Judaism and Psychoanalysis

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Judaism, a monotheistic religion, and Jewish identity, a subjective culture and experience, are part and parcel of the history of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in Freiberg. His father, Jakob Freud, still mourning the death of his own father, Rabbi Schlomo, gave his son the Jewish name Schlomo and the Christian name Sigmund, later changed to Sigismund for a short time. Freud was partly reared by a catholic nanny, Monica Zadjic. He experienced his first exile at the age of three, when the family left Moravia for Vienna. Jakob taught him to read the family Bible, which he continued to read in Jewish primary school and later in the gymnasium. Freud continued to see his Hebrew teacher, Samuel Hammerschlag, until the latter's death.

Unlike the family of his wife, Martha, Freud's family neglected religious practices but respected traditions, particularly the principal holidays of Jewish life. Freud was circumcised on May 13, 1866. When he was thirty-five years old, his father gave him Philippson's bilingual illustrated Bible, with a dedication in Hebrew. Théo Pfrimmer (1982) noted more than four hundred Biblical quotations in Freud's works. Freud's Jewish identity never waned: between 1897 and 1907 he regularly attended the meetings of B'nai Brith, his first public, and remained connected to the lodge until 1926. In 1929 YIVO (Yiddisher Vissenshaftlikher Institut), an institute devoted to the Yiddish language (which his mother continued to speak throughout her life), invited him to be a member of its presidium, along with Albert Einstein and many others.

An early experience of anti-Semitism confirmed Freud's decision not to court the favor of the "compact majority" (B'nai Brith conference, May 6, 1926). The Nazis condemned his works to the fire, and in May 1933 his books were burned in Berlin. Some members of his family, including four of his five sisters, perished in extermination camps.

Like Franz Kafka, Freud was confronted with the question of his Jewish identityan affective dimension of Freud better reflected in his correspondence than in his scientific works. Adam, Joseph, Jacob, Moses, like Grandfather Schlomo, the central figure in an "identification fantasy" (Mijolla, 1975), all had their place in the line of filiation, linking fathers and sons, that lies at the heart of the Oedipus complex he elaborated from Greek tragedy.

Caught between different cultures (Germanic, Christian, and the Greco-Roman classical humanities) and different languages (Yiddish, Hebrew, Czech, and German), Freud was confronted with the Viennese crisis of modernity. This same sense of crisis can be seen in the writers of the literary group Jung-Wien, who gave expression to an identity crisis in which the Enlightenment, German Romanticism, and scientific discourse rubbed shoulders. Freudan atheist, a "Jewish infidel" pretending not to know Hebrew and torn with regard to the Zionist idealrejected all notions of conversion, the "entrance ticket to Western society," as Heinrich Heine called it.

"[H]ow comes it that none of the godly ever devised psychoanalysis and that one had to wait for a godless Jew?" Freud wrote to Oskar Pfister on October 9, 1918 (quoted in Grollman, 1965, p. 115). In this question he attributed his discovery, the only one capable of promoting a "new science," to a Jew whose lack of faith contested religion and its taboos. Freud refused to affiliate psychoanalysis with Judaism, while recognizing that it was linked to a special "experience." Along with some of his students (Karl Abraham and Theodor Reik), Freud studied religious phenomena in the light of psychoanalysis, but the so-called "Jewish science" of psychoanalysis was in fact a scientific project. Freud, basing his thesis on aphasia and the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c [1895]) on neurophysiological data, was struggling to establish the scientific status of his discovery.

Until he met Carl Gustav Jung in 1907, his first disciples were Jews who more or less inherited the de Judaization commenced by their fathers as they struggled to assimilate. Later, non-Jews joined the Wednesday Psychology Society. The introduction of Jung, son of a pastor and assistant to Professor Eugen Bleuler in Zurich, had a twofold aim: one political, to spread psychoanalysis beyond the confines of Judaism; the other scientific, to guarantee Freud a university audience. In his correspondence with Romain Rolland (1923-1936), Freud gave the "mystic element" that Jews "lack" (letter to Karl Abraham, July 20, 1908) and the "oceanic feeling" a predominant position.

In London in 1938, his twilight year and his second exile, Freud completed his work on Moses with difficulty, scruples, and pain. In Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-38]), Freud questioned the "enigmas" surrounding Moses' place and role in history and the survival of the Jewish people, the special target of centuries-old anti-Semitic hatred. When most psychoanalysts were forced by Nazi persecutions to leave Germany and Austria, Freud compared the dissolution of the psychoanalytic societies to the destruction of the Temple by quoting Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkaï on the occasion of the opening of the Yavneh school: "The invisible temple of Judaism could not be built until the visible Temple had been destroyed." Anna Freud spoke of the "new diaspora" in a letter to Ernest Jones dated March 8, 1934. She used the expression again in Jerusalem in 1977.

Freud rejected the Jewish religion while being faithful to his Jewish identity by recognizing its contribution to certain aspects of psychoanalysis. On May 11, 1908, Freud, for whom Judaism was part of his racial heritage, commented to Karl Abraham, "The Talmudic way of thinking cannot disappear in us just like that." In fact, both Judaism and psychoanalysis teach the central importance of language and its effects.

Since the terror of the Holocaust, many researchers have dealt with the conflicted affinity between Judaism and psychoanalysis. Contemporary psychoanalysts Gérard Haddad, Eliane Amado Lévi-Valensi, and Jacquy Chémouni have studied the Talmudic sources of psychoanalysis (thirty years after David Bakan's 1958 book on Jewish mysticism); equivalences between Jewish and psychoanalytic hermeneutics, particularly in relation to dreams; the ambiguous relations among Freud, Judaism, and psychoanalysis; and "secularized messianism," going from the particular to the universal.

Historians have focused their investigations on Freud's relationship with his father (Marthe Robert, Marianne Krull); on Freud's creativity as it relates to his atheism (Peter Gay); and on the traces of Judaism at work in Freud's Moses essays (1939) (Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi). For Yerushalmi, who refers to psychoanalysis as the "Jewish science," psychoanalysis is the last avatar of Judaism, a "Judaism without a God."

Showing the relations between psychoanalysis (the unconscious and its laws) and the subjective essence of Jewish culture does not preclude granting psychoanalysis a scientific, and therefore universal, status. Indeed, the teaching and transmission of psychoanalysis reveals a special tension between the particular and the universal in the field. Perhaps Judaism reveals "the hidden truth of psychoanalysis" (Jacques Ascher and Daniel Weiss).

Jacques Ascher and PÉrel Wilgowicz

See also: Ethics; Israel; Moses and Monotheism ; Phillipson Bible; Racism, anti-Semitism, and psychoanalysis; Sex and Character ; Zweig, Arnold.


Ascher, Jacques, and Weiss, Daniel. (1997). De l'unà l'autre. La psychanalyse est-elle une histoire goy? Revue Internationale de psychanalyse, 6, 109-124.

Bakan, David. (1958). Sigmund Freud and the Jewish mystical tradition. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

Chemouni, Jacquy. (1991). Freud, la psychanalyse et le judaïsme. Paris:Éditions universitaires.

Freud, Sigmund. (1939). Moses and monotheism: three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

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Gay, Peter. (1987). A Godless Jew: Freud, atheism, and the making of psychoanalysis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Grollman, Earl A. (1965). Judaism in Sigmund Freud's World. New York: Appleton Century.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1975). Fantasmes d'identification: Jakob, Freud et Goethe.Études freudiennes, 9-10, 167-210.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1987). Unconscious identification fantasies and family prehistory. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 68, 397-403.

Pfrimmer, Théo. (1982). Freud, lecteur de la Bible. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Robert, Marthe. (1976). From Oedipus to Moses: Freud's Jewish identity (Ralph Manheim, Trans.). Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. (Original work published 1974.)

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. (1991a). Freud's Moses: Judaism terminable and interminable. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

. (1991b). The purloined Kiddush cups: reopening the case on Freud's Jewish heritage. Binghamton: State University of New York.

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