/ theol / cover / bulletin / xtexte / bulletin03-10.html

COV&R Logo

Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 3 (Sept. 1992)

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud's Mo ses: Judaism Terminable and Intermi nable. New Haven: Yale University, 1991. 159 pp. $25.

Yerushalmi's nicely written book is one of a number of recent studies pointing out the documentary and anecdotal evidence that religious instruction and practice were an important part of Freud's early life. I referred to two of these in The Bible, Vio lence, and the Sacred: William J. McGrath, Freud's Discovery of Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1986) and Emanuel Rice, Freud and Moses (Albany: State University of New York, 1990). Freud disclaimed this Jewish formation in public comments and in some of his letters but he was disguising himself in his scientific, psychoanalytic persona in making these comments. His sense of his Jewish identity was quite strong. Yerushalmi further confirms this in a number of ways, including reproduction of the text of a previously unpublished letter from Freud to Theodor Herzl. Dated September 28, 1902, it informs Herzl that Freud has asked his publisher to send a copy of The Interpretation of Dreams to him as a token of great esteem for "the poet and battler for the human rights of our people . . ." (107).

Yerushalmi argues that the problem of tradition, of "transmission" or "handing-over," of Jewish identity is the central concern of Freud's Moses and Monotheism. The Jewish attachment to this dynamic transmission is so compulsive that conscious acts could not account for it. Yerushalmi infers that Freud's solution was a "psycho-Lamarckism," i.e., he believed that only phylogenetic heritage could account for the compulsive character associated with the religious phenomena--a genetic legacy that achieved complete form in five to eight centuries!

Against the stream of current Freud interpretation, the author maintains that Moses does not stem from Freud's ambivalence about his Jewish heritage. It is, rather, an example of "deferred obedience" to his father. His father had brought him up in his religious and cultural heritage, and when Freud was 35 years old (1891) Jakob Freud gave his son an unusual gift: the Philippsohn Bible Freud has studied in his childhood, now rebound in leather, and inscribed by Jakob in Hebrew with a dedication which in Hebrew literature is known as melitzah. The melitzah is a combination of phrases from the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature. The inscription may thus be read both as a straightforward message and as a web of allusions to aspects of the Scriptural and Talmudic heritage that emphasize the wisdom of the revealed word of God and the mandate to read and interpret it through the inspiration of the Spirit of the Lord. Yerushalmi deduces that in writing Moses Freud belatedly obeys his father and fulfills this mandate; he does it, however, in his own way, maintaining independence from his father by rejecting the "material truth" of the biblical narrative while rejoicing in his discovery of its "historical truth" (78).

Yerushalmi presents some interesting, occasionally new material. However, he glosses over aspects of Moses and Monotheism that exhibit Freud's ambivalence about the "Jewish" as opposed to "Egyptian" strain in his conception of the monotheistic tradition. It is the god of Sinai-Horeb whom he describes as "an uncanny, bloodthirsty demon" and it is "the savage Semites" (die wilden Semiten), in his own words, who do away with Moses. Eventually this Semitic god Yahweh (Jahve) lost his original character and "became more and more like the old God of Moses," the god of Akhnaton.

Yerushalmi's acceptance of the myth of the Oedipus complex (see esp. p. 94) leads him to connect Freud's motivation in writing Moses to his father. No doubt his father was a key person in his life, but during his career Freud was obsessed with both Jewish model-obstacles and with his Aryan double. From the standpoint of the mimetic model it was the latter, especially, whom he perceived as the obstacle to success and the recognition of his foundational achievements in psychoanalytic theory (see Williams, loc. cit., 94). Were these Jewish and non-Jewish rivals all simply substitutes for his father? Unlikely. The mimetic model makes more sense of Freud's life and work than his own version of the Oedipus myth.

James G. Williams