The Jewish Body Image and Psychoanalysis

Professor Sander Gilman



























Harvey Schwartz: Sander, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to Jewish Thought and Psychoanalysis.

You are well known for many things – the depth of your scholarship, the breadth of your interests and your prolificacy. You have published on Freud, obesity, Nietzsche, body image, Kafka, Jewish culture  and an illustrated history of sexuality.

Can you let us know something about your background and whether you feel there is a central theme to the varied subjects that have drawn your interest?


Sander Gilman: I am a humanist by training but have been engaged with psychiatric and psychoanalytic education since the mid-1980s.  The core of my work is on stereotypes and stereotyping seen from a dynamic point of view and I have written widely on this.  What interests me most, and this is the core of my older work on Sigmund Freud and the work I am now doing on psychopathology and stereotyping is how the psychological process of ego formation are at the core of our manner of dealing with the world.  I have looked at a wide range of question, from how our visualizing of the world shapes our historical understanding of mental illness to how the history of the body image impacts on therapeutics in the area of obesity and self-harm to how our sense of how we should look shapes aesthetic surgery and face transplantation.


HS: You have also written widely on Jewish subjects, including your lecture for us on the Jewish body image. Can you share how your Jewish interests fit in with your psychoanalytic orientation? Also, you were careful in our conversations to distinguish between your interest in Jewish topics from Judaism as a religion. Can you comment on that.


SG: I am interested in outsiders.  I have written on the mentally ill and on Jews and —  on the Jewish mentally ill.  But my focus is always on stereotypes as they provide insight into the culture in which such marginal groups live and need to come to terms with distorted images of themselves. As a Jew (and a believer) studying Jews seemed to me appropriate and since I was always interested in psychoanalysis, it was a natural “two-fer.”  


It is not quite right to say that I am not interested in Judaism as a set of religious practices, my new book Illness and Image (Transaction, 2015) has a chapter on circumcision.  But what I am interested is how cultural notions of Jewishness encompass ideas of religious practice.  How the IDEA of what a Jew is or should be shapes belief.  The obvious claim is that religious practice is the bedrock of Jewishness; but what we often find is exactly the opposite.  That debates in a society about the meaning of Jewish character or belief shapes the practice, as in the case of circumcision.


HS: Your proposal is a powerful one. If I understand you correctly you're suggesting that culture determines the nature and degree of religious practice. Can you speculate on the changing cultural factors that may be contributing to the recent increase in Orthodoxy among many Jews?


SG: All “revealed” religions have always claimed that they are immutable and unchangeable since their impetus was divine.  The history of religion and the study of religion as cultural phenomenon shows that this claim is necessary but that all religions are constantly adjusting to the ever changing worlds in which they exist.  Central to those worlds are the perceptions associated with religion and other overlapping categories such as ethnicity, national identity, etc.  


I think that in a world where such claims of the authentic are usually made by specific groups and in which authenticity comes to be valued, such groups increase in their visibility   Remember that historically Reformed Judaism (Mendelssohn), modern Orthodoxy (the Vilna Goan) and Hasidism (The Baal Shem Tov) ALL arose more or less simultaneously out of the situations faced by Jews in various parts of Central and Eastern Europe. None is MORE authentic than the others, if by that you mean their historical roots.


HS: Do you see culture similarly playing a determining role in the timing and nature of scientific discoveries? Along those lines can you comment on the role of historical forces in the development of Freud's discoveries. Certainly this is a large topic.


SG: Science, like all aspects of human endeavor, is cultural bound.  The questions asked and the parameters of the answers have history.  This is why I always ask my colleagues in science and medicine:  where does you question or problem come from?  Most haven’t a clue.  It is also why we can NEVER have absolutely answers to any “empirical” scientific question, which is a good thing. 


We can use psychoanalysis as a model for the cultural embeddness of scientific theory.  In his day Freud was as a brilliant clinical neurologist not a psychiatrist even though he did once work on a psychiatric service. Psychoanalysis, however, developed in the USA from the 1920s on as an ancillary field in psychiatry, which by the 1980s began to reject this as not ‘clinical’ enough.    Ironically, the fact that Freud’s neurological model of brain science is now dominant places HIS psychoanalysis both in the history of mind but also in the history of brain.  In the former is seems to many as a ’non-scientific’ therapy;  in the latter, it is part of the cutting edge of brain science.  That is because Freud's work spans both but is read differently depending on what context you use.  Likewise, in my work I have shown that  the science of race  was also a central part of neurology of the 19th century (as were all aspects of the human sciences) seems to us odd, as ‘race theory’ seems completely discredited.   UNLESS we understand the renewed importance of “race” in the our age of the genome.  Different contexts; different meanings.


HS: Sander, you've given us much to consider. I look forward to your lecture in May, 2016.