7. An Anthropological Fiction*

Freud used the word “historical” on several occasions to characterize what he set out to describe in Moses and Monotheism; [1] the word implies that he was referring to events that had actually happened, that were not arbitrarily constructed. He could rely on psychoanalysis to assure him that this was the case. On the other hand, given the material and the vast time frame involved, the author was at liberty to choose among the known historical facts, which lend themselves to interpretation, as the book’s outline attests; from start to finish, he offers a carefully balanced account of human history. These two aspects—that which was and that which might have been—are constantly intertwined, in accordance with the requirements of Freud’s intellectual agenda, becoming speculative whenever clarification is needed.
The history of the earliest Jews consists essentially of three phases: the Egyptian revelation, followed by a relapse in the wilderness, and then by a revival of the original insights.
The “historical novel” focused on Moses starts from a well-known event in Egyptian history—the sudden change in the cultural and political tradition instituted by the pharaoh Akhenaten when he singled out, in a monotheistic vision, the figure of a unique solar deity called Aton. [2] The presence of the Jews in Egypt, an early focus of attention in the Bible, led to the association of the two peoples. The assertion of monotheism had grown out of the purification of a tradition; it began as an intellectual reform that at the same time brought to fruition a potentiality inherent in religion. It was not a Jewish reform. The subversive mystique, born as it was in pharaonic Egypt, was unable to survive—we know this to be the case—for it was too bold, and it rode roughshod over institutions and customs alike. But the revolutionary message and its justification spread. At first the idea gained ground on its own; it was picked up by a man who was not a king. This man was Moses who, according to Freud, behaved as if he were the pharaoh himself. This proximity to power reminds us of other episodes in the Bible, the story of Joseph, for example. Moses the Egyptian not only shared the king’s ideas, he almost shared his sovereign authority (“[t]he doctrine of Moses may have been even harsher than that of his master” [SE 23:47]). Moses found a receptive consciousness in a foreign community, that of the Hebrews. Just as the measures taken by the reformist pharaoh were abolished by his successors after his death, so Moses’ moral and intellectual (as well as spiritual) demands were abandoned in the long run by the community of the Hebrews; the latter turned against the reformer, who was made to pay with his life for his ideas and his adherence to monotheism.
This radical change provides the recurrent theme governing the evolution of Freud’s version of the story; he sometimes characterized it as a “novel” centered on the figure of Moses and competing with the legend of Joseph, which Thomas Mann, in his tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers (1933–1943), endowed with striking literary currency; it too is somewhat removed from the Bible. Three of Mann’s four volumes—the second, The Young Joseph (1933), and the third, Joseph in Egypt (1936)—were published during Freud’s lifetime. Mann chose to make Akhenaten the pharaoh whom Joseph served as his interpreter of dreams. The reformer found in Joseph the inspired companion of his visionary illuminations, a precursor of Moses.
Monotheism marked a decisive break in the theological sphere. For the Jews, the old gods, who had been created as the result of human weakness and lack of imagination, were definitively put to rest. Right from the start, the single god brought with him a whole system, implying a rule of conduct applicable to the world at large and to life. By eliminating the arbitrary, this god restrained what had been rule by brute force. Freud had his own criteria for truth, borrowed from science. Science was as imperious and monarchical as the rational god. As for the old gods, one could only yield to them, and then, at best, learn from the delusions associated with them. In the “novel,” polytheism is reduced to a phase that the Hebrews had to get through and overcome, by following a path of initiation that had literary models.
Liberation did not just happen. It required a preparation that could only have taken place in Egypt, at the heart of the most stable and settled organization that existed at the time. Moses the Egyptian was above all an exceptional figure, a “great man”; the pharaoh Akhenaten, his model, had been such a man before him. It is true that Moses did not benefit from the power accumulated by the exercise of kingship, but the energy that motivated him had already been in force since the origins of society. In prehistory, this energy was concentrated in the figure of the leader of the “horde,” [3] before that individual was killed and before separate groups broke away to flee his violence.
One can obviously associate this revenge of the weak against the powerful with Nietzsche’s work, without exaggerating the latter’s direct influence on Freud. [4] The framework surrounding the projections of Totem and Taboo is openly inscribed within the field of anthropology; rebellion leads to the murder of the father; social control is then established by the heirs. The concentration of power comes first, preceding the dispersal of the horde. It is in this way that, in light of its initial unification, the collective can be considered as an individual and treated as such. Resistance comes second; it is the logical and necessary corollary of socialization. Untrammeled power is deposed before new energy can be mustered and reconstituted in the person of a leader, who will again be an exceptional individual. Every time, at every stage, the opposition voices its rejection, right up to Jesus and his teachings. It always starts with a murder—that is a prototype. In the positive phase, whenever power is re-embodied as a governing force in a “great man,” the concentration of energy is naturally liberating, and triumphs over dispersal.
Moses is an Egyptian. After Akhenaten, he appears unexpectedly as a new reformer, almost as powerful as the first one, and he provides a second opportunity for the implementation of reform, as if history were repeating itself in order to incorporate the universal, which transcends all affiliations; transferred to another people, the reform would undergo other vicissitudes and dialectically overcome other kinds of setbacks. In this view, evil is inherent in goodness, as a negation profoundly linked to the very existence of goodness. Is this not a counter-history, created out of what was after all a chance encounter, in the context of a doubling? A destiny that had no hint of teleology was to be imprinted as a new direction in the evolution of humankind; religion was certainly not excluded, but it was transformed. There was one man, the king, then another, Moses, and one people mixed with another. This could have happened only in Egypt.
Once the strong man had been murdered, [5] the posthumous impact of the message was the other pole of the construction, which was based only partially on texts and much more on the psychological experience of a buried memory. The act had left traces and had created a “tradition”—one might speak of a heritage waiting to be transmitted. Freud uses the term “latency.” Henceforth the Jews carried the memory of a criminal past; they had to atone for rejecting the revelation of monotheism. Evil—that is, the suppression of a good—was to be a mark of their fate.
Everything changed, however, in other accounts of the sequence of events, when historians believed they had found reliable references to the genealogy that the future tribes of Israel had adopted. It was not in Egypt that the Hebrews, after Moses’ murder, lapsed back into their old ways, nor in the Sinai as the book of Exodus tells us, but in a different place, discovered by a famous historian who at the time represented scientific authority—Eduard Meyer, of Berlin University; he is cited for Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstämme (The Israelites and Their Neighbors, 1906). [6] This third center, after Egypt and Sinai, is Meribat-Kadesh, to the south of Palestine, across from Mount Sinai on the Red Sea. A Sinai-Horeb, a different Sinai from the biblical one, was located on the western borders of Arabia, seat of the volcano-god Yahweh. The cult that the Hebrews devoted to this god, an “uncanny, bloodthirsty demon who went about by night and shunned the light of day,” [7] may have been learned from the Midianites, whose name survives in the biblical account. This was where the god Yahweh, an incarnation diametrically opposed to Aton, suddenly appeared before the Hebrews. Freud is happy to bring up this information because it offers valuable support for his thesis; it allows him to preserve the factual elements and to re-interpret them in line with the biblical account. It can be read as historical evidence of the depravity of life among the Jewish tribes. One can see here the converse of the purified belief that had characterized the Hebrews’ life in Egypt before Moses’ murder.
The consequences of migration reached well beyond the social sphere. The itinerary was quite remarkable. If migration had first led the Hebrews into Egypt, a powerful country with an advanced civilization, and if textual memories bound them to a site that was historically well known and richly endowed, the new revelation, a counter-revelation, comes to them as an “anti-Sinai.” Moving in the opposite direction, the same “people,” left without a guide, could mingle with other peoples on the path of their exodus and be absorbed into one heterogeneous melting pot. They returned to the everyday, primitive practices of the cult. In Kadesh, the Hebrews paid homage to the great god Yahweh whom they found there. They knew that they owed their escape from Egypt to Moses, but they thanked the new god for it. Freud comments: “We shall find later that this solution satisfied another imperatively pressing purpose that will be revealed later” (in the final phase [SE 23:41]). This inconsistency was resolved by a compromise; they gave Moses his due by conferring his identity on the Midianite priest. [8] It was a new doubling, a Moses II. The Freudian story is thus enriched by the stage of the return from Egypt. The loss of knowledge was a relapse, a forgetting. This negative and contrary experience would also be overcome, and what had been repressed would be restored. Another such experience had been corrected earlier by Moses’ revelation.
The Hebrews of Arabia had a dual origin. They had become mixed with other peoples, but the original tribe, returned from Egypt, still distinguished itself from the other groups: “The former Egyptians were probably fewer in number than the others, but showed themselves culturally the stronger” (SE 23:38). The split was finally demonstrated during the revolt against Yahweh, and it then spread in the land of Canaan itself, between Israel and the empire of Judea. What is more, the Levites—who did not form a caste—must have originally been part of Moses’ entourage; he was a great lord, after all. They retained their difference, even after mixing with the Hebrews at a later date. They constituted a kind of aristocracy.
At this point Freud stays close to the Book of Exodus. The wandering in the wilderness continued. Yahweh was not the sole god to believe in, as Moses had taught, but his opposite (this is the quasi-blasphemy ventured by the historian). We might wonder about the aspects of the biblical story that could lead us to imagine the lapse, or rather the relapse, into a primitive state. Denial is an essential element. But the evocation of the wonders and miracles, remnants of the ordinary, archaic and unreformed representation of the divine, are equally important. The Jews had adopted the powers of a baal (a false god) borrowed from the peoples they had mingled with during the course of this preparatory period.
The experience of Yahweh’s divine violence led to a reaction that questioned the divine as an exercise in arbitrary power; it led the Hebrews to distance themselves from that god, who now seemed to be a manifestation of the intolerable. Whatever might take its place would no longer be simply the divine.
The ethnic community of the Jews had twice been dependent on a foreign influence. First, in ancient times, the master, whom they killed, adopted the revolutionary vision of a reformist pharaoh; this earlier foreign origin can be placed in the framework of a decisive emancipation, a positive development; it was rejected at the time of the murder. Later, during the wandering in the wilderness, the Jews who had left Egypt reached Kadesh, where they mingled with the barbarian populations who worshipped violent gods such as Yahweh; these gods were inferior even to the pharaohs’ gods, who had restored the traditional order after the reformer’s murder. Yahweh was just one among many. The Hebrews accepted a brutal and vindictive deity; they allowed themselves—or were forced—to adopt crude and shocking beliefs. We might assume that this time they lived with evil as the antidote to purification. This second initiation constituted another phase; it was the beginning of a later awakening that restored the triumphant figure of the monotheism they had previously rejected.
The savior reappeared, and prevailed, when Yahweh was eliminated. Latency, the long period of forgetting that Freud considered an important factor, matured in this rebalancing. People had to have experienced evil, mistaken—or “ordinary”—ideas, if the good of reform, settled deep in their hearts, was to awaken and take hold. Here was a counterweight. The Jews took possession of this uncompromising force, a reformed religion, which now bore no trace of the religion they had once abjured. Its denial was thus a necessary phase in the sequence of a freely rewritten epic. It was a new Sinai, and it was in this truly cathartic mood that they reached Canaan, the Promised Land.
The impact of this phase was not limited to freeing a people from debased superstitions; it also transferred to them the logical and moral rigor that monotheism represented. Now liberated from what the Jews had taken to be a religion, a different “theology” could be applied in a different domain. So it was no longer a question of imposing one religion as superior to another. Religion had become universal, as its content had been rediscovered and re-interpreted. It no longer depended on belief, unless it confused belief with the reign of the mind.
From this point on, Freud’s research defines in detail the figure of an individual destiny, enriched and held in reserve through latency and its subsequent re-awakening within the confines of memory; this figure plays a primordial role. People go through all the phases of a common experience. The intellectual implantation of a truth took place in the past, if only for a short time, and was followed by a rejection that brought about a long period of alienation and repression. According to Freud, among the Hebrews there were many occasions of “infidelity,” triggered by the ordinary practices of daily life and by encounters with entrenched customs that conflicted with their own.
So there is no displacement of Judaic origins; here, too, there is reason to accept the premise of a biblical datum, the difficult occupation of the “Promised Land,” the crossing of a threshold. The migrant people had already traced its boundaries on the ground, and later by exceeding the limits of their entitlements; these limits were intellectual, but they could be transferred to the natural world. By this last step, preparing their settlement, the Jews had become “other,” that is, they were truly “Jewish.” Circumcision had been an Egyptian practice. The old Moses had imposed it on the Hebrews. Under these circumstances, its meaning changed; for the Hebrews it was linked to the high point of the monotheism propagated by Akhenaten. A reminder of this legacy, the rite confirmed the foreigners as chosen people, endowed now with a distinctive and privileged status. The universality of which they were the guardians transcended the geographic reality of Palestine. The outcome, fixed and almost absolute, was based on a historical construction. The questions raised in reality found their answers there. Yes, the Jews were “other”; they could only become so by being more fully “human,” thanks to a transference; they learned to translate a religious aspiration into a period of purified expectation that can be considered intellectual, that is, scientific. In the logic of a scientist like Freud, the spiritual belongs to the realm of knowledge. Considered from this angle, the interpretation of Freud’s book that privileges universality to the detriment of Judaism does not make much sense.
A sentence in section 6, at the end of Part II, contains a profession of faith, setting the triumph of the true Moses in the text of the Bible itself: “And this is the essential outcome, the momentous substance of the history of the Jewish religion” (SE 23:47). In section 7, Freud takes stock of his study, going beyond its historical aspect. He accords the highest rank to knowledge of the power of tradition, and associates it with the influence of great men. The importance accorded to intellectual needs, illustrated by monotheism, comes next, and finally in contrast, the study of the ideas on which religions rely to exercise their power (SE 23:52). Is this an allusion to the purpose of the book, which will be emphasized in Part III, written in 1938? The first two parts appeared in Vienna in the review Imago; the third, which returns to the same topic, adds comments, and completes the content, was written in London in 1938; the book was published in 1939.
The surpassing of religion evolved in two stages: a product of history, it led to science, which spread without any let-up in the permanent struggle against the most violent—and, one has to fear, the most natural—opposition. Freud died without knowing about concentration camps. He may have foreseen them; some find it useful to entertain the possibility. The Jews escaped from the god Yahweh; they escaped through an intellectual act in which emancipation was inscribed. It was the manifestation of a counter-faith. We cannot stop evil, it pervades our world; but neither can we stop science, which combats and analyzes evil. This counter-faith was not revealed; rather, it was a substitute for a revelation in this rewriting of religious history. It reformed a theology.
The approach to reading texts in the service of history was modernized at the end of the nineteenth century; the new approach was based essentially on distinguishing among textual layers. The subject matter was limited to documents that could be transferred into a historical framework. In the Homeric poems, as in the Bible, it is not the letter of the text itself that mattered; the content was supposed to reflect the history of a people. The process constituted an archaeology of literary creation: it entailed excavating the strata as one might do on a dig at an ancient site, and then fitting them all together.
What was Freud doing on the scientific scene of his day? A reading of his times (a “semi” or “mini” reading)? What was he doing in Moses and Monotheism? He shared the desire to use texts to uncover and reconstruct history; they provided supporting evidence and revealed some key indications. There was no room for a hermeneutics of the text itself in his work; there was no author. The text does not speak, does not express itself. It provides elements for a reconstitution. There is no need to focus on the literal meaning, nor indeed on the genesis of narratives and their origin, nor on the chronological redistribution of episodes, which preoccupied the critical sciences of his day (philology, psychoanalysis, history), which were themselves in a historicizing phase. The narrative that has been passed down to us conceals the underlying story, one that is plausible and closer to real life, which we must rediscover. “No historian [sic] can regard the Biblical account of Moses and the Exodus as anything other than a pious piece of imaginative fiction [sic], which has recast a remote tradition [sic] for the benefit of its own tendentious purposes” (SE 23:33 and 34). These are two moments in history, one of which has been lost. In opposition to the text, Freud promotes the sober results of contemporary research.
Historical construction replaces textual analysis. It rests on hypotheses that lend themselves to discussion. It is these hypotheses, rather than literary compositions, that are now “interpreted.” The biblical document bears witness and the writer expresses himself in the name of a collectivity. History belongs to the people; by way of the Bible it provides the material for a new rational projection, one that psychoanalysis can only accept or confirm, or at least make plausible.
This was the procedure with medieval epics, where it was agreed that they recalled events that had actually taken place, even though we are not familiar with them. We extrapolate them from the literary reorganization that transformed them with each new use. The narrative we read is supposed to reveal tendencies, but with no knowledge of the facts transcribed, we have no way of understanding them (SE 23:31). So we cannot be certain about anything in the Bible, whether it be the plagues that struck Egypt, or the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, [9] or the laws laid down on Mount Sinai; all these dazzling episodes (Prunkstücke) have to be put aside. The truth lies elsewhere.
A twofold modernity was making its way onto the scene. Philology was accompanied by a certain anthropology and by psychology. The former, external to psychoanalysis, was essentially based on the work of the Cambridge school, represented by Jane Harrison, J. G. Frazer, and others. [10] It was broadly integrated into Totem and Taboo (1913), which in turn acted as a reference throughout Moses and Monotheism. The other modernist basis is secondary in this book; it consists of proofs derived from clinical exploration. In fact, the anthropological framework allowed Freud to project psychological knowledge, acquired from individuals and their neuroses, onto a universal collective, based on the study of ritual and beliefs. Freud speaks of analogy. In general, he relies on his imagination, and it brings him no more than a probability; he then succeeds in confirming that probability by interpreting the documentation. But imagination comes first.
From the biblical version he conserves above all the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt, their existence as a foreign ethnic group, more open and free, in the midst of a people: their “foreignness.” This narrative option is grounded in a displacement of nomadic people; considered in historical and anthropological terms, the displacement can be attributed to the mobility of migratory humankind. The same people who had come from afar had to leave Egypt again at a later stage, after the murder of their leader; on this point the story is still in conformity with the narrative of the Scriptures.
The numerous readings of Freud’s work vary according to their authors’ interests. The authors are quite often content simply to reject Freud’s interpretation—and not just with reference to Judaism. It is important to classify the readings according to these divergent interests. The strictly psychoanalytic—that is, internal—reading often integrates the sphere of Freud’s person and that of his opinions into a self-analysis. However, Freud uses the earlier work above all as a methodological reference. The experiences of analysis in fact accompany the research into an unfamiliar domain; they support it without being confused with its practice. There is nothing new in the book that expands knowledge gained elsewhere from clinical study. A second trend focuses instead on the application of anthropological discoveries, an external dimension that Freud had included in his earlier research for Totem and Taboo. This approach is far removed from psychological science, but perhaps even farther from Freud’s personal situation toward the end of his life. The historical construction is closely linked to that situation. A third orientation places the focus on Judaism; it considers that the Jewish question and the upsurge in anti-Semitism form the real content of the book. Some of these studies emphasize the religious aspect. Others derive more directly, and in my opinion quite rightly, from the situation in Europe during the 1930s.
The relation to psychoanalysis in Moses and Monotheism is problematic. The rationale certainly relies on clinical experience, always by means of an analogical relation between the concepts of the masses and the individual, a relation that is hard to master, as Freud himself acknowledges. We might say that the whole construction of the book and the very course of its demonstrations proceed without psychoanalysis, or at least could do so in theory. Freud seems to me to be quite conscious of this “auxiliary” characteristic of his project: he is writing as a historian, from his own point of view as a psychoanalyst of course, but outside his own field; he does not abandon the foundations and knowledge of his field, although he does not increase or renew them. It is true that he refers above all to his most anthropological work, Totem and Taboo, which is in some ways the most speculative. In the new work, he is dealing with a timely topic that is separate; it offers no new knowledge, no confirmation in the area of his clinical research. Psychoanalysis is put in parentheses, so to speak. Freud speaks in his own name in a relationship that history has imposed on him, still in keeping with his work but as an addition.
Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, in her 1991 book Freuds Moses-Studie als Tagtraum (Freud’s Study of Moses as Daydream), tried to understand, within the limits of the practice, why Freud dealt with this topic: “Why publish [it] in spite of its obvious imperfections?” [11] She suggested three reasons: the first concerned the “novelties” that Moses and Monotheism nevertheless provided psychoanalysts (but in fact is there anything in Freud’s text other than references to psychoanalytic doctrine?); [12] presented as digressions, “in passing,” these “novelties” attest rather to some confusion. The second reason is Freud’s interest in his own Jewishness, which he declared in 1930: “What is Jewish in my writings? ... probably its very essence.” [13] Here we are in the domain of the personal. Grubrich-Simitis takes no account of the political situation at the time. Thirdly, she suggests that the book is basically a self-analysis, similar to the one in The Interpretation of Dreams. If this were true, the driving force of critical action disappears from Freud’s perhaps desperate and certainly militant essay. However, that driving force accounts for the lack of completion. All the arguments in the book are formulated intermittently and repeatedly, revealing even in their haste a strong concern for precision. They touch on Judaism, and particularly on anti-Semitism. Neither self-analysis nor a return to origins can be primordial here; if the reason Freud penned these reflections has to do with the global struggle, it does not reside in the self unless it renders the self a Jew and a liberator.
Grubrich-Simitis discovers (or purports to discover) a traumatic event in Freud’s early childhood triggered by several deaths in the family circle that threatened his sense of maternal protection. According to her reading, the child Freud transferred this event onto the financial difficulties his father had experienced (1991:32). Grubrich-Simitis sees this event as the key obtained through analysis; it explains the passage in the essay from ontogeny to phylogeny, which is related to the father.
It is as if, after Freud, the master’s work had to be reinserted into the closed field of clinical experimentation, even though he himself had liberated himself from it. However, Nazism was a threat not just to culture and wellbeing, but to human survival, an aspect of Nazism well illuminated by the history of religions. Psychoanalysis, in the minds of more than a few readers, should have nothing to do with politics. But Freud’s undertaking was highly political. Similarly, the earliest readers of Celan’s poetry after World War Two did not appreciate the fact that literature, another protected domain, could have a historical dimension reflecting recent events. Lyricism, too, was supposed to preserve its autonomy lest it be lost. However, the war had changed everything, even for Freud. Whence, late in life, such an unexpected and timely investigation.
One analyst, mulling over the debates triggered by René Girard’s discussion of Freud’s book in Violence and the Sacred, [14] notes that Jacques Lacan “early on declared himself very critical of the Freudian hypothesis of murder in Totem and Taboo.” [15] Yet Lacan remained within the domain of psychoanalysis, which in some ways Freud did not; he ventured beyond it. Lacan recalls that in his Seminar XVII, he replaced the term “Oedipus complex,” which is incompatible with the primordial relationship between mother and child, with the formula “paternal metaphor”; [16] it led him to elaborate a whole system around the Sphinx, so that the incest in Oedipus the King is not a consequence of murder. [17] This debate is crucial. In fact, both Freud and Lacan confine themselves to the myth and to its profound truth. Lacan read it differently, but he expresses fascination with the Freudian construction. [18] Obviously, if we limit ourselves to the meanings that emerge from Sophocles’ play, the debate makes no sense. Oedipus is led to commit his actions by the god who is to annul his forbidden birth. [19] The “father” belongs to Freud, as does his Oedipus, but that is another question.
Jakob Hessing, a professor in Jerusalem, sees Freud as forced by events to return to his Jewish origins (Hessing 2011). In reality, he had never lost sight of them. Letters to his fiancée prove this; [20] he was a witness to the events in question, and he took a position. Hitler did not lead Freud to abandon an earlier dissidence; he just pushed the psychoanalyst to defend himself.
At the end of his scholarly study, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, after exploring all the themes in Moses and Monotheism, adds a section of questions titled “Monologue with Freud.” [21] Yerushalmi believes that psychoanalysis is conflated with Jewishness. [22] The boundaries are erased—but for Freud is this only half true? Science may be Jewish, but it is not reserved to Jews. That would be incompatible with universality. Foreignness, throughout history, must be thought of in these terms: people in this state are not so much set apart as banished, threatened and contested. This is the inevitable outcome of persecution.
It seems to me that one cannot say, as Jacques Le Rider does in his study of Moses and Monotheism, [23] that the book teaches “a psychic hygiene for its Jewish readers, bound to lead them … to deactivate the ‘delusion of being the Chosen People.’” The Jews were indeed chosen, as Le Rider emphasizes later on in his essay when he refers to the propaedeutics of the scientific turn of mind. It is not a question of a future “vocation,” however, but of the countenance imprinted on the Promised Land thousands of years ago.
Is the aim of interpretation to prevent a real reading? I think we have to “read” Freud’s text. It has been read by being written and re-written in inevitable projections. The Jews could not be defended in any other way. In response to racism, we can say that the Jews are not a race; they freed themselves by transforming their religious practice—they are anti-racist because they are enlightened by science, the sole possible outcome of religion. This is the way Freud declared his Jewishness, the way he wanted to be Jewish, neither assimilated nor converted. In practice this position encompasses both science and the Freudian being, in perfect harmony.
At this point we cannot avoid discussion of the moment at which Freud was writing. The Jews rediscovered in Hitlerism the savage state in which they themselves had participated in their distant past, and from which they had managed to break away. It was thus an essential moment in history, thanks to their achievement of a position in absolute contradiction to the exercise of violence posited by Hobbes. The Hebrews must have struggled as they tried to reconcile the influence to which they were subject under the aegis of despotic deities with the memory of a vision that embodied justice through the workings of the mind. This struggle, remarkably powerful because of the adversarial positions involved, led them to move on to a new stage. Two opposing elements combined. A memory was restored, reviving the terms of Moses’ ancient revelation, but the experience of having overcome a life of submission triggered an almost autonomous action, a result of that experience and at the same time a reinvention. It no longer had the status of the initial revelation. It was no longer expressed in the discourse for internal consumption that Moses had proffered in Egypt; it was a real entry into history, a delayed entry, one might say. This fact had an impact on Freud, and then on us, and it continues to do so right up to the present day. Hitler embodied a return to a stage that the Jews had left behind.
This perspective radically shifts Athens from its central role. According to Freud, Greece skipped monotheism, despite all its philosophy. It never experienced an absolute break in the religious sphere; religion, unlike philosophy, was linked to the life of the people. The Greeks were spared this drama, while the Jews had the privilege of being kept at arm’s length and marginalized. Freud believed in “science.” He had no trouble including the very essence of psychoanalysis under that rubric. It was very “Jewish”—that is, open, without limits or boundaries. The study of anti-Semitism points to a bifurcation in religious history: massacres and idolatry are condemned. The Jews were persecuted because they abandoned a tradition that survived elsewhere. The split was necessary. Their “religion” was different from another that was more widely practiced. Freud’s reminder also contains the elements of a response to the question he poses on the origins and the virulence of anti-Semitism, over and above the attacks launched against psychoanalysis in particular. The Jews, who defined themselves by their knowledge, represent, beyond any religious practice, a “spirituality” (Geistigkeit) that can be translated in purely intellectual terms. The war Hitler declared against that spirituality defines precisely the opposite pole, in direct contradiction with his actions. This is the kernel of Freud’s book, his thesis, his reason for writing it: though “Egyptian,” Moses was no less Jewish, if Jewishness was the name for a universal yearning for knowledge. All people of learning are Jewish.
For Freud, mono- (or heno-) theism is not merely symbolic of a principle of order or organization on a universal scale. The divine was already made manifest in the omnipotence personified by a man, by the mere fact that he was “one.” That is why truth belongs to history, which cannot be transcended. The “one” existed in protohistory. He was the one struck down with the father. Once dead, he could be worshipped by the murderers, his descendants. Freud recalls the belief in oneness, the better to distance himself from it, and to emphasize that power was a unified whole reigning on earth before it disappeared and was mistaken for an idol, a protective authority (SE 23:83–84). Evolution leads to the return of the god-father who inherits from the murdered and devoured despot the quality of being-one and being all powerful. The monotheism of Akhenaten is directly related to, indeed it ensues from, the primal murder; this monotheism involved the illusory transference of a reality, in this case the incarnation of a sun god, Aton. It needed to be re-translated and brought back to the constitution of humanity within the realm of the living. Unity came first, before divinization.
When monotheism reappeared, it had been freed of the elements that had distorted it; it had become science. A negative experience, the loss of knowledge, had had a positive effect. Remnants of the religion appeared as its inverse, still a religion, but stripped of anything associated with magic or the supernatural. In concrete terms, the inversion was to be newly concentrated in one place and in one people. The theory of monotheism was based on the experience of the Egyptian empire (it was thus a byproduct of imperialism). God was the reflection of the unlimited power represented by the sovereign. The Jews had not been in this situation; before Moses they had worshipped one of the gods peculiar to small nations. This did not prevent them from considering themselves, as a people, the favorite child. Confronted with the oneness of the Egyptian empire, Freud found monotheism in the Bible; furthermore, the Bible provided him with a “great man,” the second one called Moses. The logic of Freud’s construction lies in the combination of these two factors.
Freud imagined Judaization as a foreshadowing of himself; he felt it working within him in this ethnic form, inspired by the descriptions of the sacred. The conversion happened once; it can only be imagined through the entelechy of a primal murder, productive in its very negativity, which however masked an identification. Science was Jewish. That is what Freud wrote five years after Hitler seized power, acting against religion. Freud did not neglect to mention the political situation around him. The object of persecution was science, his own perhaps first and foremost, a science considered supreme, in spite of everything, in its liberating aspects. Even Christianity could be linked to protohistory; Christ’s Passion was accomplished according to the logic of the initial murder, a logic that lived on. Freud places Christ within the sphere of the Jewish tradition and as a stage in its evolution. Christianity is not Greek, derived from a Platonic purification of ideas, as some others, the Pope, or René Girard, like to think. What Freud is defending is a continuity, with the conversion of Paul, in the framework of universality, a likeness and not a difference. Saul of Tarsus introduced the guilty conscience, the awareness of culpability, which replicates original sin. The murder still cried out for atonement. One of the sons, one of the descendants of those who had killed the father, had allowed himself to be killed as an innocent man. Oriental and Greek mystery religions may have provided the model of the “scapegoat.” It should be emphasized that Paul was, according to Freud, “in the most proper sense” (im eigentlichsten Sinn; the superlative speaks volumes) “a man of an innately religious disposition; the dark traces of the past lurked in his mind” (SE 23:86–87). The son now occupied the father’s place in the context of the same history. At the same time, Paul was hostile to the primitive tradition. The new religion did not maintain the intellectual level of Judaism. The transformation brought about by spiritualization (Geistigkeit) was impaired, adapted to needs that were inferior but more pressing. The Christians were Jewish and yet they were not.
Hitler’s violence had precedents among the descendants of the primitive gods. The adversary was there. Everything that fed the persecution could be situated within the framework of an ancient antithesis between monotheism and the Titanic revolts. Within this context, there was no religion more just than that of the Hebrews, which separated itself from the others by sublimating them. Freud learned to identify and analyze this violence and the nature of the enemy. Hitler was fighting a mindset that challenged him. The Jews, when they separated from other peoples in Judea and afterward, throughout their history, right up to the traditional nineteenth-century Judaism to which Freud was connected through his father, had maintained this role of resistance; in Freud’s view, which was not a Zionist one, the Jews were responsible for representing a vision of the world confronted with a naturally violent religious practice; a counter-religion was needed that would identify itself in the strictest sense with science, still a religion but transformed, freed from all the constraints of a religious practice, even a purified one. That, for Freud, was what it meant to be Jewish. Under Hitler, science was proscribed; the mind was proscribed. The struggle against persecution was a struggle against these proscriptions, whether one was the founder of psychoanalysis or not.
In London in 1938, Freud returned to the theory of socialization, which explains how the phenomenon of religion could be elevated to the status of a research topic. He recalls the central role of psychology in his demonstration; psychology is his guide. The bases of psychoanalytical research are used as referents, but more or less marginally. He does not really go back to the history of the Jews brought out of Egypt, but limits himself to the idea of monotheism, and what it meant for the good of humankind. It is in this little stand-alone treatise, “Application,” [24] that he turns at last to an analysis of anti-Semitism and to the stakes of a furious hatred toward Christians and Jews alike. The discourse of anti-Semitism has led to the current Nazi period, singled out by name. Freud recognizes in National Socialism a new offensive against monotheism coming from the baalim (the false gods), and going back further in time to a primeval violence.
Significantly, Freud concludes his history of religions with the history of anti-Semitism, itemizing the reasons that continue to drive it. He lists eight of these (SE 23:90–92). Murder is not among them. The Jews did not admit that they had killed the father, the archetype of the idol: “You will not admit that you murdered God (the primal picture of God, the primal father, and his later reincarnations)” (SE 23:90). Christ is included in these reincarnations. Father and son are one. The Christians, for their part, the converted barbarians, did not accept the “paternal” religion of the son; their resentment was turned against the Jews, the root and the “source.” Hitler (who comes at the end of the list), in “his German National Socialist revolution” (SE 23:92), does not differentiate between Judaism and Christianity, thus revealing the close connection between the two religions.
Freud could not avoid being torn by this situation. If he fled from the edge of the abyss, it was not even because psychoanalysis, considered a Jewish practice, was being trampled underfoot. The Nazis could have tolerated it if need be, provided it were entrusted to Aryans. Persecution proved that the science itself was Jewish. Psychoanalysts were condemned along with others, equally fated to defend science and fight against the enemy. Under Hitlerism religion was newly unleashed. The two domains, science and Judaism, were closely linked; the situation proved it, but they were far from being joined in public opinion, despite past experience. In 1933, Einstein was about to leave the United States; he was preparing to return to Germany, but he then turned around for good. Freud, in Vienna, had at first tried to save what he could in the face of adversity; he had counted on some kind of resistance among the Catholics, in light of Christ’s Passion. In the end, he too had to surrender to the terrifying evidence.
The historical and fictional construction of Moses and Monotheism allows us to analyze Freud’s situation at the time of writing. When he conceived of the book, the irrational held sway; it ended up winning over Austria and the Vienna of psychoanalysis, so dear to his heart. Struggling against a devastating oral cancer, the man had to abandon everything, not only Vienna and the symbolic address on the Bergstrasse: in a way it can be said that he abandoned psychoanalysis itself, despite its growing recognition and expansion. He would be driven from his home, forced to flee from an “Egypt,” just as the Hebrews were when they left Eretz Mitzrahim. One could no longer, as had been the case in traditional enlightened circles, see the Jewish God as the incarnation of justice, nor could one see the faithful whom this God protected as the people of the Book. Nazism occupied the religious stage with brutes similar to all those the Jews had encountered in the wilderness. The baalim had taken over and had once more spread their terror; they were dreadful gods.
The Semitic people had allowed themselves to be convinced by an exceptional individual, but then the age-old ideas gained the upper hand, among them and all around them. It was not a restoration of the royal tradition, as in Egypt. Murder made it different. The Hebrews turned against the “savior” who had appeared before them and enthralled them. They rebelled and denied him, but retained the mark of a heritage. With them monotheism passed into the wider world, whether by a rupture or a denial. The path of denial was more powerful because it was buried in the “unconscious.” What for Moses had been an idea became embodied in the flesh of a human race. Moses, the sacrificial victim, thus survived in the body, if not the conscience, of the assassins. The function of the murder is to instill a lasting memory and thus assure the victim’s survival through guilt. The murder of Moses calls to mind the protohistorical primal murder of the father. The differences are obvious, although the Egyptian’s act is closely linked to the foundational event that is lost in the mists of time. But these are two distinct murders. Moses was not resorting to violence. The common thread exists only in oneness, which was perceived as an intolerable constraint that required denying impulses so as to maintain social order. Certain aspects of collective psychology can be found elsewhere and seem widely shared. [25] Social man, humanized, had existed for a long time. Now we have thinking man, freed from his animal nature. [26]
Freud speaks in the name of a persecuted community, but he is not addressing Jews alone; he is writing as the founder of a threatened science. He wants to make people understand the gravity of the situation. The demonstration conducted in Moses and Monotheism demands to be “read.” Freud’s audacity and his subtlety have often escaped the critics.
We can deduce that the problem of Jewishness and of being Jewish remained a central preoccupation for Freud, notwithstanding the horrific events that have left their mark on the world since the Great War. No doubt he is dealing with a personal problem that he tries to analyze and understand. But we should add that these thoughts cannot be separated from his reflections on genocide. On this issue, it is better to distinguish the question of anti-Semitism from that of affiliation; it is not tied to the individual so much as to the Jewish community, even if that community includes atheists. Was he not called upon, as Freud and as a Jew, to take a public stand and to explain the origins of such a terrifying threat? This is the challenge that Moses and Monotheism takes up; this is the appeal to which Freud responds. It is the book of a psychoanalyst, not a book on psychoanalysis. If the author is combating anti-Semitism, it is because he thinks that he has the tools to do so, that he can prove that evil is never episodic or fortuitous, that this is a matter of tremendous importance that concerns humankind and what constitutes its humanity. Is humanity not Jewish, and anti-Semitism inhuman? This is in fact Freud’s thesis. He wrote Moses and Monotheism to highlight it, with even more determination once he had to leave Austria and become a migrant like the Jews of old, at the very moment when Jews have again become “the Jews” and an object of hatred.
The treatise was neither a testament nor an apologia, but specifically a response, the most substantial of all the counter-attacks that Freud could conceive. It was published in 1939 at the beginning of the hostilities; it had been written and produced in great haste, not only because the author was in ill health and losing his strength, but because time was short: the truth had to be told. The book explained in depth the causes of anti-Semitism in the midst of a global conflict. Did it not propose a remedy to war? Did it not come to the rescue of all humanity? Looked at in this light, there is no way to read the book within the framework of psychoanalysis; Freud had to step firmly outside that domain. It pained him to do so; he knew that it was a gamble, but he took the risk, despite his physical frailty.

Works Cited

Assmann, J. 1997. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, MA.
Bollack, J. 1995. La naissance d’Œdipe: traduction et commentaires d’Œdipe roi. Paris.
———. 2010. Oedipe roi de Sophocle. 4 vols. Lille. Orig. pub. 1990.
———. 2011. “Die Gemeinsamkeit ist ewig und steht doch immer neu in Frage.” Süddeutsche Zeiting, no. 83, 9/10. In English as “The Freudian Romance,” in Signandsight.com, Let’s Talk European (electronic review).
Bormans, C. 2005. “Sacrée violence! Le meurtre du père revisité par Freud, Girard et Lacan.” In Psychologie de la violence, ed. C. Bormans and G. Massat, 63–78. Paris.
Frazer, James George. 1911-1915. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 12 vols. London.
Girard, R. 1977. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. P. Gregory. Baltimore. Orig. pub. 1972.
Grubrich-Simitis, I. 1991. Freuds Moses—Studie als Tagtraum: ein biographischer Essay. Weinheim.
Hessing, J. 2011. “Sigmund Freuds Buch über Moses. Ein Sonderfall der deutsch-jüdischen Literatur.” Psyche 65:239–245.
Lacan, J. 2007. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Seminar, Book 17. Trans. R. Grigg. New York. Orig. pub. 1991.
Le Rider, J. 1993. Modernity and Crises of Identity: Culture and Society in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. New York.
———. 2000. “Moïse l’Égyptien.” In “Sigmund Freud, de L’Interprétation des rêves à L’Homme Moïse,” Revue germanique internationale 14:127–150.
Major, R. 2000. “La vérité spectrale de L’Homme Moïse,” in “Sigmund Freud, de L’Interprétation des rêves à L’Homme Moïse,” Revue germanique internationale 14:165–172.
Meyer, E. 1906. Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstämme. Halle.
Schlesier, R. 1997. “Freud, lecteur de Nietzsche.” L’Inactuel 7:191–209.
Yerushalmi, Y. H. 1991. Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. New Haven.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Une fiction anthropologique,” in: Savoirs et clinique. Revue de psychanalyse 15 (2012), pp. 177–193.
[ back ] 1. [TN: Jean Bollack cited material in his own translations from the original German text: Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion (The Man Moses and Monotheistic Religion), in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 15 (London, 1950 [1939]), 101–246 (Moses and Monotheism, trans. J. Strachey, in Standard English Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey, vol. 23 [London, 1953–66], 3–137; hereafter SE). A manuscript draft dated September 8, 1934, “Der Mann Moses: Ein historischer Roman” (The Man Moses: A Historical Novel), can be found in the Freud archives in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Jean Bollack alludes to this title in his essay.]
[ back ] 2. Thanks in part to Assman’s important work (1997), we know that the theory of Moses’ Egyptian origin goes back to antiquity (confirmed by Manetho, in the third century BCE), and we know that it was taken up again during the modern era, especially in the eighteenth century. Freud must have been aware that he was working within a tradition, but he did not study it as such.
[ back ] 3. Freud is referring to his anthropological sources: Charles Darwin, master of the theory of evolution, and J. J. Atkinson (SE 23:81, 131; he adds “and especially” the Scottish orientalist W. Robertson-Smith, who wrote about the totem feast (SE 23:131).
[ back ] 4. Nietzsche’s influence on Freud’s work has been clarified in a thorough and enlightening study by Renate Schlesier (1997). The study of this influence, generally glossed over by the psychoanalyst himself, required a scrupulous examination of Freud’s activity from his adolescence on (see especially p. 207).
[ back ] 5. Freud singled out Eduard Sellin’s book, Mose und seine Bedeutung für die israelitisch-jüdische Religionsgeschichte (Leipzig, 1922), from among the sources he consulted. In the biblical books of the prophets, Sellin discovered the tradition according to which Moses died a violent death, as the victim of a popular revolt (see SE 23:37, 47–48, 89, and 93). The murder did not take place in Egypt, but Freud did not consider that this fact invalidated Sellin’s information.
[ back ] 6. Eduard Meyer’s Geschichte des Altertums (History of Antiquity), a monumental work and a classic in its time, was first published in the late nineteenth century (the first volume in 1884; several others followed). This history included all aspects of the life of peoples and cultures, especially in the Middle East. Freud could have found the history of Israel as well as that of Egypt in a new edition of volume 2, published posthumously in 1931.
[ back ] 7. Meyer 1906:38, 58.
[ back ] 8. The Midianites are mentioned in Genesis 37:28 and 36.
[ back ] 9. [TN: Since the Red Sea was an unlikely place, many commentators translate from the Egyptian, and place it in a reedy area of lakes near the Gulf of Suez.]
[ back ] 10. For the murder of Moses, Freud cites Frazer 1911–1915, vol. 3, “The Dying God”; see SE 23:89.
[ back ] 11. Grubrich-Simitis 1991:42. Le Rider asks the same question: “Why so much art and so much determination?” (2000:137).
[ back ] 12. I take as my examples the essential phases in the reconstitution of Jewish religious history, examined in Part 2. Psychoanalysis has no place here; rather, the principles applied are those used in the investigation of the unknown.
[ back ] 13. [TN: The full quotation reads: “If the question were put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply, “‘A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence in words, but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.” From Freud’s preface to the 1930 Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo, SE 13:xv, cited in Le Rider 1993:231.]
[ back ] 14. Girard 1977.
[ back ] 15. Bormans 2005.
[ back ] 16. Lacan 2007:112.
[ back ] 17. “… made, like the half-saying, from two half-bodies” (Lacan 2007:120).
[ back ] 18. “It is not for nothing that Moses and Monotheism … is absolutely fascinating” (Lacan 2007:115).
[ back ] 19. See Bollack 2010 and 1995.
[ back ] 20. See Bollack 2011, “Die Gemeinsamkeit ist ewig und steht doch immer neu in Frage” (“the community is eternal, yet is called into question time and again”), concerning the publication of vol. 1 of Freud’s Brautbriefe (Letters to his Fiancée), ed. G. Fichtner, I. Grubrich-Semitis, and A. Hirschmüller (Frankfurt, 2011).
[ back ] 21. Yerushalmi 1991:81–100.
[ back ] 22. Major 2000 agrees with him, but he disagrees as to the exclusivity of memory.
[ back ] 23. Le Rider 2000; see the section titled “Une analyse de l’antisémitisme,” 132–135.
[ back ] 24. Moses and Monotheism III, part 1, section D: SE 23:80–92.
[ back ] 25. Schlesier (1997:200): “Did not Freud see himself forced to pay theoretical tribute to ‘the repeated criminal acts’ from the murder of the primeval father to the murder of Moses?”
[ back ] 26. To maintain, as some would have it, that Freud turned against the Jews in their time of persecution, by maliciously depriving them of their identity, is a real aberration. Freud’s Moses speaks to the Jews as if they were a foreign community capable of welcoming a message of a universal nature.