A Brief Evaluation of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism

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Moses and Monotheism (1939) was Sigmund Freud’s final book on the topic of religion in which presented himself as a “godless Jew.” The book provides a critique of traditional Judaism by way of an Oedipal analysis of a deified Moses and a defense of a modern humanistic Judaism. According to scholar R. Z. Friedman,

“It is, at least on the face of it, an odd book, an attempt at a devastating critique of Judaism, one in which Moses is portrayed as an Egyptian and monotheism is said to emerge with the Egyptian Aton religion, an account in which the Jews reject, murder and devour Moses in the desert” (1).

A Godless Jew

Freud envied those who believed in “the existence of a Supreme Being” but maintained that science and reason had made it “impossible to accept the premise of the existence of such a Supreme Being” (2). Science and reason are, thought Freud, incompatible with theistic belief or belief in God, which was a conviction underpinning his atheism and presentation as a godless Jew. Contrary to what many might think, Freud viewed the godless Jew as not less of a Jew but in fact more of one than the Jew who was religious. Moses and Monotheism gives the impression of Freud being both a defender of the Jews and an emancipator of sorts. He is attempting to rid the Jews of the encumbrance of their religion but also wants one to be proud of his Jewishness. Moreover, Freud thought that God was a burden to morality and that Judaism without a God would be a truly modern system. Such a Judaism would constitute a pure ethical religion that would be a more effective instrument for Jewish survival than the ethical monotheism he hoped it would replace. Moses and Monotheism is therefore a valiant attempt to shift the basis of Judaism’s authority away from God and to Moses, which would release it from its supernatural and superstitious elements.

Judaism’s Historical and Psychological Origins in Moses

Moses and Monotheism presents an unusual theory on the origins of Judaism. To Freud, Moses is understood as a genuine figure of history, despite the evidence being limited to the Jewish writings. Freud did not believe that all that is claimed about him in the Biblical record is historical. For example, he rejected the story of Moses’ death and also ruled out the Moses who performed miracles, but Freud did accept Moses as being a liberator of his people and the person responsible for giving them their religion and laws. Freud viewed Moses’ name as being Egyptian and that contrary to Jewish tradition he was not a Jew raised in the Pharaoh’s court but an Egyptian of noble birth who chose the Jews to be his people (3).

Although Moses, as an Egyptian prince, promulgated belief in a single God (monotheism), Freud believed that this belief actually originated in the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (or Akhenaten) who came into power in 1375 BCE. Ikhnaton drew upon the worship of the sun-god Aten and its already existing religious cult, and added on to it monotheistic ideas. Ikhnaton’s religion emphasized ethics and rejected all the divinatory, mythical, and magical elements of the old Egyptian religion. Thus Ikhnaton attempted to replace the many gods of ancient Egypt with a strict devotion to only one deity in Aten. Freud claimed that this Aten religion nearly died with the death of Ikhnaton but was fortunately rescued by Moses who appointed the Semitic peoples to be the bearers of monotheism. Freud here identifies a conflict between the new religion (the “strict monotheism” of Moses) and the religion of the Egyptians (“unlimited polytheism” or belief in many gods); he writes,

“The former is a grandiosely rigid monotheism. There is only one God, unique, omnipotent, unapproachable. The sight of his countenance cannot be borne; one must not make an image of him, nor even breathe his name. In the Egyptian religion, on the other hand, there is a bewildering mass of deities of differing importance and provenance… Magic and ceremonial, amulets and formulas dominated the service of these gods, as they did the daily life of the Egyptians” (4).

The religion of Moses was essentially the religion of Ikhnaton, but then Moses leaves Egypt to bring his people out of captivity. Moses brings them to Mount Horeb and the volcano god, Jahve, and there occurs a synthesis between Jethro, the priest of Horeb, and Moses. The result is Jahve being retained, not as a volcano god but as the monotheistic God of the Aten religion. Moses, however, loses control of his people who rebel against his leadership. The people murder him and the religion he introduced was abandoned as the Jews turned to other gods (5). Moses’ monotheistic religion was overlain by a new cult dedicated to a violent volcano deity they called “Yahweh”, the God the Israelites worshipped as they fought their battles to the Promised Land. This is also where Freud introduces one of his more famous psychoanalytic concepts, the Oedipus complex, into the picture: Moses did not simply disappear from the consciousness of the Jews; rather, the trauma of his murder was repressed but the knowledge of his and teachings yet existed in the unconsciousness of the Jews. After a period of latency, this repressed content remerged in the life of the Jewish people with the added power of imagination, which led to Moses and his religious-ethical teachings gaining far greater authority than they did during his lifetime. Although Freud saw Judaism as the highest imaginable form of religion, it was still an illness in need of a cure. Judaism had become tainted with the instinctual renunciation through feelings of guilt resulting from a repressed hostility to God.

Reflection on Moses and Monotheism

It is safe to say that many of the ideas presented in Moses and Monotheism on the history of Judaism have not been accepted by scholars (6). According to Peter Schäfer, Moses and Monotheism has had,

“an unwieldy and not very appealing legacy, to which scholars in the various relevant disciplines have tended to respond with some embarrassment. Theologians quickly recognized the untenability of its historical reconstructions of the Egyptian Moses, supposedly murdered by his own people. Egyptologists failed to find anything much of the “true” Amarna Period and the “true” revolution of Akhenaton in Freud’s account. Psychoanalysts had problems dealing with the transference of phenomena from individual to mass psychology, and scholars of cultural phenomena were puzzled by the thesis of phylogenetic “memory-traces” (7).

It is important to observe that Freud was theorizing concerning a sliver of history that already rests on scant, and often uncertain, foundations. All the historical source materials for the figure of Moses are late in proximity to his accepted date of activity and are almost certainly legendary. Most historians are skeptical of many details about the biblical story of Moses and do not accept any large scale exodus from Egypt. For there to be any strength to Freud’s views on Moses and the Aten religion, a deep engagement with these more dubious perspectives would be required. But, of course, Freud did not have access to the many advancements made in scholarship that moderners have today, and so his text is at a poverty because of this.

Certainly, some of the major claims surrounding Moses seem questionable. For example, in order to fit the Oedipus complex into Jewish origins, Freud has to get a major fatherly figure murdered in his story otherwise it doesn’t work. In this case, the candidate is all too convenient because it obviously had to be Moses. But it seems strange to many readers that Freud would reject the death of Moses as described in the actual texts (Deuteronomy 34) to present a theory of his death at the hands of the Jews themselves for which we have no reason to think ever happened. This opens up the can of worms elsewhere too: why, for instance, is Freud so selective concerning what he accepts from the recorded life of Moses? Why does Freud reject that Moses performed any of the miracles ascribed to him? Why does Freud see Moses as an Egyptian progenitor of Judaism when many Jews see its origin lying in Abraham well before him, as described in Genesis? Could this perhaps have to do with the episode of Abraham being instructed by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, which seems to present an apparent reversal of the Oedipal paradigm and therefore would not fit into Freud’s view?

On the psychoanalytical side, we must wonder if one can really impose an Oedipus narrative of any kind onto historical persons and groups, as did Freud. Many theorists are hesitant to make psychoanalytic applications to history and historical figures, especially given the complexities of the mind and brain, as well as the various background details we, as modern readers, do not have access to in ancient societies because we are so far removed. To use an analogy, could we read the Book of Job from the Old Testament and conclude that from his suffering and weeping after losing all his possessions, Job had clinical depression or bipolar disorder? This is certainly possible, but I don’t see how we could hold any position regarding his mental health confidently (other than stating the obvious: he was sad) given our perspective and proximity to the events that book describes. The same issue to me seems to raise itself in deducing an invisible psychological phenomenon, the Oedipus complex, causing Moses, well after his death, to later benefit from greater prestige.

There are additional areas that one might express. Can one technically be a godless Jew since the Jewish religion is so infused in historical Jewish culture and identity? Some would argue yes, but others would disagree, which means we could debate this point at length.

References

1. Friedman, R. Z. 1998. “Freud’s Religion: Oedipus and Moses.” Religious Studies 34(2):135-149.

2. Freud, Sigmund. 1964. Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays (1939). p. 122-123.

3. Freud, Sigmund. 1964. Ibid. p. 8, 45.

4. Freud, Sigmund. 1964. Ibid. p. 24,

5. Freud, Sigmund. 1964. Ibid. p. 37.

6. Pals, Daniel. 2006. Eight Theories of Religions. Oxford University Press. p. 73-81

7. Schafer, Peter. 2012. “The Triumph of Pure Spirituality: Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism.” In New Perspectives on Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, edited by Ruth Ginsburg and Ilana Pardes, 19-44. p. 20

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