Big Think Interview With Niles Goldstein
Niles is the author or editor of nine books, including the award-winning Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Forward, and Moment. He has been featured and interviewed in Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, The New York Observer, New York Magazine, The Jewish Week, and Beliefnet, as well as on domestic and international television and radio.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: What’s been really interesting for me in my 15 years of practice in the martial arts and my 15 years of being a Rabbi is the incredible number of similarities. I guess if you wanted to look at some of the core similarities, one would be the obvious, discipline and commitment. You know, in religious language we sometimes talk about devotion, but you can be devoted to other things as well. So, for me, I’ve been devoted to the martial arts and Karate specifically for pretty much the same time that I’ve been ordained. I would say that repetition is incredibly important in both, whether it’s organized religion and ritual, or it is in training, martial arts training.
I would say a more abstract idea that I think is probably is the most important is the idea of openness. The idea that paradoxically, the more open you become, which can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable, the more powerful you become. And it’s something that takes a long time to master in the martial arts, but I think as we go along in the human journey, it has great application as well. And I know from personal experience, as well as from preaching from the pulpit, that sometimes when you become most vulnerable, you paradoxically also reach your fullest potential.
On one level I’m talking about humility. A kind of openness, meaning you become an empty vessel and realize that there is a tremendous amount that you have to learn. So, it takes a while before you get your black belt, and so humility is just a kind of openness to, or receptivity to the wisdom of your instructors, or your teachers. But also there’s certain techniques in the martial arts that I can’t really demonstrate on a website where openness plays a key role. In essence where you almost use your adversary’s strength against him, or her. Aikido and Jujitsu probably are two of the martial arts that follow that principle the best.
Question: What are some qualities of a spiritual warrior?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Well, I think a lot of us think we know what a warrior is; a fighter, a soldier, someone who engages in combat. But a spiritual warrior, I just spoke recently at a military installation about my book and about how spirituality can actually be very much tied up in the notion of being a warrior. A spiritual warrior is someone who is able to do battle not just with forces outside of him or herself, but also with those things within us that can hold us back from achieving our greatest capacities and potentials. So, whether it means fighting our inner demons, whether it means grappling with those forces that are holding us back from evolving, or whether it is dealing with something in life that we really are having a hard time getting through, that’s where I think the spirit comes into play and that’s where I think we can become spiritual warriors.
I think also, when we develop some of those capacities of being a spiritual warrior, it allows us to deal with the sad but inevitable challenges that every human being has to face in life, almost every person. Whether it be the loss of a parent, or going through a breakup or divorce, losing a job. There are many and varied obstacles that we all have to face in life. And I think a spiritual warrior gets more arrows for the quiver, so to speak, in order to better handle those challenges.
Question: How has the lower Manhattan Jewish community changed since 9/11?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think all of lower Manhattan has changed dramatically since 9/11, but specifically the Jewish community of lower Manhattan which is the community that I’ve served for over a decade now, has changed in that more and more communities have popped up. More and more Jewish men and women, I think if you dig more deeply, are yearning for something more. Maybe 9/11 triggered it, maybe other things triggered it, but I think A) there has simply been a lot of growth in terms of Jewish organizations and synagogues since 9/11. Really over the last decade, but I think they’ve also changed in that many of these communities are very different than traditional, established congregations or institutions that have been around for a long time. They tend to be a little more willing to think out-of-the-box, they tend to be less centralized and hierarchical, they tend to be much more egalitarian and consensus-based, and they tend to really be focused on meeting people where they are, whether it’s in terms of garb, or in terms of beliefs. So, it’s pretty interesting. You know, the one major area of concern that I have is that sometimes they also involve a kind of watering down of the religion that to me, as a Rabbi, is unfortunate and unnecessary.
I think by watering down the religion in order to make it more accessible to people, and I think there’s nothing wrong with making religion, and Judaism in particular, accessible to people. We want that. I want that. I try to do that, but I think sometimes it becomes a slippery slope between making something accessible, meeting people where they are, and pandering; pandering to people.
Sometimes you’ll see programs and approaches to worship that, in my view at least, seem to be pandering and really trying to reach the lowest common denominator and offering a kind of Judaism-light. And that I think doesn’t really serve anybody well.
In my mind, Judaism is there really as a way to help us transform ourselves. And as a Catholic colleague of mine in the FBI once said about our job as clerics, but I think the same thing applies to faith. I think the task of any good religion or religion when utilized in its best way is meant to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. And I think a lot of us become too complacent. And that's when religion, like for me the martial arts can come in and really challenge us to become better than who we are. And I think that's a key value to religion that is sometimes overlooked.
Question: What are the problems facing the Jewish community today?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think some of the challenges facing the Jewish community today are similar to those facing many faith communities today because of the recession. I think there are very serious and sometimes dire financial challenges. One of the ways that I think that is most problematic is that so many of the foundations of organizations that historically has funded more innovative projects and more out-of-the-box interesting initiatives are now, because they have lost so much money, being forced to basically prop up organizations and institutions that I think should have gone away a long time ago. So there are a lot of innovative ideas out there and a lot of projects that are simply not getting off the ground because there is no money to fund them. And I think that's a real problem. So that would be one thing that comes to mind.
Question: How can we get away from that redundancy and lack of innovation?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think that we just have to keep love alive. Who did that as part of his campaign? Al Sharpton? Keep love alive. I think we just have to keep on our toes. You know we have to stay vigilant and again this is a concept that is applicable to the martial arts too. We have to always be conscious and aware that whenever we feel complacent and relaxed there is inevitably going to be a challenge around the corner that we don't see. So complacency is something that I think is a very dangerous thing. We always ought to be striving to be better; we always ought to be working hard to improve what we have because there's always room for growth.
Kafka, one of my favorite authors, says that slothfulness, laziness, is the cardinal sin of the human condition because from that sin all others emanate. And I've never forgotten that teaching. He writes about that in one of his journals and I think it's a real -- he's hitting on something very profound that when we become lazy, when we become complacent, when we rest on our laurels, whether we've won a Nobel Prize for established a new congregation that is when we are at our most risk for not evolving, but devolving.
Question: What does it mean to be a Jew in New York today?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think to be a Jew in New York today is to realize that we had been blessed with so many options out there, there are so many different kinds of congregations, some many different kinds of organizations, almost all of the national Jewish organizations have their headquarters here in New York. So in some ways that is a real blessing. You have everything from the most extreme right-wing orthodoxy to the most extreme left-wing secular humanist communities.
I think that's also the curse of being Jewish in New York City. There are so many options and flavors that it can be overwhelming. I happen to think that's one of the blessings and curses of New York City in general, whether it's going to the theater or film or museums, there is just so much you can't possibly do it all. It's almost like Martin Seligman's experiment of learned helplessness where dogs in a laboratory, no matter what they did, were hit with an electric shock and eventually they just stopped moving at all. I think we're so bombarded by stimuli in New York whether it's in the arts world or in the world of religion that it can be so overwhelming that you don't do anything. And so I know a lot of Jews in New York who don't belong anywhere because it's just so overwhelming and they just say, well I don't need it. It's always there if I needed. And then in the end they never take advantage of it.
So I think it's a mixed bag, it's a mixed blessing I think in New York; lots of options, which is great, but so many options that it can sometimes be paralyzing for some people.
Question: What is the New Shul and how is it different from traditional synagogues?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: The New Shul started in 1999, and as the founding rabbi, I along with many of our founding families who are still with us looked around Manhattan and just thought that there really wasn't a synagogue out there for them that they wanted to belong to and for me that I wanted to be that really spoke to our needs, which may sound surprising in a place where there's as many Jewish residents as New York City, but there really wasn't anything out there that we felt was the right fit for either of us.
And I think what makes this interesting and maybe a little unique is, A) we have tried to follow the mantra of a great Hasidic mystic, Nahman of Bratslav, who says, "I come to show you in a way that is ancient." So if you think about the word radical the real meaning of the word radical means a return to the roots, etymologically. So what we've really tried to do over last decade or so with the New Shul is create this hybrid community where on one level some of what we do is very out-of-the-box and very edgy, particularly holiday events which sometimes feel more like gorilla fever because we take them to the streets often than a conventional synagogue experience. But other times you come and it feels like a warm, very informal, but kind of traditional experience. And so we've really tried to blend the old with the new, the innovative with the historic in the inherited. So that's "A".
I think, B) is we are not afraid of taking risks and that includes taking risks of failure. And I think too many spiritual communities are afraid of taking risks. And that's the mark of cowardice, not wisdom. I think like an entrepreneur. Most of the ones I've spoken to have failed 10 times before they get that one great success and I would say in terms of religious ritual or holiday events or any other aspect of religious life we have had great successes over the years and we've also had flocks. And I think that that's fine. So I think that's another important thing that defines the New Shul is that we're willing to take chances, and too few communities are willing to go there.
Question: What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way at the New Shul?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Because so many of our members come from the arts community, and that's changed little bit. Greenwich Village is where we draw our core membership, but since 9/11 Greenwich Village has changed a lot too. So it still attracts a certain kind person with a very creative sensibility, but it’s certainly not in the same place as it was in the 20s and 30s were 50s when people like Jackson Pollock were running around. So I think that one of the things we've realized is that it's very hard to put on a kind of -- and many of our members are in the theater community-- religious ritual that feels like a production and yet also feels religiously authentic. It's very tricky. And unless you have professionals who are doing it, it sometimes cannot be as effective as it might be. So I would say in the area of holidays which is where we were tend to be more theatrical is a lot of overlap between theater and religion and I think a lot of theater has its roots in religion. All you have to do is look back in ancient Greek theater and much of it; most of it is drawn from religious rituals. To see that this crossover is very old and very strong, but for example, in Chanukah, we have created over the years this kind of abstract light sculpture instead of a traditional Chanukah menorah and have gone To Washington Square Park and interwoven traditional and contemporary music and liturgy and poetry and it's been a real success for us. But again, when you try to do more full-blown kinds of religious rituals in theatrical ways you have to strike that right balance between authenticity and the kind of theatricality that I think is not just shtick but something that makes the experience multi-sensory and really powerful for people. And that's hard when you're dealing with volunteers and laypeople who are trained in this area.
Question: How is being a rabbi at the New Shul different from your previous experiences?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Well I don't want to get into trouble here. You know, I served a couple of years at a very large suburban congregation as the assistant rabbi and it was a very, very different experience than being the founding rabbi of the New Shul partly because I've been able to basically do whatever he wanted as the founding rabbi of a brand-new community, of course in partnership with my leadership, my lay leadership. So even that's just a very surface difference but it's a very important one and I feel like the shackles were removed from me and I could be free to be the kind of rabbi I wanted to be and help create the kind of community that we all wanted.
I think when I was working as an assistant rabbi at a large suburban synagogue, I went into work with a jacket and tie every day, which is not who I am, but I felt that that was the culture of that community and I had to do that. I was very first rabbi in that particular community to wear a kippah, a skullcap. And I don't wear one on the street just like now, but I always wear one for worship services. And I had to actually fight to have this done because that wasn't part of their culture, I came from a very classical kind of reformed Judaism that really shunned a lot of ritual.
Since then, there has been a much more renewed openness to ritual in the reform movement within Judaism. But at the New Shul I am free to do whatever I want and so I have in some ways been more informal and contemporary and I lead services and have led ritual and holiday events in jeans or in flannel shirts and sneakers, if that's what makes me comfortable; partly because that's who I am and partly because that's what makes other people more comfortable and that's what I want. On the other hand, I've worn very traditional garments that more liberal rabbis liked me almost everywhere. For example, during the days of Awe, I always wear a sort of a funky version of a kittel; it’s this white garment that to this day is worn almost exclusively by Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox men. And it's an outward expression of purity and openness, the idea of during the 10 days of repentance, we literally, well not literally, we figuratively and metaphorically stand naked and exposed before God. And as I write in the “Challenge and the Soul,” to me, whenever I put on that kittel during the days of awe it reminds me exactly of putting on the white Gi that I put on whenever I step onto the wooden floor of the dojo to engage in martial arts training. So the parallels there are pretty striking as well. The garment looks virtually identical except in martial arts training have put on a black belt in with my congregation the belt is white.
Question: Why do you support interfaith marriages?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: We have made a point over the years to create a fanutial, a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word. A safe haven where people feel they can be who they are. So we have, like many congregations around the country a lot of interfaith households. And I make it a point of making the non-Jewish partners in those households feel absolutely welcome. Some of those people ultimately decide to convert and many of the conversions I've officiated over during the course of the last decade or so have involved people who just simply have said to me this is the first time I've been rabbi who is actually reaching out in a proactive way. And so, hey, it's almost like proselytizing. Have you considered becoming a Jew? If they don't that's okay, but if they do I think that’s a wonderful thing.
You know, of course I want them to establish Jewish households- that's my agenda as a rabbi. But if one of the partners in that marriage or relationship is not, I still want them to feel that they have a place and that they're comfortable. And just to give you a concrete example, during the high holy days over the years, one of the sermons that we offer is always given by a member of the community and I usually pick someone who had been particularly active in the year preceding that season as a way of honoring them. And a couple of years ago I picked a non-Jew just because I thought she was so amazing in terms of the time and effort that she put into our community. And it was an amazing experience for her; she gave a great sermon it also made a statement to the community about how inclusive we were. And now lo and behold she is now in the middle of her conversion training area is 10 years into her -- or 12 years into her marriage. And I think without that invitation she may never have decided to do that.
Question: Do people ever call the New Shul watered down?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I've never really gotten criticism from colleagues to my face that the Judaism we offer is a watered-down form, but that is something that I always have to be vigilant about, it's something that I always have to talk to my lay leadership about. Do I think we've done events, or programs that have been watered down? I think we have. I don't think it was deliberate. Do I think that we've had some events where we have focused too much on trying to get people into the door rather than on content? Probably. But again, it's because we’ve been working hard at trying to achieve that balance between authenticity and accessibility, between a serious nod to tradition as well as an openness to experimentation, so we re inevitably going to make mistakes along the way. But I haven't really been criticized for that because as an author who's lectured in spoken and talked quite a bit around the country and Jewish community, I think people realize that I'm very serious about what I do and about my love for Judaism. So I think we're viewed in a good way.
Question: When did you decide that you wanted to become a rabbi?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I really did have a kind of ah-ha moment. In one million years I would've never, ever thought I would become a rabbi. I grew up in Chicago in a home they had a very strong sense of Jewish identity. It was a kosher home because both of my parents grew up that way. We always had Friday night dinner together but we were big synagogue goers, we belong to a Reconstructionist Indian reformed synagogue so we would never Orthodox, we were always liberal in our approach. So while being proud as a Jew I never really thought in a million years I would become a rabbi.
And senior year in college I had three applications on my desk, one was to go to on for an MFA at the Iowa’s Writers Workshop, the other was for the Peace Corps, and the third was to go on to do a PhD in philosophy, which was my undergraduate degree. So of course I did none of the three, I moved to Cambridge and wrote the Great American novel, which thank God never got published because it was so awful. And it was really during that year when I was living in Cambridge that I read the Bible for the first time in its entirety; I experimented with different kinds of congregations in the Boston area from orthodoxy to secular humanist to try to figure out which was the best fit. I met with rabbis but probably more important than all of that was that two very close friends of mine were living in Cambridge at the same time. One who was in do and had just begun his PhD program in Harvard and the other who was a Jesuit priests, or was training to become a Jesuit priest. He is in Rome now who is studying at the Westin School of theology. So it sounds like a joke, but at night the three of us would get together; a Hindu, a Catholic, and a Jew, you know with a single malt scotch and talk about theology and metaphysics until three in the morning. And it was really during those conversations, forget about the Jewish stuff, and I really realize how much I enjoyed doing this on a very deep level more than anything else. And I didn't really think about the real world life of a congregational rabbi, I didn't really think about the practical ramifications of the decision, but it was really when my priest friend said to me, "Niles, have you ever considered being a rabbi?" But I said, “Well no." And I'd say two weeks later I was already looking at applications for rabbinical schools. So it kind of came out of nowhere and bit me on the butt, but I never really expected it or wanted it because I didn't think I was worthy of it.
Of course now, all of these years later, I realize it's not about worth. We're all flawed and imperfect. It's about commitment and devotion and that's what I needed to have someone help me reveal. Something that was within myself that I wasn't aware of.
Question: What’s the most difficult part of being a rabbi?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: The hardest part about being rabbi is dealing with Jews all the time. But I had a professor -- the Bible calls us the stiff-necked people. Jewish Americans are very smart, very talented, very successful in the main, we have a lot of impact disproportionate to our size and that's a good thing. I'm proud of that. But we can also be a little pushy; they can also be very demanding especially here in New York. I'm a Midwesterner after all. Some of the stereotypes do have some truth to them. But as a professor said to me, "Niles," because I was having some of these issues even in graduate school, he said to me, “Becoming a rabbi doesn't mean you have to like the Jewish people, it just means you have to love them." And I've never forgotten that teaching either. It's like family. Do I like my brother or sister every day of the week? No. But do I love them in a fundamental way all the time? Well, I guess I do. And so I would say that's one of the challenges. The Jewish people are a very tough people, sometimes it feels like herding cats trying to be a rabbi and get my people as excited about their tradition as I am excited about it and inspired by and transformed by it, but when I returned that teaching and I say, you know what? It's not always about liking them but it's about loving them it helps me get through this tough moments. Of course, I have many other moments where I'm filled with warmth and love the people I serve. Sometimes that can be a challenge.
Question: What do you say to the stereotype that Jews only going to temple on the high holidays?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: As with all stereotypes, I think there are kernels of truth. I think that the stereotype that so many Jews only go to services during the high holidays is sadly true. There are plenty of Christians who only show up, according to my minister or priest friends, on Easter and Christmas. So I think this is a challenge for religious leaders across the board. All I can really do is try to excite and inspire Jewish men and women to see how much power there is in their faith, not just as a two times a year experience but really something that is ongoing, that will help them evolve and grow and will transform and enrich and challenge throughout the course of their lives. And we're not going to do that by beating up on people through sermons, we're not going to do that by getting defensive and reactionary about anti-Semitism, about intermarriage, about assimilation, that's with the previous generation of Jewish leaders did, and it completely backfired.
What we need to do is excite people by demonstrating through our own work and our own enthusiasm just how beautiful a religion Judaism is them being proactive and not reactive, by being assertive not by being defensive. And I think if we do that we're going to show by example this is really an amazing fit in more and more people will come. And more and more people have come, and that's a good thing. So while the stereotype I think is still around, there are a lot of pockets in New York and San Francisco and Boston and Minneapolis and a lot of cities all over this country who are really vibrant and robust Jewish communities are really thriving and coming out the woodwork in ways that even 20 or 30 years ago they just weren't. And that makes me, as a younger rabbi, very hopeful. I think a lot has happened just in the last 15 or 20 years that has made me much more hopeful than when I was in graduate school.
Question: What is the story behind Passover?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: A quick summary of Passover for me would be, as I’ve been talking about with other rituals to go back to his radical core, to go back to its roots. So I could talk about the Seder and different ritual objects that are on the Seder plate. I could talk about the Haggadah; the book that we read that recounts the story of Exodus. I could talk about the matzoh that we eat for a week because by eating unleavened bread we remember the wandering of our ancestors in the wilderness. And that's all well and good, but for me the core, the real revolutionary idea of Passover is what I would rather talk about because I'm more excited about it and I talk about it at length in one of my more recent books which came out in paperback, “Gonzo Judaism.” So for me, it's about reclaiming in recapturing that gonzo attitude.
So look at the story for a second. Here you have a band of newly freed slaves. That's what this story is about. They are wandering through the desert with virtually nothing surrounded by three regional superpowers; to the south, the Egyptians that they just left, to the north the Assyrians, and to the northeast the Babylonians. Three regional superpowers who could probably defeat them in a heartbeat. And here is this brand of newly freed, this ragtag band of newly freed slaves has the audacity, the courage, the guts, to say to these three cultures, these three superpowers that you are wrong. That you are wrong to God down and treat as gods these statues made of stones and sticks; these idols. And to have that kind of courage and guts to be able to introduce monotheism to a world that was still practicing idolatry to meet is what Passover is ultimately all about. That is what makes it radical that is what makes it countercultural that is what makes the revolutionary. And to me one of the great misfortunes and mistakes that we've made in the last couple of generations of students is that when we go through the motions of a Passover Seder, and it can be really warm and wonderful and you know your family is there, we don't highlight that radical, revolutionary idea that is at the heart and soul of what this whole experience is about. And even today, I don't think people are talking about it, but I get very animated and excited when I really think about what Passover is about and how radical an audacious and that it really is. Because that's what Judaism is ultimately about. And I think it's many other examples of stories from the Bible where my ancestors acted in ways that were countercultural, revolutionary, and radical. And that's a message that is not being preached from our pulpits and is not being conveyed to our people. And unless it is, or unless it starts getting conveyed people are just going to not embrace Judaism in a way that I think they otherwise would.
Question: What does the New Shul do to celebrate Passover?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: Passover is one of those holidays I don't really want to mess with that much to be honest. I think that Passover is and ought to be a real home-based kind of that. Now, do I think we need to reclaim and capture its revolutionary ideas; it's countercultural and radical notions? Absolutely. That's where I think we’ve fallen short. But I think that holiday, perhaps more than any other, is most effective and powerful when done in the home.
Now A lot of communities have a second Seder and invited people and a lot of people who are single and may not have homes to go to and so we do need to provide for them and we do always make sure that no one is left alone and that everybody has a place go to observe a Seder. But I have always felt over the years that of all the holidays to play with and have fun with and experiment with, Passover was the one that I was least excited about messing with because I thought its greatest power was exactly rooted in its appeal as a home-based holiday.
And I think too few people see the home as the seat of their religion. They see their religion as something out there. You know they drop their kids off at Hebrew school, or they show up a couple times a year to pray and when they go home with nothing. There's no Jewish art, there’s Jewish ritual, bears no Jewish talk at the dinner table. They might talk about politics or economics or literature. But how often we talk about religion? In most contemporary Jewish households I don't think very often. Passover gives us an opportunity. It may be ritualized discussion, but as many of us know, those discussions often digress into very interesting areas. So I would be a little reticent to take that away. I think it's really powerful.
Question: What’s your favorite way to eat matzo?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: My favorite way to eat matzoh is to eat it on the first night and then to avoid it in any way I possibly can. So I would say while the best way to eat matzoh for me is to eat it in all of its ritual places, but then during the week as little as possible because as I've learned more about Judaism over the years, I've essentially adopted this Sephardic approach to Passover mainly because of the experience I had over Passover in Istanbul when I spent Passover in Turkey. And I followed this Sephardic custom. And in the Sephardic tradition and eat rice and beans and it's not just because I'm looking for an easy way out it's because I think it makes a lot of sense to me and so it makes Passover more palatable, I guess, than the Eastern European custom, or the custom itself because it's not binding law in terms of tradition it's something that I just fine more resonant. For the same reason that while I don't go out of my way to mix milk with poultry, I, like some rabbis I know would not have a problem mixing milk with poultry because foul do not lactate, they do not produce milk. And the Bible never says that we are not allowed to mix milk with poultry. It says, "Thou shalt not see the calf in its mother's milk." That's where the prohibition against mixing milk with beef comes about or milk with lamb or goat or animals that actually can produce milk.
Now in the Orthodox world what I'm saying would be an affama. How can you possibly mix milk with poultry? But when I’ve talked to even traditionalists, even though they won't say publicly, privately they are in agreement with me and in fact in the Talmud itself, 1,500 years ago there is great debate on this very issue. The debate is not resolved, it's left open. So I bring this up only because the dietary laws are very important part of Jewish culture, of Jewish civilization and I think sometimes they need to be revisited and not just taken for granted. But for me, I consider myself someone who keeps kosher but I've been able to travel through Mongolia in the Amazon in the Arctic and I've never had a problem because I'm willing to, not bend the rules, but to think about the rules and more creative way.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think what keeps me up at night is the same thing that keeps me alive during the day and is probably the same thing that has made me the very driven and intense Rabbi and author and teacher that I am, and martial artist. A very deep fear of death; a very profound realization of my own mortality. And I think knowing that I am going to one day have to shed this mortal coil is something that, on the one hand, fills me with fear and trembling but on the other hand motivates me to act and motivates me to produce and motivates me and inspires me to help make this world a better place and that impact. So I think the fear of death and the love of life are really just two sides of the same coin. So it's not just what keeps me up at night, and it does, but it's also what helps me to get out of bed in the morning. And I think it's a terrific question and I think that would be my heartfelt answer. And that fear of life and love of death are at their core, I think, what religions in general are meant to help us address, confront, and ultimately surmount. And I know if that weren't the case, I would do it to some other location tomorrow.
A conversation with the founding Rabbi of the New Shul in Manhattan.
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The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.
- Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
- Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
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Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.
Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.
"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."
Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.
Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.
The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.
That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.
Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.
Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.
First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.
Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.
More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."
This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.
"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."
The Oedipal complex
The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.
That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.
Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.
But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.
Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.
An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.
The Freudian slip
Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."
"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."
In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.
According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.
"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.
Freud's case studies
Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."
It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.
For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.
Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.
Sigmund Freud and his legacy
Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)
Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.
If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.
When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).
Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.
But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.
With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.
It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?
- Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
- Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.
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