The Rebbe and Viktor Frankl – Part 2
by Yosef Y. Jacobson
The Rebbe, we know from various sources, was well versed in the important debate which carried critical ramifications on the future of psychoanalysis and therapy. In a letter from May 31, 1962 (27 Iyar 5722) he laments the fact that some psychiatrists and psychologists feel the need to begin “treating their patients by talking against G-d, against respect for a Higher reality, against respect of a father and mother etc. We need to research and explore how great are the benefits of this type of treatment? And even if this is important, does this approach not backfire as time passes?”
“It is obvious,” the Rebbe continues in this letter, “that some doctors have helped and healed their patients in straight ways, especially since one professor found the courage in his soul to declare and announce that contrary to the opinion of the famous founder of psychoanalysis-the faith in G-d, and a religious inclination in general, which gives meaning to life, etc. etc. is one of the most effective ways of healing etc.
“Nonetheless, due to several reasons, this philosophy has not penetrated the mainstream of these doctors…”
Clearly, the Rebbe is referring to the courage of “one professor,” Victor Frankl, to stand up to the Freudian school and declare that discovering meaning in life is the primary cause for well-being and emotional health. As we have seen, part of this courage was inspired by the Rebbe himself.
The Conflict between Religion and Therapy
Why did the academic community dismiss Dr. Frankl?
In a letter dated June 19, 1969 (3rd Tammuz, 5729), to an Israeli psychiatrist, Dr. S. Stern-Mirz in Haifa, concerning one of her patients, the Lubavitcher Rebbe presents one possible reason.
“I would like to take this opportunity to add another point, albeit this is her field, that the medical condition of…proves (if proof is needed in this area) the great power of faith-especially when applied and expressed in practical action, community work, observance of mitzvot, etc.-to fortify a person’s emotional tranquility, to minimize and sometimes even eliminate inner conflicts, as well as “complaints” one may have to his surroundings, etc.
“This is in spite the philosophy that faith and religion demand from a person the “acceptance of the yoke,” to restrain and suppress natural instincts and drives, and is, therefore, undesirable for any person, particularly in the case of a person who requires treatment for emotional anxiety.
“I particularly took interest in the writing of Dr. Frankl (from Vienna) in this matter. To my surprise, however, his approach has apparently not been appropriately disseminated and appreciated. Although one can find numerous reasons as to why his ideas are not accepted so much, including the fact that such treatment is related to the personal lifestyle exemplified by the treating doctor, nevertheless the question [as to why it is not appreciated] still remains.”
Use Me as a Reference
The Rebbe’s relationship with Frankl is also evident from the following episode.
In the early 1970’s (around 1973-74), Clive Cohen, studying psychology at the University of Leeds, visited the Lubavithcer Rebbe. Clive, who began exploring the teachings of Judaism at the Morristown NJ Chabad Yeshiva, asked the Rebbe how to deal with the numerous conflicts between the contemporary study of psychology and the paradigms of Judaism.
The Rebbe suggested that he correspond with Victor Frankl on the matter. “If you wish,” the Rebbe added, “you can use my name as a reference.”
Back to the telephone conversation between the Chabad ambassador to Austria and Dr. Frankl.
“Indeed,” Victor confirmed, “the words of Rabbi Schneerson materialized. My work soon began to flourish.”
A short while later, Frankl’s magnum opus “Man’s Search for Meaning” was translated into English (first under a different title). It became an ongoing bestseller to this very day and has been deemed as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. The professor’s career began to soar. The once-scoffed-at professor became one of the most celebrated psychiatrists of a generation. “Man’s Search for Meaning” has been translated into 28 languages and has sold over 10 million copies during his life time. Frankl became a guest lecturer at 209 universities on five continents, held 29 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, and received 19 national and international awards and medals for his work in psychotherapy.
His brand of therapy inspired thousands of other books, seminars, workshops, new-age and spiritual groups, which have all been based on Frankl’s ideas of the unique ability of the human to choose its path to discover meaning in every experience. From Scott Peck’s “Road Less Traveled” to Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits,” and hundreds of other bestsellers during the past 30 years, all were students of Victor Frankl’s idea, perspectives and philosophy.
Victor Frankl concluded his story to Rabbi Biderman with these words: eich vel eim eibek dankbar zein, I will eternally be grateful to him, to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Chabad Is a Good Cause…
Not knowing who he was talking to, Victor Frankl added:
“A number of years ago Chabad established itself here in Vienna. I became a supporter. You too should support it. They are the best…”
Finally, Rabbi Biderman understood why Chabad was receiving a check in the mail each year.
Indeed, in a conversation with Rabbi Biderman, Frankl’s non-Jewish son-in-law, Professor Alexander David Vesely, related that his mother-in-law, Eleonore Frankl, shared with him that her husband spoke of the Rebbe with great respect.
Marguerite, who lived out her final years in Vienna, became a close friend of Chabad in Austria. “She rediscovered her Chassidic roots, and became deeply involved in our work,” Rabbi Biderman relates. She died in March 2000 and was interred in the Jewish cemetery in her beloved Vienna.
The story, though, is not over.
When Dr. Frankl was asked about faith in G-d, he regularly gave an ambiguous answer.Throughout his years he never displayed any connection to Jewish faith or practice.
Yet in 2003, Dr. Shimon Cowen, an Australian expert on Frankl, went to visit his non-Jewish widow, Eleonore, in Vienna. She took out a pair of tefilin (phylacteries) and showed it to him.
“My late husband would put these on each and every day,” she said to him.
Then she took out a pair of tzitzis (fringes) he made for himself to wear.
At night in bed, the widow related, Victor would recite the book of Psalms.
Indeed, Haddon Klingberg, author of When Life Calls Out To Us: The love and lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl, the only authorized biography of Viktor and Eleonore (“Elly”), writes:
“After his death I asked Elly if he actually made these prayers every day.’Absolutely. He never missed a day. Every morning for more than fifty years. But nobody knew this.’ As they traveled the globe Viktor took the phylacteries with them, and everywhere, every morning, he prayed. He uttered memorized words of Jewish prayers and Psalms.”
“After Viktor died I saw his phylacteries for the first time. Elly had placed them in the little cubicle with his few simple possessions…”
Frankl’s son-in-law also confirmed this fact to Rabbi Biderman: “My father-in-law would close himself off in a room every day for a little while. Once I opened the door and saw him with black boxes on his head and hand. He was annoyed about my intruding on his privacy. When he was taken to the hospital, however, his practice of putting on tefillin became public.”
It seems that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was determined to help Dr. Frankl get this message out to the world: We really do have a soul; the soul is the deepest and most real part of us; and that we will never be fully alive if we don’t access our souls.