Both of Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) parents came from devout Jewish families. His father marked Sigmund’s birth with the following Hebrew notation in the family Chumash: “My son Shlomo Sigmund was born on Rosh Chodesh Iyar 616, May 6, 1856. He entered the Jewish community on Tuesday, the 8th of Iyar. The mohel was Herr Samson Frankl from Ostrau.” Though Freud wished to both deny and affirm different aspects of his Judaism, there is little question regarding his self-identification and pride in being a Jew. Perhaps the best statement of his feelings about Judaism was made in a May 6, 1926 address to B’nai Brith:
What bound me to Jewry was (I am ashamed to admit) neither faith nor national pride, for I have always been an unbeliever and was brought up without any religion…but plenty of other things remained to make the attraction of Jewry and Jews irresistible…. it was to my Jewish nature alone that I owed two characteristics that had become indispensable to me in the difficult course of my life. Because I was a Jew, I found myself free from many prejudices which restricted others in the use of their intellect; and as a Jew I was prepared to join the Opposition and to do without agreement with the “compact majority.”
Freud often reaffirmed his Jewish identity. On his marriage, he wrote: “This is what I believe: something of the core, of the essence of this meaningful and life-affirming Judaism will not be absent from our home” (1882). He further wrote: “I have never repudiated my people, and I am in my essential nature a Jew who has no desire to alter that nature” (1913) and “My parents were Jews, and I have remained a Jew myself” (Autobiography, 1925). On Eretz Yisrael, Freud, emphasizing that he had never considered himself German but rather Jewish, wrote: “We hail from there…our ancestors lived there, and it is impossible to say how much of the life in that country we carry as a heritage in our blood and nerves.”
In the November 7, 1936 correspondence shown here, Freud extends his congratulations to his dear friend, Emil Hammerschlag, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Freud enjoyed a long relationship with the entire Hammerschlag family, beginning with Rabbi Samuel Hammerschlag, who taught him Jewish religion, and later including Emil, who became his Hebrew teacher.
Though a strong proponent of humanistic Reform Judaism, Samuel Hammerschlag (1826-1904) combined his teaching of German classics and modern European culture with a deep Jewish spirit, a love for Jewish tradition, and a strong emphasis on Bible, liturgy, Hebrew grammar, and Jewish history. Scholars single him out as a significant religious influence on Freud, beginning with Sigmund’s adolescence and continuing throughout his life.
Freud’s great veneration for the man who instructed him in the Jewish faith may be seen through the obituary he wrote for his beloved friend and teacher, which was published in the Vienna press in 1904: “…a spark from the same fire which animated the spirit of the great Jewish seers and prophets burned in him…but the passionate side of his nature was happily tempered by the ideal of humanism of our classical German period, which governed him and his method of education …”
After being hired as a teacher in the Religious School in Vienna (1857), Samuel assumed responsibility for administering the school library and transformed it into a Jewish public institution. After being forced to retire from his teaching post due to the onset of deafness (May 1873), he continued to work without pay for thirty years at developing the community library.
About the Author: Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica letters and documents. He welcomes comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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