In the short first essay of Moses and Monotheism, Freud seeks to establish that Moses was probably not a Jew but an Egyptian. Comparing the story of the birth of Moses and his rescue from the river by the pharaoh’s daughter with other stories glorifying national heroes, and drawing upon Otto Rank’s psychoanalytic study, Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden (1909; The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology, 1914) as well as the more general psychoanalytic concept of the “family romance” (a common childhood fantasy of having been born to noble or royal parents and only adopted by the humbler family of reality), Freud concludes that the adoptive family in the Moses myth—that is, the Egyptian family—must have been his real family, and that the myth’s birth family—the Jewish family of the tribe of Levi—was a fiction.
In essay 2, Freud discusses the source, character, and historical development of the religion an Egyptian Moses would have given to the Jewish people. Freud maintains that the God of Moses must have been an adaptation of the sun-god Aton, the god that a pharaoh of the fourteenth century b.c.e., Akhenaton, had tried to substitute for the many gods and sacrifices of popular Egyptian religion. After Akhenaton’s death, the traditional polytheistic priesthood of Amon regained power and suppressed all mention of the worship of Aton. In Freud’s conjectural reconstruction, Moses was a highly placed adherent of Akhenaton’s religion who saw his ambitions thwarted, his beliefs driven underground, and himself isolated. Freud suggests that Moses—estranged from his own people—adopted the Jews as his new people, to whom he could give his cherished religion. In support of this idea, Freud identifies three points of similarity between Judaism and the religion of Aton: strict monotheism, lack of concern with the idea of life after death, and the practice of circumcision.
Following a Jewish folk tradition for which the scholar Ernst Sellin had recently found scriptural support, Freud surmises that after first accepting the leadership of Moses and his God, the Jewish people rebelled against the ethical rigor and ceremonial austerity of the new religion, murdering Moses himself. A generation or two later, the descendants of the Jews who had followed Moses out of Egypt united with related tribes between Egypt and Canaan and adopted the worship of an Arab-Midianite volcano-god, Yahweh, who demanded the very sacrifices and rituals that Moses’ God had despised. The memory of the one God of Moses and His requirement of a life of justice and mercy did not completely die, however, having been kept up among a small group who remained loyal to the Moses tradition. Through their influence, the law of circumcision was retained; in time, Yahweh grew beyond the primitive localism of his origins, acquiring the greatness and power of the God of the Exodus. Eventually, with the periodic prodding and chastisement of the prophets, the God of Moses was entirely identified with the god Yahweh, and the Moses of the Exodus became...
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Freud’s ideas about Moses crystallized in the ominous atmosphere of Hitler’s triumph in Germany. Yet anti-Semitism was nothing new to Freud. He had lived with its Viennese manifestations all of his life, all the while taking defiant pride in his Jewishness. Notwithstanding his deep religious skepticism, it mattered intensely to him that he was a Jew. What exactly did being a Jew mean to him? Freud’s perspective on Jewish identity and survival was conditioned by the critical view of religion that was an enduring theme in his work. In Totem und Tabu: Einige Ubereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wildren und der Neurotiker (1913; Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, 1918), Freud maintained that religious beliefs and practices had originated in guilt for the primal crime of the murder of the father, and in Die Zukunft einer Illusion (1928; Future of an Illusion, 1957), he concluded that religion is a collective neurosis which must give way to the healthy outlook of scientific rationalism. In these works, however, Freud had dealt either with primitive religions or with Christianity; in Moses and Monotheism, he proposed to analyze Judaism from the same critical perspective. Two factors converged in the selection of Moses as the center of this analysis. First, Freud strongly identified with Moses, seeing himself as the embattled founder of a movement whose ungrateful followers,...
(The entire section is 439 words.)