LeShem Yichud - Psychology's Debt to the Kabbala

And when is man called ‘one’? When he is male with female and is sanctified with a high holiness and is bent upon sanctification: then alone he is called one without blemish. Therefore a man should rejoice with his wife at that hour to bind her in affection to him, and they should both have the same intention. When are are thus united, they form one soul and one body: one soul through their affection, and one body, as we have learned, that if a man is not married he is, as it were, divided in halves, and only when male and female are joined do they become one body. (Zohar III:81a-b)

One who opens any Hebrew siddur (prayer-book) printed prior to the ‘enlightenment’ of Jews in the 18th Century will find one phrase repeated in several prominent places: l’shem yichud ha-qadosh barukh hu u-shkhinatei. ‘For the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed One with His Shekhina,’ is what you would be reciting as a near-constant refrain in a traditional liturgy. This statement is a kavvana, an intention that one is meant to set before embarking on prayer, and its message is simple -- through our prayer, through our actions, through our mitzvot, we aim nothing less than the psychosexual unification of the masculine and feminine aspects of Divinity.

This may sound strange (indeed it is) to one who thinks of Judaism in the narrow categories that so many wish to define it today - rationalist, opposed to any imagining of God, etc. In fact, all of these are medieval attempts to reform Judaism, largely under the mantle of Maimonides. One of the most important commentators on Maimonides, R’ Avraham ibn David, commenting on Maimonides’ assertion that we must believe that God has no body whatsoever writes, ‘Who is he to say this? Many people better and wiser than him have believed in this.’ (Hassagot haRa’avad l’Sefer haMitzvot). R’ Avraham’s students continued his attempt to uphold the traditional diversity of Jewish belief, and in doing so eventually arrived at the completion of their efforts, the Zohar.

The Zohar constructs an elaborate mythopoetical system to describe God and the life of God through symbols, both elevated and mundane. Key to this system is the division of God’s inner life into a masculine persona (The Holy Blessed One) and a feminine persona (the Indwelling/Shekhina). The Zohar explains much of the horror of our material world as the result of the estrangement of the Shekhina from the Holy Blessed One - their marital separation causes the flow of sexual/libidinal energy in the upper worlds to cease, leading to a lack of good (and a proliferation of evil) in our own world. Thus, our task as human actors who possess aspects of both the Holy Blessed One (male) and Shekhina (female), is to bring the Divine Couple back together, escorting the Bride, who has been exiled among the material world in which we live, to her betrothed, who exists in the spiritual realms beyond us. The goal of the kabbalistic system is nothing less than the unification of the material with the spiritual, the earthly with the heavenly, and most importantly, the female with the male.

This is the doctrine for which Freud, Jung and Maslow prove interesting commentators - namely, that we act as humans for the sake of the divine sexual unification. Key to this process of cosmic repair (tiqqun) is of course, human sexuality, for as above, so below. Thus, the kabbalists are eminently concerned with human (marital) sexuality and use it as an analogue for the divine life. As the passage from the Zohar quoted above shows, the human sexual act now carries cosmic implications in the kabbalistic system. As David Ariel notes:

If whatever exists within the world first exists within God, even human sexuality is rooted in divine sexuality. If maleness and femaleness are the fundamental gender characteristics of conventional human sexuality...then maleness and femaleness must first exist as divine characteristics. The Kabbalists indeed taught that the greatest mystery of human experience--sexuality and relationships-- has, as its root, the male and female dimensions of God. God has both male and female characteristics that are at the root of human sexuality and the drama of human relationships. In order to understand the mysteries of human sexuality and relationships, the Kabbalists say we need to understand the male and female aspects of God as a source of this mystery. (Kabbalah: The Mystic Quest 16)

The psychological realities of this kabbalistic doctrine may be immediately apparent to us, yet they also are helpfully illuminated by contemporary thinkers. In particular, Jung was very influenced by the Kabbala’s vision of a divine/human hieros gamos and although he believed he was drawing on the symbols of alchemy and not Kabbala (despite the dependence of the former on the latter), he does reference the cosmic wedding of Tiferet (The Holy Blessed One) and Malkhut (Shekhina) in multiple visions he experienced at the end of his life (see Sanford Drob’s Kabbalistic Visions). Freud, although having gone to great efforts to avoid his Jewish upbringing and deny its principles, inevitably internalized much from his formative environment, part of which may have been the kabbalistic insistence on seeing sexuality as the predominant impulse underlying all other actions. 


Freud repeatedly contrasts religious belief and dogma with an active attention to the sexual life. In particular he distinguishes between the religo-sexual development of women from that of men. In this he is half-right. Although the Kabbala embraces unprecedented roles for women as a result of its affirmation of the divine feminine, it nonetheless simultaneously upholds traditional gender roles, in seeing men as the ‘actor’ and women as the ‘acted upon.’ Yet, Freud in his separation of the religious life from the sexual one is either ignorant or ignoring the kabbalistic doctrine of which we have been speaking. He writes in Future of an Illusion:

Now we have no other means of controlling our instincts than our intelligence. And how can we expect people who are dominated by thought-prohibitions to attain the psychological ideal, the primacy of the intelligence? You know too that women in general are said to suffer from so called ‘physiological weak-mindedness’, ie. a poorer intelligence than the man’s. The fact is disputable, its interpretation doubtful; but it has been argued for the secondary nature of this intellectual degeneration that women labour under the harshness of the early prohibition, which prevented them from applying their mind to what would have interested them most, that is to say, to the problems of sexual life. So long as a man’s early years are influenced by the religious thought-inhibition and by the loyal one derived from it, as well as by the sexual one, we cannot really say what he is actually like. (677)

The direct contrast and apparent rejection of a religious practice or belief motivated by a sexual attitude is inherently incompatible with the kabbalistic practice of acting l’shem yichud. It is hard to imagine that if Freud were adequately taught the Kabbala he may have found it in much of benefit to his own psychosexual system.

Meanwhile, Jung’s entire system is, consciously or not, drawn from kabbalistic sources. In basing his principles on late-antique and medieval alchemical texts as well as medieval Christian interpretations of Gnostic texts, he unknowingly imported much from the Jewish mystical tradition. Jung’s thought seems relevant to l’shem yichud in two key areas: the focus on coniunctio as a psychic symbol and the anima/us archetype. Jung wrote that, “...the coniunctio is an a priori image that occupies a prominent place in the history of man’s mental development.” This concept, that the primordial element of one’s psyche is a conjunction of opposites (most prominently male and female) is directly correlative with the Kabbala. Moreover, at moments Jung acknowledges both his indebtedness to the Kabbala and the scholarship of it and the failure of Freud to adequately treat it. For example:

Insofar as the Freudian School translates psychic contents into sexual terminology there is nothing left for it to do here, since the author of the Zohar has done it already. This school [Freud’s] merely shows us all the things that a penis can be, but it never discovered what the phallus can symbolize. It was assumed that in such a case the censor had failed to do its work. As Scholem himself shows and emphasizes particularly, the sexuality of the Zohar, despite its crudity, should be understood as a symbol of the ‘foundation of the world.’

Jung also remarked that the discussion of the sexuality of the soul (or of the divine) was mirrored (and perhaps superseded) by the discussion of human sexuality. He writes: “The discussion of the sexual problem is only a somewhat crude prelude to a far deeper question, and that is the question of the psychological relationship between the sexes. In comparison with this the other pales into insignificance, and with it we enter the real domain of woman. Woman's psychology is founded on the principle of Eros, the great binder and loosener, whereas from ancient times the ruling principle ascribed to man is Logos.” Unsurprisingly the Logos/Eros binary is repeatedly correlated to the Holy Blessed One/Shekhina binary in later kabbalistic literature.

The second area where Jung evinces similarity with the Kabbala is the anima/us archetype. The centrality of the feminine-in-masculine and masculine-in-feminine is certainly key to Kabbala. The passage from the Zohar quoted above shows the insistence on their combination in an external fashion, but there is also much said on the feminine nature of the soul within a masculine body. Paralleled by many medieval Christian mystics, one often finds kabbalists writing love songs to their souls. This feminization (as males were the predominant actors) of the soul is profoundly influential on the identification with the Shekhina, who dwells amongst us and must be escorted to the more distant (and male) Holy Blessed One. Jung’s construction of the anima and animus certainly owes a great deal to Greek thought though it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see echoes of this shared Jewish-Christian mystic viewpoint in it either. Even at the beginning of his career, one finds in The Red Book the statement, “Do you know how much femininity man lacks for completeness? Do you know how much masculinity woman lacks for completeness?...You, man, should not seek the feminine in women, but seek and recognize it in yourself, as you possess it from the beginning.” (263) Elsewhere he explicates the anima/us in more detail, demonstrating prominent echoes with the kabbalistic feminization of the (immanent) Divine:

Every man carries within him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or that particular woman, but a definite feminine image. This image is fundamentally unconscious, an hereditary factor of primordial origin engraved in the living organic system of the man, an imprint or "archetype" of all the ancestral experiences of the female, a deposit, as it were, of all the impressions ever made by woman-in short, an inherited system of psychic adaptation. Even if no women existed, it would still be possible, at any given time, to deduce from this unconscious image exactly how a woman would have to be constituted psychically. The same is true of the woman: she too has her inborn image of man.


It is worth mentioning that any attempt to identify a religious system, removed from context, with an academic psychological one, is inherently flawed. Yet, I have seen that these two thinkers have much to say and even more to be heard, on the ideas that underlie both their thinking and the Kabbala’s notion of living our lives l’shem yichud ha-qadosh barukh hu u-shkhinatei. Ultimately however, psychological insight to religion, as helpful as it may be, deprives the religious symbol of its native context, leaving it open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Psychological thinkers who approach religion as-it-is and not as an epiphenomena of the psyche seem to me to be more successful in their attempt to describe religion in psychological terminology. They must also, however, understand that much of religion, especially mysticism, has already embraced psychological symbolism even if it does not use psychological language.