(How and why Jewish reality does not correspond with the norms of psychological science)
The history of the Jewish people is full of miracles and paradoxes, and the biggest paradox and miracle of all is that it still exists. In conditions of diaspora and hostile encirclement, relentless persecution and the impossibility of fighting back, when the whole history of the people appears to have been written by others, by the nations among which they lived, switching continually from occasional and contemptuous tolerance to frequent and unrestrained fury, in such conditions as these according to all the laws of psychological science you would have expected the development of mass and individual “learned helplessness”.
What is “learned helplessness” exactly? In experiments on animals and studies of humans “learned helplessness” develops when a subject becomes convinced that the situation he is in does not suit him at all, but he is powerless to change it no matter how he behaves, no matter what he does. For example, an animal keeps getting electric shocks regardless of how hard it tries to escape or find shelter. A human, who for ethical reasons cannot be given electric shocks, at least in the laboratory if not in the real world, is presented with impossible tasks one after the other. Every time he fails, the experimenters reproach him for not trying hard enough or tell him they hadn’t expected him to be so stupid and ham-fisted. The lesson in helplessness is considered fully learned if, after a certain time, the animal or the human becomes resigned to their fate, submits to it passively and makes no attempt to find a way out not only from this, truly hopeless situation, but also from any other. Once learned helplessness has formed, an animal is unable to find a safe corner in a cage, while another animal which has not been exposed to this conditioning locates it without difficulty. A human is unable to solve tasks which in other circumstances would be child’s play for him. The sting in the tail of “learned helplessness” is that, in certain circumstances, it has a tendency to expand and spread to activities which remained unaffected during the ‘learning’ process. So, a person who encounters insurmountable, artificially created difficulties at work and who lacks the courage to quit his job, can find after a while that he has trouble with sexual relationships, that he cannot solve problems at home. Goodness knows how many men suffering from impotence should blame the boss, not their wives, or how many potentially brilliant careers have foundered as a result of a string of personal failures. One of the authors of the “learned helplessness” concept, Professor Martin Seligman of Pennsylvania University, has suggested that “learned helplessness”, the breakdown of the connection between behaviour and its result, is a cause of depression. Research on animals shows that chronic “learned helplessness” lowers the organism’s resistance to various harmful factors, assists the development of a variety of illnesses, including cancer, and leads to death.
In the light of this phenomenon, which has been confirmed in a large number of studies, it would seem that people in situations which objectively have no way out, are doomed to depression, illness and death. Looked at from this perspective, the survival of the Jewish people over the centuries has to be considered a genuine miracle. In the course of two millennia, following the fall of the ancient kingdoms, the Jews as a people have never been masters of their own fate and have faced impossible tasks with regard to their survival in abundance, from Babylon and Rome to Hitler. But, happily for both the nation and its individual representatives, such conditions do not inevitably lead to depression.
According to Seligman’s concept, “learned helplessness” develops when a person presumes he will fail not only in the particular situation he is faced with now, but also in any other, not only today, but also in the future. And the most important factor in presuming total and chronic failure is the person’s conviction that he alone (his lack of talent, stupidity, lack of will, inability to confront problems) is responsible, while success, if he ever encounters it, is a fortuitous coincidence or the result of outside help. On the other hand, resistance to “learned helplessness” is the result of a belief that failure is unlucky happenstance, a one-off coincidence, while success is the result of the person’s own qualities, his ability to solve difficult tasks on his own. Thus, high and resilient self-esteem, respect for oneself as a personality, are the most important factors in counteracting “learned helplessness”.
Experimental studies have revealed other factors that connect resistance with past experience. If over a long period a person does not encounter problems which call for serious intellectual effort and inventiveness, if he can solve his problems with one hundred percent success and little effort, “learned helplessness” kicks in very quickly when he is confronted by something difficult (despite what appears to be lengthy previous experience). But when a person encounters truly difficult problems which require the mobilisation of all his intellectual, moral and physical forces and he overcomes them on a number of occasions, resistance to “learned helplessness” increases, especially if such ‘training’ takes place during childhood.
But what is it that is being trained? From my perspective, what we have here is the training and, at the same time, development of search behaviour, search activity. This is activity directed at changing a situation despite the absence of one hundred percent certainty as to the results of the activity, and which takes its results continually into account as they appear. It is important to stress that search activity as a process, regardless even of the practical result, raises the organism’s resistance to both illness and “learned helplessness”, which is a renunciation of search.
It’s understandable why consistent, easy success lowers resistance to “learned helplessness”. If we have a one hundred percent positive prognosis, the need for search activity falls away and the effects of training wear off. It’s understandable, too, why persistent failure from early childhood conditions us for “learned helplessness”. A constantly negative prognosis develops and search activity loses all value. On the other hand, alternation between success and failure, which is what usually happens in life, creates an uncertain prognosis and the sense that the result depends on our own efforts, which helps train search activity and ‘immunises’ us against “learned helplessness”. At the same time, it’s important to remember that search activity, in the same way as renunciation of search, has a tendency to expand and spread from one activity to another. The energy of search activity obtained during a burst of creativity while solving complex intellectual tasks will help develop resilience in difficult situations of everyday life or during emotional conflict, because it’s of no importance what exactly is being warmed by the ‘fire in the hearth’, in other words search activity. All that matters is that the flames should not die out. And, let’s not forget, respect for oneself as an individual is the most important condition for this, since search requires the perpetual mobilisation of faith in one’s own powers and ability to overcome difficulties, despite the absence of an unambiguous prognosis.
There is another important aspect of the problem. Search activity is more successfully stimulated by tasks which do not have a straightforward solution, rather than tasks where the answer is completely predetermined from the outset. The more open-ended a task, the closer it is to being a creative one and the further from monosemantic formal logic, the more significance search activity has in its solution. According to our concept, when the possibilities of search in a real activity are exhausted, when irreconcilable conflicts have developed and there’s no room for manoeuvre because one approach to the problem automatically excludes another, then the conditions for active search are preserved in dreams, where all images are polysemantic and attraction and repulsion can, in some peculiar way, co-exist. In a paradoxical way, incompatible positions become compatible in dreams, opening up new possibilities for search.
If we look at the conditions of religious instruction and upbringing in Judaism from this angle, we can observe the following. First and foremost, it is characterised by the stimulation of intellectual activity from earliest childhood. The Talmud as studied in a religious school is not a source of ultimate wisdom, not dogma, but the collision of differing interpretations of opposite views on the same events. The essence of studying the Talmud is best expressed in the following story or parable.
One day a gentile came to a learned Jew and said he wished to study the Talmud. The Jew replied: “Jews study the Talmud from childhood”. “But I want to try”, said the gentile. “Surely my powers of understanding are no worse than those of Jewish children?” The Jew replied: “Very well. But first answer these questions. Number one: two Jews fell down a chimney. One came out covered in soot, the other was clean. Which one went to wash?” “The dirty one, of course!” “Wrong. The one covered in soot looked at the clean one and thought he was clean, too, and didn’t need a wash. When the clean one looked at the other, he was horrified at what he saw and ran off to wash. Now, question two: two Jews fell down a chimney. One came out covered in soot, the other was clean. Which one went to wash?” “But I already know the answer to that. The clean one, naturally.” “Not so. The words may be the same, but the questions are different. It is the dirty one who goes and has a wash. Because the clean one looks at the dirty one and thinks, ‘Surely I can’t be as dirty as that dirty?’, looks at himself in the mirror and sees that he isn’t. While the dirty one looks at the clean one, refuses to believe that he could possibly look like that himself after falling down a chimney, looks in the mirror and goes and washes. Now for the third question: two Jews fell down a chimney. One came out covered in soot, the other was clean. Which one went to wash?” “The dirty one?” “Wrong.” “The clean one, then.” “Wrong again.” “What’s the right answer?” “There isn’t one, the question’s wrong. It’s quite impossible that two Jews should fall down a chimney and one come out covered in soot and the other be clean.”
This story illustrates the principles of Jewish education and upbringing. In contrast not only with other religions but also with Western-oriented Soviet education, Jewish children were inculcated for hundreds of years with an anti-dogmatic approach to the most complex questions of being and human relations. Small children were presented with alternative explanations of the basic fundamentals set out in different, often contradictory, commentaries of the Talmud, and the child was required to find his own position in a process of comparison and discussion. Potentially any pupil could become a co-author, as it were, of a commentary. He would never receive a ready-made ultimate truth (as happens all too often today not just in schools, but also in universities), he came to this truth by himself, gradually becoming aware on the way that it is not final and not the only one. Something that is only now beginning to be recognised as a corner stone of creative thought was an unobtrusive component of daily teaching in little yeshivahs in hundreds of scattered Jewish shtetls. The emphasis on the need to search for one’s own, unrestricted path to the truth, the recognition that errors and misjudgments on this path are inevitable and justified removed the fear of making mistakes and embarking on search, gave the pupil release, gave him a feeling of collaboration with the great sages and teachers. An atmosphere of brain-storming in miniature was what discussion of the Talmudic commentaries achieved. The requirement to take an active part in the building of his own personality raises the child in his own eyes and encourages him to search. And when he understands that contradictory interpretations do not cancel each other out, but complement each other, that there is truth in each approach, that only in arithmetic does two and two always equal four, while in human behaviour and relationships what at first sight appear to be identical starting positions can lead to very different results, when a child encounters this complex dialectic (which children, incidentally, cope with easily because it is natural, while logical mutual exclusivity is, on the contrary, artificial) that is the moment when a child begins to share in the experience of polysemy, without which there is neither creativity, nor words, nor the conditions for search.
There is one very interesting aspect here. In the process of Jewish education, polysemantic context was created using verbal material, also the basis of Western education, and not images as in oriental cultures. This meant that both left and right hemispheres were brought into play, both types of thinking were activated. This led to a high development of creative potential.
Talmudic and paradoxical modes of thought helped bring about some of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century in psychology and the natural sciences – psychoanalysis, which is oriented on the analysis of what lies outside the consciousness and stands in opposition to conscious analysis; Bernstein-Wiener cybernetics, which explain how a goal not as yet achieved determines the movement towards it; the theory of stress, which shows that a similar mechanism lies behind completely different phenomena; the theory of relativity and the principle of supplementarity, known, not without reason, as “Jewish physics”.
The potential of search activity and intellectual energy released by correctly understood traditional Jewish education has yet to be properly evaluated. We still need to understand why the Jewish style of thought and readiness for search had much greater influence on the development of culture and science in Europe and America at the end of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century than in Israel itself, perhaps. Was this the product of a certain tendency towards ‘a break with the generations of Jews in the diaspora’, a tendency that is compensatory, but all the more powerful for that? Or maybe Israel, as it stopped being the spiritual impulse it was in the countries of the diaspora and became a material national force as a state, lost something of its traditional respect for the intellect and the mind? The system of values changed for wide sections of society, and it is now hard to imagine a successful businessman considering it an honour for his daughter to marry a penniless, but talented student as used to happen in the past. If such a tendency to undervalue the intellect and the mind really does exist, it is much more of a danger than Arab encirclement and must inevitably lead to the castration of religious education itself, reducing it to dogmatism. After all, in the final analysis everything is determined by systems of values. Let us, however, return to the basic topic of this chapter.
So, the non-compliance of Jewish reality to the norms of psychology, the absence of “learned helplessness” despite the fact that life in the diaspora pointed in that direction, can be explained by the specific character of religious education and upbringing which formed a style of thinking over generations. Let us not forget, either, that in Judaism a man is not only “God’s slave”, but is also God’s partner and interlocutor in the process of his own development. His final goal is not blind obedience to dogma that has been fixed once and for all, but maximum revelation of his own possibilities, self-realisation in the spiritual and intellectual spheres, and by this means coming nearer to God. A man is himself responsible for the level of his self-realisation. Such an attitude inevitably raises a person’s self-respect. And let’s not forget that self-respect is the condition for preserving search activity. No humbling of position wrought by circumstances can suppress the respect for individuality and the deep self-respect of a person who from childhood has perceived himself as a responsible partner of God. Is this, perhaps, partly the source of their determination to withstand persecution, their being “stiffnecked” as the Torah puts it, which compelled them to prefer the Inquisition’s flames to recantation and returned the nation to arms after every military defeat?
To fight a fight which appears hopeless, you have to have high self-respect. History’s reckoning has to have its starting point internally, not externally. This was the characteristic position of aristocrats during the French Revolution and the Jews throughout their history. Respect for oneself as a microcosm, the equal of the macrocosm, ran all through Jewish philosophy and entered the flesh and blood of even those Jews who did not feel a direct connection with their religion. There is a well-known story, almost a parable, about how Jewish intellectuals who fled Germany for Palestine in the 1930’s and could only find work as bricklayers and labourers insisted on being called by their academic titles, Herr Professor and so on. Otherwise they simply refused to respond. This feeling of having the right to remain “Herr Professor”, the preservation of dignity, is a primary condition for surmounting difficulties. I fear that in subsequent waves of repatriation there were many more people whose self-perception depended directly on external conditions, and as a result changing the conditions themselves became that much harder.
It’s a well known fact that following the Russian Revolution Jews occupied key positions, far out of proportion to their actual numbers, in Soviet political, scientific and artistic life. They turned out to be more competitive than people of other nationalities. It’s tempting to say this was because they were more talented, but an alternative explanation is more likely. The high level of search activity resulting from upbringing and education, flexibility of thought polished by Talmudic discussion, and traditional respect for the Book and education all played their part. But proceeding from the principle of negative feedback, as it were, the greater the Jews’ intellectual success, the more they left their religious roots behind.
From the perspective of the development and formation of all the stress resistance factors I have mentioned – search activity, polysemantic thinking and self-respect – this abandonment of traditional upbringing would not have been a disaster if there had been an adequate substitute that came into play from early childhood. However, Jewish children in the USSR were taught, like all the others, in the schools of a totalitarian state, with its insistence on the development of monosemantic thinking, on suppressing search and the devaluation of individuality. Naturally, the hearth which had given warmth throughout the preceding centuries could not go cold immediately and leave no trace. It continued to glow in family homes and the embers provided the spark for protest. “Learned helplessness” formed with less success among Jews than other nationalities. Can the centuries-long hatred felt by totalitarian regimes for Jews be explained by the fact that because of their upbringing Jews are more resistant to “learned helplessness”, without which totalitarian rule is doomed? However, search activity needs to be kept in training if it is not to wither.
It was said long ago that the Jews were preserved as a nation thanks to the Book. My analysis here shows that we must thank the Book even for physical survival. It is the reason we did not break under the blows fate dealt us and preserved search activity, which we can apply today to create a flourishing country.