Skip to main content Accessibility help

An Occupational Neurosis: A Psychoanalytic Case History of a Rabbi

  • Maya Balakirsky Katz (a1)

In consultation with Sigmund Freud, the Viennese psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) treated the first Jewish cleric known to undergo analysis, in 1903. According to the case history, published in 1908, a forty-two-year-old rabbi suffered from a Berufsneurose, an occupational neurosis associated with the pressures of his career. Stekel's case history forms an indelible portrait of a religious patient who submitted himself to the highly experimental treatment of psychoanalysis in the early years of the discipline. However, scholars never integrated the rabbi's case into the social history of psychoanalysis, more as a consequence of Freud's professional disparagement of Stekel than of the case history's original reception. Psychoanalytic historiography has largely dismissed Stekel's legacy, resulting in a lack of serious scholarly consideration of his prodigious publications compared to the attention paid to the work of some of Freud's other disciples. Stekel's most recent biographers, however, credit him as the “unsung populariser of psychoanalysis,” and claim that he is due for reconsideration. But in his published case history of the rabbi, Stekel also warrants introduction to the field of Jewish studies, not only because of the literary treatment of the rabbinical profession by a secular Jewish psychoanalyst, but also because the rabbi incorporated aspects of that experience into his own intellectual framework after treatment.

Corresponding author
Hide All

1. For a study of the conditions that led to Stekel's marginalization within the field, see Bos, Jaap and Groenendijk, Leendert, The Self-Marginalization of Wilhelm Stekel: Freudian Circles Inside and Out (New York: Springer, 2007).

2. Bos and Groenendijk, The Self-Marginalization of Wilhelm Stekel, 6.

3. Stekel, Wilhelm, Nervöse Angstzustände und deren Behandlung (Berlin and Vienna: Urban and Schwarzenberg, 1908). The 1908 case history was titled “An Occupational Neurosis (Berufsneurose)” and subtitled “Anxiety and Conversion Hysteria.” Stekel disagreed with Freud's labeling this phenomenon as hysteria and dropped the subtitle altogether in 1921. All translations from the German are my own.

4. Quotations in this paragraph appear in Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 162.

5. Stekel acknowledges his sincere debt to Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, but he gives dream interpretation an overhaul in several volumes. For his last work on the topic, see Stekel, Wilhelm, The Interpretation of Dreams: New Developments and Technique, trans. Eden, and Paul, Cedar (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1943).

6. Bos and Groenendijk, The Self-Marginalization of Wilhelm Stekel, 18.

7. Wittels, Fritz, Freud and the Child Woman: The Memoirs of Fritz Wittels (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 112.

8. Quoted material in this paragraph appears in Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 164.

9. Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 164. I think the following sentence leaves room for interpretation, so I replicate it here in the original: “Der Diener lebt noch in seinem Hause und erfreut sich noch heute seiner grossen Liebe, obwohl von ‘diesen Dingen,’ seit er verheiratet ist, selbstverständlich nicht mehr die Rede sein kann.”

10. Stekel publicly disagreed with Freud that masturbation was a major cause of illness only in 1908, but at the time of the rabbi's analysis, Stekel had not yet formulated his thinking on the subject. On the debate over masturbation in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, see Annie Reich, “The Discussion of 1912 on Masturbation and Our Present-Day Views,” The Psychoanalytic View of the Child 6 (1951): 80–94.

11. Quotations in this paragraph appear in Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 164.

12. Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 165. In the psychoanalytic terminology of the time, a “masculine” Don Juan mentally constructs the scene of seduction and possession.

13. Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 165.

14. Quoted material in this paragraph appears in Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 164–67.

15. See Idel, Moshe, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).

16. This passage in Rosalie Gabler's English translation suggests adultery, as it uses the phrase “On the other hand, the brother had made love to his [the rabbi's] own wife” (Stekel, Conditions of Nervous Anxiety, 219). This translation does not accurately reflect the original German: “der Bruder seiner eigenen Frau den Hof gemacht” (paid court) (Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 168).

17. Quoted material in this paragraph appears in Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 168, 169.

18. Stekel reports that he submitted his patient to a full physical examination and that “needles could be stuck deeply into it [left arm] without the slightest feeling in the patient … the sensation of the thermal stimuli in the left limb was completely null” (Nervöse Angstzustände, 161). Stekel reports three years of anesthesia to the left hand and arm, not five months.

19. Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn to Shneur Zalman, handwritten letter signed with the Hebrew date 16 Adar 5663 (March 15, 1903). Facsimile of letter reprinted in Kfar Chabad 911 (July 3, 2000): 47. Transcribed from handwritten Hebrew and Yiddish to Hebrew typeset by Yehoshua Mondshine, 46–49.

20. Schneider, Stanley and Berke, Joseph, “Sigmund Freud and the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” Psychoanalytic Review 87, no. 1 (February 2000), 3961. They quote from Schneerson, Menachem Mendel, R'Shimos, vol. 94 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1997). Unlike Freud, who preferred a slow, passive form of analysis, RaSHaB received a course of Stekel's “active analysis,” which consisted of regular, daily appointments over a duration of several weeks. Stekel tags his case history with clinical information, such as that the rabbi “appeared the next day at the appointed hour” and one dream analysis took “two hours,” which we are led to believe happened over the duration of a single sitting.

21. For R. Yosef Yitzchak's account of RaSHaB's “professor,” see Glitzenstein, Avraham Chanoch, Sefer ha-toledot (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1947; republished periodically with same pagination), 53. All translations from the Hebrew and Yiddish are my own.

22. Schneider and Berke, “Sigmund Freud and the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” 39–40.

23. Stekel, Wilhelm, The Autobiography of Wilhelm Stekel (New York: Liverright Publishing, 1950), 116. [Originally written in 1940].

24. For the book that brought Chabad messianism into the public debate, see Berger, David, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001). For the first serious academic study of Chabad philosophy as it was creatively transmitted from RaSHaB to the seventh and last rebbe of Chabad, see Wolfson, Elliot R., Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

25. RaSHaB's Chabad revivalism began in Sephardic communities to Bukhara and Georgia the year after his analysis with Stekel. For collected biographical accounts and anecdotes, see Glitzenstein, Sefer ha-toledot.

26. I make this critique vis-à-vis Chabad's public menorahs in “Trademarks of Faith: Chabad and Chanukah in America,” Modern Judaism 29, no. 2 (May 2009): 239–67.

27. Stekel's wife wrote in the introduction to his autobiography that all of his books and manuscripts were destroyed in Vienna in 1938 (17). The majority of Freud's papers and files were spirited away and preserved by loyal students.

28. Although Chabad is far more open with their archival material than most hasidic groups, Chabad's central archive, currently housed in its main headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, remains largely inaccessible to outside scholars.

29. Ada Rapaport-Albert convincingly argues that Yosef Yitzchak understood the Wissenschaft scholars' desire for the archaeological document and thus forged documents that he claimed belonged to the so-called Kherson Genizah to create source material for what he believed was true concerning the early history of Hasidism. See Ada Rapoport-Albert, “Hagiography with Footnotes: Edifying Tales and the Writing of History in Hasidism,” History and Theory 27 (1987): 119–59.

30. Schneersohn, Yosef Yitzchak, Likkutei dibburim, vols. 1–2 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1988), 29.

31. Ibid., vols. 1–2, 29, 30.

32. In light of Stekel's diagnosis of his patient's wanderings as a “traveling neurosis,” the thesis behind the famous story of RaSHaB's late-night travel to the “two orphans” during his Vienna stay benefits from revision. See Berke, Joseph H. and Schneider, Stanley, “A Tale of Two Orphans: The Limits of Categorization,” Mental Health, Religion, and Culture 4, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 8193. The authors claim that a story in which RaSHaB instructs his son to board a train with him to travel to a seemingly dubious destination defies diagnostic “categorization,” whereas Stekel writes, “The most important, in fact, the only important point about these wishes, is the journey.”

33. For a discussion on the missionary principle of Chabad Hasidism, see Friedman, Menachem, “Habad as Messianic Fundamentalism: From Local Particularism to Universal Jewish Mission,” in Accounting for Fundamentalism: The Dynamic Character of Movements, ed. Marty, Martin E. and Appleby, R. Scott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 328–60.

34. Michel Foucault observed how psychoanalysis asserted its authority over sexuality at the expense of religious institutions. See Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990). Once every act of sexual indiscretion, and even the mere temptation of sin, was brought to confession for the soul's restitution, the analyst presented himself as a nonjudgmental expert on sexuality. Though Stekel does not explicitly engage in the debate of the role of religion in sexuality, the report on the rabbi was written with an eye toward publication and forms a part of Stekel's contribution to psychoanalysis and sexology and his recognition within the field specifically as a disciple of Freud. The case of the rabbi, followed in Nervöse Angstzustände by an equally fraught case of a patient who was an Orthodox priest, converts the locus of knowledge on human sexuality from the cleric to the medical specialist.

35. It was only during the seventh rebbe's leadership (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) in the second half of the twentieth century that the centrality of illness and healing stories ebbed. Chabad hasidim take pride in their last rebbe's attachment to Crown Heights and his rejection of travel abroad.

36. Schneersohn, Yosef Yitzchak, “Her Final Illness,” trans. Neubort, Shimon, in Sefer ha-toledot Admur MaHaRaSH (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 2001), chap. 10.

37. Schneersohn, Yosef Yitzchak, Sefer ha-sihot, 1920–1927 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1992), 42 (Hebrew and Yiddish). All translations are my own.

38. Ibid., 23.

39. Berke and Schneider, “A Tale of Two Orphans,” 81–93.

40. See Paths of Providence (Brooklyn, NY: Sichos in English, n.d.), 39; sourced as Menachem Mendel Schneerson's notes from Lag B'Omer 5692. For a discussion by the third rebbe of Chabad, Zemach Zedek (1789–1866), on lovesickness as a state of physical and spiritual illness caused by the Exile, see Schneerson, Menachem Mendel, Sefer ha-hakira: derekh emuna (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1955) (Hebrew).

41. Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 161.

42. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Likkutei dibburim, vols. 1–2, 110.

43. Ibid.

44. R. Yosef Yitzchak reproduces the schedules of the rebbes, including his own, in minute detail in their biographies.

45. Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn to Zalman, Shneur, Kfar Chabad 911 (July 3, 2000): 47.

46. The image was probably not a photograph, but a photographic reproduction of a painting, as homosexual tableaus were not yet the domain of photography in the 1890.

47. Schneersohn, Yosef Yitzchak, Sefer ha-sihot 5696-Khoref 5700 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1989), 4647 (Hebrew and Yiddish). Yosef Yitzchak dates this story to 1890.

48. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, Sicha from 20 Marheshvan 5743 (1982).

49. A good summary of this contention can be found in Ehrlich, Avrum M., Leadership in the HaBaD Movement: A Critical Evaluation of the HaBaD Leadership, History, and Succession (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000), 236–48. The comment here appears on p. 240. Incidentally, both wives went by the name of Sterna Sara, which might have accounted for some confusion on Stekel's part.

50. Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman, Spiritual Intimacy: A Study of Counseling in Hasidism (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1991), 95. For similar stories, see [accessed February 10, 2010].

51. Yosef Yitzchak makes a point of dating this story to when he was a very little boy still learning under his tutor R. Yekusiel, which would predate Stekel's dating of the symptom of stuttering at the divine name by fifteen years.

52. Yosef Yitzchak emphasizes that his father is alone, while Stekel assigns the stammering to public fright.

53. Schneersohn, Yosef Yitzchak, Likkutei dibburim, vols. 3–4 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1988), 909 (Hebrew and Yiddish).

54. Ibid., vols. 3–4, 909.

55. Ibid., vols. 3–4, 929.

56. Incidentally, this letter was produced as evidence in a court trial over the ownership of the same library in 1987 between Agudas Chasidei Chabad (the institution representing the seventh rebbe's interests) and the only grandson of the sixth rebbe, Barry Gourary. Agudas Chasidei Chabad of United States v. Barry S. Gourary and Hanna Gourary, No. CV-85-2908, p. 2567. Ehrlich quotes from this letter; for his discussion on the book as symbol of leadership, see Avrum Ehrlich, Leadership in the HaBaD Movement, 79 n. 25.

57. Stekel, Autobiography, 214. Stekel's library was burned by the Austrians in 1938.

58. Chabad rebbes had been immersed in Russian politics since their founder Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi opposed Napoleon's entry into Russia. Often these trips on behalf of world Jewry took on mythic qualities. See Levine, Hillel, “‘Should Napoleon Be Victorious … ’: Politics and Spirituality in Early Modern Jewish Messianism,” in The Sabbatian Movement and Its Aftermath: Messianism, Sabbatianism, and Frankism, ed. Elior, Rachel (Jerusalem: Institute of Jewish Studies, 2001), 2:6583. On the political activism of the third rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789–1866), see Schneersohn, Yosef Yitzchak, The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement, trans. Posner, Zalman I. (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1962); and Stanislawski, Michael, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia 1825–1855 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 7881.

59. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer ha-toledot Admur MaHaRaSH, chap. 7.

60. See the letter sent from Marienbad on Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av 5628 (reprinted in Ha-Tamim, vol. 5, 8); on the decade of travel on behalf of the Jewish people, see Ha-Tamim, vol. 2, 77; vol. 3, 92.

61. For the ways in which R. Yosef Yitzchak used photography to facilitate the rebbe–hasid relationship in both illness and physical separation, see Katz, Maya Balakirsky, “On the Master–Disciple Relationship in Hasidic Visual Culture: The Life and Afterlife of Rebbe Portraits in Habad, 1798–2006,” Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture 1 (Winter 2007): 5579; and idem, “Rebbishe Space: Pre-War Polish Photography of Hasidic Leaders,” in Conferences of the Polish Society of Oriental Art (Warsaw: DiG Press), forthcoming.

62. R. Shmuel's brothers moved to other towns where they became rebbes in their own right, but hasidic historiography acknowledges only one direct line of leadership.

63. Simon, Bennett and Blass, Rachel B., “The Development and Vicissitudes of Freud's Ideas on the Oedipus Complex,” in The Cambridge Companion to Freud, ed. Neu, Jerome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 161–74.

64. Chabad tradition deals with R. Shmuel's sickly appearance by ascribing to him the qualities of a hidden zaddik; his “ugliness” acquires the contours of the romantic sublime. R. Shmuel's “special talents” include that he was “knowledgeable in the science of medicine” and capable of “the most wondrous craftsmanship” fashioned “for reasons of his health” (Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer ha-toledot Admur MaHaRaSH, chap. 7).

65. See Balakirsky Katz, “Leaders at Leisure.” In this context, R. Yosef Yitzchak's critique on “vacation resorts” would include Marienbad, which R. Shmuel visited in 1868.

66. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer ha-toledot Admur MaHaRaSH, 35.

67. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer ha-sihot, 1920–1927, 23.

68. Ibid., 89.

69. See Freud's article on “Mourning and Melancholia,” Standard Edition, 14:243–58.

70. Nissan Mindel, “Biography of Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson (Gallery of Our Great), [accessed February 10, 2010].

71. On the manifestation of infertility in patients with testicular tuberculosis, see Kumar, Rajeev, “Reproductive Tract Tuberculosis and Male Infertility,” Indian Journal of Urology 24, no. 3 (July–September 2008): 392–95.

72. Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 167.

73. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Likkutei Dibburim, vols. 3–4, 932.

74. Stekel, Nervöse Angstzustände, 164. On the motif of the summer resort in memoir writing, see Lichtblau, A., “Die Chiffre Sommerfrische als Erinnerungstopos,” in Erinnerung als Gegenwart. Jüdische Gedenkkulteren, ed. Hödl, S. and Lappin, Z. (Berlin: Philo Verlag, 2000).

75. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Likkutei Dibburim, vols. 3–4, 908.

76. Dov Ber Schneersohn, Sholom, Chanoch Lenaar, trans. Danziger, Eliezer (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1999), 15.

77. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Likkutei Dibburim, vols. 3–4, 911.

78. Ibid., 914.

79. Ibid., 914–15. This servant's biographical details as provided by Yosef Yitzchak's narrative overlap with Stekel's timetable, but also widen the servant's term in the house of the rebbes to the leadership of the third rebbe (and to the childhood of the fourth rebbe). Yosef Yitzchak dates Yosef Mordekhai's service in the household to 1898, not 1903. However, he may have retired in the vicinity, as he lived to age 103.

80. Freud, , Etiology of Hysteria, ed. Strachey, James (London: Hogarth, 1943–74), vol. 3 (1896), 186221.

81. For a discussion of Freud's seduction theory coming out of the discourse on servant–child sexuality, see Stoler, Ann Laura, Race and Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 147–48.

82. Foucault, History of Sexuality.

83. Stekel, Wilhelm, Patterns of Psychosexual Infantilism (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 61.

84. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Likkutei dibburim, vols. 3–4, 910.

85. Ibid., 757.

86. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer ha-toledot Admur MaHaRaSH, 70, 76.

87. I deal with this specific question in my forthcoming essay, “Religion in the Early Psychoanalytic Case History.” For others who have turned to Freud's biography to reconstruct the early Freudian posture toward ethnic and religious Judaism, see Gay, Peter, A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1987); Geller, Jay, On Freud's Jewish Body: Mitigating Circumcisions (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007); and Yerushalmi, Yosef, Freud's Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991).

88. The “book” is actually RaSHaB's great-great-grandfather's manuscript. The manuscript's subsequent chain of custody within Chabad remained the source of much bitterness after the lifetime of the RaSHaB as well. On the court trial over some of the handwritten manuscripts of the rebbes, see Barry Gourary, Agudas Chasidei Chabad of United States v. Barry S. Gourary and Hanna Gourary, No. CV-85-2908. See Balakirsky Katz, “On the Master–Disciple Relationship in Hasidic Visual Culture,” 68.

89. In Stekel's case history, the erotic formula refers to the symbolism of the Tetragrammaton. In his Maamar ve-Yadaata (1897), RaSHaB analyzes the seemingly paradoxical expressions of the divine name in sexual metaphor drawn from the kabbalistic system of the Tanya. As Stekel summarizes in his case history, RaSHaB argues in ve-Yadaata that the very letters of the divine name reveal the phases of “creation” and the male and female characteristics of a unisexual God.

90. There are many anecdotal stories of Tanya cures in Chabad tradition, most of which promote health through engaged reading. See, e.g., the story reprinted in Deutsch, Shaul Shimon, Larger than Life: The Life and Times of the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (New York: Chasidic Historical Productions, 1997), 1:23; and Dein, Simon, “The Power of Words: Healing Narratives among Lubavitcher Hasidim,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 16, no. 1 (March 2002): 4163.

91. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer ha-sichot: 1920–1927, 23.

92. Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn, Kuntres u-ma'ayan, 92. RaSHaB also writes that “the soul is clothed in the organs of the body, and the physical organs are subservient to the soul, obedient to its every command. This is because the light and vitality of the soul radiate in a revealed manner and are palpable within the body's organs” (Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn, Kuntres Umaayan, 62).

93. In the preface to the 1923 English edition of Nervöse Angstzustände (Conditions of Nervous Anxiety and Their Treatment), Stekel writes, “I could with perfect propriety, change the title of this book to ‘The Organic Language of the Soul.’ Indeed, this is a true language with all the variations of idiom, dialect, slang, argot, stuttering, stammering, lisping, and the rest” (Stekel, Conditions of Nervous Anxiety, vi).

94. Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn, Kuntres u-ma'ayan, 72.

95. Ibid., 72.

96. Thus, RaSHaB reintegrates Tanya's hierarchical ordering of “masturbation” within a broad range of “forbidden coitions” (chap. 7) in an equalizing rubric in which all transgressions of the body are cosmically and pedagogically unhealthy for the soul.

97. After pages of explanation of various ways in which the body clothes the soul, organ for organ, RaSHaB pens a passage that I read as intensely personal: “The yetzer hara [evil inclination] entices man—that no one will see or ever know of his misdeeds. But it just isn't so. People do see, do know and do recognize him for what he is. Without fail he will do something to make people suspicious. In truth, due to the many desires of the yetzer hara's persuasions he will do numerous stupid things that no rational person would agree with at all. It is only his yetzer hara that makes him go against his own reason and his Creator's reason, impelling him to stupidity…. We see evidently that a word, a movement, can betray a person, revealing what lies deep within, that it is not good. We are not discussing actual sinful speech, like lying, malicious gossip, slander, or vulgarity. We refer to an innocent story told casually—nothing more, it would seem, than idle chatter. But actually, this conversation could reveal the inner evil” (Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn, Kuntres u-ma'ayan, 184).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

AJS Review
  • ISSN: 0364-0094
  • EISSN: 1475-4541
  • URL: /core/journals/ajs-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed