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.