Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Original newspaper photo of Freud escaping the Nazis. According to the text on the verso (not shown), “White-bearded, stooped Professor Freud, the Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst who made the world complex conscious, arrived in Paris June 5 [1938] on his way to London to find refuge from the Nazi anti-Jewish campaign launched in his native Vienna after Austria was seized by Hitler.

Both of Freud’s parents were raised in devout Jewish families; his paternal grandfather, for whom he was named, was a chassidic Rabbi, and his father, Jakob, was steeped in Jewish learning. By the time he arrived in Vienna as a young man, however, Jakob had become disillusioned with Jewish practice and, although he became a true victim of the Haskalah (the tragically named “Enlightenment”), his pintele Yid (the Jewish soul that is never fully extinguished) remained, and he continued to regularly study Talmud and read Hebrew literature.

Jakob marked Sigmund’s birth with the following Hebrew notation in the family Chumash: “My son Shlomo Sigmund was born on Rosh Chodesh Iyar [5]616, May 6, 1856. He entered the Jewish community on Tuesday, the 8th of Iyar. The mohel was Herr Samson Frankl from Ostrau.” For Sigmund’s 35th birthday, Jakob gave him a Bible in which he had inscribed in Hebrew: “You have seen in this Book the vision of the Almighty, you have heard willingly, you have done and have tried to fly high upon the wings of the Holy Spirit.”


Thus, Freud (1856-1939) grew up in a liberally religious home. However, although he married an observant woman from an Orthodox Jewish family – and in 1882 wrote of his marriage that “something of the core, of the essence of this meaningful and life-affirming Judaism will not be absent from our home” – he forced her to abandon her faith, forsake her traditional practices, and sharply limit her contacts with her religious family and with Judaism, even going so far as to prohibit her fasting on Yom Kippur. (Ironically, Freud died on Yom Kippur.) Nonetheless, he agreed to have his sons circumcised, and the family celebrated Purim and held Passover Seders, during which he read the Haggadah – in Hebrew.

In Man and Father (1909), a memoir about his life growing up in his father’s home, Freud’s eldest son, Martin, notes that Jewish texts were generally absent, and otherwise he says very little about the family’s Jewish practices. However, in one amusing yet illustrative anecdote, Martin writes that they grew up never hearing their father reciting prayers – except for when Sigmund’s devout mother would visit the family for Shabbat.

Though Freud both denied and affirmed 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:

… I myself am a Jew and I have always deemed it not only unworthy, but nonsensical to deny it. What bound me to Judaism was – I must admit – neither faith nor national pride, for I have always been an unbeliever and have been brought up without religion, but not without the respect for those requirements of human culture called “ethical.” Whatever national pride I have, I endeavor to suppress, considering it disastrous and unjust, frightened and warned as I am by the example of what national pride has brought to the nations among whom we Jews live.

But there were other considerations which made the attractiveness of Judaism and Jews irresistible – many obscure forces of emotions, all the more powerful the less they were to be defined in words; and also the clear consciousness of an inner identity in common with yours, of a common construction of the soul. And soon there was added to this the knowledge that it was to Jewish nature alone that I owe the two qualities which 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 limited others in the use of their intellect, and being a Jew, I was prepared to enter the opposition and to renounce the agreement with the “compact majority.”

Freud joined the Viennese branch of B’nai Brith in 1897 and became an active member during his first years, serving as the organization’s president and working actively to grow the chapter and to recruit Jewish friends to the organization. In 1897, he delivered one of his first lectures on dream interpretation and psychoanalysis to his Vienna Lodge brothers, and he contributed articles to its publication, The Menorah Journal.

Freud’s letter to “his Rabbi.”

Though Freud characterized himself as “a godless Jew,” he often reaffirmed his Jewish identity. “I have never repudiated my people, and I am in my essential nature a Jew who has no desire to alter that nature” (1913); “My parents were Jews, and I have remained a Jew myself” (Autobiography, 1925); “When I joined the University in 1873, I was expected to feel myself inferior because I was a Jew. I refused absolutely. I have never been able to see why I should feel ashamed of my descent” (id).

In the November 7, 1936, correspondence shown here, Freud extends congratulations to his dear friend, Emil Hammerschlag, who later became Freud’s Hebrew teacher, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, and to Emil’s father, Samuel.

The secular Rabbi Samuel Hammerschlag, a friend of Freud’s father whom Freud called “a wonderful teacher,” instructed Sigmund in the Jewish faith and combined the Jewish spirit with the ideals of the German classics in teaching Bible, liturgy, Hebrew grammar, and Jewish history. From his obituary of Rabbi Hammerschlag, we know of Freud’s great veneration for the man who instructed him in the Jewish faith.

However, not only Rabbi Hammerschlag himself but his whole family had a formative influence on young Freud, who was deeply impressed by their humanity. Freud had particular affection for Anna Hammerschlag, who was his patient and who served as godmother for his youngest daughter, Anna. Because of the crucial role she played in the famous Irma’s Injection, Freud’s “specimen dream” of July 1895 – it is well-recognized that “Irma” was a pseudonym for Anna Hammerschlag – she also became the “godmother” of Freud’s magnum opus, The Interpretation of Dreams.

Scholars single out Samuel Hammerschlag as a significant religious influence during Freud’s adolescence. In one notable example, Freud wrote to Martha Bernays, his bride-to-be, “I do not know any people kinder, more humane, further removed from any ignoble motive than they [the Hammerschlag family], quite apart from the deep-seated sympathy which has existed between myself and the dear old Jewish teacher ever since my school days.”

Freud’s historic correspondence on Moses and Monotheism.

Freud was also very interested in Jewish history and, in his final and perhaps most controversial work, Moses and Monotheism (1939), he engages in an intriguing attempt to apply psychoanalytic principles to investigating the origins of the Jewish faith in Jewish history. In a February 18, 1938, letter, a correspondent wrote to Freud to inform him about an article in a Czechoslovakian newspaper about Moses and Monotheism, and calls his attention to a work by the great German author, Friedrich Schiller, who published Moses’ Mission (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 answers:

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.

The essence of Moses and Monotheism is Freud’s conclusion that the Bible has distorted the truth and that Moses was not Hebrew but rather an Egyptian born into ancient Egyptian nobility; that the Jews murdered Moses and only later came to revere him; and that Jewish guilt is a manifestation of their murder of their “primal father” (Oedipus Complex, anyone?). Although the entire work is wholly antithetical to the Torah and deeply manifests his ignorance of Jewish history and Jewish tradition, particularly the Oral Law, its hypotheses about historical events regarding the biblical origins of Moses and the birth of monotheistic theology is compelling reading.

* * * * *


Freud’s views on Zionism were even more complex and conflicted. On one hand, there is ample evidence that he was an open and vociferous anti-Zionist. Consistent with his general view that nationalism in whatever kind is a form of group psychology that often evidences psychosis and can lead to conflict, violence, and the suppression of self, he was opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, arguing that it was unlikely to solve the problem of antisemitism and that it could lead to the displacement of the Arab population in Eretz Yisrael.

He may have expressed his anti-Zionism views most clearly in a correspondence he wrote to the head of the Keren Hayesod branch in Vienna in 1930 in the wake of the “Buraq Uprising” and Arab massacres against the Jews of Eretz Yisrael in 1929, including specifically the Hebron Massacre, which became the single deadliest attack on Jews in Eretz Yisrael during the British Mandate period.

In 1930, just a few months after the Arab violence had temporarily halted, Keren Hayesod, an organization established by the Zionist Congress to encourage and help Jews make aliyah, launched a public relations campaign on behalf of the Yishuv. They sent letters to many of the world’s most prominent Jews – including Freud – asking them to issue public statements in support of the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael. Freud’s response, addressed to Dr. Chaim Koffler, the head of the Keren Hayesod in Vienna, could not have been sharper and more direct:

I cannot do as you wish. My unwillingness to involve the public with my name is insurmountable and not even this present critical occasion seems to warrant it. Whoever wants to influence the masses must give them something rousing and inflammatory and my sober judgment of Zionism does not permit this. But my sober estimation of Zionism does not allow me to do so …

I do not believe that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state, nor that the Christian and Islamic worlds would ever be prepared to have their holy places under Jewish care. To me, it would have seemed more sensible to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically unencumbered land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy …

The baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives …

Now judge for yourself whether I, with such a critical point of view, am the right person to come forward as the comforter of a people deluded by unjustified hope.

Dr. Koffler, who was surprised and disappointed by Freud’s response, understood that the public release of his letter would be, at the very least, inimical to Jewish interests in Eretz Yisrael; he wrote in pencil in Hebrew at the top corner of the correspondence, “Do not show this to foreigners,” and the letter, now in the National Library of Israel, remained unpublished for six decades.

In letters to Arnold Zweig, a noted Jewish-German writer, pacifist and socialist who became one of Freud’s important disciples, Freud writes that the choice of Eretz Yisrael is “not a good omen” and that “I have never been a Zionist nor do I think I shall become one.” In a subsequent letter, he told Zweig, “It seems to me that in the last few years a shift has taken place in the attitude of our Jewish youth towards the concept of Zionism. They seem to have become disillusioned with it, and it is not difficult to see why. Zionism has ceased to be a movement and has become a dogma.”

According to some commentators, Freud viewed the Jews’ choice of Eretz Yisrael through the lens of psychoanalysis and saw Zionism as a neurotic attempt to restore an old love rather than find a new one, a romantic dream destined to fail. According to Dr. Eran Rolnik, a psychiatrist, historian, translator, scientific editor of many of Freud’s writings that were published in Hebrew, and a fellow at the Israeli Institute of Psychoanalysis – Freud took great pride when his works first began to be translated into Hebrew in 1928 – Freud believed that Zionism and psychoanalysis are essentially antithetical in that Zionism is a “revolutionary romance” and “the product of a legendary-collective past” while psychoanalysis is “anchored in the enlightened Central European tradition” and is more individualistic and more rational.

On the other hand, Martin Freud, Sigmund’s eldest son, writes in Man and Father (1909) that when he joined Kadimah, a Zionist organization, he expected his father to object but, in fact, not only was Freud delighted but he would later accept an honorary membership in the organization.

In an August 28, 1913, correspondence to Sabine Spielrein, written after he learned she was pregnant, Freud wrote that he “would like to take it that if the child turned out to be a boy he will develop into a stalwart Zionist.” And, in sending his regrets in response to an invitation to attend the dedication of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1925), Freud wrote:

We are now living in a time when this people has a prospect of again winning the land of its fathers with the help of a Power that dominates the world and it celebrates the occasion by the foundation of a University in its ancient capital city.

In a 1902 letter to Theodor Herzl, he enclosed a copy of his The Interpretation of Dreams for possible review by Herzl in Die Neue Freie Presse, then Vienna’s most influential newspaper, and he asked Herzl to keep the book “as a sign of the esteem in which I – like so many others – have for years held the poet and fighter for the human rights of our people.”

Discussing Eretz Yisrael in his 1925 autobiography, Fred wrote that “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.” And, in a December 1930 correspondence to Yehuda Dvir-Dwosis, his Hebrew translator in Jerusalem, he wrote that “Zionism aroused in me great sympathy, which I continue to feel to this day. From the very beginning I connected it with those anxieties which the present situation seems to justify. I would prefer to be mistaken.”

When Freud became aware of the Nazi threat to the Jews, he wrote a June 20, 1935, letter to Leib Yaffe, the director-general of Keren Hayesod and chief editor of Haaretz, “I want to assure you that I know very well what an important and welcome tool this foundation has become in its attempts to establish a new home in our forefathers’ ancient land. This is a sign of our indefatigable will to survive, a desire that cannot be overcome and that thus far has withstood thousands of years of harsh oppression! Our young people will continue the fight.”

In a letter to his friend, Max Eitingon, a devoted Freud devotee and a fervent Zionist who founded the Palestine Psychoanalytic Society in Jerusalem after making aliyah, he wrote “I can only say that the sight of the land of Israel has moved me in a very special way” and that “we must hope that Palestine will soon be a Jewish state.” However, during visits with several Arab leaders, he expressed criticisms of Zionist policies that he believed would lead to the displacement of Arab populations.

Freud’s seminal encounter with Zionism may have come in January 1898, when he attended a performance of Herzl’s play, Das Neue Ghetto (“The New Ghetto”), in response to which he dreamed what has become known as his “Passover Dream.” As he recounted the dream in his renowned The Interpretation of Dreams: “On account of certain events which had taken place in the city of Rome, it had become necessary to remove the children to safety, and this was done … I was sitting on the edge of a fountain and was greatly depressed and almost in tears.”

Freud comments that his dream refers to Psalm 137:1 (“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”). He described how an apparition of Herzl appeared to him and spoke of the danger to the Jewish people and the necessity to act immediately if they are to be saved, and he viewed the gestalt of his dream as “the Jewish question, concern about the future of one’s children to whom one cannot give a country of their own, concern about raising them so they may become independent.” Before Freud fled the Nazis for London on June 4, 1938, he sent a final letter to his son, Ernst, in which he again raised the issue of the Egyptian exile and the need for the Jews to have their own homeland: “Sometimes I see myself as Jacob, taken by his sons to Egypt when he was already very old. We shall hope that after this, we will not experience another Exodus. It is time for the ‘wandering Jew’ to rest somewhere.”

How to square these seemingly diametric schools of thought, the seeming cognitive dissonance underscoring Freud’s views on Zionism? There is no clear answer, but the answer may turn on the fact that, notwithstanding his bitter political and psychological comments about Zionism, he always firmly believed that the Gentile world was antisemitic and that – to turn a phrase – his “Passover Dream” and the ghost of Herzl remained tucked deeply into his subconscious.

A second reason may be related to his role as one of the first governors of Hebrew University upon its founding in 1925. He was elated by the appointment and expressed his hope that, although it was not possible at that time, a department of psychoanalysis would one day find its place at the University. Thus, it may be that he remained interested in Eretz Yisrael primarily because, consistent with his binary view of the world including “friends of psychoanalysis” and “opponents of psychoanalysis,” he was heavily invested in seeing psychoanalysis brought to Hebrew University. (Half a century later, the inaugural lecture for the Sigmund Freud chair at Hebrew University was delivered by his daughter, psychiatrist Anna Freud, in 1977.)

A third possible explanation for Freud’s occasionally sympathetic views of Zionism could be his reaction to his father’s and his own powerlessness in the face of antisemitic threats against the Jews. In a noteworthy event in his childhood, six-year-old Sigmund was walking in Vienna with his father on a Shabbat afternoon when a Christian boy yelled “Jew, get off the sidewalk” and knocked Jakob’s new fur hat into the mud, and the boy was outraged by his father’s humiliation and powerlessness. And, as he wrote to his fiancée: “I have often felt as though I had inherited all the passion and all the defiance with which our ancestors defended their Temple and could gladly sacrifice my life for one great moment in history. And with all that I was always so powerless and could not express my flowing passions,” and he viewed with approval the fact that the Zionists – unlike most the traditional Jews of his time – were ready to fight and die for their dreams of a homeland.

Finally, I think that the most likely scenario is that Freud’s “Zionism” was merely his feeling a connection to, and sympathy with, his fellow Jews, and not a belief in Zionism as a political ideology. Thus, for example, in a letter to Weizmann, he wrote that “I cannot do much for the political movement.”

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleA Jewel In The Crown Of The King
Next articleLife Chronicles
Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].