Moses and Monotheism

by Sigmund Freud

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

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, unable to keep the faith he had revealed, murmured and rebelled against him. Second, Moses was a historically problematic figure. Contradictions and obscurities in the biblical account of his life and leadership had long attracted scholarly interest, and Freud was not the first to suggest that Moses could have been an Egyptian.

These factors help to explain why Freud could not leave the subject of Moses alone, and why, when the book was finally published, the most pained response came not from the Catholic church, as Freud had anticipated in Vienna, but from Jews, who were appalled that one of their own would seek to deprive them of their chief consolation, their faith, in their hour of greatest need. To Freud, however, the independence of mind and strength of character that permitted him to defy even his fellow Jews was itself the specific attribute of Jewishness he most valued, the cultural consequence of Moses’ gift to the Jewish people so long ago, and the very grounds of Freud’s identity as a Jew. Finally, he did not expect to deprive believers of their faith, for, as he put it in his excellent though sometimes idiosyncratic English, “I just produce scientific stuff for the interest of a minority which has no faith to loose.”

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