Photo Credit: Jewish Press

That Freud was Jewish is universally recognized. Not as well known is his strong and proud self-identification as a Jew. Freud was also very interested in Jewish history and, in his final and perhaps most controversial work, Moses and Monotheism (published in 1939), he engages in an intriguing attempt to apply psychoanalytic principles to the field of history as he sets out to investigate the origins of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.

I must emphasize at the outset how antithetical Freud’s book is to the Torah and how deeply it manifests his ignorance of Jewish history and Jewish tradition, particularly the Oral Law; if anything, he demonstrates how contemporary “Biblical criticism” is steeped in ignorance and almost purposeful misinterpretation.


However, this article is not intended as a rebuttal to Freud’s Bible theories, which have been harshly criticized by many commentators, including secular writers. The fact that an average Jewish day school student could easily refute much of what the great Sigmund Freud writes in Moses and Monotheism does not, in my opinion, render it any less interesting.

In a February 18, 1938 letter, a correspondent wrote to Freud, informing him of an article in a Czechoslovakian newspaper on Moses and Monotheism and calling his attention to a work by the great German author, Friedrich Schiller, who published Moses’ Mission in 1792. In the February 23, 1938 correspondence exhibited here, a true historical rarity and one of the final letters he wrote before his death, Freud replies:

I am grateful for the interest that my work on Moses aroused in you. Oddly enough, there is also an essay by the young Goethe that deals with the person of Moses and even guessed his violent end. But I hope you don’t miss the fact that the actual content of my study is the claim that he was not a Jew but an Egyptian. All the rest is merely conclusions drawn from this assumption.

Freud was almost certainly referring to Israel in der Wüste, in which Goethe presented an extensive study of the Jews of the Bible and specifically addressed the role of Moses – whom he theorizes was murdered by Joshua and Caleb. It is also interesting to note that in Goethe’s Faust, the final scene of the protagonist’s death was inspired by biblical and Talmudic accounts of Moses’ death.

Moses and Monotheism, which must be understood in the context of Freud’s psychological gestalt, is essentially an extension of his work on psychoanalytic theory as a means of generating hypotheses about historical events regarding the biblical origins of Moses and the birth of monotheistic theology.

Freud’s extensive studies of dreams and folklore convinced him that the Bible had distorted the truth, and that Moses was not Hebrew but, rather, an Egyptian born into ancient Egyptian nobility. He characterizes his work as a unique search for the truth about Moses, expressly and proudly excluding himself from the smug “scholastics and Talmudists” who are unconcerned about how far removed their conclusions may be from reality.

Freud begins by observing that Moses lived in a period of antiquity so long ago that there is no historical evidence of his existence except from the Holy Books and the Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, he joins the great majority of historians who believe Moses did live and that the Egyptian exodus is a fact of history. However, his central thesis is that there is considerable evidence that Moses was an Egyptian.

First, Freud argues that the Biblical explanation of Moses’ name – which Exodus ascribes to the daughter of Pharaoh proclaiming, upon saving the child and retrieving him from the Nile, that “his name is Moshe [because] I drew him out of the water” – makes no sense because it is folly to credit an Egyptian princess with knowledge of Hebrew etymology.

He cites several authorities, therefore, who suggest the name Moses is Egyptian; he notes that the name Ramses can be broken down to “Ra-mose,” or “drawn from Ra” (the Egyptian sun god). Freud expresses bewilderment that no historian had ever drawn this obvious connection, which he ascribes to “the awe of Biblical tradition being insuperable.”

The Bible states that Moses was “slow of speech” (k’vad peh) and, as such, had to call on Aaron for assistance in his discussions with Pharaoh. Freud suggests that, while this account may be true, the more likely explanation is that, as an Egyptian, Moses spoke the Egyptian language and, as such, could not communicate with the “Semitic Neo-Egyptians” without the help of an interpreter, at least at the beginning of the Exodus narrative.

Freud admits his theory has a flaw: Moses was not only the political leader of the Jews who settled in Egypt, but also their lawgiver and religious leader. The “new religion” he introduced to them was the antithesis of the Egyptian faith: there is only one god, unique, and omnipotent; the sight of His countenance cannot be borne; one must not make an image of Him; and one may not even pronounce His name (Freud the psychologist pronounces this prohibition as “a primeval taboo.”)

From where would such a son of Egypt come up with the dramatically novel concept of monotheism? (It was of course axiomatic to Freud that, Moses, rather than God, was responsible for the origin of Judaism.)

Freud claims it actually wasn’t novel at all and that, in fact, Jewish monotheism is predicated upon an overlooked episode in Egyptian history. He explains that when Egypt first became a world power during the Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty, a young Pharaoh (Amenhotep IV), who ascended the throne in 375 B.C.E., rejected the historic Egyptian gods and imposed upon his subjects a new official religion of strict monotheism based upon the one all-powerful god, Aton (and Amenhotep therefore later renamed himself “Ikhnaton”).

Although Ikhnaton’s reign lasted only 17 years and he was later declared a heretic for his monotheistic beliefs, Freud suggests his teachings may have been the source of those Moses transmitted to the Jewish people.

Freud also argues that the concept of the Jews as a “chosen people” who would be uniquely rewarded stems from the fact that they embraced the monotheistic faith that had been rejected by the Egyptians, and he ascribes anti-Semitism primarily to the jealousy the Jews evoked in other peoples by maintaining that they were the first-born, favorite child of their god.

Employing classic Freudian analysis, he also attributes anti-Semitism to an unconscious reviling of Jewish circumcision, which psychologically evokes in others the primeval fear of castration, he argues.

Freud attributes the longevity and fierceness with which the Jews have clung to their monotheistic god to the guilt they continue to experience over their initial resentment of the severe laws Moses sought to impose upon them. In fact, he contends that, consistent with the Bible’s characterization of the Jews as stubborn and rebellious, they actually murdered Moses.

He theorizes that, much later, they united with related tribes between Egypt and Canaan and adopted the worship of an Arab-Midianite volcano-god (YKVK) and, through “reaction formation,” came to revere Moses and become irrevocably committed to the monotheistic idea that he represented. Although the Jews repressed the traumatic memory of their murder of their “primal father” (Oedipus Complex, anyone?) through the mists of history, the underlying guilt endured.

Freud characterizes the important link between this forgotten act of murder and its subsequent reappearance in the form of monotheistic religion as central to the historical development of Judaism, and suggests that the guilt attached to the murder may have been the stimulus for the Jewish belief in a Messiah who will return and grant forgiveness and salvation to his people from their primal sin. (He suggests that this guilt over the murder of Moses is also central to the Christian myth of Jesus as Savior.)

He argues that a tradition based only on oral communication could not possibly produce the obsessive character which pertains to religious phenomena, particularly – citing the Shema – the indestructible Jewish belief in one God. He therefore concludes that “what he brought with him at birth, fragments of phylogenetic origin, an archaic heritage” of mankind in general, and the Jews in particular, must include ideational contents and memory-traces of the experiences of former generations.

He thus concludes that there exists an inheritance of “memory-traces” of our ancestors’ experiences wholly independent of direct communication and of the influence of education, and that the Jewish monotheistic tradition is actually contained in the Jewish germplasm and is not merely communicated from father to son. Had he been familiar with the term, he might well have called it “the pintele yid”!

Throughout his life, Freud described religion as a “weak-minded childishness” which provides a psychological defense against “the crushingly superior force of nature,” and argued that a belief in God is a “universal obsessional neurosis” which manifests an infantile longing for a powerful father figure. However, though he remained a hard-nosed atheist, in Moses and Monotheism he began to see Judaism as a source of inspiration that increases the capacity for abstraction and frees people to live an internal life which facilitates important engagement in self-meditation and inner contemplation.

Earlier in his life, Freud had maintained that dogmatic religious training contributes to a weakness of intellect by foreclosing rational and scientific lines of inquiry. However, in Moses and Monotheism, he seems to reverse course when he argues that, in “inventing” an invisible god, Judaism created a scenario where “sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea – a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.” He writes that Jewish monotheism’s capacity for abstraction accounts for the statistical anomaly of the over-representation of the Jews in the arts and sciences and in all fields of intellectual endeavor.

Finally, in what may be his most intriguing argument, he seems to compare himself with Moses in that both stood steadfast in their unique beliefs in the face of strong resistance from the masses, and he suggests that psychoanalysis itself may be the most important result of the Jewish “advance in intellectuality” wrought by its monotheistic faith.