Did Sigmund Freud hide his religious roots?

Dr Joseph Berke tells Rhiannon McGregor about his latest book, which looks at whether the famously secular Freud held a secretly conservative faith.

The definition of a psychiatrist is a Jewish doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood,” jests renowned psychotherapist Dr Joseph Berke when quizzed on his medical background.

Berke, a Highgate resident of 24 years, studied at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York where he states, “I was actually quite good at ER (Emergency Room), stitching up people, but when I went to my first service in psychiatry I was like a duck going to water.” He discovered he had an ability to talk to his patients, which created an internal crisis as this sort of interaction was actively discouraged in psychiatry textbooks. “I got very depressed thinking about all these diagnoses and then I decided textbooks were wrong and that’s what started me on my career.”

Fascinated by Freud from as early as his medical school days, Berke has assimilated 45 years of research into his latest literary offering, The Hidden Freud.

As the forefather of psychoanalysis, Freud and the practice are almost synonymous with one another, and the book explores not only Freud’s personal life and beliefs but also the broader link between psychoanalysis and Kabbalah.

An esoteric tradition within Judaism, Kabbalah is an obscure concept even to many practicing Jews. Berke himself only became interested in the discipline after giving a talk on the subject at the Leo Baeck College in North London during the ‘80s. “As I started to research it, I saw that there was a tremendous link between psychoanalytic theory and the ideas of Kabbalah.”

The principal question posed within the book is whether Freud, a famously secular figure who openly rejected religion, was in fact concealing conservative religious roots. Berke proposes the idea of an overt and a concealed Freud as a symptom of the era in which he was living.

Most Read

As he explains, “The overt Freud was a very ambitious German doctor, who wanted to be an eminent German consultant. If he had grown up now he would be a kind of Harley Street consultant, but Vienna in those days, at the end of the 19th century when Freud was beginning to work, was very anti-Semitic. It would be like working in Cairo today. So his professor advised him not to carry on with his academic studies or his medical studies, but to do something else and that encouraged him to look at reasons why people are as they are.”

Freud and his family escaped Nazi Austria in 1938 and settled at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, which has established North London as a hub of psychotherapeutic practice. The Philadelphia Association, also in Hampstead, was founded in 1965 by Berke’s close friend and colleague, R.D. Laing, in collaboration with others, and Berke was instrumental in much of what went on there.

His enthusiasm for his work is such that the crossover between work life and free time has often become blurred. Through the Philadelphia Association, Berke established a community living space at Kingsley Hall in east London, whereby patients and therapists lived as equals, thus breaking down the patient-therapist dynamic.

He recounts his time with Mary Barnes, a woman living at Kingsley Hall who suffered from severe anxieties and schizophrenia and insisted on being fed through a tube. “People thought it was too dangerous and too difficult to feed her with a tube, but Ronny said, ‘Who would like to feed Mary with a baby bottle?’ so I raised my hand.” During therapy, Barnes began to paint and became both a revered artist and ambassador for the hall.

For Berke, his work is innately tied up with his faith. Although ultimately secular, he sees psychoanalysis as a religious experience because of the subject matter it approaches – questions of who we are, what we are and why we’re here. He has patients who are religious, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as well as patients who are atheist, but he explains that the process of psychotherapy touches on his own religious beliefs and this enhances his capacity to reach people.

The Hidden Freud: His Hassidic Roots by Dr Joseph H. Berke is published by Karnac in paperback for £25.99