Maharal explains, get in the car, drive to the beach, stop off for gas, go to the MacDonald’s at the rest stop, and then take out your kiddush cup to proclaim the holiness of the day. For the rememberance of shabbos to be heard, one has to refrain from weekday activities. [Editors note: there was no beach in Prague; it’s just a metaphor].

The more one repeats, Freud writes, the less one remembers. In his psychological milieu, Freud meant that the more one repeats the same psychodramas, the less one remembers oneself. So with shabbos: one refrains from the endless repetitions of weekday activities to remember that on the seventh day of Creation, G-d rested from his activities. But in remembering G-d, I’m also remembering my origins, and thus remembering what Freud called the psyche, or what we call the neshama, my true self. Once I remember myself, not the self running endlessly between urgent appointments, repeating the same habitual actions with the accompanying habitual thoughts, but the self at rest, then there’s the possibility of that ‘special conversation.’

Shabbos, the kabbalists tell us, is not only a day of rest, but a day of דיבור or speech. Because we rest, and remember ourselves outside of the endless dramas of the weekday world in which we knowingly (or not) are too involved, we have the capacity for a new kind of speech. The proclamation of the holiness of the sabbath day, made possible by refraining and resting, is part of that new and special conversation–with G-d, our families, and ourselves.

Originally posted here at Open Minded Torah.

3 comments on “A ‘Special Conversation’: Freud, the Maharal of Prague and Shabbos

  1. I don’t know if it’s a matter of self-forgetting, it may be a different kind of remembering, the remembering of an authentic self, and an authentic voice in conversation with G-d… I think it’s a common Western conception, that focusing on Hashem means the loss of self, but it may actually mean a form of self-discovery–a new self discovered in relation to G-d…

  2. Interesting. . .

    >The more one repeats, Freud writes, the less one remembers<

    you could use this metaphor in this state as well (instead of flipping it to remembering):

    the more one keeps Shabbos and focuses on the day and its significance, the less one remembers himself – and focuses on Hashem. This is bitul, is it not?

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