Sunday, October 22, 2006

Jewish Narcissism

In my last post ‘Dvekus for Dummies’, I said (I’m beginning to quote myself; very sad.):

‘’The opposite of dvekus is self absorption. Religious narcissism frequently leads to a self absorbed type of Judaism that is most concerned about how the chosen subgroup is really better than all others. For narcissistic Jews, no one but members of their small group is quite good enough, and even within their group, they are not quite sure.’’ Such Jews have fallen pathologically in love with their own and their group’s religious perfection.

Now there is something of a difficulty here. Religion is a serious business. Every individual and group naturally feels their way is right and good. How do we differentiate between a natural commitment to some particular religious practices, e.g. Right Wing Conservadox with a dollop of Reconstructionist ideas, and a pathological self absorption in one’s own religious way?

It’s possible to have fanatic Reform Jews who are closed to any other way of being Jewish and, it’s possible to have flexible tolerant charedim. So, the right- wing left-wing indicators are of little value. Following Kohut, and generalizing his results to groups, I want to offer some signs, none of which are conclusive, but may very well be indicative of an infantile narcissistic attitude with respect to one’s religious position. Here are some signs:

Object love: The opposite of loving yourself is to love objects outside yourself. At the most basic human level it involves love of spouse, children, parents, friends, community, and to a lesser degree, all other Jews and, ultimately, mankind. At the higher, more sublimated level, it involves a dvekus to/or immersion in some transcendental object, God, Torah, metaphysical truths, and in a more secular context, art, music, the law, science, and so on. The more secure a group is regarding their own acceptability, the more a religious stripe has a sense of who they are, and the more safely internalized their system of values-the more self-confidently and effectively will they be able to offer love, care, and empathy for other stripes. I would attribute much of the backbiting and hostility between charedim and Modern Orthodox to the failure of the above conditions to be satisfied. Both groups are not secure in their acceptability to others. Both groups are defining who they are as they go along, and both groups have not yet fully internalized their own system of values. They are not secure enough, are too much on the defensive to be generous and appreciative of each other.

Humor: When a group’s values and ideals are secure in a non-defensive way, it becomes possible for religious ideals to coexist with a sense of proportion with respect to these ideals, which can then be expressed through humor. On the other hand, a fanatic group is, at best, capable of sarcasm, but are never really able to get any distance on their preoccupations. Making a joke about something held sacred is taboo. It is frequently said extremist Muslims don’t have a sense of humor, and there is no reason to doubt that such an observation is correct. Some Jewish religious stripes continue to have a sense of infantile grandiosity, which enables them to aspire to being sovereign over all of Jewish life and to imagine themselves as most perfect in the eyes of God. When these feelings are transformed so that they accord with more realistic perceptions, the feelings of triumphalism will give way to a greater sense of humor, and an ability to see these aspirations in a more realistic light. Until then, triumphalist groups are a humorless lot when it comes to questions of their special place in Gods eyes.

Wisdom: Wisdom can generally be considered one of the cognitive and emotional peaks of human development, and is associated, usually, with late-middle and old-age. When the ideals and the aspirations of a group are fully integrated, then the group begins to behave in a manner that exhibits wisdom. In the case of an individual, it is quite common that a modicum of wisdom appears at the end of a successful psychoanalysis. When such wisdom appears, the patient is able to maintain his self-esteem despite the recognition of his limitations, and to feel friendly, respect, and gratitude towards the analyst despite the recognition of the analyst’s conflicts and limitations. As they part, the analyst and the patient will admit that not all problems have been solved and that some of the frailties remain. These frailties, however, are now familiar and can be contemplated with tolerance and composure. (Kohut 328) The same with competing groups. Each group recognizes their own, and the other’s limitations and frailties, but they are now familiar and instead of the mutual accusations, groups that exhibit a modicum of wisdom can contemplate the other with tolerance and composure. They feel free to show mutual respect and gratitude without feeling threatened. Until a group achieves a degree of wisdom, its members can be condescending to the religious competition, but find it difficult to show respect, appreciation or empathy.

It is no accident that after God and the Israelites (and the reader) have been through so much, so many ups and downs together, beginning with Abraham and ending with the return from the Babylonian exile and the cessation of prophecy, a wisdom literature appears in the Bible in the form of Ecclesiastes Proverbs and Job. Everyone, so to speak, is older and wiser and has arrived at some understanding of the conflicts and limitations in the relationship.


At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> Until then, triumphalist groups are a humorless lot when it comes to questions of their special place in Gods eyes.

Good line.

At 6:19 AM, Anonymous g weaver said...

I believe this topic is worthy of a book. If it's already been written, let me know.

You are saying that not only those of Jewish heritage religion there are people using their religious affiliation and practice as a way to express their narcissism which can be seen in their lack of appreciation, empathy, respect for people outside their group, thier lack of humor from taking themselves too seriously being self absorbed, and their failure to recognize limitations, frailities, and maybe inconsistencies and idiosyncracies of their own group.

Thanks for your article.

At 5:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic analysis and is also attributed to other religious groups as well.

Is that not how the elements of extremism is found in various individuals that engage in terrorist acts as well?

Well done.


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