Opinion: My profession, infused with some Jewish history, has seen better days … thoughts on psychiatry | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Opinion: My profession, infused with some Jewish history, has seen better days … thoughts on psychiatry


Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud began a major Jewish influence in the development of the modern field of psychiatry. Freud was concerned that there would be an antisemitic backlash against this new field if it was viewed as a Jewish science, so he brought non-Jewish psychiatrists like Carl Jung into his inner circle.  

Freud’s concerns about antisemitism were perhaps an early sign, for the Nazis would later pursue Jewish genocide. In the concentration camps, the Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl found that finding meaning was an important way to cope with the worst trauma, as described in his perennial bestseller, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” 

Of course, being a physician has long been a haven for Jewish men. It offered respect, some autonomy, a good living, and the fulfillment of tikkun olam, to make the world a better place.  After psychiatry became a specialty in the 20th century, psychiatrists were facetiously said to be doctors who were afraid of blood. For me, it was my mother’s wish and a fascination during high school with Freud’s book, “The Interpretation of Dreams.” 

H. Steven (Hillel) Moffic, M.D.

Much later, when I belatedly studied the Torah as my son was becoming a Rabbi, I could see the same insightful understanding of people, families and groups that I encountered in psychiatry. When I read the stories of sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, or the Oedipal conflict in the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, it was as if I was reading psychiatric case studies.  

Come to think of it, maybe one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was the first psychiatrist with his prophetic dream interpretations. Joseph eventually thanked God for his skills, and though Freud didn’t believe in a God, he studied Jewish mysticism and felt that the Jewish concept of a God laid the groundwork for all abstract thought. 

Two key developments had an unfortunate impact on psychiatry. One was a shift in the 1970s away from deep personal exploration to biology and medication. Dreams are not routinely discussed and analyzed anymore. The coup de gras was the takeover of medicine by big business in the 1990s. Psychiatrists were led to do more in less time.  I fell back on Frankl by asking my patients what gave their life the most meaning, in order to make the best use of our shortened time together.   

The number and percentage of Jewish psychiatrists started to fall significantly, in my personal observational experience. Over the last decade or two, there has been a gradual decrease in religious affiliation of any kind to less than 50% while, at the same time, psychiatric symptoms, disorders, suicide and yes, antisemitism, were rising. Is this a cause-and-effect phenomenon? To take on this question, among others, I’ve recently edited a trilogy of books on Islamophobia, antisemitism, Christianity, and psychiatry.  

I don’t have all the answers, but I would like for Judaism to again influence psychiatry, a field in need of some assistance, for the better. 

Steven (Hillel) Moffic, a retired Wisconsin psychiatrist, is a recent co-founder of three organizations: Seven Psychiatrists Against Racism, Social Psychiatrists Interested in Recovery from International Trauma and Psychiatric Reparations Opportunities.