A Dialogue between Psychology and Religion in the Work of Moshe Halevi Spero, an Orthodox Jewish Psychoanalyst

By Cohen, Mariam | Shofar, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

A Dialogue between Psychology and Religion in the Work of Moshe Halevi Spero, an Orthodox Jewish Psychoanalyst


Cohen, Mariam, Shofar


The work of the Orthodox Jewish psychoanalyst, Moshe Halevi Spero, is examined as representing a non-reductionistic dialogue between religion and psychoanalysis in one analyst's work. The development of Spero's thinking is traced as he has grappled with the possibility of conflict between Jewish theology and psychoanalytic theory and with issues involving transference and countertransference in the work of a religious therapist with religious patients. These issues led to the formulation of a reconciliation between Jewish law, halakha, and psychoanalysis in what Spero termed the "halakhic metapsychology." Eventually his assertion that the reality of God must be acknowledged in clinical psychoanalytic work with religious patients has led to a critique of Lacanian thinking and the formation of a psychoanalytic epistemology in which divinity, in whose image humanity is created, becomes the "ground" for representation and interpersonal communication.

Orthodox Jewish commentators1 have asserted that there is a complete incompatibility between Judaism and secular psychology, especially psychoanalysis, which they fear can undermine Jewish values and lead patients away from Jewish practice and belief.2 Many of these base their opposition to psychoanalysis on limited reading of psychoanalytic texts and on considerable misunderstanding of psychoanalytic concepts. On the other hand, the attitude toward religion within the discipline of psychoanalysis has largely focused on analytic attempts to interpret religious belief and practice, most often reductionistically.

Moshe Halevi Spero is an Orthodox Jew and a psychoanalyst whose published work represents one of the few examples of an attempt to reconcile religious belief and practice with psychoanalytic theory and practice. After a traditional Orthodox Jewish yeshiva education, Spero acquired degrees in clinical social work and psychology and training in psychoanalysis. He has published extensively in Jewish and psychoanalytic journals. He was one of the founding editors of the Journal of Psychology and Judaism and contributed several articles to that journal. Over the last thirty years, he has published three books3 and articles in a number of Jewish and psychoanalytic journals (including American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought). He has been the editor of the Israel Psychoanalytic Journal since its inception in 2000. Since 1984 he has lived in Israel and works as a psychoanalytic clinician; he is a full professor at the School of Social Work at the Orthodox-affiliated Bar-Ilan University and a founder of the School of Social Work Postmasters Program for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.

Spero points out that when he began to read Freud, he was a "yeshivah seminarian ... living under the specter of chastisement and ban for studying psychoanalysis at all."4 Clearly for Spero rhe issues involved in reconciling his religion with psychoanalysis have been personal as well as professional. He has focused on how psychologists treat religious patients, as well as how psychoanalytic theory accommodates religious belief and practice. He has worked to find ways in which Jewish law, halakha, can admit psychoanalytic psychotherapy to the world of Orthodox Jews.

Spero's psychoanalytic orientation has evolved from a classical stance, through ego psychology (and questions of identity), and into object relations (emphasizing identification and internalization). Consistently, he has insisted on considering the reality of God as well as the psychological concept of an intrapsychic god representation. Spero has insisted that psychotherapists must be willing to deal with their patients' religious lives as an aspect of reality, not merely their intrapsychic lives, thus at times somewhat blurring the line between psychology and theology. Over the course of his work, the religious focus of Spero's work has evolved from a specific concern with Orthodox Judaism in relation to psychology to a more general concern with the human ability to relate to the Divine. …

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