Leo Goldberger, "Freud's Foreskin, Moses the Egyptian, and Other Tales of God, Man, and Jewishness," Goldberg (Danish magazine of Jewish arts and culture), No. 15, September 2009, pp. 8-10.
This review was published in Danish, but the author, Leo Goldberger, was kind enough to send me his English language version (from which the Danish version was translated).
Please note: Racial Fever is mentioned in the second paragraph and in the fourth-from-last paragraph (scroll way down!).
The 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud's circumcision was solemnly commemorated not long ago in a marble temple of scholarship known the world over: the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Word of the unlikely event, greeted by many with surprise and a smile, took place as part of an academic conference in May, 2006, entitled: Freud’s Foreskin: A Sesquicentennial Celebration of the Most Suggestive Circumcision in History.
The occasion was organized by Eliza Slavet, a young scholar with degrees from Yale and UC San Diego, author of Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question and sponsored by the annual Joy Gottesman Ungeleider Lecture. Attended by members of the Modernist Studies Association, psychoanalysts, current and former analysands as well as uninitiated members of the public, the event was a striking indication of the continuing interest in Freud and his theories despite his many severe critics these days. Among the topics discussed was the intersection of Jewish identity, psychoanalysis and, of course, the minor surgery celebrated in Jewish ritual as the bris.
Since the conference, two books have just been published, assessing the impact of Freud's contribution to understanding human behavior-- further evidence of his influence 70 years after his death.
Though an avowed atheist who famously demeaned religion as a form of psychopathology – a "mass neurosis," Freud called it. And while he scoffed at religious rituals as "obsessive-compulsive"symptoms–he also felt very close to his fellow Viennese Jews. He conceded a strong sense of historic and cultural fellowship while insisting it was not on "nationalistic" grounds. Indeed, he had misgivings about the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland in Palestine as impending violence was already hovering in the not so distant 1930's. In a letter (written May 8, 1932) to the popular Austrian novelist, Arnold Zweig, Freud caustically observed, "Palestine has never produced anything but religions, sacred frenzies, presumptuous attempts to overcome the outer world of appearance by means of the inner world of wishful thinking." Freud was acquainted with Theodore Herzl, an important journalist and Zionism's most widely known proponent, as a neighbor in Vienna and had even presented him with a
copy of Interpretation of Dreams in 1902, inscribed "...to the poet and the fighter for human rights of our people."
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Freud came from a traditional Orthodox home. His father, Jacob, a wool merchant born in Galicia was probably fluent in Yiddish and German. They lived in Freiberg a town in the Moravian-Selesian region (now part of the Czech Republic) of about 5,000. The population was mostly Catholic, sizzled with Czech nationalism and hatred against the German-Austrian ruling class that readily fanned the scapegoating of the mostly German-speaking Jews. Adding to the anti-Semitic atmosphere was the economic crises of 1857. Freud’s father lost his business in 1859, when Freud was three, which ultimately led the family to move to cosmopolitan Vienna. Here they abandoned their Orthodox observance while Freud was still a youngster. It is not known whether he was Bar Mitzvahed, though by all accounts he received at least some Torah lessons at age seven, using the classic Philippson Bible with its wealth of Talmudic commentaries and graphic illustrations, that apparently made a lasting impression on young Shlomo, the boy's Hebrew name.
Even in fin-de-siecle Vienna, however, despite its celebrated sophistication and creative milieu, anti-Semitism was a fact to be reckoned with by Jews, affecting career advancement and the social scene in general. While some Freud scholars insist that he was overly sensitive to anti-Semitic slights where none existed, he clearly felt alien among non-Jewish circles. As his fame grew Freud obviously moved in a larger world; many of his patients were not Jewish and some of them were quite prominent personages, such as the princess Marie Bonaparte. But he remained much more comfortable in his primary circle of Jewish friends and colleagues, where his fondness blossomed for quoting Jewish jokes and sayings. It also seems quite clear that he transformed his alienation into an intellectual asset: a sense of ndependence which fostered the flow of Freud's revolutionary ideas in psychology and psychiatry .
According to his biographers, most prominently Ernest Jones and Peter Gay, Freud was singularly driven by personal myths that were embodied in a series of heroic idols. In his adolescence they were mainly warriors such as Hannibal, the Semitic general who crossed the Alps, outwitting the vaunted Roman legions; Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan parliamentarian who allowed Jews back into England; and Napoleon, who emancipated the Jews in France. Foremost among his later heroes was the biblical Joseph, a frequent alter ego who was often featured in his own dreams and who, like Freud, was a dream interpreter himself. Ultimately, there was the inspirational Moses, the leader of an unruly band of less than loyal followers, like Freud, who continued to live out these heroic identifications into maturity, depending on his situational and emotional needs. His preoccupation with Moses led to his last written work, Moses and Monotheism, completed shortly before his death in London in 1939.
(With the help of Princess Bonaparte, he had fled from Vienna the previous year.)
For Freud, Moses symbolized the strong and courageous leader of the downtrodden, a man who could control his anger and wrath without seeking vengeance. This was the heroic role he fancied for himself, acting out his destiny. Back in the days of his youth, visiting Rome for the first time in 1901, he was mesmerized by Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. According to his own accounts, Freud stared at the statue for hours on end and made more than a dozen pilgrimages to the small church that housed the statue. He drew sketches of sculpture’s musculature to ascertain the exact tension with which Moses held the sacred tablets to judge whether he really was about to cast them off in a rage, as the bible would have it, or whether he was in control of his wrath and valiantly held on to the tablets, which as Freud observed, were actually placed upside down under his arm and about to slip away.
He wrote several brief papers about his interpretation of the sculpture, one in 1913 when he felt especially vulnerable following the defection of Carl Jung, the colleague whom Freud favored as his most gifted and loyal apostle. His interpretation of Michelangelo’s Moses was to most analysts an obvious act of projection based on the fierce disappointment and anger prompted by Jung’s "betrayal." But sat the same time, he needed to suppress his feelings for the greater good, which for Freud meant the flourishing of psychoanalysis. Not incidentally, Jung was not Jewish, a fact that was never far from Freud's mind and was likely the reason for choosing him from among his Jewish inner-circle. Freud was deeply concerned about the legacy of his brainchild and feared it might be dismissed as a "Jewish" science, a frequent label already attached to psychoanalysis for its Talmudic-like mode of discourse, as well as run-of-the-mill Viennese anti-Semitism.
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Freud returned to his preoccupation with Moses and Jewishness in the early 1930's, prompted by the rising Nazi scourge and his painful cancer of the jaw, which intensified the stress of old age. He was then in his 80's. Moses and Monotheism, written over the span of several years and in several versions, consisted of a rather hesitant, repetitive and sometimes inconsistent set of essays. Among them are some psychoanalytic interpretations of Moses "the man." Linked to his quest for the truth behind the fabled Moses was his more general interest in probing the unique characteristics of the Jewish people: their high self-esteem, intellectual bent, and tenacity in the face of adversity. Freud also revisited his earlier works, such as Totem and Taboo and Civilization and its Discontents, to further explore the origin and role of religion in civilized society.
By far the book's most startling conclusion reversed a lifelong, passionately held belief. Freud brusquely pushed Moses off his pedestal, asserting that he was not a Jew but an Egyptian prince who was murdered in a revolt by his followers against his authoritarian insistence on monotheism and the practice of circumcision. Freud’s radical reinterpretation of the biblical story and of the historical Moses, to say nothing of bewildering his readers and offending bible scholars, further aggravated the religious community by ascribing the invention of monotheism and the practice of circumcision to the Egyptians.
In Freud’s interpretation it was Moses and not God who chose the Jews and who imposed a Pharoahic-inspired religion on them. Blasphemy, indeed! Freud, along with many others of his time had become fascinated by the intriguing accounts of the physically handicapped Pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1360-1340 BC). The ruler's exclusive devotion to just one God, the sun-God, Aten (Aton), and his self-elevation as the "son of Aten," may have led to his premature murder by powerful priests who remained loyal to the dynastic array of multiple God-worship that was fundamental to the Egyptian belief system, according to some Egyptologists. In Freud’s reconstruction of history, young Moses had himself been a Atenist priest who was forced to leave Egypt at Akhenaten’s death. Whether the monotheistic worship of Aten is the direct forerunner of the Mosaic tradition, is an open question. There are other contenders to the claim of being first among the several variants of ancient mon
otheistic forms . One was the God Yahveh, who was worshiped by the Midianite tribe which a band of Jews had joined after their rebellion against Moses--whose leader also happened to be named Moses. Were the two Moses eventually blended in the biblical narrative of the Torah ? The vicissitudes of historical memory and modern scholarship obviously enjoy an abundance of hypotheses.
Speculating at the extreme boundary, also without factual evidence, Moses and Monotheism suggests that all Jews possess what Freud calls " archaic memory traces" including guilt feelings for their murder of Moses. Taken literally, it would mean that not only is the Jewish heritage, its history and traditions, passed on genetically from generation to generation, orally or in writings and through a shared culture, but Jewishness is also transmitted indirectly by an uncanny and hitherto unknown biological process, much like the claims of extra-sensory and telepathic transmission. It was thus Freud’s view that Jewishness can never be successfully repressed; it returns to haunt you whether one likes it or not. While he was fully aware that notions of the genetic inheritance of ideas, traits and psychic tendencies had been scorned by biological scientists of his day, Freud nevertheless felt that the final truth was not yet in. He, along with a few prominent scientists today, pref
erred to keep an open mind on these and other puzzling matters of the occult.
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Circumcision, remained a permanent topic of fascination for Freud's whole life, and not just because it was the external marker of Jewishness, at least for the male. It was the cornerstone for one of his basic concepts, "castration anxiety," which he so frequently invoked as a determinant of various aspects of psychopathology. In his theoretical scaffold, castration is conceptualized as the punishment the Primal Father inflicted on his rebellious sons. The Jews, through circumcision, symbolically repeat the rite as a gesture of loyalty to the Law of the Father. An often over-looked footnote in Freud’s famous case study, "Little Hans," suggests that circumcision may well be one of the reasons for anti-Semitism because it arouses castration anxiety among Gentiles (albeit in the "unconscious", where fact and fiction are indistinguishable), which in turn triggers hate and avoidance as a defense, The theory that connects circumcision and ant-Semitism has scant support today.
But one should not take away a mostly negative impression of Freud’s last creative venture as an old man’s baseless musings. Moses and Monotheism is a rich source of themes and issues encompassing identity, assimilation, religion and anti-Semitism, as well as being a rare psychological document of Freud’s inner life . It warrants the study and scholarly exploration by such well-known historians of Judaism as Joseph Yerushalmi, the celebrated philosopher Jacques Derrida , founder of “deconstructionism”, the French anthopologist, essayist and biographer of Kafka and Freud Marthe Robert, and the prominent German Egyptologist Jan Assmann, and other respected commentators.
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Two recently published books are impressive reminders of Freud's contemporary relevance. Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question (Fordham University Press, 2009) by Eliza Slavet, while not always a layperson’s easy read, it is well worth the effort. It is a thoroughly documented overview of the array of commentary on Moses and Monotheism by an author solidly grounded in psychoanalytic theory and as well as Judaic studies, not to mention her other credentials in literature and the arts. While the focus remains the complexity of Freud’s conception of "Jewishness," its transmission and endurance, it is the concept of "race" -- distinct from the abhorrent Nazis conception of "racism"-- that takes center stage. At the core is the question, What does it mean to be "Jewish?" that permeates Ms. Slavet's engrossing and far-ranging cornucopia of comment concerning Freud’s final book.
The second recent volume, by the noted religion and Freud scholar, Mark Edmundson, pointed out in The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of his Last Days (Bloomsbury, 2008), that despite his atheism Freud’s Moses can be read as an expression of his softening towards religion as he neared death. It is Edmundson’s contention that Freud not only began to see his Jewish faith as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present, but Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. Furthermore, it was the faith in an invisible, immaterial God that facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection and spirituality possible. It marks a remarkable shift in our popular belief about Freud’s view of religion.
A final word about the debate that has marked controversy about Freud ever since "the talking cure" invented by the Viennese doctor revealed the inner life of the mind: Was Sigmund Freud a medical scientist or something of a fraud-- a brilliant intellectual who elaborated an interlocking mental structure based solely on his imagination and insight but lacking a provable, concrete foundation.
It is quite telling that Freud himself declined to envision himself as a Newton or Galileo of the mind. Rather, he emphasized his affinity for men of bold vision and courage. As he wrote to his erstwhile confidante, Wilhelm Fliess: "I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, nor an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador, an adventurer with all the inquisitiveness, daring and tenacity characteristic of such a man." To which one might simply reply, he was that, indeed!
Leo Goldberger is a professor emeritus of psychology at New York University and former editor-in-chief of the interdisciplinary journal, Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought.