It is undeniable that Freud’s Jewishness is a matter of constant preoccupation to him. His responses are often tinged with a sense that something in this notion of a Jew remains inaccessible to analysis. Here is what he said in 1934 in his preface to the Hebrew edition of Totem and Taboo:
«No reader of [the Hebrew version] of this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers – as well as from every other religion – and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature as a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply: “A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence clearly in words, but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.” (Freud, 1993, p. 67-68)
He reiterated this point in a letter to Barbara Low, Eder’s sister-in-law, written in 1936 on the occasion of the death of David Eder, his friend and first follower in England: «We were both Jews and knew of each other that we had in common within us this miraculous thing which, still inaccessible to any analysis, makes the Jew.» (Freud, 1979, p. 29-31)
It is striking to know that the very person who invents psychoanalysis stumbles upon something and remains unable to define what makes the Jew. What is it that it eludes Freud and why does this question not leave him alone?
Freud, an atheist Jew, not without the Bible
The Moses of Freud (Yerushalmi, 1991) by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi makes a position and allows us to advance in our reflection on Freud’s relationship to Judaism and science. In this book, there is not only a real questioning about what Freud’s Jewishness is but also about Judaism. He explored every single piece of writing by Freud and even uncovered his unpublished works.
Yerushalmi questions Freud’s thesis in Moses. Freud’s thesis posits that for a tradition to endure, it must have suffered the fate of repression; it cannot be founded in communication. But what Freud adds to this that’s surprising is his idea of a concordance between the individual and the mass: in the mass, as in the individuals, the memories of the past remains imprinted in the «unconscious memory traces», memory traces that concern the life experience of previous generations. Why does Freud persist in supporting a thesis that does not stand up, asks Yerushalmi, especially in the face of the fact that the heredity of acquired characters was already challenged by scientists?
For him, this obstinacy reflects what he calls Freud’s «Lamarckism.» The link between Lamarckism and Judeity is expressed in the fact that, for many Jews, whether assimilated or faithful, the Jewish past would always exert a force of attraction in the form of belonging or a weight to bear. Yerushalmi then wonders what Jewish Lamarckism is if not:
«This deep conviction that, for better or worse, a Jew cannot really cease to be a Jew, not only because he is subjected to anti-Semitism […] and even less so because of the chain of tradition, but because his fate as a Jew was sealed a long time ago by his fathers and he still feels its obscure vibration even in his blood today» (Yerushalmi, 1991, p. 76)
Yerushalmi quotes a passage from a letter from Freud to Arnold Zweig, dated May 8, 1932, in which this view can be illustrated:
«We come from there […] our ancestors lived there for half a millennium, perhaps a whole millennium […] and it is impossible to say what we took as a legacy from our stay in this country in the blood and in the nerves […]. (Freud, Zweig, 1973, p. 75)
We also find in Moses the idea of the character of the Jews forged by the Jewish religion for centuries: «We have it on good authority that even back in Hellenistic times, they behaved as they do today – in other words, the Jewish character was already fully formed at that time and the Jew was already himself then.» (Freud, 2010, p. 184)
Whether the transmission of acquired characters is denied by biologists or that this thesis brings him dangerously closer to Jung’s collective unconscious wouldn’t be able to stop Freud. This stubbornness is very instructive for Yerushalmi. On one hand, it allows Freud to bridge the gap between individual psychology and collective psychology, but most importantly, it allows us to assert that no matter what, one cannot cease to be a Jew: it is in one’s destiny sealed for centuries. In other words, Yerushalmi notes that according to Freud, a Jew does not stop being a Jew even if he is an atheist.
The Bible, the father’s mandate
What particularly interests us in Yerushalmi’s work is that he will demonstrate that Freud had received a much greater religious education than he claimed. And this Jewish transmission he received is done through studying the Bible: In other words, by the text and its interpretation. Yerushalmi demonstrates that Freud read the Bible, can read Hebrew and is familiar with the Jewish tradition.
Freud presented an image of his Jewishness in childhood based on three points:
– he has received solely very rudimentary religious education;
– religious practice at home, in pure form, was kept to a minimum while growing up;
– he speaks neither Hebrew nor Yiddish. He’s never learned either of them. (Yerushalmi, 1991, 127)
Now, drawing from Freud’s anecdotes and allusions he makes in his private correspondence, Yerushalmi will present a completely different Freud. One example is among many discovered by Yerushalmi. It testifies to Freud’s perfect knowledge of the Bible. In a letter dated July 23rd, 1880, the day before an examination, Freud tells his friend Carl Koller that he had not yet started reviewing the materials:
«I have decided to forget about pharmacology… and instead to review this interesting topic at my leisure after the holidays. But Wednesday afternoon merely twenty four hours after I made that decision, I rejoiced; the satanic laughter of hell erupted in my ears, the clamor was great in Israel, and my best friends sang the funeral song, «Don’t say it in Askelon. Don’t shout it out in the streets of Gath,» which was sung at the death of Saul and Jonathan. Hence, I have decided to sink yet another twelve hours into the throes of pharmacology.” (Freud, 1966, p. 260)
Freud not only quotes the verse from memory but also understands its context. And as Yerushalmi points out, Freud cites it again seventeen years later in a letter to Fliess written on September 21st, 1897 when he tells him about his doubts concerning his theory of seduction:
«It’s also curious that I don’t feel sheepish, which would seem natural. Of course, I shall not tell it in Dan, nor speak of it in Askelon, in the land of the Philistines – but your eyes and my own, I have more sense of victory than of defeat. (Yerushalmi, 1991, p. 130-131)
What Yerushalmi finds remarkable is that Freud not only uses this biblical expression as a proverb that resonates with the idea of not disclosing a secret, but that he also does so in perfect connection to the historical context of that expression. In other words, the mourning of Saul and Jonathan is a metaphor for the mourning of his theory of seduction and also of the mourning of his father.
But the central element that will allow Yerushalmi to deduce that Freud did indeed receive Jewish education is the dedication that Jakob Freud affixed to the Bible he offered Sigmund Freud, his son. The whole argument of Yerushalmi’s is based on this dedication. Not only does it allow him to say that there was a transmission from Jakob to Sigmund, but also to interpret the subjective effect this dedication had on Freud toward the end of his life. Yerushalmi recounts this crucial period between Freud and his father, whose scope he considers was never fully properly evaluated. It is 1891 and Jakob Freud offers Freud, or rather gives back, the Bible of his youth for his 35th birthday. Jakob’s dedication is not written in German but rather in Hebrew, a fact, for Yerushalmi, which proves that Freud could read Hebrew.
Let us take a moment now to savor this dedication written in a beautiful language. Yerushalmi, a connoisseur of the Bible and of the Talmud, comments almost exhaustively on the rules of interpretation of the Midrash in this text. Let us now quote this precious document:
«A son who is dear to me, Shlomo. In the seventh year of your life, the Spirit of the Lord began inspire you. He spoke within you: ‘Go, read the Book, I have written’ and there will burst forth for you the fountains of discernment, knowledge and understanding. The Book of Books: Behold it! Therein sages delved and lawgivers learned knowledge and justice. A vision of the Almighty you perceived; you hearkened and ventured; you achieved and soared on the wings of the spirit. Since then the Book has remained in reserve, like fragments of tablets in any ark with me. Toward the day there would be completed your thirty-five years. I put upon it a new leather covering. Then I named it “Spring up, O well – sing unto it” and I am presenting it before you as an offering of a memorial, a remembrance of love who loves you with an everlasting love.
Jacob son of R. Shlomo Freud.
In the capital city of Vienna, 29 Nisan  651, May 6th 891 (Yerushalmi, 1991, p. 139-140)
The most important point, finally, and the most precious is not only what this dedication says, but the way in which the message is said. It is written in Melitzah, i.e. made up of expressions from the Bible, rabbinical literature, or liturgy. This literary technique was widely used by poets and prose writers in the Hebrew language from the Middle Ages to the Haskalah. Yerushalmi reminds us that the peculiarity of the Melitzah, is that each word refers to the context from which it is extracted, hence the pertinence for him is to visit the sources from which Jakob Freud alludes, either directly or indirectly.
Let us follow Yerushalmi’s demonstration. «Son who is dear to me», as well as the following phrase «Who loves you with an everlasting love» are expressions from the book of Jeremiah (Bible, Chapter 4, Verse 19). Now, in Jeremiah, the beloved son is Ephraim. Thus, the context of this Melitzah is Ephraim – an emblematic figure of the lost tribes of Israel. The prophet hints at the possibility of the tribes’ return and reconciliation with God the Father. How can we not think that Jakob Freud had this context in his mind? The underlying meaning of this dedication, in this case, would be a call for return and reconciliation – a call from Jakob Freud to his son to resume his Bible and return to his reading. It is this common thread that guides Yerushalmi’s reading. Let us continue:
«In the seventh year of your life, the Spirit of the Lord began to inspire you and spoke within you: “Go, read the Book […] You had a vision of the Almighty, you perceived; you hearkened and ventured; you achieved and soared on the wings of the Spirit (Yerushalmi, 1991, p. 139-140)
These words allude to the moment when Freud began to study the Bible. «Since then, the Book has remained in reserve, like fragments of tablets in an ark with me»: When Freud left his father’s house, he left his Bible in bad shape, like the broken tables. When his son turns thirty five, Jakob decides to give it back to him and cover it with «a new leather covering» (Yerushalmi, 1991, p. 140)
In 1933, Hitler seizes power and the Nazis began to hunt down and persecute Jews and psychoanalysis. At the end of 1934, Freud completes the first draft of Moses. For Yerushalmi, it is through this book that Freud fulfills the father’s mandate that he had received at the age of thirty-five and he decides to write his first and only Jewish book in order to answer the question of what makes him Jewish. In Moses, Freud returns to the Bible study and speaks most openly about the Jewish question, on what makes Jews what they are. Yerushalmi finds confirmation of his hypothesis in an article written by Freud titled «Auto-presentation”:
«I was […] driven by a kind of desire to know, which, however, was related more to the human condition than to natural objects – a desire which had not recognized the value of observation as the main means of self-satisfaction. The fact that I immersed myself very early on, having barely finished learning to read, in the study of the Biblical history, has determined the orientation of my interests in a lasting way, as I realized later on” (Freud, 1992, p. 56)
The first part of this article was written in 1924, the year of the first edition of this text; the second, in italics, was added on in 1935. It is only then, in writing Moses, that Freud publicly acknowledges the influence of the Bible study on him. It is this precise point that makes Yerushalmi argue that Moses represents a belated fulfillment of the father’s mandate. With this book, he states, Freud obeys his father, plunges back into the study of the Bible, but that his own interpretation allows him to maintain his independence. There is no material truth in the Bible, but Freud is delighted to discover a historical truth in it. (Yerushalmi, 1991, p. 151)
Yerushalmi concludes his book with a «Monologue with Freud.» It is in a Talmudic way that he addresses Freud with this expression ledidah’, which means «in your opinion, according to you,» and reminds him of what Abraham had written to him in a letter on May 11, 1908:
«The Talmudic way of thinking cannot just suddenly disappear from us […] in the technique of the apposition and in all its composition, your book on wit was quite Talmudic. (Freud, Abraham, 2006, p. 73)
In this monologue, Yerushalmi revisits his thesis of a tradition that gets transmitted through the unconscious of a group. He demonstrates to Freud that this thesis is inadmissible on one hand because it contradicts the scientific evidence of modern genetics, but especially given the fundamental differences between individual memory and collective memory. History is transmitted because some do not forget, even if they are only few, and continue to transmit even to a small number of people. Freud himself points this out by affirming that the Levites remained faithful to their master, Moses, and that they preserved his memory and teachings. Thus, comes the question from Yerushalmi to Freud: Why does he abandon the transmission of memory traces of the Levites in favor of an «archaic heritage»? (Yerushalmi, 1991, p. 168)
For Yerushalmi, this is what allows Freud to claim to be a «Jew» without Judaism. Since if it is true that a national character can be transmitted independently of a communication or the influence of education, then it means that «Jewishness» can be transmitted independently of Judaism and that the former is interminable even if the latter is over. He distills this idea in the following phrase: an interminable Judeity even if Judaism is over. (Yerushalmi, 1991, 168)