Erich Neumann and Hasidism | Tamar Kron

On a rainy Friday in July of 1955, during an interview on the occasion of his 80th birthday for the Basel National-Zeitung, CG Jung made an astonishing revelation:

"Do you know who anticipated my entire psychology in theeighteenth century? The Hasidic Rabbi Baer from Meseritz, whom they called the Great Maggid."

 Two decades earlier, Erich Neumann after immigrating to Palestine at the age of twenty-nine, had begun to write a manuscript, the as yet unpublished Hasidism and Its Psychological Relevance for Judaism. We know that a young Neumann had presented his wife-to-be Julia with a copy of Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim and had gone on to study Kabbalah and Hasidism at the university in Berlin.

And this is how Neumann expresses his understanding of Hasidism, in the introduction to his manuscript, written two years after his initial meeting with Jung in 1932:

"Certain formulations by Hasidic authorities match our own so precisely and in such great detail, one may correctly assume that they are present, at least latently, at the basis of my own psychological interpretations. Of course, it goes without saying that the formulations of Hasidic texts and my psychological interpretations of them two hundred years later move along different planes."

Neumann apparently wrote the manuscript during his first years in Palestine, 1934-1940, during which he was preoccupied with the problematics of the Jewish psyche and sought the mainspring for the creation of a national Jewish culture in Zionism and Hasidism.  Neumann never published the unrevised three hundred page manuscript, and we cannot be entirely certain why it never saw light.  Some say that Gershom Scholem, whom Neumann had met at Eranos, criticized his over-reliance on Buber and his inability to read the sources in Hebrew. It makes no difference in my eyes whether or not this is so or whether Scholem in fact ever read the manuscript.In any case, it is perfectly legitimate for writers and researchers to choose their sources as they wish. Be that as it may – although Neumann's presentation of Hasidism is Buberian in spirit, the psychological understanding is original Neumannian.

When he had finished writing the entire manuscript, Neumann took up other subjects, not necessarily relating to the Jewish psyche and Jewish culture.  One would be wrong to surmise that when he put the manuscript away in his drawer and stopped teaching his seminars on Judaism, Neumann also put away his reflections on the connection between analytical psychology and Hasidism. What I will claim here is that the same ideas further developed and expanded appear in the Eranos essays with whole passages taken directly from the manuscript which he began writing in 1948, as well as in Depth Psychology and the New Ethic. Moreover, I shall claim that the early stages of his original thinking which combined analytical psychology with existentialism and Buber's dialogue philosophy are already present in the manuscript of Hasidism and Its Psychological Relevance for Judaism.

Neumann's insights into Hasidism and the way in which they complement his psychology and figure in his Eranos essays are simply too numerous to discuss today. What I have chosen to focus on here is his unique interpretation of the Hasidic doctrine of the sparks and the doctrines oftzimtzum (contraction) and of ayin, (nothingness or the void) and through them, to elucidate some Neumannian ideas that stem from them.

I believe that most of you are acquainted with the Kabbalistic doctrine oftzimtzum,  the divine contraction that gave rise to the primordial catastrophe of creation and the divine sparks that issued from it. Here is Buber's reading of the Hasidic interpretation:

The sparks doctrine of the later Kabbala has become in the hands of the Baal-shem-tov an ethical teaching, and has been amplified into a precept embracing the whole life of man. In a primordial catastrophy before the creation of our world, (in the time when God set up worlds and tore them down), sparks of the divine fire fell into all things in the world. The spark is concealed in a material shell, in a mineral, in a plant, in an animal–a complete form similar to that of man, with the head on the thighs, unable to move hands or feet, embryo-like. Only through man is there redemption for him. It rests with men to purge the sparks of things and beings, which are met with every day, and to raise them to ever higher stages, to ever higher births, from mineral to plant, from plant to animal, from animal to man, until the holy spark can return to its high roots.[1]

Neumann wrote a great deal about the "creative point of nothingness" which is central to his thinking on creativity. As he describes the Kabbalistic-Hasidic concept of the void or nothingness (ayin) in the Manuscript he began in 1934:

The ayin as the most sublime symbol of divinity has a positive significance, and Creation out of nothingness expresses this creative quality of ayin. The world according to Hasidism rests upon God's creative ayin, the dynamics of which are not only latent in every element and object in this world, but also rhythmically animate and liberate this world…[2]

Here is how Neumann elucidates the psychic component of ayin in his Manuscript:

The ayin is the locus of the rebirth of consciousness which re-emerges from it in a new, vitalized and expanded form. What this means is that the concept of ayin and its identity with divine wisdom accords with the psychology and metaphysics of the creative process since all creativity arises out of the "unconscious", the deepest levels of the ayin, beyond the reach of ego-consciousness.

Fourteen years later, Neumann wrote in his essay "Mystical Man":

"Not only is the source of the creative nothingness – which is the point of departure for the autonomous, spontaneous and unconscious activity of the creative, vital psyche – situated within the psychological domain of the Anthropos, it is its very center." (page 377)

In the same essay he writes:

"…The creative void stands at the center of mystical anthropology as part of a depth psychology concerned with the nature of the creative process, but at the same time it stands at the center of all mystical experience which circles around the hiddenness of the godhead…Analytical psychology calls this center the Self and thus enters into the very midst of the paradoxical truth that God and man are one image. In its individuation the personality no longer experiences itself as ego, or solely as ego, but at the same time as ego-self…"(p.384)

And thus he writes in the essay "Man and Meaning" from 1957, nineteen years after his completion of the Manuscript: (p.242)

"The creative point-of nothingness of the individual self, to which the world belongs, and that point to which the individual's unfolding destiny belongs, are one and the same…"[3]

These are merely examples. There are many other sections in Neumann's writings that refer to the concept of the creative point of nothingness.

Neumann as we have seen understands the creative point of nothingness as the origin of consciousness. Let us now consider the stages of developing consciousness in the process of individuation as Neumann presents them in the manuscript, mineral to plant, plant to animal, animal to human.

As he describes this process in the Manuscript, the sparks that exist in the external world of animate and inanimate entities make demands on man irrespective of their quintessence or manifestation.  They "desire" something from man, and this desire is matched by the human desires of the psyche. The demands of the external world transform the human into the great mediator and ruler, the "ladder" that connects the earthly with the divine, for it is between the world, humanity and God that the great redemption is enacted. God is hidden and immanent, but the divine abundance and vitality of the sparks spread throughout the world of entities and creatures. The dynamic of the sparks is dependent upon human intention and consciousness. Neumann writes that man redeems the spiritual meaning of the spark by raising it to the conscious level. As he expresses the idea in the Manuscript:

Clearly this is a gradual process of transformation wherein the movement of sentience from dead stone' to 'living man' likewise denotes the movement from 'mute stone' to 'speaking creature.' (Neumann later refers to the rung of the speaking creature as the rung of man or the rung of meaning.)

The redemption of sparks lost in meaninglessness occurs when they are returned through relationship and connected to human consciousness. While contained in "mere-random-existence" (which reminds us of a later concept of Neumann's, "mere-ego") they are bound in spiritual-psychic wholeness and ascend to their roots, their original state.

Consciousness redeems the unconscious spiritual kernel of an inanimate object or creature, the latent embryo imprisoned in the shell, into meaningfulness and leads it from the potential to the actual.

At the lowest rung, that of the inanimate, the spiritual-creative principle is latent. For primitive man the muteness of the inanimate sometimes takes the form of a "speaking" creature that calls to him. This becomes a sacred object, an abode of the divine. In such an object, the spark that has been revealed ascends to its root.

Another way in which the spark of the inanimate can be redeemed is when a mineral object is used by a human being and redeemed through its relationship with the psyche. The hewn stone has a different nature from the stone that lies somewhere on the hill. It is connected to man's consciousness, shaped and redeemed from the anonymity of existence. Likewise Neumann refers to the "act of naming" here as one that redeems the inanimate object from its existential anonymity.  The spiritual act of naming which redeems the inanimate is not a magical one that endows the object with magical powers, but an act that connects the inanimate with consciousness and sublime spirituality. The most beautiful example I know of this act is found in the story of Jacob's great dream in Genesis 28:11 And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.

In the dream a ladder descends from the heavens with angels upon it and Jacob hears God promising the land of his fathers to the people of Israel. When he awakened, he

took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it

19And he called the name of that place Beth-el,

Then he made a vow that when he returned to his father's house

22 this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house

The stone was redeemed through Jacob's act of naming. One could say in Buber's dialogue language that the stone was transformed from "it" to "Thou" through Jacob's consciousness which connected with the spiritual totality, gave it a name, and thus redeemed the spark of the stone.

Next comes the rung of vegetation. Here the organism has a vitality of its own, yet is still directionless in terms of consciousness. The spark is closer to its essence here, and reveals something formerly latent and locked though it is still directionless from a human perspective. The world of vegetation represents life of a unique kind. It grows and lives in Time though it is restricted in movement by its roots. The realm of vegetation is more wondrous and enigmatic than the mineral realm. That is, it reveals more of the living secret of the divine.
It is in the animate rung, however, where for the first time, intentionality and the creative urge reveal themselves as self-determining movement and instinct. Here the active aspect of the world appears and the desire of the spark is revealed in its movement towards the human psyche. The movement is expressed through the affects and emotions.

These three rungs, mineral, vegetable and animal inhere in nature, and their inner symbolism represents the path of transformation from the depths of the unconscious towards consciousness.

Above the animal rung is the rung of the "speaking creature" (the rung of man or meaning) where the sparks express themselves, and their unique connection to the redeeming psyche is clarified. On this rung the self-redemptive process within the human psyche is unveiled. Man as representative of the spiritual in the world becomes self-reflective and bestows meaning on the world.

But is this not also the rung of the ego, in Neumann's metapsychology? Let us look at his last essay "The Psyche as the Place of Creation", written in 1959.[4]

Only in man's self-formation does this double nature of the self becomes transparent: as the individual center of human destiny it is a creative and formative form, yet at the same time as the creative and formative agency at work everywhere and in everything it remains itself formless. ……Individuation involves the inclusion of the ego as an essential pole of the ego-self axis, and destiny signifies just as much acceptance of the ego-self reality as an attempt by the creative and formative agency to realize itself in the uniqueness of the human psyche.

In this connection , (Neumann continues) I should like to refer to a Hasidic story which has occupied my mind for very many years. It is a story told by a rabbi about a simple Jew, to whom the prophet Elijah had appeared. But the appearance of Elijah ‘signifies the real initiation of the individual into the secret of the doctrine.” [Martin Buber, Die chassidischen Buecher (Hellerau, 1928), p.690, note]. The rabbi was asked how this could possibly be true, since the appearance of the prophet had never been vouchsafed to Master Ibn Esra, a man who was spiritually on an altogether higher plane. The rabbi replied that a larger or smaller part of the ‘Allsoul’ of Elijah enters into every child, according to his temperament and inheritance. And if the person concerned, when he is growing up, trains his part of the soul of Elijah, then Elijah will appear to him. The simple man to whom Elijah had appeared had realized his small part of the soul of Elijah, whereas Ibn Esra had not realized his much larger part.  (ibid,  p .374).

Twenty years earlier Neumann had related the same story in connection to the rung of speaking creatures:

At issue in this story is individuation. The development of Elijah's soul must be acknowledged as a basis for the fulfillment of every individual life. The spark, the latent spiritual content found in every object and creature as a locked kernel must be revealed. The revelation may take place in anything and anyone, depending on the manner, intensity and intention of the human psyche and its capability to be revealed. The greater the soul, the more the world demands to be revealed through it, and the more latent soul fragments exist in it which wait like the latent sparks in inanimate objects to be redeemed and raised on high.

In the essay "Mystical  man", written twenty years later he writes the following about the same story:

As I understand this story today, it means – in Jewish clothing – that what appears here as the soul of Elijah is the same as what we call the "self". This self in a man is on the one hand the basis of his individuation and his destiny, but on the other hand the "smaller than small" and "greater that great" of the Indian Purusha applies to it. This means that as something immeasurable and as a formless creator of form and images it is everywhere identical with itself.

From the standpoint of our meta-psychological enquiry this soul of Elijah is valid not only for the Jew and not only for humankind but for everything that lives and everything that exists, and the formless reality is the basis not only of all individual existence but of each thing that has been formed, in all its diversity, since it is everywhere one and the same reality. This means that everything which fulfills its own nature is equal in rank and equal in radiance….but this equality applies just as much to the inanimate that fulfills its inanimate nature by existing, as it does to the vital process which fulfills itself unconsciously as preformed form, and to the human reality that fulfills itself consciously as a form creating form and images. And so, just as we have to recognize man in this sense as "absolute man:" so in this line of experience every animal, every plant, and every stone becomes "absolute."

Above the rung of meaning is the rung of the symbolic. The subject of experience on this rung is not the speaking creature – the ego-  but rather something transpersonal. The redemption of the sparks appears here not like the redemption of objects and creatures or human beings but as the redemption of the divine itself. At this rung the destiny of man and the world have become part of God's redemption. As an example of this Neumann relates the following Hasidic tale:

"A disciple of the Rabbi of Apt related this story: 'Once I was present at a conversation my teacher carried on with a widow. He spoke to her of her widowhood in good, comforting words, and she allowed her soul to be comforted and found new strength. But I saw that he wept and I too began to weep. For suddenly I knew that he was speaking to the Divine Presence – the Shekhinah – that is forsaken." Buber, M. Tales of the Hasidism, Late Masters, p.118

Here at the highest rung, writes Neumann, individual experience is symbolically elevated.  The earnest manner in which the rabbi spoke to the widow reveals the symbolic aspect and their meeting becomes an instance of revelation. The occurrence is unveiled and transformed into an event between humanity and God Himself.

An everyday occurrence becomes allegorical. Though it remains worldly in content it bears a different meaning, whether we speak of Enoch the righteous shoemaker who by joining the sole to the shoe joins heaven and earth, or the Baal Shem Tov who washes the vessels in his home and at the same time cleanses Creation which is also called "the vessels" or other figures from Hasidic tales. The world is always a symbol. It reaches the individual as a messenger of God in order to bring revelation which is the recognition of the symbolic nature of the act that brings about the redemption of the sparks. In his essay "Mystical Man" from 1948, Neumann returns to the story of the widow in relation to the highest level of mystical man. As he writes there:

This level synthesizes two attitudes which at first seem mutually exclusive: one which takes seriously the concrete situation in the actual, given world, and another which looks on its encounter with the numinous substratum as the only authentic reality. Their synthesis constitutes "symbolic life".

(p.140)…If in everything and every situation a numinous background can break through…everything in the world becomes a symbol and a part of the numinous, and the world…becomes prodigiously pregnant with God and godly. When there is light in man the light shines without and within; and when it becomes dark and opaque within him, the world too becomes dark and opaque, a world of dead things. The mission of living man is not to plunge himself into the white primal light and lose his identity, but to give transparency to the foregrounds of the world, in order that the primal light of the pleroma may become visible as a background and core of the world…This he may do by experiencing a symbol, by raising a content to consciousness, by giving form to an archetype, through love for another human being, or in some other way, in any case, we are speaking of an encounter of the self with the self.

Further on in the Manuscript Neumann uses the phrase "the actualization of Messianism," by which he means a radical shift from the future to the present, from there to here, from outside in.  This actualization corresponds to the radical internalization of the problem of redemption. Redemption is not reliant on external factors but only on the individual here and now fulfilling the messianic rung of his soul. What is implied here is the enormous weight on the individual and his psychic work and its actualization in the world. Man's redemptive role in relation to the world is internal. He transforms himself through the transformation of the sparks of the world and thus transforms the world itself.

In "Mystical Man" Neumann says almost the exact same thing:

The actualization of Messianism, a process that culminated in the popular mystical movement of Hasidism, overcame the provisional character of a life spent outside of history in waiting for a millennium. Redemption of the sacred sparks in every Now, in every Here, that is the essential task. And this task confronts not only the world, with its general need of redemption, but every individual, for each individual soul has its own particular sparks that demand to be redeemed. The mission of the individual is in its profoundest meaning an actualization of Messianism. p. 410

Here I would like to discuss another relevant passage from the Manuscript concerning the rungs of the sparks in which Neumann clarifies the psychological meaning of the transformation of the rungs as it relates to the transformation of the world.  It is important to understand (says Neumann) that the transformation of the sparks occurs together with a transformation of perspective – either way, whether we say that the spark of something has been raised to the rung of meaning – from the perspective of the object- or that the world has become transparent through this object which has now reached the rung of man, or that the soul has raised itself to the rung of man, from man's perspective, all three are one and the same. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that this is merely a shift in human perspective within man, for while man and his consciousness do indeed undergo a transformation, at the same time, the entire world is transformed, and not merely the human world.

Not only does the individual on the mineral rung have a different perspective from that of a man on the rung of meaning, but his reactions in and towards the world will also be different. The world actualizes itself in and through man at different rungs. The world at the mineral rung is obedient to the inanimate world. An event that man encounters at the mineral rung is blind, and man responds to it according to the principle of least resistance. The same event met at the rung of meaning will be entirely different. Here the event becomes transparent and man is not blind to it but rather sees a meaning in it to which he responds.  This event is a given but at one rung it is inanimate, meaningless, dead matter while for someone who encounters the same event the world may be revealed and actualized at a different rung. This process of transformation is continuous, and every person ceaselessly ascends and descends at every moment.

Some fifteen years later, in 1952, in his important essay "The Psyche and the Transformation of the Reality Planes,"[5]  Neumann articulates the same thing in the language of his metapsychology. He describes the paradigm of the ego-self axis centering in the psyche as it cuts through three planes of reality or fields of knowledge: the plane of reality, the archetypal plane and the plane of the self.  That such fields exist in parallel is Neumann’s original idea, an idea that would appear to go well beyond the conception developed by Jung. I believe this idea is based on Neumann's reading of Hasidism. As he write there:


The transformation of the psyche manifests itself in the human being’s changing relationship to the reality planes as they respectively become accessible to him, and the creative freedom of life as well as the extent and luminosity of experience are directly dependent on the phase of transformation in which the personality of the human being happens to be. (ibid, p. 54). At the point of the personality’s centroversion the world-encompassing self-field, and the central point within the psyche become identical. And the central self-form, the godhead within us, appears the same as the godhead who is the creator of the world. (ibid, p.59)

The central principle in these statements is that there is no more distinction between the personal self, responsible for the process of one's individuation and the greater self that guides the whole world. What this means is that the symbols of the self are not projections from the inner world to the outside and not the reflection of the outside in the inner world, but rather a union of outer and inner. For Neumann the question whether or not God is a projection of the self in the inner world to the outer world is extraneous. God is found both inside and outside and is revealed in centroversion.

I hope I have sufficiently clarified my claim that the symbolic rung and the rung of meaning as described by Neumann in the manuscript correspond to what he later calls the ego-self axis. In his last essay "The Psyche as the Place of Creation" completed in 1959 he writes:

 …It is an altogether different matter when man experiences himself as an ego-self form, i.e., when he becomes aware, not of his inwardness but of his inner being. He experiences himself in his ego-self being as a creatively formative power which is alive in himself, in his ego and in his self; he is part of this power as an ego, and as a self he himself is this power…” (p. 367)

This great experience takes place in a state Neumann describes as “destiny” wherein man ceases to experience himself as “relative man” and can experience himself and his own numinosity as “absolute man”.  Or in Neumann's words, “This experience takes place in the midst of the world and the problems of the age and by no means in some remote ‘free space’ since ‘to have a destiny’ does not mean to exist outside time.”( ibid. p. 369)

This "absolute man" who experiences his ego-self as a creatively formative power is highly reminiscent of the Zaddiq in Hasidism, as we shall soon see.  Neumann describes him in the Manuscript thus:

The Zaddiq as the epitome of wholeness actualizes the potential that exists as a kernel in every human being, and this is the meaning of creation "in God's image", that is Adam Kadmon (primordial man) who must be actualized in his entirety and all his parts…. Such development and intentionality are natural to man, a part of his nature and correspond to his psychic make-up. His path is introverted and inward. It is a path through the layers of oneself, the shells of oneself, the distortions created by time, race, nation and family, constitution and type. …It is not merely the path from ego to self but the path of return from outside to inside, from extroversion under the sign of ego and world to introversion under the sign of Self and soul.

Neumann  quotes an unnamed Hasidic source which describe the  Zaddiq"Just as a seed buried in the soil draws in all the powers of the earth and brings forth fruit, so the Zaddiq in this world draws in the sparks that are part of his soul from everything in the world and brings them to God." He comments that what is stressed here is the naturalness of the process, for just as the plant draws its growth and development from the powers of the earth and these powers spread when the plant grows, so life on this earth is guided towards the Zaddiq and he is its growth and development, and just as the plant grows from below to above and between the two directions, and just as its vitality joins the air with the soil, so the being of the Zaddiq in this middle space joins the higher and lower worlds.

In the Hasidic texts the Zaddiq is frequently called the pillar or the path. Neumann explains that this  is the Zaddiq 's key position in relation to the upper worlds of Godhead whose influence must pass through him.. The nature of the Zaddiq is to join or bind, and the aspect of totality and unity is epitomized by the Zaddiq as one who binds or joins the elements of the psyche at the inner subjective level and at the objective external level, and joins God with the world, above and below. The Zaddiq stirs the sparks of the soul in human beings, and leads them to return, enabling them to discover the rung of their own individual souls and to actualize them. His mission is to lead man "to his own light, so he won't think the Rabbi did it." This is the highest mission of the Zaddiq in early Hasidism , the divine behest the individual encounters. The man who can fulfill this divine behest is the Zaddiq.  The law that provides the basis for the Zaddiq's influence is the dependency of Godhead on the human realm of action.

Neumann's manuscript on Hasidism is a hidden treasure from which I have shared only a few gems today. It has been a rare experience for me to discover the Hasidic sources of Neumann's thought and to trace their development over the twenty years that separate the Manuscript from the Eranos essays. To paraphrase the allegory of the Zaddiq as a plant that draws sustenance from the soil and spreads through the world, one might say that Neumann drew his strength from the soil of Hasidism and flourished through the world of analytical psychology.

[1] Buber, M. Hasidism. Translated by Greta Hort. The Philosophical Library, New York

[2] Mystical Man,  (1948) In: The mystic vision; papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, edited by Joseph Campbell. 1968.  Bollingen Series XXX, Princeton University Press.

[3] Mensch und Sinn, In: Der Schoepferische Mensch. Rhein Verlag, Zürich 1959

[4] Die Psyche als Ort der Gestaltung.

Eranos Jahrbuch 1960 (XXIX). Zürich: Rhein Verlag, 1961

[5] Die Psyche und die Wandlung der Wirklichkeitsebenen. Eranos Jahrbuch 1952 (XXI). Rhein Verlag, Zürich 1953

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