Category Archives: Logotherapy

Conscience Versus Superego, Continued

A while ago, I authored a piece entitled “Frankl’s Conscience Versus Freud’s Superego”, which, for whatever reason, has been the most read post on this blog.  I left off with the following thought/question:

But then, the question, which appears in my mentor Dr. Teria Shantall’s book The Quest for Destiny (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2003) is: how do you differentiate between an experience of true conscience (i.e. according to Frankl’s model) and superego-type pressures? In other words, how do you know that you are not simply acting out of guilt or because of demands, but are responding to a call to meaning where your desire to do what is right is authentic?

It seems to me that if we are to be able to answer this question, we would have to subvert some basic paradigm assumptions that we customarily make about life. Also, the difficulty in answering this question on highlights just how deeply embedded Freud’s model is in the subconscious of the average Westerner.

I want to suggest that there is a litmus test for a “conscience” versus “superego” experience.  I have found, in my study of Torah, that there are many concepts I have learned therein that are simply anti-intuitive.  Take the commandments of shaatnez and kashrus, for example.  The first is a prohibition against wearing garments comprised of an admixture of wool and linen, as well as deriving benefit from other products with this combination.  Manufacturers today and for many centuries past have made fabrics out of wool and linen, because the addition of linen makes the product feel lighter, while the wool’s weight enables linen to lay better.  Why on earth would one forgo the luxury or convenience that can come from such an alloy of materials?

The second consists of many laws that render certain types of animals unfit for consumption, but with no reason given.  The fact that a Jew may not eat pork is not because at one point refrigeration did not exist and therefore people had to contend with the problem of trichinosis; the prohibition against pork is not a public health mitzvah.  In fact, there were methods used to preserve meat in the ancient world, such as salting (which is why hard salami keeps for extended periods of time); why not just salt the pork, if the problem is trichinosis?  Rather, the reason why these animals are prohibited is because the Torah designates them as such.   But why?

Both of these aforementioned mitzvos fall under the category of chukim, statutes for which there is no rationale other than “that is the law”.  These are laws that must be followed without knowing G-d’s reason for them.  Furthermore, the tension between a person’s desires and the Torah’s parameters ought to be experienced and even preserved, according to some authorities.  Rambam, for example, states that a person should not say that he does not desire something forbidden to him by the Torah; rather, he should say that, in fact, he does desire the forbidden item, but desists because the Torah forbids it to him.  Does this imply that the Torah is supposed to operate upon us from the realm of the superego, like another–although divine–moral message?

To be continued…

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Do it Now!–The Meaning of Death

What is the meaning of death?

The finite quality of  life is disturbing for many people, not only because they are forced to consider their own lives as temporary, but because there is a commonly held notion that, since it will all end anyway, a person’s efforts in life are futile.  There was once a humorous poster of a woman standing over her husband’s grave.  On the headstone, there was a list of vices that the man successfully overcame, along with the respective year he gave each one up.  At the bottom of the list was the final inscription, “DIED ANYWAY”.  The use of the word “anyway” reveals a certain implication that, although one may succeed in this or that endeavor, for a certain amount of time, one will not succeed in overcoming the ultimate hampering of man’s striving–death–and that, by extension, death represent a type of immanent failure which then strips all events before it of meaning.  This notion seems to pit life against death.  Interestingly, I myself have also come across an attitude, when working with people who have very self-destructive habits such as drug addiction or promiscuity, of, “why should I give this up if I am going to die anyway?”

This concept of death is opposed by Logotherapy.  Frankl dubbed it “neurotic fatalism”, whereby one gives up one’s responsibility for one’s life by claiming helplessness in the face of inevitable factors, such as death.  In fact, says Frankl, the fact that life is temporary is precisely what bestows meaning upon it.  With a deadline as it were (pun intended), a person knows that he or she must accomplish now, that he or she ought not to let opportunities pass, that he or she should invest all of his or her efforts in realizing his or her values.  If life were eternal, that would indeed rob all endeavors in life of meaning.  There would be nothing negative about procrastination and nothing inherently meaningful about getting things done on time.

The inevitability of death enables a person to ask him or herself, “what can I/should I contribute to others, to the world, to life?”, “what can I/should I experience in the world, with others?”, “what stand should I take vis-a-vis what life is presenting me with?”   And he or she is encouraged by the finiteness of life to respond to these questions in the here and now, to rise to the occasion of life–which is here and now!  Life’s temporariness allows for the fullest expression of human consciousness and responsibility.  The person who is aware of the meaning of the moment is able to harvest this meaning through positively engaging in it, and is then able to store what has been reaped in the “full granaries of  the past”, preserved forever.  Death, then, can serve as a glorious monument to a life lived to the fullest.

I will leave this post with a question that I will attempt to answer next time.  How does the imperative to act now in this life according to Frankl, accord with our belief in the afterlife, where, in fact, life IS eternal?  What implications does a concept of Olam HaBa (the World to Come) have for our sense of mission in the here and now?


The Nihilism of Nir Barkat

This week, a bomb was detonated near Binyanei HaUma, a large convention center in Jerusalem.  The bomb killed one woman, Mary Jean Gardner from England, and injured many others.  The explosive went off near bus number 74, which is a bus line that serves my neighborhood.  Not only that, but all of the buses that pick up passengers at that bus stop come to and from my neighborhood.  Later that evening, I received an email from a neighbor reporting that a little girl from the neighborhood was undergoing surgery on her head as a result of injuries she sustained at the bomb site.  After that, another message landed in my inbox with a quote from Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat that really took me aback.  I did some research, and discovered that its source was an interview with Neil Cavuto from FoxNews. I suggest that you click on the link and read the interview, but here is a quote that I believe gives the basic gist of Barkat’s position:

Mayor, what’s the latest there?

NIR BARKAT, MAYOR OF JERUSALEM, ISRAEL: well, the latest is that, in Jerusalem, we’re going back to normal life.

And, naturally, the Israeli security forces are, I believe, will hunt the person and the find the root of the terrorists and pursue the maximum under law. And it’s very imperative and important for Jerusalem to go back to normal life as fast as possible, which we’re doing.

CAVUTO: Well, you guys are very good at that. And you have been sadly used to these kind of things, but lately not. And maybe since the building of that wall, these incidents have dramatically been curtailed. What now? What do you do if this is a sign of maybe more increased violence to come?

BARKAT: Well, I think terrorism is a global problem. And if anybody, here in Israel and in Jerusalem, we know how to deal with it.

It’s a local incident. And I believe that when we find the terrorists that is putting death in the — as — as — is the most important thing in a city that promotes life, I believe we’ll find the roots of it and get things back on track.

Israel and the world needs quiet. And we mustn’t get the terror to have any gains, zero gains for terrorists, and go back to normal life. It’s the best way to deal with terror.

Whether or not Barkat carefully crafted these statements just to sound good for the American media, while he secretly felt the gravity of the situation is irrelevant for the simple reason that everyone is responsible for what he or she says, no matter what the motivating factor.  Therefore, I reserve the right to take these statements at face value.

If I was the mayor of Jerusalem, I would have issued a completely different type of message, not only to the world but to the people whom I had been privileged to govern, the residents of Jerusalem.  I would have described the situation for what it was: a tragedy.  I would have made it clear that their pain was my pain and that their loss was my loss.  I would not glibly suggest that the best way to deal with terror is “to go back to normal life”, and then go on to talk about the upcoming Jerusalem marathon.

You don’t have to be religious, a rabbi, or even Jewish to have that kind of sensitivity.

You see, those people are not going to return to normal life.  When the media describes people as “hurt” or “injured”, that can mean anything from scratches and bruises to 3rd-degree burns and having one’s limbs blown off, G-d forbid.  Some people who are “only” injured live the rest of their lives in a vegetative state as a result of “mere” injuries.  Even those among the injured who will hopefully be restored to a state of perfect health will not return to normal life as it was before the bombing.  Nor will their respective families and loved ones.  Nor will the people who were in the vicinity who heard the blast, saw the glass shatter and witnessed the throng of ambulances and paramedics whisking the victims away to the city hospitals.  There are many, many people whose lives have been changed forever by that “local incident”, as Barkat describes it.

And when there is a directive to simply return to normal life, victims are turned into pariahs, because they stand as living reminders of that which we would like to ignore on our rush to resume our everyday affairs.  These are people who have been horribly traumatized, who need support and sympathy, and who will suffer terribly if their needs are perceived–and resented–as an imposition on others’ normal lives.  This is precisely what happened to the residents of Gush Katif, many of whom till this day have not been able to resume normal life.  And nobody wants to hear about it anymore.

I am an American living in Israel, and I have observed that a defense mechanism employed by many people here is lo kara klum, “nothing happened”.  Because of the intense pace of living here, and the often chaotic, sometimes explosive interpersonal reality of this culture, people develop an incredible amount of body armor; they go to great lengths to demonstrate how they are totally unaffected by things: unfortunate events, criticism, outrageous behavior, and in Barkat’s case, terrorist attacks.  But to brush these things aside in order to maintain the increasingly canned image of Israeli toughness is a form of existential neurosis.  Because tragedies are meaning moments, opportunities to take a stand towards inescapable fate, to reflect upon life, upon values, and to decide how to suffer without losing one’s human stature.

Frankl said, regarding the prisoners of the concentration camps, that, “the best of us did not return”.  I had trouble understanding this statement; did Frankl mean that those who did survive were of lesser caliber than those who did not?  If it was the strongest who  survived, whether through their physical endowments or their ability to psychologically adapt to their insane circumstances (i.e. choose to react to the stimulus in a way that affirmed life), is one to conclude that a Divine injustice was done, or that the world we live in now is populated by stronger, worse people?

I have concluded that what Frankl meant was, survival is not the litmus test of human victory; upholding one’s human stature, adhering to one’s values even under the most adverse of conditions is.  Thus, there were people who perished in the camps, but whose righteousness exceeded that of others who survived but were not able to maintain their values or character traits at the highest level.  The former were the true victors.

Similarly here, I do not believe that denying terrorists victory is the highest value, nor is displaying one’s toughness by simply resuming normal life.  Rather, trying to understand how we are being commissioned by this tragedy, seeing which values we can realize through this event, at the very least coming together to support and nurture the victims of the attacks and their families in the most empathetic way–this is a proper response to a very meaningful happening.  And I believe that it is the human response.  We do not need quiet; we need meaning.

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Let’s Get Honest About the “At Risk” Thing

We in the Orthodox Jewish world have become accustomed to using the term “at risk” to describe teenagers who, because of unmet needs and resulting negative feelings, go about trying to satisfy their needs in ways we find tragic, one of which is to cease their observance of Torah and mitzvos. This “off the derech” type has become a familiar personality in the cast of frum characters, like the water carrier or dairyman of the shtetl. The question is, when does this person become “at risk”? Is it only when he or she stops davening? When he or she begins to experiment with drugs? When he or she stops keeping Shabbos?

Logically speaking, anyone who is exposed to conditions that endanger him or her is to be considered “at risk”. And, if you noticed, I loaded this question earlier when I placed “at risk” within the framework of Non-Violent Communication (NVC).  People have needs and feelings. When their needs are met, they have good feelings. When their needs are unmet, they have bad feelings. But they continue to attempt to satisfy their needs.  The problem is, trying to satisfy one’s needs amidst bad feelings tends to lead a person down some very dysfunctional detours.

This basic needs/feelings formula may be an oversimplification in some regards, but I believe that (in combination with other factors) lies at the heart of the aggressive and self-destructive behaviors that are the hallmarks of the “at risk” kid. Recently, a client of mine told me that I should know, at the outset of the therapy, that he “self-medicates” by using marijuana. Listen to the language; “self-medicating” with drugs implies that the drug is being used as a way to deal with a problem–as opposed to simply being a risky form of escapism or hedonism. What is he medicating away? This, of course, becomes the first order of business in the therapy, since it is clear that there remains a meaning for the client that has not been tapped, that is being obscured by the pot–but because it is ensconced in the client’s pain, he does not want to deal with it.

Any therapist will tell you that much of a client’s pain is linked to early life experiences. You don’t have to be a Freudian analyst to say that. Taking the Logotherapeutic perspective as man as an open system, we see that people, from their first few moments in the world, reach out beyond themselves, first and foremost to explore the world.  And there is a basic need that exists in every human being to receive a response from that world that is affirming, one that tells us that, not only is the world a meaningful place, but also that our presence within it adds value, that we matter, that our arrival in this world is something to be celebrated.  Somewhere within the first few years of a person’s life, he or she will receive this message or something that contradicts this message.  If the latter, then here begins a painful saga: the frustration of the person’s most basic concern–meaning.  To have one’s path towards meaning obstructed is representative of the ultimate unmet need, and has far more impact than not receiving a tricycle for one’s birthday.

It is easy to blame the internet or “Western culture” as the wolf that ran off with our sheep, but if you work in the helping professions, you know that people generally turn towards destructive, hedonistic vices in an attempt to numb their existential pain–to “self-medicate”, to fill the void (or in Logotherapeutic terms, their existential vacuum).  But needing to fill a void implies that the void was created in their lives much earlier, before they encountered the internet and “Western culture”.

I believe if those of us in the Jewish community would like to understand and help our young people make healthy choices and lead happy, fulfilled, meaningful lives, we will have to ask very honest questions about the way we have set up our world.  We will have to strengthen those aspects of Jewish life that affirm, that promote a sense of meaning, fulfillment and belonging–and we will also have to take a stand against those elements of our own “system” that promote the opposite of these, elements that destroy meaning and ostracize those who seek it.


Conscience: Its Risks and Returns

In Logotherapy, there is a strong emphasis on conscience. In Frankl’s lexicon, the word differs from what many call conscience, which is closer to Freud’s concept of superego (I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog post). The logotherapeutic conscience refers to the mechanism, as it were, that exists in each human being, that enables him or her to perceive what life demands of him or her. This could mean perceiving meaning in a situation, sensing one’s own responsibility in that situation, or detecting one’s own sense of mission in life. The point is that in logotherapy, the idea is the conscience detects or receives these messages from beyond the self, as opposed to from within the self. Frankl illustrates this by pointing out the fact that, very often, situations arise where, due to the demands of one’s conscience, one goes against all of the didactic, parental, moral, and societal “rules”.

The person who comes from a conservative, patriotic family whose members have served in the military, but who becomes a conscientious (note the term) objector to an army draft, is a classic example of this. Here, it is possible to see the distinction being made between conscience as Frankl sees it and the superego proposed by Freud. If the conscience and superego were identical, this person should not be able to muster the strength to avoid army service, as all of the inputs in his life that have contributed to his superego have told him that serving in the army is a positive, even obligatory item. Yet, for reasons of conscience, the CO is able to take a stand against the values of the people around him and choose an alternative that he feels is right.

Does the fact that the conscience detects meaning from beyond mean that the person will always understand the message being delivered to him or her accurately and do what is objectively “right”? Isn’t it dangerous to live according to one’s intuition. What if is one is wrong? The Taliban also believe in their mission of conscience.

The mechanistic alternative, of course, is to view oneself as a collection of synapses and ego drives, taking every step to satisfy one’s desires and thereby bringing homeostasis to one’s system.

This is a topic that has come up recently in our training meetings. I have come to an idea that being right in an empirical sense is not the issue; rather, it is living one’s life according to one’s conscience that is of value in and of itself. A conscience-based life. Being directed by conscience, rather than mechanistic ego drives, has value in and of itself. It puts people in touch with what they believe in, enables them to live more congruently with their values and to detect their missions in life as they see them. The world we live in, influenced by mechanical materialism, does not allow people to listen to their consciences; it’s too “pre-scientific” and “metaphysical”. But this has brought about a world that suffers from a sense of meaninglessness. It’s not the being right that is meaningful; it is getting attuned with, and acting according to, what one perceives to be right. This is what can restore meaning to a person’s life

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“Three Lives”: Frankl Himself Is Met By Meaning

I am not sure who the author of the following account is, but it is a beautiful chronicling of the intersection of Logotherapeutic meaning and how we, as Jews, understand the concept of hashgacha pratis.

Three Lives

I want to share with you a story tonight. It is a story about a Jewish girl who became an opera singer, performing in front of Adolf Hitler, about a world-renowned Jewish spiritual master and a world-famous psychiatrist – and how their three lives converged. It was a strange phenomenon. The famed professor Victor Frankl, author of the perennial best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning and founder of Logotherapy, would send each year a check to Chabad of Vienna before the High Holidays. Nobody in the Chabad center or in the larger Jewish community could understand why. Here was a man who was not affiliated in any fashion with the Jewish community of Vienna. He did not even attend synagogue even on Yom Kippur. He was married to a very religious Catholic woman. He is not even buried in the Jewish cemetery in Vienna. Yet, he would not miss a single year of sending a contribution to Chabad before Yom Kippur.

The enigma was answered only in 1992.

I Am the First Emissary

Margareta Chajes walked into the office of my colleague, Rabbi Jacob Biederman, the ambassador of Chabad to Austria. Rabbi Biederman built the magnificent “Lauder Campus” in Vienna creating a Jewish renaissance in Austria, the country which gave birth to the greatest monster in Jewish and human history, Adolf Hitler yemach shemo. Margareta, an 85-year-old woman, was dressed very classy, and looked youthful and energetic. She told Rabbi Biederman: “I know you think you are the first shliach, you are the first emissary, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Vienna; but that is not the case. I have served as the first ambassador of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to the city, many years before you.”

You see, in the 1930’s Margareta was a young Jewish opera singer in Vienna. She even performed at the Saltzburg Opera Festival in 1939 in the presence of Hitler himself. She escaped to the US, but lost her family in the Holocaust. Years later, she paid a visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who, she said, became like a father figure to her.

From the Chassidim to the Opera

She began to relate her story. Margareta’s maiden family name was Hager; she was an heir to the famed Chassidic Hager family, producing the Rebbe’s and leaders of the Vishnitz Chassidic group.

As a young girl, she left home. The lifestyle and belief system of her parents did not inspire her. She traveled to the cultural center of the world, Vienna, where Margareta Hager, a granddaughter of the Vishnitzer Chassidic Rebbes, became an opera singer. Margareta performed during the 1930’s in the Salzburger Festspiele (pronounced: Fest Shpile) — The Salzburg Festival — a prominent festival of music and drama, held each summer within the Austrian town of Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

On 12 March 1938, German troops marched into Salzburg. The Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by Germany – was now complete, and Nazi ideology immediately affect the Salzburg Festival. All Jewish artists were banned, the leading Jewish conductors and composers were “deleted.” Yet Margareta Chajes was still performing. For the Festspiele in August 1939, Hitler himself made an appearance at two Mozart operas. He did not know that one of the young women singing so majestically was a young Jewess, a scion of a Chassidic family, Margareta Chajes. Shortly thereafter, the general management made a surprise announcement that the Festival would terminate on 31 August, a week ahead of the scheduled finale on 8 September. The reason was, supposedly, that the Vienna Philharmonic was required to perform at the Nuremberg Party Convention. But the Germans were brilliant liars. The true reason became apparent on September 1st when the German army invaded Poland and unleashed the Second World War – exactly 70 years ago — which exterminated a third of our people, including much of Margareta’s family. On the very night after her performance at the Salzburg Festspiele, close friends smuggled her out of Germany to Italy. From there she managed to embark on the last boat to the US before the war broke out just a few days later. Margareta settled in Detroit, where she married a fine Jewish young man with the family name Chajes (a grandson of one of the most famous 19th century Polish Rabbis and Talmudic commentator, the Maharatz Chayos, and they gave birth to a beautiful daughter.

Forward the tape recorder of history. It is now many years after the war. Jews were rebuilding their lives and their careers. The rabbis were rebuilding their communities. But one rabbi was thinking of not just of his own community. You see, the daughter of Margareta married a prominent Jewish doctor, who was honored by the dinner of a Chabad institution in the US and his mother-in-law, Margareta, acquired an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

“I walked into the Rebbe’s room,” related Margareta to Rabbi Biederman, “I cannot explain why, but suddenly, for the first time since the Holocaust, I felt that I could cry. I – like so many other survivors who have lost entire families — never cried before. We knew that if we would start crying, we might never stop, or that in order to survive we can’t express our emotions. But at that moment, it was a though the dam obstructing my inner waterfall of tears was removed. I began sobbing like a baby. I shared with the Rebbe my entire story: Innocent childhood; leaving home; becoming a star in Vienna ; performing in front of Hitler; escaping to the US; learning of the death of my closest kin.

The Rebbe listened. But he not only listened with his ears. He listened with his eyes, with his heart, with his soul, and he took it all in. I shared everything and he absorbed everything. That night I felt like I was given a second father. I felt that the Rebbe adopted me as his daughter.

Two Requests

At the end of my meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I expressed my strong desire to go back and visit Vienna. The Rebbe requested from me that before I make the trip, I visit him again. A short while later, en route to Vienna, I visited the Rebbe. He asked me for a favor: to visit two people during my stay in the city. The first was Viennese Chief Rabbi Akiva Eisenberg, and give him regards from the Rebbe (the Rebbe said that his secretary would give me the details and literature to give to Rabbi Eisenberg). The second person he wanted me to visit I would have to look up myself. The Rebbe said that he was a professor at the University of Vienna and his name was Dr. Victor Frankl.

You Will Prevail

“Send Dr. Frankl my regards,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe said to me, “and tell him in my name that he should not give up. He must remain strong and continue his work with vigor and passion. If he continues to remain strong, he will prevail.”

Speaking in German so Margareta would understand, the Rebbe spoke for a long time about the messages he wished to convey to Dr. Frankl. Close to forty years later she did not recall all of the details, but the primary point was that Frankl should never give up and he should keep on working to achieve his goals with unflinching courage and determination.

I didn’t understand a word the Rebbe said. Who was Dr. Frankl? Why was the Rebbe sending him this message? Why through me? I did not have an answer to any of these questions, but I obeyed.

Margareta traveled to Vienna. Her visit with Rabbi Eisenberg was simple. Meeting Victor Frankl proved far more difficult. When she arrived at the University they informed her that the professor has not shown up in two weeks. There was thus no way she could meet him. After a few failed attempts to locate him at the University, Margareta gave up.

Yet feeling guilty not to fulfill the Rebbe’s request, she decided to violate Austrian manners. She looked up the professor’s private home address, traveled there and knocked at the door.

A woman opened the door. “May I see Herr Frankl please?”

“Yes, please wait.”

“I saw a room filled with crosses,” Margareta continues her tale. “It was obvious that this was a Christian home. I thought to myself, that this must be a mistake; this can’t be the person whom the Lubavitcher Rebbe wanted me to encourage.” You see, in 1947 Frankl married his second wife — a very devout Catholic, Eleonore Katharina Schwindt. Victor Frankl showed up a few moments later, and after ascertaining that he was the professor at the University, she said she had regards for him. “He was extremely impatient, and frankly looked quite uninterested. It felt very awkward.” “I have regards from Rabbi Schneerson in Brooklyn, New York,” Margareta told him. “Rabbi Schneerson asked me to tell you in his name that you must not give up. You ought remain strong and continue your work with unflinching determination and you will prevail”.

“Do not fall into despair. March on with confidence,” Rabbi Schneerson said, “and I promise, you will achieve great success.” Suddenly, the uninterested professor broke down. He began sobbing like a baby. He could not calm down. I did not understand what was going on. I just saw him weeping uncontrollably.

“Wow,” Dr. Frankl told me. “This Rabbi from Brooklyn knew exactly when to send you here.” He could not thank her enough. “So you see Rabbi Biederman?” Margareta completed her tale. “I have been an emissary of the Rebbe to Vienna many years before you came around.”

Forever Grateful

Rabbi Biederman was intrigued. Victor Frankl was now 87 years of age, and was an international celebrity. He had written 32 books which were translated into 30 languages. His book “Man’s Search for Meaning” has been deemed by the Library of Congress as being one of the ten most influential books of the 20th century. What was the secret behind the Rebbe’s message to Victor Frankl?

“I called him immediately,” Biederman recalls. “Do you remember Margarete Chajes?” Rabbi Biederman asked Dr. Frankl. “No,” the professor responds. Well, he can be forgiven. More than 40 years had gone by. “Do you remember a regards she gave you from Rabbi Schneerson in Brooklyn?” Rabbi Biederman asked the professor. Suddenly, a change in his voice. Dr. Frankl melted like butter in a frying pan. “Of course I remember. I will never forget it. My gratitude to Rabbi Schneerson is eternal.” And Victor Frankl began to unveil the “rest of the story,” which captures one of the greatest debates of the last 100 years, encapsulates the essence of Jewishness and reveals to us the secret of Kol Nidrei.

In the Camps

Victor Frankl was born in 1905 – three years after the Lubavitcher Rebbe — in Vienna. The young Frankl studied neurology and psychiatry and in 1923 became part of the inner circle of one of the most famous Jews of the time, Dr. Sigmund Freud, the “Father of Psychoanalysis” who lived and practiced in Vienna.

The “Final Solution” did not skip over the Frankl family (7). Victor’s mother and father were murdered in Auschwitz; his first Jewish wife, pregnant, was murdered in Bergen-Belsen. All of his siblings and relatives were exterminated. Professor Frankl was a lone survivor (he had one sister who immigrated to Australia before the war.) He returned to Vienna where he taught neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna.

The Great Debate

Already before the war, and even more so during his three years in the Nazi death camps, Victor Frankl developed ideas which differed radically from Freud. Yet the entire faculty of his department at the University consisted of staunch Freudian scholars. Academically they hunted down Victor Frankl calling his ideas “pseudo-science,” and the joke of the century.

You see, friends, this was no small debate. These two Jews were debating the very meaning of human identity and Victor Frankl had been advocating a view extremely alien to the then-dominant Freudian outlook. In a word: A human being has a SOUL, what we Jews call a Neshamah.

Freud, like most medical schools, emphasized the idea that all things come down to physiology. The human mind and heart could be best understood as a “side effect” of brain mechanisms. Humans are like machines, responding to stimuli from within or from without, a completely physical, predictable and godless machine, albeit a very complicated machine, creating psychotics, neurotics, and of course psychiatrists. [The difference? The neurotic build castles in the air; the psychotic lives in them, and the psychiatrist? – he collects the rent from both.]

Victor Frankl disagreed. He felt that Freud and his chevrah reduced the human being to a mere mechanical creature depriving him or her of his true essence. “If Freud were in the concentration camps,” Frankl wrote, “he would have changed his position.” Beyond the basic natural drives and instincts of people, he would have encountered the human “capacity for self-transcendence.” “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Of course, there are many things about our life we have no control over. But there is a dimension of the human self – the essence of human identity — which nothing and nobody can control. It is transcendent by its very “nature” – free, uninhibited, wholesome and deeply spiritual, never defined by life’s circumstances and limitations, but rather free to define them, to define their meaning and message.

A person – he taught — was not a son of his past, but the father of his future.


But in the University in the 40’s and 50’s they defined Frankl’s ideas as fanatic religiosity, raising up all the old, unscientific notions of conscience, religion and guilt. It was unpopular for students to attend his courses.

“The situation was horrible,” Frankl told Rabbi Biederman. “Rabiner Biederman!” Frankl said. He then added these shocking words: “I could survive the German death camps, but I could not survive the horrific derision of my colleagues at the university who would not stop taunting me and undermining my every iota of progress.” “The pressure against me was so severe, that I decided to give up. It was simply too much to bear emotionally. I was drained, exhausted, depressed. I fell into a melancholy. I was watching all of my life-work fade away right before my eyes. One day, sitting at home, I began drafting my resignation papers for my University job. In the battle between Freud and Frankl – Freud would be triumphant. Soul-less-ness would prove more powerful than soul-full-ness.”


“And then suddenly, as I am sitting in my home, depressed, defected, feeling down, in walks a beautiful woman. She gives me regards from a Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneerson from Brooklyn, New York. His message? ‘Don’t dare to give up. Don’t dare to despair. If you will continue your work with absolute determination, you will prevail.’ I could not believe my ears. Somebody in Brooklyn, no less a Chassidic Rebbe, knew about my predicament? And what is more – he cared about my predicament? And what is more – he sent someone to locate me in Vienna to shower me with courage and inspiration? I began to sob. I cried uncontrollably. I was so moved. I felt like a transformed man. That is exactly what I needed to hear. Someone believed in me, in my work, in my contributions, in my ideas about the infinite transcendence and potential of the human person and in my ability to prevail.”

“That very moment I knew that I would not surrender. I tore up my resignation papers. New vitality was blown into me. I was confident, secure, and motivated.” “Indeed,” Victor continues, “his words came true. A few months later, I was given a chair at the University.” And a short while later, Frankl’s magnum opus “Man’s Search for Meaning” was translated into English. It became not only an ongoing bestseller to this very day, but has been deemed as one of the 10 most influential books of the 20th century. The professor’s career began to soar. The once-scoffed-at professor became one of the most celebrated psychiatrists of a generation. “Man’s Search for Meaning” has been translated into 28 languages and has sold over 10 million copies during his life time. Frankl became a guest lecturer at 209 universities on all five continents, held 29 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, and received 19 national and international awards and medals for his work in psychotherapy.

His brand of therapy inspired thousands of other books, seminars, workshops, new-age and spiritual groups, which have all been based on Frankl’s ideas of the unique ability of the human to choose its path discover meaning in every experience. From Scot Peck’s “Road Less Traveled” to Steven Covey’s Seven Habits, and hundreds of other bestsellers during the last 30 years, all of them were students of Victor Frankl’s perspectives.

Victor Frankl concluded his story to Rabbi Beiderman in these words:

“איך וועל אים אייביק דאנקבאר זיין”

“I will forever be grateful to him,” to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

I Love Chabad

Not knowing who he was talking too, Frankl added: “A number of years ago Chabad established itself here in Vienna. I became a supporter. You too should support it. They are the best…” Rabbi Biederman finally understood why he was getting a check in the mail before each Yom Kippur. Their conversation was over.

Tefilin Each Day

But the story is not over. In 2003, Dr. Shimon Cown, a Lubavitch Australian expert on Frankl, went to visit his non-Jewish widow, Elenor, in Vienna. She took out a pair of tefilin and showed it to him. “My late husband would put these on each and every day,” she said to him. Then she took out a pair of tzitzis he made for himself to wear. At night in bed, Victor would recite the book of Tehilim (Psalms). You get it? On Yom Kippur nobody saw him in shul, but a day of tefilin he did not miss. When they asked in interviews whether he believed in G-d, he would usually not give a direct answer. But a day of tefilin he would not miss! What a Jew!

The Soldier

In 1973, an Israeli soldier lay in the hospital, depressed and dejected, saying that he feels like committing suicide. You see, he lost both his legs during the Yom Kippur war. He felt that without legs his future was hopeless. One day, his doctor walked into the room. The soldier was sitting upright, and looked relaxed and happy. The doctor looked at him, and saw that his eyes regained that passionate gaze. What happened? The doctor asked. The soldier pointed to his night table. He has just finished reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” and the stories about how certain Jews behaved in the death camps. He learnt of the capacity of the human being to choose to turn adversity into triumph by discovering the meaning in his life’s experiences. “This transformed me,” the soldier said.

One Message

This, friends, was the potential the Rebbe saw when he decided to send Margareta on a mission to Vienna. Imagine: One single message from a man in Brooklyn who cared literally transformed tens of millions of lives! And what was the message? Don’t despair. You will prevail. Because the Lubavitcher Rebbe was determined to get out to the world this message: we really do have a soul; the soul is the deepest and most real part of us; and that we will never be fully alive if we don’t access our souls. What is a soul? A soul is our inner identity, our raison d’être. The soul of music is the composer’s vision that energizes and gives life to the notes played in a musical composition. The actual notes are like the body expressing the vision and feeling of the soul within them. Each soul is the expression of G-d’s intention and vision in creating that particular being. The soul is the very fabric of our being—as conceived by G-d’s vision in wanting us to exist. Each of us is a unique musical note in a grand cosmic composition. It is incumbent upon us to discover our soul—our higher calling—and play its unique music.

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Frankl’s Conscience Versus Freud’s Superego

In the course of my training in Logotherapy, I have been asked to define my perception of the difference between an experience of true conscience and superego-type pressures. First, let us define the two things according to their respective models.

Frankl’s notion of conscience is a spiritual mechanism possessed by every human being for detecting the transcendent meaning that comes from beyond him or herself and his or her situation, that enables him or her to make the one right choice in that moment. Note that several assumptions are implicit in this idea. One, that there exists an objective meaning that transcends the subjective context in which an individual finds him or herself. Two, that there is a realm called “beyond”. Three, that there can be one right meaning, decision, task or exercise of responsibility in a given moment.

Of course, Frankl’s use of the term “spiritual” accords with a more secular understanding of that term that the more specific manner in which a religious person understands it, and I am personally wrestling with the question as to whether it can be adapted to accomodate the Torah’s definition of spiritual. At present, I have concluded that Frankl’s spirituality is a step down from religious spirituality, but his model can be stepped up, or a new dimension added to it based on Torah.

Freud’s superego is the third character in his structural model of the personality, the others being the ego and the id. The id is the conglomerate of all the raw drives that demand satisfaction in a human being, whereas the superego is its opponent, an internalized policeman or a father figure, that subdues this id through guilt and allows the person to thus function normally within the context of society, according to that which is deemed acceptable behavior in society. The superego is fueled by the didactic instruction we have received in many forms, whether through parental discipline, religious training, school, etc. Although the superego has two divisions, the ego ideal and the conscience, we will focus here on the conscience.

Clearly, Freud’s model does not allow for there being an objective meaning (read: morality), but rather, what is right and wrong depends on the cultural or societal context in which the individual is. In addition, a person’s ability to manifest right or good is essentially only a function of the repression of their animal-like id drives. This is how Freud defined conscience. For this reason, we might view a criminal as being unable to make moral decisions because of his impaired–or absent–superego.

Frankl would disagree. A criminal is no different from any other human being in his or her ability to tune into meaning and hear the demands that meaning makes upon him or her! Hence, Frankl’s emphasis on the uncovering of responsibility in the client. Freud’s client, by contrast, can plead insanity. There was a notable incident in Frankl’s life when he spoke to a group of prisoners who were slated for execution, and he prefaced his remarks by telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they were all guilty of their crimes. Here, Frankl was demonstrating his idea that becoming guilty is one of the prerogatives of man, and therefore functions as a result, not of his being disadvantaged, but of his freedom to choose. The inmates indicated that they had never felt so understood by any of the psychological professionals who had addressed them previously.

But then, the question, which appears in my mentor Dr. Teria Shantall’s book The Quest for Destiny (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2003) is: how do you differentiate between an experience of true conscience (i.e. according to Frankl’s model) and superego-type pressures? In other words, how do you know that you are not simply acting out of guilt or because of demands, but are responding to a call to meaning where your desire to do what is right is authentic?

It seems to me that if we are to be able to answer this question, we would have to subvert some basic paradigm assumptions that we customarily make about life. Also, the difficulty in answering this question on highlights just how deeply embedded Freud’s model is in the subconscious of the average Westerner.

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Viktor Frankl’s Stand Against Psychoanalysis

I have been training in Logotherapy for most of this year, under a quite capable and accomplished teacher, Dr. Teria Schantall, who herself was a student of Viktor Frankl, and who currently administers the Institute’s program in both in Israel and South Africa. Although I am as loath as anyone else to point towards a secular discipline and exclaim, “this is what the Torah meant!”, I must say that Logotherapy does seem to articulate certain ideas that bear an uncanny resemblance to certain concepts that can be found in Torah. This fact makes its understanding both useful and potentially dangerous, because a person encountering the secular discipline may be tempted to see Torah through the prism of the secular discipline, instead of the reverse.

Frankl said,

Freud saw only unconscious instinctuality, as represented in what he termed the id; to him, the unconscious was a reservoir of  repressed instinctuality…It might be said that psychoanalysis has “id-ified”, and “de-self-ified”, human existence.  Insofar as as Freud degraded the self to a mere epiphenomenon, he degraded the self and delivered it to the id; at the same time, he denigrated the unconscious, in that he saw in it only the instinctual and overlooked the spiritual.” (2000, pp. 32-3)

Frankl’s objection to the reduction of the human being to a mere array of drives, and to the invalidation of the spiritual elements in man, serves as a critical voice against a paradigm that–I would suggest–most Western people have assimilated wholesale into their way of thinking.  Logotherapy as Frankl conceived it may have been nonsectarian in its conception, but had this path gained ascendancy before Freudian psychoanalysis, Western society might have been a lot more conducive to a life of meaning and spiritual growth.  This is not to deny the important contribution Freud made to the development of psychology, but to point out where it has been a stumbling block as a influence on society. 

Consider: Freud considered the repression of the sexual and aggressive drives (i.e. in their unrestrained, “id” forms) to be a key element in human misery, neurosis, and anxiety.  Yet, in contrast to the prudish Victorian era during which his theories were conceived, these very drives are ensconced and out in the open today.  It is difficult to imagine being able to traverse any maor city without being assaulted from all sides by media–whether billboards, radio and television programs, movies–or fashion that promotes violence and prurience in very explicit forms.  Cultures around the world have altered their relationships to these things, and have made shifts in consciousness, and have legalized that which was previously unthinkable.  Sex and violence are everywhere.  The news media itself has become a pornographic horror film, because that’s what brings higher ratings.  Are people happier today, now that these “drives” have been given free reign? 

What Logotherapy offers us is the possibility that we bear responsibility for ourselves and our actions, and that our resposibility to be meaning-oriented has to transcend merely being “driven”.  But isn’t this exactly what the Torah teaches us? 

 The Ramchal, in Derech Hashem, gives a description of man as an overlap of the animal and the angelic.  He possesses a body like an animal and a soul like an angel, but he is potentially greater than both, because he can choose to give pride of place to his soul through the mitzvos and service of G-d, and thereby purify his body to the extent where it becomes a vehicle for this holy purpose.  The animal cannot transcent its body, nor does the angel have the choice of whether to serve G-d or not; both are hardwired to do what each does. 

Human beings have a choice between “death” and “life”, between nihilism and meaning, and as this weeks parsha tells us, “you shall choose [the] life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).  This is only possible if we conceive of man as a responsible being, capable of choosing the transcendent path of values and meaning–but it is impossible if man is merely a creature composed of an atomistic array of ego drives.

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