Freud and Judaism…

The interpretation of Freud

By Robert S. Wistrich
The story told by historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi is a good way to sum up Sigmund Freud’s attitude toward Judaism and Christianity. And here is the story: West End Avenue, Manhattan. An upper-middle class Jewish couple; the father, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, is a militant and vocal atheist. Since the parents are interested in the best education for their son, they send him to Trinity School, which by this point is a secular school, open to everyone. One day, after about a month, the child returns home and says offhandedly, “By the way, Dad, do you know the meaning of the word ‘trinity’? It means the trio of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The father, barely restraining himself, grabs the boy by the shoulders and declares: “Son, there is only one God – and we don’t believe in him!” Freud, who on more than one occasion defined himself as ‘a completely atheistic Jew,’ would certainly have been able to appreciate the historical truth of this story. The joke also sheds light on Freud’s intentions in writing “Moses and Monotheism” (1939), the only work by him that is specifically devoted to a Jewish subject. Yerushalmi’s book, “Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable,” presents Freud’s essay both as the psychoanalytic history of the Jews and as a “psychological biography” of the man himself. Already in 1934, when the first version of “Moses and Monotheism” was completed, the central question that faced Freud was how the Jews had become what they were. This is Freud’s last attempt to discover, in the shadow of Nazism, the source of the ancient hatred of the Jews, and to understand what distinguishes them from other nations. Yerushalmi believes that in searching for the answer, Freud was fulfilling the wishes of his father, Jakob, who in 1891 had given him a ‘mandate’ to return to the values shared by father and son – in the form of a dedication, written in Hebrew by Jakob, in the family Bible on the occasion of his son’s 35th birthday. Yerushalmi calls Freud’s writing of the book an act of “deferred obedience” to the wishes of his father, which may enable us to reach a more profound psychological understanding of Freud’s preoccupation with Moses. In the end, Freud treated the subject systematically after a delay of about 40 years, as a secular Jew committed to a strict scientific approach, making sure to speak of the Jews as ‘they’ rather than ‘we.’


Little self-hateToday, on the 150th anniversary of Freud’s birth, the question of his Jewish identity still arouses curiosity and preoccupies many scholars. In my new book about Germans and Jews in Central Europe, “Masters and Victims: Jewish Fate in Central Europe” (University of Nebraska Press and the Sassoon Center), I try to give an answer to the riddle of his identity in the actual historical context. In my opinion, Freud is the outstanding embodiment of that same unique type of ‘marginal Jew’ of a ‘Judaism without God,’ who is alienated from his religion and nation, but proud of his origins. In 1918 Freud asked his friend, the Swiss pastor Oskar Pfister: “How did it happen that none of the God-fearing people invented psychoanalysis, and it had to wait for a godless Jew?” On his 70th birthday (in 1926), Freud discussed his connection to Judaism at length: “Not faith, not even national pride … Every time I tended toward feelings of nationalist enthusiasm, I tried to suppress them as harmful and unfair, since the example of the nations among whom we Jews live served as a warning and frightened me. But a great deal still remains in me, enough to turn the attraction to Judaism and the Jews to something that cannot be resisted, dark emotional powers that become stronger as it becomes more difficult to express them in words, as well as the clear awareness of an internal and familiar identity of that same psychological structure.”

There is no question that Freud was aware of the power of nationalist sentiments. He tended to react sharply to the stubborn prejudices he experienced in his native Austria – a very anti-Semitic environment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After 1895, the year when psychoanalysis was born, Freud himself was a target of anti-Semites. Was he not blatantly subversive when it came to religion, morality and family, shattering human illusions?

“You can rest assured,” he wrote in the summer of 1908 to his student, Karl Abraham, “that had my name been Uberhuber, my innovations would have met much less opposition, in spite of everything.” Despite his frustration, Freud related to the sense of isolation with a certain pride. After all, a trailblazer needed “a willingness to be in an isolated position, a situation with which nobody is more familiar than a Jew.” Freud believed that that same profound feeling of incompatibility with the non-Jewish majority had caused him and other secular Jews to be much less conformist. In effect, they were less bothered by dogmas and superstitions, or by the heavy burden of theological “illusions” bequeathed to them by Christian culture.

Freud’s reaction was relatively free of that same Jewish self-hate, by means of which the Jews of Germany and Austria in modern times tried to escape from the burden of their Jewishness by vilifying their origins. Freud always believed that his Jewish heritage was a main source of “vibrant energy,” creativity and independent thought. And that is the reason for his disdain for his colleagues who converted to Christianity for the sake of their careers.

But Freud’s sense of ethnic solidarity did not lead him to adopt Zionism. He did believe, however, in the racial and intellectual differences between Jews and non-Jews, and in fact emphasized the special Jewish ethos, whose positive significance was a sublimation of the sensual and touched on the spiritual, the ability to engage in abstract thinking, and cultural and intellectual progress.

But there was also a darker side to Freud’s world view, both in relation to Judaism and with respect to human beings in general. In his view, the “spirituality” of the Jews stemmed, in the final analysis, from the murder of the leader in the desert, Moses, and the guilt feelings that were suppressed in the wake of that murder and the rejection of the values represented by Moses. That same lofty Jewish ethos admired by Freud was formulated, according to “Moses and Monotheism,” as a result of irrational memories and impulses that had been repressed for hundreds of years.

“Pathetic” humanity

Freud had no illusions about the destructive and aggressive urges that are part of human nature. In 1927 he wrote to Arnold Zweig: “As far as anti-Semitism is concerned, I don’t really want to go searching for explanations for it; I have a very strong tendency to surrender to my emotions on this matter, and I find that I have received confirmation for my totally unscientific belief that humanity is for the most part quite a pathetic and miserable rabble.”

His short essay, “Why War,” (1932) also presented a pessimistic view of the human condition. History was presented as a never-ending series of conflicts between communities, races, nations and empires, which “were always solved by force.” Freud was unable to find a convincing political solution for the human impulses that led to belligerency, war and injustice. He did not hold out great hope for the liberation of the masses from their submission to the powers of darkness that were carefully nurtured by the institutions of the state and the Church. The only chance for a gradual improvement, he believed, lay in the ability of psychoanalysis to liberate reason, over the long term, from its submission to unconscious urges and neurotic fixations.

Freud’s disgust for the passions of the masses and his negative opinion of humanity in general were a logical outcome of the years he spent observing public life in Vienna, and the rise of Nazism. He himself was barely rescued from Hitler’s clutches in 1938, and four of his sisters were murdered afterward in Nazi extermination camps.

Freud’s attitude toward Zionism and the ancient Jewish homeland was very complex. In a letter to Arnold Zweig (who lived in Palestine at the time) on May 8, 1932, Freud wrote with rigid rationalism about “the Holy Land”: That place, he noted, “has never given rise to anything except sanctified religious insanity, courageous attempts to overcome the outside, visible world, by means of the inner world of hopes that are only wishful thinking.” He wondered aloud “what kind of heritage has penetrated our blood and our nerves” from the heritage of the early patriarchs, and in typical fashion, he recognized the part that “belated infantile desires” which remain “unfulfilled” played in his emotions.

Freud’s skepticism prevented him from following Herzl, who suggested becoming the “new Moses” in Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and taking the Jews out of their “land of bondage” to the Promised Land. Moses filled an important role in Freud’s imagination, more as an educator and a moral legislator than as a visionary prophet or a charismatic political leader. Freud apparently never met Herzl, although he sent him a copy of his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1902, as “a sign of the great admiration that I, like so many others, have for the writer and fighter for our people’s human rights.” Their short meetings took place only in dream scenarios, which hinted at the fact that Herzl may have represented a nagging prophetic presence in Freud’s unconscious. The father of psychoanalysis demonstrated an ambiguous and often hesitant attitude toward Zionism, a mixture of fondness, skepticism, anxiety, enthusiastic interest and a flickering of pride.

Profound concerns

The riots in Palestine in 1929 exposed some of Freud’s most profound concerns about the Zionist enterprise, and aroused his deep revulsion toward any form of religious fanaticism. In 1930 he wrote to the Keren Hayesod (the fund-raising arm of the World Zionist Organization, established in 1920 at the World Zionist Conference in London): “Anyone who wants to influence the masses must give them something arousing and exciting, and my level-headed opinion of Zionism does not allow this. I definitely feel sympathy for its goals, I am proud of our university in Jerusalem and happy about the flourishing of our moshavot (agricultural communities). But on the other hand, I do not think that Palestine can ever become a Jewish country, or that the Christian world and the Muslim world will ever agree to let their holy places be under Jewish control. I think that it would be wiser to establish the Jewish homeland in a place that is less sensitive historically. But I know that this rational viewpoint would never arouse the enthusiasm of the masses…”

Freud’s interest in Zionism waned during the 1930s, of all times. He was painfully aware of the Nazi threat to the future of the Jewish people, and wrote with great concern about “the decline into almost prehistoric barbarism” that was taking place among the Germans. That was why he discussed anti-Semitism so seriously in his last work. Among his varied and interesting theories, he tried to link German Nazism to the eternal grudge borne by the pagan barbarians “against the new religion (Christianity) that was forced on them.” They transferred their anger to the Jewish roots of the Christian religion – a means of diverting responsibility that succeeded because what is told in the New Testament “took place among the Jews.” This was the source of Freud’s conclusion that hatred of Jews is “fundamentally hatred of Christians.” It is no wonder, he added, that “in the National-Socialist German revolution, the close connection between the two monotheistic religions assumes such a clear expression of hostility toward both of them.”

Freud was correct in noting that Nazism, which relies on the Christian tradition of hatred of Jews, openly and angrily lashed out against all the ethical demands shared by Judaism and Christianity. His last work revealed a thorough understanding of the return of “repressed elements in the unconscious of humanity.” Freud died in September 1939, on the threshold of the darkest chapter in the history of mankind and the Jewish people. The murderous anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany could only have confirmed his greatest fears about the bestiality concealed beneath the thin veneer of modern European civilization.

Prof. Robert S. Wistrich holds the Neuberger chair for modern European history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is head of its International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism.

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