The minyan as a psychological support system

Psychoanal Rev. 1997 Aug;84(4):541-52.


Most individuals participate in some of the rituals and/or regular activities of religious institutions such as churches or synagogues. Through such involvements, people are offered vital assistance in dealing with developmental changes, opportunities for personal development and for group support, and more generally, a sense of continuity and of meaning in life. This paper deals with only one small aspect of Jewish observance, an aspect of the centuries-old required weekly prayer groups-the minyan. The prime emphasis resides in the rarely recognized, nonliturgical dimension of this small group experience. Using psychoanalysis in the sense of a general psychology as background, I have considered the minyan as combining elements of a psychological support system and of a small group. In addition to the gratification of affiliative needs (social hunger) and the countering of loneliness and of isolation, this group experience helps its members maintain an intergenerational sense of personal identity and of self-esteem. In the face of marked life stressors such as death in the family, religious institutions such as the minyan, with its prescribed ritual steps for grieving (i.e., kaddish), fulfill especially significant preventive and restitutive mental health functions. I have also hypothesized that on a covert, fantasy level, the caring and nurturing family-like weekday minyan may even represent a mother-symbol (mother group) in line with people's universal need to establish a psychological union with others, thus restoring an earlier, conflict-free state of the child-mother bond. In an extended societal sense, the earlier emphasis in Western cultures on the virtual worship of individuality, autonomy, and independence has given way recently to a renewed appreciation of cooperation, communalism, and altruism. The minyan, as a small religious communal aggregate with its inherent climate of mutuality, reciprocity, and continuity, has, in a sense, anticipated these new developments. For as Herbert Simon (1990), the Nobel laureate, observed, "It is of no little moment for the human future whether people are necessarily and consistently selfish...or whether there is a significant place for altruism in the scheme of human behavior."

MeSH terms

  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Grief
  • Group Processes*
  • Humans
  • Judaism*
  • Object Attachment
  • Psychoanalytic Interpretation*
  • Religion and Psychology*
  • Self-Help Groups
  • Social Identification
  • Social Support*