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.

Freud, moreover, may have retained more of a command of Hebrew than he himself suggests. Rice notes that Freud’s copy of the Philippson Bible contains markings in red, blue, and green pencil, many in the Hebrew text. Freud owned many other books, which only he could have read, that are similarly underlined in red, blue, and green, and red, blue, and green pencils were found in his desk after his death. There can thus be little doubt that the markings in the Hebrew text were his rather than Jakob’s. Freud’s claim that he had never understood Yiddish must also be viewed with some skepticism since Yiddish seems to have been the only language his mother really knew.

In attempting to explain why Freud might play down the importance of Jewish tradition in his life and work, and why he would write a book such as Moses and Monotheism, Yerushalmi and Rice take quite different approaches, each of which yields useful results. Yerushalmi is primarily interested in Freud’s conscious reasons for taking the puzzling positions toward his Jewish identity. While granting that unconscious motives play some role, he is impatient with the many attempts to explain Freud’s attitude using simplistic psychological analysis. Rice, however, is keenly interested in the unconscious forces that many have influenced Freud’s attitude toward his Jewish background, and he uses the new evidence to advance a more plausible psychological analysis of Freud’s motivations.

In dealing with the various issues involved in the problem of Freud’s Jewish identity, Yerushalmi sees “a fully coherent development leading to Moses and Monotheism.” His account of how Freud came to write this work clarifies some of the striking contradictions between Freud’s public and private statements about his Jewishness and the Jewishness of the psychoanalytic movement. From Freud’s perspective, the radical claims of Moses and Monotheism, which seemed to administer a blow to Jewish pride, were merely the most recent in a series of painful humiliations that human narcissism had suffered since the advent of the scientific age. After Copernicus and Darwin displaced humanity from a privileged place in the universe and the hierarchy of creation, Freud had dealt a third blow by showing that the ego was not even master of the human psyche. So in questioning the central position in history which the Jews claimed as God’s chosen people, Freud, in Yerushalmi’s view, believed he was furthering a necessary process of giving up illusions for reality.

However painful, each of these attacks on conventional truth had advanced our understanding of the world and our place in it, and each had helped to extend mankind’s mastery over itself and its environment. Freud hoped for a comparable gain from this “fourth humiliation.” He hoped, Yerushalmi writes, that a better understanding of the origins of Judaism and the place of the Jews in history would yield the insight necessary to understand and finally control anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism had a deep influence on Freud’s life and work from his earliest youth, when anti-Semitism was relatively weak and he hoped for complete assimilation into the dominant German culture, to the end of his life, when the Nazis launched their campaign to annihilate the Jews. Freud’s instinctive reaction to its constantly increasing influence was a stubborn reassertion of his Jewishness, which accounts for the many strong statements of his Jewish identity to be found particularly in his private correspondence. In a 1913 letter to Sabina Spielrein, for example, he observed, We are and remain Jews. The others will only exploit us and will never understand and appreciate us.” In a 1931 letter to Dr. David Feuchtwang, the chief rabbi of Vienna, he declared, “I am a fanatical Jew. I am very much astonished to discover myself as such in spite of all efforts to be unprejudiced and impartial.” Despite the passionate intensity of these words, however, Freud put more distance from Jewishness in his public positions.

One reason for this contrast is evident. Intense anti-Semitic pressure against his advancement to a secure university position in Vienna had repeatedly taught Freud the high cost of being Jewish, and even if he were willing to bear the cost himself, he wanted to do what he could to insulate the psychoanalytic movement against it. As Yerushalmi observes, “Freud’s acute worry that psychoanalysis not appear to be a ‘Jewish national affair’ remained, I am convinced, an abiding concern and source of inner conflict throughout his life. I believe it directly affected the images he presented to the world of himself, his background, and his teachings.” Freud developed this defensive strategy during the early years of the psychoanalytic movement, but the advent of Hitler and the Nazis impelled him to take a more activist approach. Hoping that understanding might begin to dissipate the force of anti-Semitism he set out in Moses and Monotheism to explore the origins of Judaism and what it meant to be a Jew.

Yerushalmi believes that the central issue of the book was not the identity of Moses or the origin of monotheism but the problem of tradition and how it is transmitted. Freud, feeling within himself the hold of his Jewish identity and seeing all around him the power of religion over its adherents, searched for a way of explaining that power. Convinced that the Jewish belief in a conscious transmission of tradition could not account for “the compulsive character that attaches to religious phenomena,” he presented religious tradition as transmitted by unconscious repetitions.

Drawing on the theory advanced in Totem and Taboo that the guilt produced by the primal slaying of the tribal father by his sons gave rise to society and religion, Freud now applied that theory to the history of Judaism and Christianity. He argued that after “Moses created the Jews and Judaism by restoring the Father to them alone, through his own person and in the teaching of the one omnipotent God,” the Jews rebelled against him and repeated the primal crime by slaying him and suppressing his teachings. Subsequently, the memory of Moses’s murder was lost along with the memory of the original murder, and this loss of memory was central to Freud’s psychohistorical analysis. Seeing a close analogy between the individual and the group, he believed that the failure to remember perpetuated this pattern of psychological repetition, until yet another repetition, the slaying of Jesus, was in fact remembered.

So Christianity seemed to represent a psychological advance over Judaism’s continuing failure to remember, but in Freud’s view the advance was only temporary. In Judaism, the feelings of guilt arising from the repressed memory of the father’s murder developed into a strict morality which lifted the Jews to the “ethical heights” of spirituality whereas Christianity, according to Freud, soon relapsed into “a virtually Egyptian paganism.” The emotional power of anti-Semitism, then, came from the deep resentment Christians felt toward Jews for claiming ethical superiority while refusing to admit their guilt for the oft-repeated primal crime (including the murder of Christ).

For Yerushalmi, the psychological explanation of Freud’s motives for writing Moses and Monotheism begins with the recognition that it contains a highly positive assessment of Judaism as a deeply spiritual religion of the highest ethical standards. Instead of expressing ambivalence about Freud’s Jewish identity, the book, according to Yerushalmi, is an example of “deferred obedience,” an attempt to fulfill the “mandate” of his father’s birthday inscription to return to the study of the Bible. Responding to the Nazi triumph, Freud wrote a book that affirmed what he saw as most valuable in the Jewish tradition while attempting to undermine anti-Semitism by exposing its psychological origins. He fulfilled his father’s mandate not by accepting the religious truth of Judaism but through his admittedly speculative discussion of its historical truth. He thereby maintained his independence from his father while reconciling himself to his memory.

Although Rice also sees Freud’s Moses and Monotheism as an “attempt to come home again to his Jewish roots,” he finds in it much stronger evidence of Freud’s ambivalence about his Jewish identity. He regards it as “a love story, in aggressive garb, between father and son.” The love led him to follow his father’s wish that he return to his biblical studies, while the aggression led to the idea that monotheism could be traced to the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten rather than Moses. As Rice puts it: “Freud’s religious roots, deep in ethical monotheism, led him to Moses. His social training, the self-hate inflicted by Viennese Jewish society on itself…led to Akhenaten.”

In emphasizing Freud’s conflicts about his Jewish identity, Rice goes much further than previous scholars in providing a plausible explanation of their origin. The key for him lies in the convincing new evidence that Freud came not from a highly assimilated Reform Jewish background but from an only slightly assimilated family of transplanted East European Orthodox Jews. Freud sought to escape the prejudice against East European Jews which permeated Viennese society by pursuing the ideal of full assimilation in his youth and obscuring the reality of his social origins throughout his life.

Rice presents some fascinating evidence to support this argument. Henry S. Bondi, whose family was quite close to the Freud family, told Rice of his disappointment “at the conspicuous omission of the extent of the Jewish dimension of Freud’s life by some members of his family and biographers.” He expressed the hope that

the “cover” of the secularized perspective of the Freud “religious” story be removed so that it can be seen for what it really was.

To show the widespread prejudice against East European Jews, Rice quotes Peter Gay, himself the son of an assimilated German Jew who, according to Gay, “continued to harbor one sweeping, though hardly violent, prejudice…. [H]e did not really like East European Jews.”

Arguing that Freud and his family created a family romance to give a more elevated picture of their social origins, Rice quotes Freud’s statement that his “father’s family was settled for a long time on the Rhine (at Cologne),” before they migrated to Eastern Europe. There seems to be no evidence whatever for this claim, but it had the effect of suggesting a more prestigious German Jewish background. Martin Freud further elaborated the family romance by claiming, again without evidence, that his mother’s family were Sephardim, the cream of Jewish aristocracy.

The “cover” to which Henry Bondi objected also involves the place of religion in Freud’s own household. Rice criticizes Gay’s claim that Freud’s “rigorous secularism” excluded any “trace of religious observance in his domestic life…. Ruthlessly, Freud swept aside his wife’s youthful orthodoxy.” Actually, there is evidence that Martha Freud, particularly after her husband’s death, continued or resumed certain Jewish observances, such as the celebration of the Passover Seder and the prohibition against the act of writing on the Sabbath. Rice also questions Martin Freud’s claims that his family celebrated “Christmas with presents under a candle-lit tree, and Easter, with gaily painted Easter eggs. I had never been in a synagogue, nor to my knowledge had my brothers or sisters.” Rice cites evidence from one of Freud’s neighbors that his children came up to her apartment to see her Christmas tree because they did not have one themselves, and he notes that Anna Freud attended classes at a Reform synagogue on Sabbath mornings.

Various motives, conscious and unconscious, can be suggested to explain the construction of this family romance. Yerushalmi’s argument that Freud consciously de-emphasized the Jewish dimension of his life and work as a way of shielding the psychoanalytic movement from anti-Semitic prejudice certainly has merit. It also seems plausible that someone hoping to practice medicine in Vienna might take the prejudice against East European Jews into account and cultivated the impression that he came from a highly assimilated background. It is also possible that Freud suffered from some form of Jewish self-hate, an idea which Rice credits, citing a letter from Freud’s youth in which he described a Jewish family with whom he had shared a train compartment. The son

was cut from the cloth from which fate makes swindlers when the time is ripe; cunning, mendacious,…unprincipled and without character…. Madame Jewess and family hailed from Meseritsch: the proper compost-heap for this sort of weed.

Rice argues that this reaction against Jews later emerged “in sublimated and projected form…in Moses and Monotheism.”

Whether or not it reveals Jewish self-hate, the letter certainly shows Freud’s intense desires to shake off the stigma of association with the Ostjuden and to become a part of the dominant German culture. This hope was bitterly disappointed during his life, and in an 1886 letter he could report to his fiancée that when someone predicted a war between Germany and France,

I promptly explained that I am a Jew, adhering neither to Germany nor to Austria. But such conversations are always embarrassing to me, for I feel stirring within me something German which I decided long ago to suppress.

One must juxtapose this letter with the earlier one to appreciate the tremendous psychological tension generated by the frustration of Freud’s assimilationist hopes.

Whether one subscribes to Rice’s psychoanalytical account of how that tension played itself out in Freud’s life and work or to Yerushalmi’s emphasis on Freud’s conscious intentions, both contribute to our understanding of Freud. Not only do they illuminate a long misunderstood aspect of his personal life, but they also cast light on the relationship between his work and his times. Freud’s first interest in psychological issues developed out of his adolescent struggle to define his attitude toward religion, and once one understands the true nature of his Jewish background and the assimilationist prejudices of his culture it becomes easier to see how the historical events he lived through could have created the kinds of psychological pressures that would have influenced his work. The religious politics of Vienna, whether anticlerical, Catholic, anti-Semitic, or Jewish, held deep significance for his innermost hopes and fears; and Moses and Monotheism is but one of many works where he attempted to satisfy those inner feelings through psychoanalytic investigation.

This Issue

December 5, 1991