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Freud and the Melancholy Rabbi

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'One day they will say that Sigmund Freud read the Law with a rabbi, and no one will believe it.'Vienna, 1903, and two unlikely figures meet: Rashab, the fifth Rabbi of Lubavitch, and Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Rashab has journeyed from Lubavitch to Vienna with his son, his future successor; the paralysis in his arm and a persistent stutter leading him to this consultation with Freud.The two men discuss their ideologies - bringing in Kabbalah, psychoanalysis, faith, science - shining a light on their own fears and internal struggles. Freud analyses the details yet further with his distinguished pupil Wilhelm Stekel.Taking place in a rapidly changing world, this book records a brief meeting between two individuals whose contrasting beliefs will shape the twentieth century.

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Monday, 20 October, 1902, 5.30pm

ePub

Oleg watched the sunset as his secretary read the annual report. He wasn't listening to him; he concentrated only on the shadow's advance over his dacha's well-kept garden. It was a slow but steady advance; nothing new, and yet it still fascinated him. He often asked himself why he enjoyed this moment so much. What was it that appealed to him? Was it the sense of the inexorable? The delicate movement, perhaps? But then he would set aside these thoughts and merely contemplate the receding light. Nothing mattered to him then: neither the cool air that entered the room and brushed against the heavy curtains, nor his secretary's words, which came to him like a murmur not entirely distinct from the murmur of the leaves.

He knew the report down to the last word; he had no need to hear it. When darkness had covered the room and barely even the whisper of the oil lamp could be heard, Oleg remained in silence for some time. It was a trick he used to intimidate his staff, a tactic learned from his superiors. It caused in the other person the impression of a continuous reappraisal, the sensation of being at fault, a feeling as inevitable as the phenomenon he had just observed. Subordinates would wonder about his silence, rummage through their papers, corroborate in their memories time and again the information they had already polished, and then surrender to the fear of failure.

 

Monday, 20 October, 1902, 6pm

ePub

Throughout the journey, he meditated on the supposed contradiction between the verse that says that the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, and the other that states that the parents ate sour grapes and the children's teeth were set on edge. This was only an apparent contradiction, because he knew that the scriptures were solid and that we humans must be able to decipher the meaning, interpret their words. It was not a matter of solving a riddle, but rather of understanding their will, grasping their essence, getting closer to their sanctity. So how to reconcile the verse that states that “The children shall be punished for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” with the one that reads “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin”? At full speed the stagecoach passed through meadows, fields and small villages, and his mind leapt from one chapter to another, dug among the letters, darted about among the masters’ teachings. He stopped at one of the numerous checkpoints while at the same time discoursing with the great sages of Babylon.

 

Monday, 20 October, 1902, 7pm

ePub

Oleg recalled his first meeting with him. That day, his private secretary had announced the visitor in the early hours of the morning. He had agreed to meet him only at his boss's request. He suspected what it was about: another citizen who wished to avoid being drafted into the tsar's army.

The tsar's military recruitment methods were a little cruel, but they were the only ones possible. At the same time, they were a commercial opportunity, an endless source of business, as the exemption forms were expensive and much in demand, for only a few wished to wear the illustrious imperial uniform. The section led by Oleg was responsible for preparing such exemptions for the minister, and it was the latter who, when all was said and done, received and shared out the gains. Oleg's role was essential in this chain: he erased all trace of the money and, to balance matters, he got to know the applicants’ secrets, remembered their addresses, memorised the names of those who believed they could make a payment in a dark office and that would be the end of it, not suspecting that from that moment they became part of a network of favours that the system painstakingly crafted. He was the system.

 

Monday, 20 October, 1902, 7.15pm

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Although Oleg hadn't been expecting the rabbi's son, he greeted him politely. He didn't know exactly what Oleg's position was, but his father had commented that he was trustworthy. Trustworthy, cautious, and cunning.

Consequently, that morning when the coachman had appeared at the rabbi's son's door—as had happened at the end of both of the two previous years—he broke off his studies and agreed to join him on the long journey. He did not do so to replace his father (as Nadab and Abihu, the sons of the grand priest Aaron, had intended, and about whom it was written that “They were consumed by fire”) but because he was concerned about his father's health.

“One mustn't cut off one's ties with the outside world,” Rashab used to say to him; the gentile he was going to visit was a valuable contact.

Accustomed to masks, Oleg hid his disappointment and deferentially greeted the expected visitor's son. Once that moment had passed, he took control of the situation once again. He noticed that the rabbi's son was troubled, uncomfortable with the luxury, the impact of the opulence. He perceived the struggle taking place inside him at the sight of this hitherto unknown world. But at the same time he knew the final outcome of that struggle: after the order and the tidiness, after new fragrances, stylised furniture and colourful fabrics, Rashab's son would return to his prized books with their pages falling out, to the rooms impregnated with the smell of food, the rickety chairs and his monotonous dark suits.

 

Monday, 20 October, 1902, 10pm

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The stagecoach returns through cornfields and marshes in the half-light. It heads back along steep roads and muddy paths. The coachman guides the horses, while the passenger snoozes and we, awake, alert to any suspicious movement, follow him. They fly across fields at a gallop as we are carried by the wind, bending blade of grass after blade of grass, ear of corn after ear of corn. They cross several bridges while we swim over furious waves or fly below a cold, starry sky. The horses whinny as they feel the crop. Our word reaches the ears of the creator. Ten just men would have been enough to save Sodom; nor were they there in Gomorrah. The world rests on the shoulders of thirty-six upstanding men. Thirty-six just men are those who have the spark of divine goodness. Thirty-six exemplary men justify the existence of all humanity. Our task is to protect them, watch out for them. Our voice goes from village to village, ensuring that nothing befalls him. For he is the son of one of them, and one day he will be one of the thirty-six. Every generation has its saints. The world rests on a pillar and its name is the Just, for it is said that the Just is the foundation of the world and that the souls climb up that column to heaven. Riding on the shoulders of Gabriel, we must shield him from murderers, from enemies—who are legion—and even from himself. Shelter him just as we cared for his grandfather and his predecessor. We will do so in the warm days and in the darkest dawns. When rivers of blood wash our lands, when the red marks our brothers’ homes, we will be there. The tsar's arm is long and powerful; ours, on the other hand, is astute and reaches round the whole planet. Thirty-six just men unfurl their protective mantle over mankind. We must prevent them from harm. Watch over their safety, which, in short, is the safety of us all.

 

Friday, 7 November, 1902

ePub

The village of Lubavitch was founded in the sixteenth century. Its name means “son of love” and, to tell the truth, it was a village where the heart ruled. Everyone lived in peace there, men and women, Jews and gentiles. There was total harmony between the inhabitants and the environment. It was a hardworking, humble village, in which the Schneersohn family arrived from the nearby village of Liadi. It was in this village that the successor of the disciple of the grand master settled, and it was here that a movement began that would later spread out all over the world.

It was Rashab, the fifth rabbi of this dynasty, who led this expansion. While his uncles and cousins settled in more populous cities, he listened to his grandfather's advice, heeded his father's words and spent night and day studying. Sometimes, he would forget to eat, but he would never forget to pray. On many occasions, he was found reading the most mysterious texts in the middle of the forest; on many other occasions, he was found sleeping on the banks of the river with a book in his hand. His wisdom grew every day, and not only did villagers consult him on questions of law, but his fame extended as far as Vilna.

 

Monday, 17 November, 1902

ePub

Something was happening that was hard to comprehend. The world Rashab knew was changing rapidly. He noticed it both when he travelled to visit the different western communities and when he was received in Moscow, as he toured the impoverished villages or as he entered a health centre to relieve his aches and pains.

People no longer had the same respect for elders. Insolence was common; values called into question; traditions mocked. Even the barriers around the Jews were coming down, and the youngest mixed with strangers, renounced their faith and, unbelieving, followed false Messiahs, bowing down to profane gods. The thirst for learning, so deeply-rooted in the Jews, was not channelled into the study of the Law, but rather went into improper professions.

Both in Europe and Russia, young people were leaving their villages and heading en masse for the cities, where they strove to enter the universities in search of an education that would allow them to settle in gentile society. The sharpest students were dazzled by philosophers with a way with words, superficial thinkers and scientists who, like the king Nimrod, claimed they would build a tower to put them at the same height as God. Instead of searching for sacred wisdom in the paths set out by the God of Israel, they imitated the pagan contemplation of the Greeks.

 

Friday, 12 December, 1902

ePub

To the north of the village, in the middle of the wood, was the Jewish cemetery. When the wind died down, one could hear the Berezina River flowing. Sholom Dovber, Rebbe Rashab, remained some time at the grave of his grandfather, Tzemach Tzedek, the first of the Schneersohn family to leave the village of Liadi to settle in Lubavitch.

Tzemach Tzedek had had seven sons. Those who wished to continue the paternal tradition considered Lubavitch unsuitable for expanding the movement and settled in larger cities. Only the youngest of them remained in the village. Some said he was the least capable. This was Samuel, Rashab's father, who had died at the age of forty, the same age he was now.

Throughout the whole ritual, which was repeated every Friday, Shalom Dovber was accompanied by his son, Yosef Yitzchak, standing a few steps behind and watching him with concern. He had many questions for him, but didn't want to disturb the silence connecting him with his ancestors. He wanted to tell him that he was worried about his health, that he had heard him crying, that the look in his mother's eyes begged him to do something; that he had agreed one morning to go and visit a gentile to tell him of his concern, and that since that day he was waiting for news from him, a message with the name of a doctor who would help him to find a cure for the sadness, for an illness that had bedded in some time ago and was consuming him.

 

Monday, 15 December, 1902

ePub

There was a time when Rashab had been in constant movement. One day he would be participating at a congress in Moscow and the next he would be consoling an old woman in Rostov. In the morning he would be seen studying and in the evening, visiting distant villages. In those days he walked at a fast, vigorous pace. When he passed us he would leave a trail that would illuminate us for several days. But once we perceived a change. We don't know if the transformation was abrupt or slow, only that suddenly we realised that he wasn't the same, that sadness had overcome him.

Some of us said the same had happened to him as to King Saul, but immediately others replied that Rashab hadn't disobeyed the Almighty, that his devotion preceded him, and then those of us who had spoken fell silent.

“Let's try cheering him with music, like King David used to do,” we said. The best musicians in the region then came to Lubavitch, but they couldn't bring him round.

“Perhaps it's from so much study,” said one in a low voice, and remembered the history of the master ben Zoma, who said that “Wise is he who learns from all men.” So great was his yearning for wisdom that this erudite man made sure he was familiar with everything. Convinced that we are all part of the One, that in each of us there is a glimmer of divine wisdom, he learned from anyone who contacted him. But he was also devoted to the study of the Sacred Scriptures. He knew all the words, all the verses, all the commentaries. And yet, at the same time, he did not know all the phrases, all the chapters, all the stories.

 

Wednesday, 31 December, 1902

ePub

That morning he started the preparations for the journey. For this he had the help of Pinchas Leib, a secretary who had been with the family since time immemorial. By the middle of the week they had worked out the route, the places where they would stay, the means of transport they would use and the meetings they would have before arriving at their destination.

On the day of departure, Rashab got into the carriage reluctantly. His face accentuated his sadness, his lips remained closed, his arm immobile. His wife bade him farewell in tears and his mother, Yosef Yitzchak's grandmother, wished him a speedy recovery and a safe return.

A crowd had gathered outside the house, which was also used as a synagogue, house of study and library. Dozens of students waited in silence: women who had left their chores and men who had postponed the start of their working day came up to the rabbi to say goodbye. There were old people and children, Jews and gentiles, dogs and cats, all standing still.

 

Friday, 2 January, 1903

ePub

At mid-morning on Friday, 2 January, 1903, aided by fine weather and clear roads, they reached Brisk. This town, served by the railway, had quickly become a key point on the road between Moscow and Berlin. It was also an obligatory stopping point before crossing the border between Russia and Poland.

The Jewish community was thriving and the town was the site of the famous academy that had produced the Brisker method. Rayatz chose that route because he intended to give his father a little joy to calm his tormented spirit. He had previously arranged a meeting with Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik.

One hundred years earlier, a meeting of this kind would have been unthinkable. The philosophical currents that both represented were seen as opposing. Back then, each had accused the other of distorting, misinterpreting, and undermining Judaism. In time, the confrontations gradually waned, either because they were no longer perceived as a threat, or rather because more challenging enemies had appeared in the last generation, and the tension between the Soloveitchiks and the Schneersohns had dissipated. Although they didn't see eye to eye on everything, the dialogue between them was free-flowing and rich. In short, here were two wise men who respected each other and enjoyed each other's company, although they maintained their differences.

 

Warsaw, Sunday, 4 January, 1903

ePub

Yosef Yitzchak arranged to arrive in Warsaw at night and for the committee's stay not to extend over a day. The city, one of the most important centres of world Jewry, was going through a time of political commotion. The Polish capital was a Zionist stronghold, and they would gather in dozens of little groups to frequently and violently dispute their future monopoly on the truth. Despite everything, the opposition to the Jewish orthodoxy in its diverse manifestations brought them together.

Rayatz assumed that preparations for the next Zionist congress would keep them busy with domestic matters, but he was wrong. Somehow, the militants found out about Rashab's arrival, and as soon as they had got settled in the hotel, a considerable number of Zionists came to the building to protest against his father.

The few faithful who gathered to greet the rabbi were outnumbered by the Zionists, and a scuffle broke out. Or rather, it was the continuation of a struggle that had peaked in Lubavitch a few years earlier. On that occasion, the deniers of the Almighty had entered the main Tomchei Temimim building by force with the intention of taking away a certain student. They said the student was at the institute against his will, that he renounced the Jewish tradition and that his interest was to emigrate immediately to Israel. On that occasion they were able to prevent the child from being kidnapped, but the Zionists fired at them with firearms to intimidate them. A bullet grazed Yosef. This angered his father more, and his opposition to Zionism grew with this incident.

 

Warsaw, Monday, 5 January, 1903

ePub

His suspicions were confirmed when, at the end of the riot, Oleg approached Rayatz.

“I hope you don't have any more trouble until the end of the trip,” he said.

“We're used to incidents like this,” Rayatz replied.

“How's your father?” Oleg asked kindly.

“He's resting now,” Rayatz replied calmly.

“A friend of mine needs some advice and I wondered if he might see him,” said the secretary in a tone of voice that suggested he wouldn't take no for an answer. “I imagine his diary is full, but perhaps tomorrow, before leaving, he might grant him an audience.”

Rayatz knew that individual meetings required exhaustive preparation and demanded a great deal of Rashab's energy. At private audiences the rabbi invested himself in his fellow man's concerns to then divest himself of them. This shift meant a great spiritual effort and such a deep understanding of the other that there was no room for argument. The connection with him was so intense, it demanded that the rabbi ascend to a higher plane to then return to Earth. Hence, once the audience was over, the rabbi would not allow any questions and must rest at least a few moments.

 

Rosenau, Tuesday, 6 January, 1903

ePub

The committee's next stop was in Rosenau. The clear air and the cold weather made this village an ideal place for a clinic where sufferers of the most severe lung conditions could recover. Rashab had previously checked himself in there for a year.

He had shared the ward at the sanatorium with other patients with similar symptoms who were meticulously checked by doctors who secretly trusted more in divine intervention than in the science they practiced.

Each patient had a private room and was cared for by nurses who checked his temperature and searched the sheets for traces of blood. A few red spots on a handkerchief, a fever a few tenths of a degree higher, weight loss and pale skin could mean all the difference between a treatable illness and fatal tuberculosis. Those in whom a more advanced stage of the disease was detected were put up in a special wing to which no convalescent wished to be sent.

After dinner, the patients would usually meet in a small room where they read, played board games or were entertained by a magician, a forgotten singer or an in-vogue journalist. Rashab, on the other hand, preferred to retire to his room, where he continued to further his studies in his beloved books, or meditated on his forefathers’ teachings.

 

Monday, 19 January, 1903

ePub

As soon as Freud rang the bell, Yosef Schneersohn opened the door and let him in.

“Welcome, doctor. I am Yosef Schneersohn.”

“Thank you,” replied Freud, handing his overcoat and umbrella to the driver who had brought him.

The rain, the cold and the darkness were left behind outside. Within the pale walls of the anteroom, illuminated by a faint light, the warmth was welcoming like the affableness of the man who had received him. There was also concern in his face.

Without wasting time, the young man bade him pass to the other room in which the doctor saw a man slumped in the soft armchair, who struggled to his feet to greet him.

“Pleased to meet you, Doctor Freud, my name is Sholom Dovber Schneersohn,” said Rashab in broken German.

Sigmund Freud nodded, allowing the man to return to his chair. To his side, on a claret-coloured chair, sat his son, and it was opposite them that Freud sat, and started the conversation without further ado:

“What seems to be the problem?”

 

Tuesday, 20 January, 1903

ePub

During the journey to the house where the rabbi was lodging, Freud thought about how to approach the case, but his thoughts slipped away and followed another course. The water brimmed over the vessels and persistently sought a course that he thought he knew well and had mastered: the relationship with his father. Had he heard that phrase from Jeremiah before? From whose lips? From his father or his grandfather? What other cultural ingredients had sifted through, soaked in and settled in his intellectual education? Might that tradition, which he thought he had pushed aside, have filtered into his scientific creation?

“It's interesting that you chose that verse to refer to the relationship between the body and the spirit,” said the rabbi, once they were alone in the same room as the previous day.

“Why?” asked Freud as he lit a cigarette and settled into a soft armchair.

“Because people sometimes tend to confuse matters of the mind with feelings,” said Rashab. “And yet, it is written that ‘He searches all hearts and understands all the imaginations of the thoughts’. What do you hope to achieve, then, Dr. Freud? To understand thoughts, or hearts?”

 

Wednesday, 21 January, 1903

ePub

As Freud's method gradually gained followers, his fame grew, as did his economic prosperity, which had kept him so preoccupied. So it was that he would move with his wife and five children to a more residential area of Vienna and take a much desired trip to Rome the following year. As always, the spatial distance was shorter than the social, and although he didn't feel unhappy in his new home, returning to Leopoldstadt, the suburb where the rabbi was staying, gave him a comforting feeling. He had spent his childhood there, in what was known as the “matzo island”, and his few old playmates still lived in the neighbourhood, as did his mother, who had just returned from her annual tuberculosis treatment. That day he stopped in to visit her and found her chatting with friends, who didn't miss a chance to tell him about all their ailments.

Amalia Freud asked them to leave her son in peace, but her eyes shone as Sigmund dealt with all their requests, as she reminded them that her golden boy had been named professor at the prestigious University of Vienna. Then, without knowing why, Sigmund entered the room that had been his as a boy. In the solitude of the bedroom, he could still hear his sisters complaining because only he had his own room, and his father telling them to leave their elder brother in peace, as he was studying and he didn't want him disturbed. His room was as it always was, as if expecting him, with his school books and notes. His favourite prints still hung on the walls, while the antique soldier collection stood on the shelves.

 

Thursday, 22 January, 1903

ePub

The rabbi sat in the same place as usual, and Freud immediately perceived that the previous day's bad-tempered conversation had helped clear the air. He observed that Rashab's behaviour was more docile, less belligerent.

“Tell me again how these symptoms started. What did you do that day?” asked Freud, trying to channel the meeting towards solving the symptoms that troubled the rabbi.

“In the morning, my son accompanied me to the cemetery, where I went to visit the graves of my father and my grandfather, blessed be their names. On the way back, we passed by the market. That Friday at midday, like every week, a crowd of people were doing their shopping for the Sabbath: housewives choosing the best fruit, children running about the place, tradesmen offering their produce. Joy was overflowing in Lubavitch. Many came up to me to say hello. I was contented, happy for my community, happy to find myself in my small town. Do you know that feeling, doctor?”

Freud thought for a moment while he re-evaluated the situation. His method consisted of listening the same way a doctor would sound a patient with a stethoscope, searching for sounds that revealed the source of the pathology, only in this case the sounds were words. This patient, who up until yesterday had questioned him, today sought to make emotional contact, one of complicity. Freud knew that he mustn't allow him to pry into his private life. But somehow the rabbi persisted in doing so. His intuition told him that he should tackle the therapy differently, and although he trusted his scientific method, this time he decided to follow his hunch and answered:

 

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