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How Jewish Was Freud?

Freud and Moses: The Long Journey Home

by Emanuel Rice
State University of New York Press, 266 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable

by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
Yale University Press, 159 pp., $25.00

Freud’s conception of scientific creativity as the “succession of daringly playful fantasy and relentlessly realistic criticism” may have served him reasonably well during his long and fruitful scientific career, but even his most committed admirers have looked on his last important work, Moses and Monotheism, as one in which fantasy prevailed at the expense of reality. Indeed, the most prominent of his arguments—that Moses was an Egyptian, that monotheism originated in Egypt, and that Moses was murdered by the Jews—has struck many readers as so recklessly fanciful and so deeply at odds with Jewish tradition that interest in the book has turned largely on Freud’s motives in writing it. The book raised once more the question of the importance of Freud’s Jewish background for his work generally; but the puzzling inconsistencies in Freud’s statements about this subject as well as the failure of most Freud scholars to appreciate its complexity have frustrated any hope for clarity.

The prevailing view, based largely on the image projected by Freud and his family, has been that Freud grew up in a highly assimilated, Reform Jewish household with minimal observance of Jewish holidays, that he had a meager Jewish religious education, and that he had never had more than a passing knowledge of Hebrew or Yiddish. Accepting this image at face value, such biographers as Ernest Jones, Ronald Clark, and Peter Gay have played down the importance of Freud’s Jewish identity and have rejected any effort, such as that made by Dennis Klein in The Jewish Origins of the Psychoanalytic Movement, to link Freud’s central concepts to his Jewish background. Freud repudiated the idea that psychoanalysis was in any sense a “Jewish science,” and Gay and other scholars have accepted this position as consistent with their emphasis on the cosmopolitan context of Freud’s life and thought. Even when Freud’s Jewish background has been taken more seriously, as in Marthe Robert’s From Oedipus to Moses—Freud’s Jewish Identity, or Marianne Krüll’s Freud and His Father, the image of a strongly assimilationist, Reform Jewish background persisted, and theories of Jewish self-hate have been used to explain the puzzles of Moses and Monotheism and Freud’s seemingly ambivalent attitude toward his Jewish identity.

With the publication of Emanuel Rice’s Freud and Moses: The Long Journey Home and Yosef Yerushalmi’s Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable, a more satisfying resolution of these puzzles has now begun to emerge. Both scholars, working independently of each other, reach strikingly similar conclusions, which overturn the traditional view of Freud’s Jewish background, and on the basis of these conclusions they develop different but complementary interpretations of Moses and Monotheism and of Freud’s sense of his Jewish identity.

The usual view of the Freud family’s Jewishness is that by the time Jakob Freud married Freud’s mother in 1855 he had broken with Orthodox Judaism and was drawn to Reform Judaism if not to a passive sort of assimilation. Peter Gay’s formulation is typical: “Jacob Freud had emancipated himself from the Hasidic practices of his ancestors; his marriage to Amalia Nathansohn was consecrated in a Reform ceremony. In time, he discarded virtually all religious observances….” The belief that Freud’s parents were married in a Reform ceremony is essential to the argument that they were favorable to Reform Jewish beliefs, but as both Rice and Yerushalmi show, the rabbi who performed the ceremony, Isaac Noah Mannheimer, was neither Orthodox nor Reform. Yerushalmi describes him as “a religious conservative” who saw no conflict between Jewish tradition and the acceptance of universal humane values. Rice, moreover, shows that since Mannheimer was

the only person empowered by the government to perform Jewish marriages, it would appear that the marriage of the Freuds by Mannheimer may have had nothing to do with their religious beliefs but solely with their desire to have their marriage made legitimate.

Without the evidence of the marriage ceremony, the idea that Freud grew up in a Reform Jewish household loses its strongest support. Rice argues that, in fact, “Freud’s childhood and adolescent home was typical of the East European Orthodox Jew in its transplanted character.” Rice produces new evidence that Freud’s mother remained strongly religious throughout her life, citing the testimony of Walter Freud, Freud’s grandson, that “Amalia came from a strictly Orthodox household and stayed fromm (Orthodox and ritually observant) until her death in 1930.” This is consistent with the report that Freud went to great lengths to assure that his mother “had a strictly Orthodox funeral and burial,” a funeral which he then chose not to attend. There is also evidence to suggest that Amalia and Jakob may have maintained a kosher household.

With regard to the more general issue of assimilation, Freud’s son Martin, who usually stressed his family’s assimilated character, described Amalia as “a typical Polish Jewess.” Moreover, both Yerushalmi and Rice question her mastery of the German language, citing evidence that she always spoke Galician Yiddish. If so, then Yiddish must have been at least one of the languages spoken in the home of Freud’s youth.

The question of Jakob Freud’s attitude toward assimilation is more complex. Clearly his early religious training in the town of Tysmenitz in Galicia was quite extensive. A granddaughter who lived with him toward the end of his life attests that he enjoyed “reading the Talmud (in the original) at home,” and, since this would have required intensive study and training, Rice concludes that “he must have spent many years as a student in a Yeshiva in Tysmenitz and continued the practice of such study for many years thereafter.” He also notes that a close friend reported that Jakob Freud was always referred to fondly as Yeshiva boher, “a young Yeshiva student totally immersed in his studies.” There can be little doubt that Jakob Freud’s Orthodox religious training had a deep and lasting impact.

What remains more difficult to determine is when Jakob Freud first became interested in the outlook of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, with its emphasis on secular culture and philosophy, and how it may have affected his religious beliefs. If he was a Maskil, a committed follower of the Haskalah, while still in Tysmenitz, is it plausible that he would have continued his Talmudic studies? Rice tends to discount evidence that Jakob Freud’s interest in the Haskalah began during his years in Tysmenitz, but this is not completely convincing. His interest in Biblical and Talmudic learning may well have continued while he also became increasingly attracted to the ideas of the Jewish enlightenment. The Haskalah involved a wide variety of intellectual currents, and both Rice and Yerushalmi criticize scholars such as Marianne Krüll who oversimplify the matter by suggesting that it necessarily involved a rejection of religious belief.

One of the most important pieces of evidence bearing on this issue is the Freud family Bible, which was not a traditional Bible but a modern edition edited by Ludwig Philippson. That Jakob Freud owned this Bible has usually been seen as a sign of his assimilationist or Reform Jewish state of mind. Philippson’s Bible provided a parallel German translation of the Hebrew text as well as an extensive German commentary which drew on the new anthropological, archeological, and historical insights of the German and Jewish enlightenments.

Jakob Freud’s purchase of this Bible certainly shows his interest in enlightenment culture, and may also suggest some degree of assimilation. But although Philippson’s commentary testifies to his hope that Jewish identity could be preserved intact within a friendly and receptive German culture devoted to the values of the enlightenment, there is nothing in it to suggest any turning away from religious faith. Rice describes Philippson as a “Reform rabbi,” but this is at odds with Philippson’s own description of himself as “an historical Jew, neither orthodox nor reformed.” In fact, as Yerushalmi points out, “the attitude of the commentary toward biblical and later Jewish tradition is nothing if not reverent, indeed conservative.” Yerushalmi argues that “there is no reason to suppose that there were not even some enlightened orthodox Jews who read the Philippson Bible with interest.” This tallies with Rice’s belief that “in fact, a continued, though somewhat weakened, Orthodoxy may well have been the true situation for the Freud family.” It seems likely that in his later life Jakob Freud probably shared Philippson’s belief in the possibility of some limited form of assimilation without loss of religious identity.

The only substantial document we have from Jakob’s own hand gives strong evidence of his continuing religious faith—the inscription he wrote in the family Bible when he gave it to his son, Sigmund, on his thirty-fifth birthday. Jakob Freud had the book rebound, and presented it to a son who had not only gone on to adopt a fully assimilationist position but who had also become an outspoken opponent of religious belief. Since Jakob Freud had used the book to teach his son how to read, he could assume that the gift would be valued for that reason alone, but he also hoped to convey a deeper message about the value of religious tradition.

The inscription was written in melitzah—a compilation of quotations from the Bible and other Jewish sources that convey a straightforward literal meaning suffused with subtle allusions derived from their original context. As Yerushalmi explains, “the original context trails along as an invisible interlinear presence, and the readers, like the writer, must be aware of these associations if they are to savor the new text to the full.” By analyzing these associations, both Rice and Yerushalmi show that the inscription makes a powerful—even angry—appeal for Sigmund to return to the religious traditions of his ancestors.

Yerushalmi sees the inscription as Jakob Freud’s “mandate” to his son “to return to the Bible, to the originally shared values with the father,” and he believes that Freud’s involvement with Moses, culminating in his Moses and Monotheism, must be understood in the light of this appeal. The skill, conviction, and erudition with which Jakob Freud drew on a great many different traditional Jewish texts conclusively refutes Gay’s effort to use the inscription as evidence that Freud’s father was an “unobservant Jew,” who had long since abandoned his religious beliefs.

One reason that so many Freud scholars have argued that Freud came from a highly assimilated Jewish family is that Freud himself presented the matter in this light. For example, Freud claimed that his father allowed him “to grow up in perfect ignorance on everything concerning Judaism,” and he implied that he quickly forgot what little Hebrew he had once learned. When Freud received an inscribed copy of A.A. Roback’s Jewish Influences in Modern Thought, he wrote back to say, “My education was so un-Jewish that today I cannot even read your dedication, which is evidently written in Hebrew.” Even if Freud’s Hebrew had faded for lack of use, he seems to have been disingenuous in suggesting that he wasn’t certain whether the dedication was written in Hebrew. Rice and Yerushalmi both show that Freud had a substantial Jewish education, from the time that his father first taught him to read using the Philippson Bible through many years of mandatory religious instruction. Rice concludes that “Freud would have had a total of twelve years of exposure to Hebrew studies”; and he publishes the curriculum that Freud would likely have followed.

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