Latest update: August 21st, 2012
Hashem said to Moshe, “Write this for a memorial in a book, and recite it in the ears of Yehoshua; for I will completely erase the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Shemos 17:14).
For most of our history, the struggle between the Jewish people and Amalek was seen as an external one, pitting the world’s first (and for many centuries, only) monotheistic nation against one that vehemently and spitefully rejected our core values and beliefs.
Recent history, however, has told a different story. Over the past few centuries, our struggle with Amalek has become increasingly internalized within the psyche of our people, manifesting itself in the form of secularism and antipathy toward religion.
Jewish secularism has taken on a variety of forms. Some Jews have chosen to embrace only the cultural aspects of their heritage, expressing an identity based on shared values and historical experiences, while preserving their strong desire for an unfettered, humanistic lifestyle.
Secular Humanistic Jews understand Judaism as the human-centered history, culture, civilization, ethical values, and shared experience of the Jewish people. For us, the message of Jewish history is that we have the power and the responsibility to take control of our own lives. [Mission statement of the International Federation of Secularist Humanistic Jews]
Others, however, have acted more forcefully in their fight against God and their religious tradition. In his biographical study of Sigmund Freud, Yale historian Peter Gay explained that “it was as a particular kind of atheist, a Jewish atheist [italics mine], that Freud was enabled to make his momentous discoveries” (A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis, Yale University Press, 1989).
Gay’s identification of Freud as a uniquely “Jewish” atheist deserves attention. In what sense might a person’s Jewish heritage impact on his decision to choose a course of non-belief? Further, in what sense does “Jewish” atheism differ from traditional atheism, to the point where it can be credited with somehow impacting Freud in his professional work?
I believe the answer to these questions lies in the fact that no other atheist has more cause to experience such immense inner tension over renouncing his heritage as does one with Jewish lineage. For the Jew, belief in God is normal and expected, the basis of our identity and our unique place in history. To challenge God’s existence is to be at odds with one’s deeper sense of self and our national odyssey.
Freud was not simply a non-believer. He was an aggressive atheist, with, in his own words, an “absolutely negative attitude toward religion, in every form and dilution.” Freud branded religion “an illusion” and made repeated reference to his own lack of faith, as evidenced by his rhetorical question to the Swiss psychoanalyst and pastor Oskar Pfister, “Why did none of the devout create psychoanalysis? Why did one have to wait for a completely Godless Jew?”
Freud posited that it was psychological motives (particularly the feeling of helplessness regarding one’s surroundings) rather than firm spiritual convictions that formed the basis of religious impulses. He saw his mission to “awaken the world from the enchantment in which the magicians and priests had held it imprisoned since pagan antiquity.”
Freud’s anti-Jewish antagonism was so great that in his final work, Moses and Monotheism, published in 1939 on the eve of his death, he suggested that Moshe was not in fact a Jew but an Egyptian prince who rescued the Jews from Egypt and whom they subsequently killed. To Freud, the work was by no means a literary afterthought, an ancillary addendum to his great career. To the contrary – he was thoroughly obsessed with its publication. “Moses will not let go of my imagination. [He] torments me like an unlaid ghost.” (Dual Allegiance: Freud As a Modern Jew, Moshe Gresser, SUNY Press, 1984.)
The fact that Freud grappled with such a topic, and espoused such a twisted theory with no factual basis, is perplexing. Why publish an offensive book that flies in the face of everything sacred to the Jewish people at a time when Nazi militarism had engulfed Germany and Austria and threatened the safety of his Jewish brethren, as well as the peace of the entire European continent? In his final days, Freud was still trying to quell his irrepressible Jewish spirit that yearned to break free and find religious expression. Nobody talks so constantly about God as a person who insists He does not exist. It was an unending struggle, one Freud could never overcome no matter how hard he tried.
Jews who choose the path of secularist atheism, such as three of the most influential men in recent history – Freud, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein – often turn viciously anti-Jewish in the process. In the venomous words of Marx:
Money is the jealous god of Israel, besides which no other god may exist. Money abases all the gods of mankind and changes them into commodities. Money is the self-sufficient value of all things. It has, therefore, deprived the whole world, both the human world and nature, of their own proper value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and existence: this essence dominates him and he worships it. The god of the Jews has been secularized and become the god of this world. [“On the Jewish Question,” 1844]
Others, like Einstein, hung their hat of disbelief on their claim that religion and its spiritual conceptions are completely incomprehensible concepts unsuited for rational, modern man:
I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension. Such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. [The World As I See It, Philosophical Library, 1949]
Though Einstein was capable of comprehending many of the immense complexities of quantum science, he was unable to grasp signs of the divine, something within the capabilities of even the youngest child.
These Jews – and countless others like them – understood their accomplishments to have been possible only due to the intellectual and moral freedoms of modernity. In truth, however, the negative view they held of their Jewish tradition greatly restricted the potential gains of their personal genius.
Of course, the battle between Jewish values and those espoused by Amalek does not only manifest itself in such stark terms. We all struggle in some way to properly identify the significant role Hashem plays in our lives, and to ascribe adequate credit for all He does on our behalf.
Rav Chaim Friedlander, zt”l (Sifsei Chaim, Vol. 2, p. 171-172) writes that before we can eliminate any form of external Amalek, we must first attempt to identify and remove any vestiges of that nation from within our own selves. To the extent we see matters in our personal lives as happenstance or the consequence of purely natural events, we are guilty of harboring a piece of Amalek within our own hearts. And if we go so far as to downplay valid attempts to infuse the world with additional holiness, we are removing any possibility of truly fulfilling this vital mandate.
It is impossible for us today to properly fulfill the mitzvah of physically destroying Amalek. We are, however, required to attempt to destroy its memory, the intellectual and emotional Amalek that affects us all. In so doing, we will bring Hashem’s throne that much closer to its completed state, and take meaningful steps toward fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy: “Hashem shall be king over all the earth; on that day the Hashem shall be one and his name one.”
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212-470-6139 or at email@example.com.
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