Sigmund Freud, Jewishness, and Zionism

By Ticktin, Harold | Midstream, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Sigmund Freud, Jewishness, and Zionism


Ticktin, Harold, Midstream


In mid-life Sigmund Freud wrote: "It still strikes me as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories, and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science." (Quoted in Reading Freud's Reading, Ed. Gilman et al. p. 213) For those of us living in the wake of Freud's decisive impact, that bit of wonderment eases our burden in what has become one of mankind's massive industries, the search for self-understanding. Curiously enough, the thought that Freud himself had written "novels" starting in 1895 appeared again in 1939, with his last work, Moses and Monotheism, the original title of which was: The Man Moses: An Historical Novel.

Nearly 110 years after Freud first read The Interpretation of Dreams to his Vienna B'nai B'rith lodge, there is truth in the phrase, "We are all Freudians now." It is so in the same sense that, details aside, we are all Darwinians, Quantum Physicists, and Keynsians, bound to the originator, even when we doubt or on occasion denounce.

If indeed we accept the notion that Freud, in some sense, should be seen as a novelist as much as a scientist (his scientific credentials are impeccable, from his research on the sexual organs of eels in Trieste to his status as a neurologist) the question arises, what kind of novels did he write? Just as we reflect on what makes a work of art, music, or literature Jewish, the issue of Freud's Jewishness is pervasive 150 years after his birth in Moravia (then Austro-Hungary) to a Yiddish speaking, Hebrew reading family that moved to Vienna when he was four.

One mark of his Jewishness is found in the quip that the only profession with a higher percentage of Jews than psychotherapy is the Rabbinate! More serious formulations have been made for years; Ludwig Lewisohn back in the 20's said that analysis was "an effort on the part of the Jewish people to heal itself of the maladies of the soul ... contracted in the assimilatory process." John Cuddihy, in The Ordeal of Civility, said exactly the same in 1975, while the French Jew Manes Sperber claimed that analysis is the Hebrew Scriptures expounded in terms of psychology. Elsewhere in these pages, I have called attention to the similarities between Hasidic Freudians and Behaviorist Mitnagdim (Midstream Feb-Mar 1988).

The search for evidence of Freud's Jewishness in his work is closely related to a celebrated dictum of Ludwig Borne, who like Heinrich Heine, bought a "ticket to European civilization" by converting to Christianity: "It's a kind of miracle. I've experienced it a thousand times, and yet, it still seems new to me. Some find fault with me for being a Jew; others forgive me; still others go so far as to compliment me for it; but every last one of them thinks of it. They seem caught in this magic circle of Jewishness; none of them can get out of it."

If Borne went on to conversion, nevertheless his origins trailed him, much like the former American Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, over 200 years later. It is precisely that "Magic Circle" which pervades virtually every aspect of Freud's birth baby, the "science" of psychoanalysis. No matter which aspect of his theory is considered, the "Magic Circle" enters into contemplation.

The most prominent example is Freud's relation to the gentile Jung. Their relationship unfolded against a harsh social backdrop for Jews. The Waldenhofer Manifesto of 1882, which dictated to German-Austrian students that they could not duel with Jews because they are "without honor ... ethically subhuman .., and void of all the more refined emotions" is but one example among many. Yet with 13 of the original 14 members of his circle Jews, Freud's hope for a universal science of analysis rested for a time with Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, to whom Freud looked for saving analysis of his theories from being a Jewish science. (cf. The Nazis on Einstein and "Jewish physics")

Freud was so eager to keep Jung in the fold that he explained to a Jewish follower in 1910 : "Most of you are Jews .

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