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  • The Encounter in Vienna:Modern Psychotherapy, Guided Imagery, and Hasidism Post-World War I
  • Daniel Reiser (bio)

How wild, anarchic, and unreal were those years, years in which, with the dwindling value of money all other values in Austria and Germany began to slip! [...] Every extravagant idea that was not subject to regulation reaped a golden harvest: theosophy, occultism, spiritualism, somnambulism, anthroposophy, palm-reading, graphology, yoga, and Paracelsism.1

Stefan Zweig


In 1921, a short Hebrew book was published in Vienna entitled Tena’ei HaNefesh LeHasagat HeHasidut [Mental Conditions for Achieving Hasidism]. The author was Rabbi Menachem Ekstein (1884–1942),2 a Dzików Hasid,3 from Rzesów in the center of western Galicia, who had immigrated to Vienna following World War I.4 The reader will immediately notice that modern issues of psychology, such as self-awareness, split mind, and complex, daring ‘‘guided imagery’’ exercises, all appear and play a central role in this book.5 In 1937, Ekstein wrote in the introduction to the Yiddish translation6 that he purported to define the basic principles of Hasidism anew: ‘‘In this book, I have made a first attempt to find the appropriate definitions and proper style to express the fundamental principles of Hasidism.’’7 Ekstein begins his book with these words:

The first principle that Hasidism tells all who knock at its gates and wish to enter its inner chambers is: Know thyself [...], to rise all natural tendencies of your soul, and become very familiar with them. Split yourself into two: a natural human being, who dwells down on earth, lives daily life, and is affected by all outside events [...], and a supernal person, who is not drawn by the outside events, and is not affected by them, but sits up in his own palace, in a high tower, and constantly looks down at the lower person, and sees all [End Page 277] the things that are befalling him, and all the actions that are drawn from them onto his soul. He [the supernal person] gazes at all these and recognizes them; he examines them, and is able to direct them and use them as he wishes.8

Thus, according to Ekstein, the fundamental basis of Hasidism, shockingly, is neither knowledge of God, nor the religious commandments, nor basic Hasidic theological ideas such as ‘‘nullification of the world’’ (bittul ha-yesh), ‘‘serving God through the physical world’’ (avodah be-gashmiyyut), or ‘‘clinging to the divine’’ (devekut). Rather, the fundamental basis of Hasidism is a universal psychological concept—self-awareness, which gives the practitioner full control over his soul and his personal inclinations.

An instructive parallel is Hillel Zeitlin (1871–1942), for he, too, a decade earlier (1910), had tried to define the basic principles of Hasidut—but in concepts such as ‘‘being and naught,’’ tzimtzum (‘‘divine contraction’’), ‘‘the power of the Divine Affecter on the one being affected,’’ ‘‘elevating sparks,’’ ‘‘elevating foreign thoughts,’’ and ‘‘elevating base qualities.’’9 Ekstein’s objective is different. Zeitlin collected a number of concepts from the students of the Baal Shem Tov and attempted to present them in a consistent and systematic way as the foundations of Hasidic thought. Ekstein, however, presented modern psychological ideas and thus universalized Hasidism. Moreover, Ekstein’s book presents guided imagery exercises for the reader with very specific, precise instructions,10 and thus is an example of a modern literary genre, corresponding to the genre of popular self-help books of the early twentieth century which give readers advice on how to improve their lives on their own.11 Even Moses is described as a spiritual instructor—the spiritual instructor, the ultimate psychologist of all humanity, who was able to uncover the deep layers of the soul and understand the unconscious: ‘‘Moses was the greatest teacher in the entire universe, of all time, and there was none like him either before or afterwards; he understood the entire depth of the human soul, and its relationship to all things in the universe, and their effects on it.’’12

Ekstein developed various imagery exercises, which are essentially different from imagery exercises found in Kabbalistic and Hasidic literature. Ekstein’s exercises constitute an additional step in...


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pp. 277-302
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