A psychoanalysis of Pessah

Sigmund Freud insisted on the centrality of the Exodus as an overarching theme of Jewish folk history.

freud 88 (photo credit: )
freud 88
(photo credit: )
In 1934 Sigmund Freud came to the conclusion that Moses was an Egyptian. It was the result of a careful reading of the Bible, a brief reading of the works of the American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted and his own experience as a psychoanalyst in the science that he had named 40 years previously. But Freud was unwilling to publish his results as the year 1934 was a difficult one for him and his fellow Jews. He did not wish to undermine Jewish faith at a time when it was being threatened by the rise of official and repressive anti-Semitism in many parts of Europe. He also did not wish to antagonize the Catholic Church, which controlled his native Vienna, and which needed a Jewish Moses as much as the Jews did. Freud worried that in revenge they might well have tried to restrict his successful medical and psychiatric practice. It should be remembered that Freud was a good Jew in the sense that he consistently refused to convert to Christianity at a time when it would have enabled him to achieve an earlier professorship and a better income. He refused to follow the example of Gustav Mahler and others in Germany and Austria, who had traded their religion for a professional post. Freud was not a believer, but he was very sensitive to his Jewish culture and in 1930 he wrote, in the preface to the Hebrew translation of his Totem and Taboo, in answer to those who might doubt his beliefs and ask him, "What is there left to you that is Jewish?" he would reply, "A very great deal, and probably its essence." The thesis Freud refused to publish in 1934 became clear four years later after he had moved to London, when he felt that the pure air of England would allow him to propagate the ideas described below. But first it is necessary to examine the problem that Freud tried to solve. THE STORY of the Exodus is central to Jewish belief and, like all good stories, it has a hero and a villain. The hero without a doubt is Moses and the villain is Pharaoh - but which Pharaoh? Scholars have wrestled with that problem for 200 years and believers think there is a solution, but in practice no solution has yet been found. Josephus placed the Hebrews with the Hyksos, the rulers of foreign lands expelled by the brother Pharaohs Kamose and Ahmose, who claimed to have driven out the hated foreigners, which would be in about 1570 BCE. But this hardly works with the Jewish chronology that the Exodus took place 480 years before the building of Solomon's Temple in 950 BCE. Another candidate would be the lady Pharaoh Queen Hatshepshut, who also claimed to have expelled hated foreigners in about 1480 BCE; but then how could the Israelites have destroyed the walls of Jericho 100 years earlier, as the general consensus of archeologists believe? So the best bet today is Rameses the Great, who gave his name to the Land of Rameses, where the Hebrews dwelt, and to the city of Rameses that they built. But Rameses never said that he expelled the hated - or any other - foreigners, nor do his dates fit with Jericho or the Jewish chronology which puts the Exodus at 1312 BCE. Enter, finally, Akhenaten, the Pharaoh of El Amarna, who worshipped one god, the Aten, and only that one. His ideas were was so revolutionary that Egyptian history scrubbed him out of the record. It was only late in the 19th century that scholars resurrected his memory, and not until 1905 did he come back to public notice, when Breasted published his fine History of Egypt. BY THEN Freud, throughout his life a keen collector of Egyptian artifacts, was already on the track of the Egyptian side of Moses. He counted Moses as the creator of monotheism, but wondered from where he derived that belief. As he read Breasted and learnt about the monolatrism - the worship of one god though not denying the existence of others - of Akhenaten, he realized it was this Pharaoh who had influenced Moses in some way. But Freud took it much further. The Moses story follows closely on that of other great leaders who are given a humble origin from which they reach great heights. Moses was a prince at the court of Pharaoh, Freud says at the court of Akhenaten, and the account gives him a humble Israelite origin that makes his rise appear even more spectacular. As a prince at the court of El Amarna, he was convinced of Akhenaten's revolutionary ideas and devastated when they were rejected by the people of Egypt after Akhenaten's mysterious death. And when the crown prince Tutankhamun was forced by the priests to revert to the official worship of Amun and many other gods, Moses took himself off and found a people to whom he could bring the new ideas. That people was the downtrodden Israelites, whom he took into the desert to inculcate them with the new religion, which he had developed even further into the belief of the one and only God, the god of thunderous appearance on Mount Sinai. It needed Moses' own powerful personality to mold the people to his ideas, for when he disappeared, they reverted to the Egyptian golden calf that they had known; and when he reappeared he put such harsh laws on them that they were made to believe in him and his ideas, as a son will follow a harsh father, seeking always to gain his approval. But they would also resent this harshness, and that is why they rebelled at every opportunity and gave up for many years after his death the strict laws he had imposed on them at the Exodus and at Mount Sinai. TO FREUD this was all an account based on folk memory, what is today called Mnemo-history by such scholars as Jan Assmann of Heidelberg University. As an Egyptologist, Assmann has studied the ideas of Akhenaten in much more detail than Freud was able to do, and he confirms Freud's thesis that the revolutionary ideas of Akhenaten could have influenced a charismatic figure such as Moses. But he points out, quite rightly, that Freud himself "did not believe in the God that he had discovered." So what was the essence of Judaism that Freud held on to? He believed in the chain of tradition which has to have an anchor, what he would call a collective repressed memory. The repression was due to the fact that the Children of Israel, according to Freud, eventually rose up and killed Moses, their harsh tormentor, and then regretted the act, but necessarily repressed the memory of it. Freud related that to the case of the first humans, who lived in small groups where the sons were totally subservient to the one dominant father, who alone has all the females and against whom the sons eventually rise up to kill and consume his flesh. The question then remains as to how to focus on this whole drama of Moses and the Israelites. This is where Freud insists on the centrality of the Exodus. It is the one over-arching piece of folk history that binds all the sons of Israel together. It is the story of the coming out of Egypt that binds us to the story of Moses, and the belief in the one and only God that Moses, the giver of harsh laws, discovered for us. It is the essential piece of mnemo-history that we believe and repeat together each year, and throughout the year - the going out of Egypt, when God and the Children of Israel had the purest of relationships in the desert, before the death of Moses and the temporary reversion to other cults. The writer is a fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.