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…

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