D. Bakan, D. Merkur, and D. Weiss, Maimonides’ Cure of Souls: Medieval Precursor of Psychoanalysis (Albany, NY, SUNY Press: 2009) xviii + 183. $23.95.[1]


This book is fascinating. For those of us for whom the study of Maimonides has been rooted in history of thought or in systematic philosophy and theology, this book provides a psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic reading of Maimonides. And, for those of us for whom study of Freud has been rooted in history of psychoanalysis, this book provides an insight into an important source for some of Freud’s most radical ideas.


David Bakan, in Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (1958), realized that, in the history of psychology, the most original ideas of Freud – the existence and power of the unconscious, the omnipresence of sexuality, the interpretation of dreams, the use of free association, and many others – seemed to have no precedent and theorized that Freud had derived some of these ideas from Jewish mysticism. There were two problems with Bakan’s thesis: First, the only hard evidence he had was the existence of a translation of the Zohar in Freud’s library in Vienna which, however, did not make it to his library in London. (This, he later wrote me, was because Freud’s library itself had been split up.) And, second, the Zohar is a highly coded book and it was not clear whether Freud, himself a master decoder, actually understood that the sefirot of the Zohar are internal to God’s personality. (This is now clear from the work of I. Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, and D. Matt’s new translation and commentary, The Zohar: The Pritzker Edition. For a simplified version, see D. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism, vol. 1.)


Later in his life, Bakan, together with his disciple Dan Merkur, tended to see Maimonides as the precedent for Freud’s most original ideas. Bakan died in the process of this work and Merkur continued it. This book is the fruit of that labor.


The choice of Maimonides was a good one for several reasons. First, Maimonides’ works, especially his work on psychology, The Eight Chapters, and his work on philosophy, The Guide for the Perplexed, existed in German and French (and later in English) translations already in Freud’s time. Second, Maimonides was a “cultural hero” for assimilating Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries who read Maimonides as a “scientist” and “rationalist,” creating for themselves a kind of “Jewish Kant” (see, for example, J. Harris, “The Image of Maimonides in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Historiography,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 54, 1997, 117-39.) Third, as a modern “cultural hero,” Maimonides was almost surely the subject of lectures and conferences at the Vienna lodge of B’nai Brith that Freud attended regularly and in which he also gave lectures. Finally, as Merkur shows, Freud, while not himself observant or even religious in a theological sense, came from an educated Jewish family in which the works of Maimonides would likely have been available, perhaps even discussed.


In seven chapters, Merkur (clearly the chief author), reading Maimonides as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, sets forth his argument. Chapter One argues that Maimonides saw his chief task as a healer of body and soul. The latter was to be accomplished through science and philosophy, with philosophy being a transformative process not just an intellectual exercise. Merkur expounds the Maimonidean-Aristotelian theory of happiness (eudaemonia, simha / no`am / hesheq, ghibta) as rooted in the perfection of the moral and intellectual virtues, this being the goal of human life. He, then, expounds Maimonides’s cognitive-behavioral therapy that is composed of two parts: first, desensitize by practicing the opposite virtue or vice until one has reached the golden mean of balanced behavior. Maimonides also taught that bad behavior leads to denying that such behavior is bad, i.e., to a voluntary refusal to believe what one already knows - that the act was wrong. It is, thus, not ignorance that leads to sin, but sin that leads to denial which is a form of (sub)conscious ignorance. Repentance, therefore, must first correct the actions but it must also include the cognitive belief that sin can be corrected. Teshuva (repentance), in its intellectual as well as its actional dimensions is, thus, Maimonides’ cognitive-behavioral therapy.


Chapter Two presents Maimonides’ “intellectualist mysticism” which is “an ’aha’ experience of creative inspiration … when someone ‘gets’ an idea … when ‘the penny drops.’” Thus, for Merkur, the Active Intellect, in Maimonides, “was the process within the rational faculty that produced or constructed abstractions. The abstractions did not preexist the process of their derivation from sensory data” (emphasis theirs). Merkur also maintains that, “through engaging in a certain specified intrapsychic process, it is possible to reach beyond the veil which covers the unmanifest” and to create “the possibility of radical reform of the condition of human experience.” Merkur identifies this process as “meditation” (hitbonenut). It is accomplished by careful reasoning and is followed by “practicing the presence of God,” i.e., “a cognitively rich and varied process of inspiration that he [Maimonides] identified with biblical prophecy… engaging God in a prophetic dialogue….” Bakan and Merkur call the whole “rational mysticism.”


In working out his theory, Merkur graciously acknowledges a thesis that I eventually called “philosophic mysticism” (D. Blumenthal, Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion, esp. ch. 6). As I read Maimonides in his 12th century context, I find that he teaches that there is a “post-philosophic” experience of “being in the presence of God.” Merkur, however, disputes my claim and favors Bakan’s thesis that there is nothing “post”-philosophic at all. Rather, “the bliss is never postrational or nonrational… indicate that a cognitively limited or seemingly empty experience was emphatically not the content of Maimonides’ contemplative experience.” I think Bakan and Merkur, by denying the extramental existence of the Intelligences and the intellect,[2] a belief that was common in medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophical theology, have distorted Maimonides and, therefore, also his understanding of the ultimate religious experience. However, others scholars share Bakan and Merkur’s reading of Maimonides and they may be right. Nonetheless, I suspect that the denial of the postrational is a projection of modern sensibilities and conceptualities.


Chapter Three argues that, for Maimonides, imagination is central to prophecy but imagination is also the source of sin in that it allows humans to imagine that evil is good. Thus, imagining a bad act to be good induces one to actional sin and imagining God to be anthropomorphic induces one to theological sin. Maimonides handled theological sin by teaching the value of “negative theology” and by making all prophecy (except that of Moses) a metaphor, i.e., a dream or a vision. Even the Binding of Isaac occurs in a prophetic vision and is not a real historical event.[3] Freud must have been fascinated by this ‘book on dreams and visions’ in which the images of the imagination can cause illness / sin.


Chapter Four argues that Maimonides openly admits that sacred texts, as well as his own text, use exoteric-esoteric methods of teaching; the interpretation is always the true meaning, never the surface imagery. In this sense, even “the world to come” is, as Merkur sees it, a metaphor: “Maimonides was speaking of sober and contemplative states of consciousness during mortal life. He was not speaking of mortal life and an afterlife.” I, again, disagree with Bakan and Merkur and prefer a more rabbinic and medieval reading in which the extramental reality of the Intelligences and the human intellect allow for a life after death in a distinctly philosophic mystical sense.


Chapter Five argues that there were three categories of secret teaching in rabbinic Judaism: matters pertaining to sexuality, the creation story, and the interpretation of the vision of Ezekiel. Merkur does not deal with the first except to suggest that its inclusion among the secrets of the law might suggest that the other two also had sexual content. As to creation, Merkur reads Maimonides’ dichotomies of heaven and earth and Adam and Eve as referring to form and matter respectively, with form being active and matter being receptive. Citing Guide 1:46 that “we have no intellectual cognition of our bringing somebody other than us into existence except through sexual intercourse,” Merkur goes on to propose that the union of form and matter suggests the ultimate sexuality of creation and, that “creation out of nothing” can only be envisioned by sexual imagery. The use of sexual imagery to expound the doctrine of creation is Maimonides’ secret teaching. Freud would have been struck powerfully by this.


The vision in the first chapter of Ezekiel known as “the account of the chariot” was the most secret of all teachings. Maimonides, strictly following the rabbinic prescriptions, does not expound this directly but gives only hints and contradictory statements. This has puzzled all interpreters of Maimonides, as it is supposed to. Merkur threads his way through these passages and, interpreting the image that is the center of Ezekiel’s vision as the key metaphor for God, notes that it is fire from the waist down and hashmal from the waist up. Ezekiel’s description of God in his vision is, thus, another of Maimonides’ “paired ideas” and hence, as Merkur sees it, contains a sexual teaching. Maimonides reads hashmal (a color in the original) in its rabbinic sense of “rapid” and “cutting” (actually, “circumcising”). This, Merkur takes to indicate that the figure is “engaged in coitus, sawing back and forth in his seat.” Merkur goes on to suggest: “Metaphysics cannot be conceptualized without recourse to anthropomorphism” and the “account of the chariot,” which is the description of God in visual terms, is thus a sexual metaphor for God. Freud would have been struck powerfully by this, too.


I doubt Maimonides had this in mind, though it is not impossible if the true “secret” here is the permissibility and pervasiveness of sexual imagery -- only as a metaphor, not as a theological assertion about creation and certainly not about God. This is a very Freudian reading of the esoteric nature of Maimonides’ teaching. (The non-Freudian reading of esoteric meaning of creation would be that “creation” need not be an act in time as the Bible teaches, but could be an ongoing, eternal act in which the Creator has always been, and continues to be, causally and ontologically prior to creation. The non-Freudian reading of esoteric teaching of God would be that even intellect cannot be used to describe God; only a post-rational experience of God that is rooted in the mind can “define” God.) Given Bakan and Merkur’s Freudian reading of Maimonides’ reading of Ezekiel’s vision, I wonder how they missed the obviously homoerotic dimension of the imagery. This would fit well with the pervasive sexuality of the “secret” but also with the rigorously androcentric view of reality that is the core of rational (and particularly, medieval rational) thinking. Such a reading was not unknown in later kabbala.


Chapter Six reviews concisely the therapeutic method of Maimonides: philosophic understanding of science, followed by theological argument for God’s existence and unity, followed by meditation on the presence of God that leads to love and fear of God. This meditative fear intensifies to “a guilty mystical death” while the meditative love intensifies to “bliss / passionate love” which is identical with “an immediate sense of the Shekhinah.” The whole is called “rational mysticism,” and it follows actions taken to correct wrong behavior. Within philosophic study, Maimonides recommends treating all imagery as metaphoric, especially the fundamental sexual imagery. All this enables healing of the soul, called “perfection.” Here, Merkur admits that Maimonides’ cognitive-behavioral therapy is only supportive; it does not provide “resolution of mental conflict, leading to increased psychic integration.” As a result, Maimonides’ method was only for the self-selected.


Chapter Seven lists convergences between Maimonides and Freud: (1) Both believed that imagination projects imagery on the concept of God. Freud, however, rejected Maimonides’ theory that imagery need only to be interpreted as metaphor to generate true meaning, and preferred to see imagery as an expression of another truth. (2) Both admitted that the primary impulse for knowledge was preconscious, and that it was imagination and thought that gave form to that primary impulse / emanation. (3) Both admitted the reality of fantasy / imagination that creates a true reality of it own. Further, both admitted that the reification of this imagination was the source of error. (4) Both understood that dreams (and visions) were the result of mental and imaginative work; that dreams had exoteric and esoteric levels of meaning; and that dreams used various techniques to conceal their inner meaning. (5) Both privileged the hidden levels of dreams and especially the place of sexual imagery as the fundamental secret. (6) Both believed that “resistance” (the inability to recognize the wrongness of one’s deeds or thoughts because of denial and repression) was the cause of wrong / sinful behavior, and brought therapy to a halt. For both, inappropriate thoughts, desires, and deeds need to be admitted as part of therapy. (7) Both recognized that behavior and belief could become compulsive / that God punished sinners by cutting them off from Him, i.e., by hardening their hearts. Hence, freeing / recovering one’s will through critical autobiographical work -- and, for Maimonides, through behavioral change -- was crucial to therapy. (8) Both understood that religion rests on science and provides a framework for social-religious teaching of proper behavior; further, that Judaism was a development out of more primitive religions. (9) Both shared an androcentric view of the world. Finally (10), both were preoccupied with Moses and saw themselves as teachers of a definitive saving truth. A great chapter that shows two great minds at work, the one likely an influence on the other.


So much has been written on Maimonides and so much has been written on Freud. This book is a definite contribution to that effort.


David R. Blumenthal

Emory University

[1] This appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology, 18:2 (2011) 276-81.

[2] After Plotinus’ “Enneads” were translated into Arabic as “The Theology of Aristotle,” the prevailing opinion was that intellect/intelligence was both in creation and also outside of creation; i.e., mind was not only “in the mind and in the world” but also “outside” the world/creation. Mind was in God, or was God. To be in “contact” with mind or to “unify oneself” with mind was, thus, to experience a moment in which one “left” creation, including mind, and “touched” something outside creation; i.e., touched God. “Extramental” is the word used in medieval philosophy to designate that existence/essence that is beyond/outside creation/nature.

[3] Philosophic mysticism is a psychic process that moves up the chain of being: humans work philosophically, refining their intellects and purging their imaginations of distortions, thus “meditating” their way up to the Tenth Intelligence. Prophecy, by contrast, is a psychic process that moves down the chain of being: pure intellectual energy emanates down the chain to the Tenth Intelligence, then to human intellects that give it shape in reason, and then to human imaginations that give the intellectual energy, now “reason-able,” its metaphors. The primary experience of prophecy, thus, is not “post”-philosophic but “pre”-philosophic.