El Chai: The Living God v. Religion and the State


In The Undiscovered Self Jung argues at length for the importance of individuation as a protection from totalitarianism and fundamentalism. Rather then merely being an argument for an ethic of the individual, Jung’s analysis is a passionate and intriguing discussion of the psychodynamics of state, community, religion, and the individual psyche with interesting lessons about the dangers both of religion and of irreligion.

For Jung individuation consists on the one hand of the attainment of a conscious, vital and honest individual consciousness which is not dominated by collective norms or instincts.  On the other it consists  of freedom from domination by elements of the personal unconscious as well.

A person should be grounded both in individual instinct and in collective norms, but a true individual has a conscious, free and discerning relationship to this soil in which their consciousness grows.

Jung felt that the best defense against domination by collective societal norms was a personal experience of God. Only a transpersonal, unworldy ground could give the individual strength to resist the belief that they could be fulfilled by externals. Only being grounded in God could straighten the spine to resist being dominated by the pressure of collective norms.

Jung argued that in the absence of religious experience society would tend towards the deification of abstract concepts like “the state” or “the people”. If not grounded in a healthy and direct experience of the transcendent this would result in a dangerous deification of the State like he saw in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. A world without God will serve abstractions, and since abstractions like the “State” or “the Fatherland” do not exist they will in fact end up serving ruthless individualists who manipulate their allegiance for their own benefit.

This type of government is reminiscent of the ancient states of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Rome at times in their history. Here the ruler was a divine being- son of a god or a god himself. The state was itself  holy and the will of the government the will of the god/gods. The individual had no rights before the divine government.

By contrast, Pharoah’s mythic opponent, Moshe (Moses), was not divine. His mission was to free people from slavery, not to enslave. In this sense he can be seen as an opponent of political idolatry.

Moshe did not establish a government in Eretz Yisael: Israel existed as a tribal collective. The collective only had leaders in times of great neccesity, as exemplified by Yehoshua, who led the conquest of Canaan, and the charismatic prophet- warriors of the Book of Judges. Israel was not spiritually strong enough for this arrangement and things degenerated into political and moral anarchy, at which point Israel chose a King. Hashem (G-d) was not portrayed as happy with this request, pointedly saying to the charismatic prophet leader of the time, Shaul, “It is not you they are rejecting but Me.” The ideal was not a divinely appointed monarchy, and certainly not a divinized monarchy, but what Jose Faur has described as a “horizontal society”, the people led by God.

Thus Israel’s  government was not Holy. Though righteous Kings such as David and Shlomo (Solomon) were divinely chosen they did not speak with the voice of God and were not themselves gods, has v’shalom, nor divine children. This is contrasted with the nearby governments of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria and Rome.

This may help to explain a mysterious moment in the story of Purim, a Jewish holiday which just passed. Mordechai, one of the heroes of the story, is a Jewish man living in Shushan (ancient Persia). One day he meets with Haman, the newly appointed minister to the King. Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman, and this “insolence” results in Haman convincing the King to issue a genocidal decree against the Jews , who he portrays as subversive elements in the Kingdom.

What is hard to understand about this story is why Mordecai refuses to bow. It is not against Jewish law as we have it now to bow down to another human being in general or to a government minister in particular, if that’s the custom. The Midrash famously explains that Haman was wearing an idol on a necklace and that’s why Mordechai refused to bow. This explanation always seemed evasive to me, but it may be pointing in fact to a deeper truth.

The Midrash also says that Mordechai thought in the past Jews had bowed down to a statue of Nebechadnezzar, the god-king of Babylon, and if he bowed down to Haman and his necklace-idol he might encourage things to move in that direction again. It seems to me that this midrash may be pointing to what the pshat (simple text) of the story suggests to me anyway. This is that Mordechai still carried within him a deep Jewish tradition that was averse to deified government, and that was why he did not bow to Haman, a minister of a deified King of Persia. It was not that Mordechai refused to bow down to a government official: Mordechai refused to bow down to deified government.

Returning to Jung;s thoughts, we must be clear that by the protection offered by a relationship with “God” Jung did not mean “religion”. Jung thought that religions did a great service to the individual in providing meaning and guidance as well as a source of enriching and psychically balancing and protective narratives and rituals. Jung saw myth and ritual as essential for psychic well being. He also saw religion as having great negative potential to disrupt healthy individuation and to enable unhealthy structures of power similar to the power of the deified State.

Jung warned that when individuals in a religious community yeild all personal autonomy to abstract religious concepts like the Church (or in the Jewish case, we might say Halacha, Minhag Kehilla or the Gedolim) they make their own individuation- their birth as truly intelligent, morally whole individuals- incomplete. This weakness makes them vulnerable to possession by irrational forces in the “collective religious unconscious” or by unscrupulous, ignorant or arrogant leaders. In the least it may blind them to what is really happening in their community. The complete abdication of moral and intellectual responsibility, Jung said, re-creates the infantile paradise of total reliance on the parent- but at a cost.

The direct experience of G-d, according to Jung, also serves as a protection from the deification of the will of the religious community or its leaders.

There seems to me to be a parallel here to what is happening in some segments of the Orthodox Jewish community today, where abstract concepts rule and the community and the law are exalted considerably above individual consciousness and reasonable amounts of diversity of opinion in matters of law and philosophy, as existed more in the past. The argument is popular that individual reason and conscience are not up to the task of learning how to live according to Jewish thought and law. If Jung’s analysis is right this poses a considerable danger. It endangers the psychic health and discernment of observant Jews, and makes both individuals and community members vulnerable to possession by irrational forces and unrecognized manipulation by authority figures for their own ends.

Certainly one needs to take seriously, and to study deeply tradition, halacha, and collective norms, and to be humble before those more knowledgeable. I think this must be balanced, however, by respect for individual reason and conscience. One can only hope that voices of reason, diversity, and respect for the dignity of  the individual’s yirat shamayim (awe of God, or conscience), take firmer root and spread broader leaves under which to shelter those children of Israel who follow the ancient ways of the Sages.

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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