Soul and Moral Tradition

Ilana Mercer, February 11, 2005

[Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century, Andrew R. Heinze, Princeton University Press, 438 pages]

Any suggestion of an abundance of Jewish influence in a particular cultural sphere tends to have unfortunate consequences. It’s a relief, then, to learn that Jewish thinkers didn’t herald the therapeutic age, a fact that emerges from Andrew Heinze’s outstanding Jews and the American Soul. From Alfred Adler to Ann Landers, Heinze cogently and elegantly traces “the flow of Jewish values, attitudes, and arguments into the mainstream of American thought”—in particular, their influence on the foundation of a distinctly American humanist philosophy and therapeutic culture.

In his examination of “why [between 1890 and 1945] psychology became a booming cultural industry, outstripping theology and philosophy as a guide for a literate mass audience seeking advice on how to live”, Heinze establishes that “America’s Protestant heritage yielded a powerful American interest in personal development and a massive audience for popular psychology”.

The new psychotherapies “had the drama of faith-healing”; the new psychotherapists, true to their Protestant heritage, spread the faith with evangelical zeal.

At the same time, certain developments during the 19th century converged to pressure legalistic Judaism to pay more attention to the individual psyche. The rationality of the Enlightenment had come under fire from movements espousing mysticism, romanticism, and the occult. Compatible with Christianity, the supernatural was foreign to the rationalist morality of Judaism. Nevertheless, Jewish thinkers were beginning to realize that Jewish morality and law—in particular the doctrines of human partnership with God and relatedness with one another—had universal applicability and were well suited to both steer and salve the modern psyche.

As both American Protestant and European Jewish moral traditions prepared to break with tradition and initiate a “new optimistic individualism”, they intersected. Accounting for the Soul by Menachem Mendel Lefin (1749-1826) is an example of Jewish ethical literature that incorporated Benjamin Franklin’s ingenious moral regime for self-improvement—which was itself in the tradition of Jewish ethical writing.

Heinze’s accounts of the first Jewish thinkers who burst onto the self-help scene in the late 1800s are fascinating. Through such individuals as Hugo Münsterberg (experimental psychology) and Boris Sidis (psychiatry), “Jewish concerns and values first entered into American popular thought”. But Jewish efforts to make society more tolerant, not least in a post-Second World War psychological critique of racial and religious prejudice, are more problematic than Heinze allows. For example, he neglects Theodor Adorno (admittedly only half Jewish) and the Frankfurt School. Its endeavour to diagnose and weed out authoritarianism was itself highly authoritarian—especially when its precepts were adopted by policy makers.

One consequence of the ascendancy of “the psychological interpretive mode” between the 1880s and the 1920s was the increasing prominence of courtroom psychiatric testimony. Criminal conduct was beginning to be perceived as an “unfortunate extension of normality”. And now, by psychiatric sanction, criminality is routinely exculpated with psychiatric diagnoses of “abnormality”. But Heinze fails to scrutinize the moral and culturally corrosive implications of this enduring—and deterministic—trend.

Far from providing a “coherent substitute for traditional religion”, popular psychology has resulted in societal dysfunction and pervasive mysticism. Although Heinze vividly illustrates how advice guru Joyce Brothers replaced religious morality with social science, he nevertheless rejects the view that the self-acceptance movement is disfigured by narcissism and ethical decadence. He cautions that such simplifications should be “measured against a much more historically sophisticated view, one that registers the religious and ethnic complexities behind changes in American values”. But organic, cultural evolution, like the biological kind, can yield unhealthy mutations. And it is these Heinze often finesses.

A highlight of this triumphant survey is Heinze’s discussion of the dazzling Catholic controversialist Clare Boothe Luce. Heinze debunks claims Luce was anti-Semitic, and praises her “compelling combination of logic and moral commitment”. But Heinze, Jewish rationalist extraordinaire, retains the upper hand. He dispatches Luce’s claim that “New Testament universalism superseded Old Testament particularism” with a reminder that the Ten Commandments preceded the Epistle of St. John.

©2005 Ilana Mercer
 Reviewed in London’s Jewish Chronicle
 February 11

CATEGORIES: America, Book Reviews, Christianity, Crime, History, Jews & Judaism, Psychiatry & The Therapeutic State, Therapeutic State