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From Haroses to Neurosis — A Freudian View on the new Haredi “Personal Mechitza”

Who says religious people aren’t funny? Where is Jay Leno when you need him?

From the rabbinic savants who introduced separate sidewalks, segregated buses, and separate shopping hours for men and women in Israel, their rabbis are now encouraging Haredi airline passengers to hang a new type of mechitza – a halachic barrier to separate the sexes – around the top of their airplane seats, to shield their eyes from immodest clad female neighbors and in-flight movies. [1] From what I have read in the newspapers, there is a considerable marketing campaign to encourage the Haredi community to purchase the new and improved–Traveler Mechitza.

The designer of this new device, says that the Velcro and nylon mechitzah goes around the head and is mostly in front of the passenger’s face, protruding only a little to the sides. Look out Calvin Klein, there’s a new fashion designer in town!

By the way, I think I just found my new Purim costume!

I can just see the folks of Hamastan or the Taliban saying to themselves, “Why didn’t we think of that first?” Some psychologists might refer to it as either “Haredi envy,” or “Taliban envy,” as both of these fanatical groups compete in the never-ending game of, “I Am More Frum Than You!” One friend of mine wrote, “That’s why I call them the Tallitban. It’s exactly the same monstrous pathology. This reminds me of a saying I once heard from  one of my favorite religious teachers, “Mystics recognize each other. Fundamentalists see only themselves and sin.”

Personally, I think the Haredim are obsessed with sex, 24/7. Maybe the rest of the human race is also obsessed with sex, but the majority of our planet doesn’t seem to have a problem with at least admitting it–unlike the Haredim or the Taliban. Frankly, I am surprised the Haredim are not demanding separate planes with Haredi stewards (Oops, I almost said “stewardesses’) walking down the aisles praying.

We must wonder why did it take over 2000 years for our great rabbis to come up with a new device to keep the sexes apart?

Most modern psychologists and therapists probably are not deeply in love with Freudian psychology, but I have a pretty healthy respect for Freud’s view of religion as an obsessional type of neurosis. Unlike Jung, Frankl, Rodgers, Fromm, and others who saw religions as serving a potentially positive function in society and in the life of the individual, Freud only concerned himself with the pathological aspects of religion that constricts rather than liberates the human spirit from its shackles.

Freud wrote back in 1907 in his book, “Religion as Obsessional Neurosis” that the religious people he observed, all suffered from an overwhelming feeling of guilt:

We may say that the sufferer from compulsions and prohibitions behaves as if he were dominated by a sense of guilt, of which, however, he knows nothing so that we must call it an unconscious consciousness of guilt, in spite of the apparent contradiction in terms. This sense of guilt has its source in certain early mental events, but it is constantly being revived by renewed temptations which arise whenever there is a contemporary provocation. Moreover, it occasions a lurking sense of expectant anxiety, an expectation of misfortune, which is linked, through the idea of punishment, with the internal perception of the temptation. . . [3]

Compulsively religious people are always afraid of losing control of their inhibitions. They fear not just the external world around them, they also fear that their internal world might implode within them.  Obsessive and compulsive behavior creates the illusion that they are in control of both their action  internal and external world.

I came across a citation from Victor Frankl’s “The Unheard Cry for Meaning,” where he writes about his travels through Mexico back in 1975, when he once decided to visit a Benedictine monastery. After having a discussion with the monastic  supervisor about the issues of neurosis and and how one may extricate oneself from its grip, the head of the monastery decided to let the monks undergo therapy with Frankl. Surprisingly, after Frankl finished, about 80% of the monks decided to leave the monastery!  By addressing the real underlying issues that religiously compulsive people have about themselves, they have a much greater chance of living a healthier and more honest–not to mention psychologically well-adjusted–way of life.

Lastly, Abraham Maslow’s insights develop Freud’s concept of religion as neurosis even further. Religion becomes neurotic whenever it frustrates our basic human needs, thus  short-circuiting the possibility of self-actualization. His exposition explains the religious and social phenomena  we are witnessing in the Haredi world with its endless penchant for obsessive-compulsive behavior–all of which is masked under the guises of Halachah:

The neurosis in which the search for safety takes its dearest form  is in the compulsive-obsessive in Compulsive-obsessives try frantically to order and stabilize the world so that no unmanageable, unexpected or unfamiliar dangers will ever appear; They hedge themselves about with all sorts of ceremonials, rules and formulas so that every possible contingency may be provided for and so that no new contingencies may appear.

They are much like the brain injured cases, described by Goldstein, who manage to maintain their equilibrium by avoiding everything unfamiliar and strange and by ordering their restricted world in such a neat, disciplined, orderly fashion that everything in the world can be counted upon. They try to arrange the world so that anything unexpected (dangers) cannot possibly occur.

If, through no fault of their own, something unexpected does occur, they go into a panic reaction as if this unexpected occurrence constituted a grave danger. What we can see only as a none-too-strong preference in the healthy person, e. g., preference for the familiar, becomes a life-and-death, a necessity in abnormal cases.

Obviously, the Haredi are really quite unhappy and frustrated because they are failing to realize their true human potential. An army of social workers and therapists might actually help heal their tragic lives.

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Notes:

[1] Jerusalem Post, Feb.19, 2010.

[2] Abraham Maslow,  “A Theory of Human Motivation,”  Psychological Review, Vol. 50, NO. 4, pp. 370-396.

[3] Sigmund Freud and Peter Gay, “The Freud Reader” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 433.



Discussion

  1. Judy Schechtman  February 21, 2010

    The piece was entertaining, humorous and is psychologically on target.

    Can you imagine what those poor Haredi women must feel about their bodies? What the Haredi community needs is a good therapist.

    The Haredi rabbis’ view of a woman’s body is pathological. Our bodies are beautiful and miraculous. We can bear children, but we cannot bear Haredi rabbis.

    Judith Schechtman LCSW

    (reply)
  2. Yochanan Lavie  February 23, 2010

    I heard that Cohanim visit the Rebbe’s Ohel by wearing a cardboard box with suspenders, and overshoes. This is halacha by Monty Python, as is the porta-mechitza.

    (reply)

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