If you read this paper, please email your comments! My email address is email@example.com
Sigmund or Shlomo: Freud's thought as rooted in Judaism
Picture this scene: A client walks into his therapist's office one morning, lies down on the couch and says "Doc, I had the weirdest dream last night - what do you think it means?" The client then proceeds to relate the following story: I was on my way to a laboratory experiment where I was invited to attend. I did not know much about the experiment or the field but I decided to join anyway. Before I reached my destination (unbeknownst to me), the organizer of the experiment ordered that no colleague of mine should offer hospitality to me. I would have no other place to go and therefore, unwittingly, end up sleeping in the laboratory itself. The reason for this (I found out later) was that there was some sort of "demon" haunting the lab and they were all hoping that I would somehow be able exterminate it. So, I entered the laboratory and spent the night there. In the middle of the night the demon appeared in the guise of a seven-headed dragon. I got so scared that I fell on my knees to pray to G-d. Every time I fell on my knees in prayer, one head of the dragon fell off. I did this until all the heads fell off and the dragon fell dead!.... "Doc, what in the world does this dream mean?" The analyst scratches his beard, puffs his cigar, and then replies in a thick German accent "dat vas vedy intevesting." The analyst then proceeds to offer this interpretation:
"I did not know much.....decided to partake anyway" - A portrayal of an innocent, unlearned (at least in that specific field) man of humility.
"Demon haunting the lab" - Anyone who has ever experienced an intensive, communal learning/experimental environment can, after a little honest soul searching, recognize the demon in this lab. Competition, jealousy, pride, insensitivity; all components of this kind of situation.
"No colleague...hospitality to me..." - You have portrayed yourself as innocent. This is a preservation of that innocence by being forced to avoid exposure to anyone already involved in the experiment.
"...fell on my knees in prayer..." - The world of prayer is the opposite of the world of learning/experimentation. In experimentation one holds his head high; questioning, exploring, developing new worlds. In prayer, however, one stands alone before G-d in humility and submissiveness, bowing on your knees before His presence. It is with this submissiveness and humility that you are able to destroy the demon of jealousy and competition.
Let us tie it all together then. There seems to be tremendous competition and jealousy somewhere in your life. You feel that in order to fix that situation you must return to a state of innocence and humility before all of the pride got in the way. Only with a return to that state can you begin to fix the situation and rid yourself of that demon of strife...
That seems to be an example of 100% pure, stereotypical, Freudian Psychoanalysis. However, it is not! That dream was really a tale (with some minor alterations) found in the Talmud. The way that it was interpreted was an incorporation of Judaism's traditional Talmudic analysis. An analytical style that spans 2000 years Sigmund Freud (or perhaps more appropriately in the context of this paper: Shlomo, his Hebrew name) , was indisputably a brilliantly creative thinker. His theories and ideas have reshaped the way we look at mankind. However, for all his novelty and creativity , almost all of his main theories have a precursor to it that can be found in traditional Judaism - be it in the Bible, the Talmud, or other traditional sources. Most of psychoanalytic theory is very much rooted in traditional Jewish literature. As Rabbi Abraham Amstel (1970) expresses so clearly:
For many decades confusion prevailed in respect to the role of religion in the behavioral sciences. Judaism as a religion and a way of life has always been concerned with the workings of the mind. One need only scan the Aggadot, [the non-legalistic portions of the Talmud], Midrash [medieval exegetical text on the Bible and contemporary of the Talmud], and the vast Mussar [Judaic ethics] literature, to stand in awe of the deep insights revealed of human behavior".
Rabbi Amstel, a bit tongue-in-cheek, then continues: "How long must Jews perpetuate the myth that Sigmund Freud discovered the science of human behavior!"
Freud's model of the mind
Freud, in formulating his model of the mind, pieced together various theories that he had previously conceived. The result was the famous Id, Ego, and Superego model. This theory posited that psychological development in humans was gradual, from an initial primitive state, to one that is highly structured. The Id represents the primitive state of the psychic structure from where the Ego later develops. As Freud states "...the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world...(cited in Fancher, 1973)." Thus, when an infant is born his entire psychological makeup is one of id. Only through interactions with the external environment does the ego take shape. Freud further describes the id and the ego as follows: "The ego represents the what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions. (cited in Fancher, 1973)." The third component is the super-ego, the moral conscience of the individual. As with the ego, this only develops at a later stage of maturity. Thus, we have a threefold understanding of an individual's psychological development: an aggressive, fulfillment seeking id, a realistic ego, and a moral super-ego.
What is so striking to the learned Jew is that the core of this model has already been defined and accepted in rabbinic literature. Let us begin with the Talmud that analyzes the following Biblical verse. The Bible states (Genesis 2:7), "and the Lord formed the man [Adam] from the dust of the earth". The rabbis in the Talmud (Tractate Berachot, folio 61a) then probe: why does the Bible use two Yud's [Yud is a Hebrew letter very similar in pronunciation to the letter 'Y'] in the word "formed" [the Hebrew word being 'Vayyitzar']? Only one Yud would have sufficed! The rabbis then answer that the two Yuds are to teach us that G-d created man with two types of inclinations - a good inclination and an evil inclination. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (or the "Gra" as he is affectionately referred to) who lived in the early 1700's, almost two hundred years before Freud, defined these two inclinations in his monumental work on ethical Jewish living "Even Shleimah". The Gra , referring to traditional Jewish sources, states that the evil inclination is the inner force that "draws man towards physical lusts and desires." The good inclination, on the other hand, is the force that "stirs up a fear of sin and pushes one to do good." The sources additionally say that these two forces are in a perpetual state of conflict such that the Talmud (Tractate Berachot, folio 5b) preaches "one should constantly rouse up his good inclination to thwart his evil inclination."
Finally, there is one more point in Rabbinic literature that is very much in consonance with Freud's model, one that it is remarkably uncanny. The Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin, folio 91b) poses the following question: From what point in time does the evil inclination start to rule over a person? After a short discussion the Talmud concludes "M'shat Yitze'ah", from the time that the infant is born! The Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah, 4:15) takes this a step further by saying that although an individual has an evil inclination from the time he is born, he only starts to possess a good inclination at his thirteenth birthday - the Jewish date of male maturity! Compare that to Fancher (1973) who, in discussing the development of the superego, states: "Freud noted that a sense of morality is completely lacking in infants and young children (vis. the Talmudic statement). Thus, it logically follows, that they lack a super-ego. It is only after they achieve a certain maturity that they may be said to possess a 'conscience'...(vis the Midrashic statement)! The Talmud and the Midrash have stated exactly what Freud hypothesized, and they did it almost 2000 years before him!!!
Thus, the major points of Freud's model of the mind have already been expressed in rabbinic literature with the id parallel to the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination, and the super-ego parallel to the Yetzer Tov, the good inclination! An individual must use his own common sense (ego's mediation) to distinguish between the two and act accordingly.
Dream Interpretation and Free Association
For all of Freud's creative genius, The interpretation of Dreams was considered his "masterpiece" (Fancher,1973). As Freud himself said "Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime (cited in Gay, 1989)." The most basic rule of dreams, according to Freud, is that there is much meaning to be found in seemingly senseless dreams. Fancher (1973) states this explicitly: "The most essential of Freud's discoveries about dreams, of course, was that while dream content taken by itself is meaningless and often ridiculous, it yields a surprising number of ideas that make very good sense indeed when made the subject of free association." Thus, for every dream there is the superficial manifest content, and also a deeper significant meaning consisting of the latent content. As novel as that may seem it is not new to Judaism. The Talmud (tractate Berachot, folio 55a) offers "a dream that has not been interpreted is like a letter that has not been read." That is to say that dreams should be probed to find a deeper underlying meaning!
Interpreting dreams was important to Freud because he felt that "dreams are the fulfillment of wishes (cited in Fancher, 1973)." They are unconscious motivations coming to the surface in a hidden content. If you are able to interpret the dream then you can discover those unconscious motivations. The roots of this theory can be clearly seen in the Talmud (tractate Berachot, folio 55b) when Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachmeini states "a person only dreams what was in his thoughts during the day." When one dreams, unconscious as it may be, it is a reflection of his thoughts from the previous day - even as it hides itself in the guise of manifest content.
When interpreting a dream, Freud felt that free association was necessary. The underlying, latent meaning can be discovered as the patient freely associates about the dream. Hence, the dream's meaning is really based upon the associations that the patient develops. It is not the dream that is important, rather it is the interpretation - based on the associations - that are significant. This too, can be found in the Talmud (tractate Berachot, folio 55a) when it posits "All dreams follow the mouth" - i.e. the meaning of dreams follow their interpretation. Professor David Bakan (1958) explains:
According to this principle, the interpretation of the dream had priority over the dream itself, especially the first interpretation......The important consequence of this dictum is that it lend tremendous conviction to the interpretation of the dream. The significance of whatever first comes to the "mouth" is enhanced, thereby encouraging a kind of free association as a technique for ascertaining meaning. On the basis of this ...dictum the question of the validity of an interpretation, as to whether or not a given interpretation is really what the dream means, becomes meaningless."
Other methods that Freud used to ascertain the meaning of unconscious materials/dreams, were devices such as wordplay and numerology. One example of Freud's wordplay can be found in The Interpretation of Dreams where he writes:
A still deeper interpretation led to sexual dream-thoughts, and I recalled the meaning which references to Italy seem to have had in the dreams of a woman patient who had never visited that lovely country: "gen Italien [to Italy]" - "Genitalien [genitals]" (cited in Bakan, 1958).
This kind of wordplay leading to dream interpretation can also be found in rabbinic literature. Bakan (1958) brings an example from the Talmud: "I dreamt that they said to me: You will die in [the Jewish month of] Adar and not see [the next Jewish month of] Nisan. He replied: [That means that] You will die in adrutha, honor and not be brought into nisayon, temptation.
Additionally, Freud uses numerology as a method of interpretation. Bakan (1958) cites an example where Freud wrote to a friend that he won't make any further changes in The Interpretation of Dreams "even if it contained 2,467 mistakes." Freud then went on to account for each number of the "2,467" which appeared on the surface to be arbitrary. The same type of numerology is heavily scattered across the various rabbinic texts. One example of this involves the Biblical commandment for Jewish males to wear the Tzizit (a traditional four-cornered garment, with eight strings tied into five knots at each corner). The verse (Numbers, 15:39) states that the reason for wearing Tzizit is "...in order to remember all the commandments of G-d..." Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, expounds upon this rationale using the following numeric interpretation: If you add up each Hebrew letter of the word Tzizit you get a total of 600. If you add to that the eight strings that are tied up in five knots you get a total of 613. This number is traditionally the total number of commandments that each Jew is supposed to adhere to. With this numerical interpretation we can now understand what the verse means when it says that Tzitzit are a way of remembering all of G-d's commandments - all 613 of them!
Libido and Thanatos
The Bible records G-d's reaction to His creation of man when it says (Genesis, 1:31) "And behold it was very good." The Midrash comments on that verse "good" refers to the good inclination, whereas "very good" refers to the evil inclination. The Midrash follows up that statement with a question: how can the evil inclination be considered "very good"? It answers that without the evil inclination man would not build a house, marry, have children, or do business. From this passage it would seem that the evil inclination can be looked upon in a new way - the Freudian concept of "Libido". In fact, Dr. Moshe Spero (1975) proposes: "From this observation [of the Midrash just cited], a variety of conclusions are possible. One is that if the Yetzer Hara represents a neutral life force it could be seen as an analogue to Freud's concept of libido." Dr Spero continues with the other side of the coin also. He states "On the other hand, if we view the Yetzer Hara as a cause of death, destruction, regression, and aggression, perhaps it bears a closer resemblance to Thanatos. And if it is true that the Yetzer Hara causes man to 'return to the earth' and to have backslides in his personality development then is this not terribly similar to Freud's own statement concerning the death instinct?" This comparison of Thanatos with the evil inclination can be deepened with a very powerful statement from the Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin, folio 30b). The Talmud states that the evil inclination of a person fights against him and desires to kill him every single day!" This is the same instinct that Freud defined as "an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things...death." Thus, in both the Midrash and the Talmud there are roots to Freud's theories of Libido and Thanatos!
One final rabbinic root in Freud's thought concerns the Oedipus complex. In basic terms this is where a young boy has strong sexual feelings toward his mother and aggressive feelings toward his father(Fancher, 1973). Interestingly enough, some Jewish commentators saw the events of the Garden of Eden as an Oedipal triangle between Adam, Eve, and the Snake. As Rabbi Granatstein (1970) explains "The Rabbis tell us that [the snake] spied Adam and Eve in sexual union. The snake, portrayed in Oedipal terms, was overcome with jealousy and hatred for Adam and desire for Eve. Seeking to kill Adam and seduce Eve..."
We can see then that many of Freud's most important and essential theories are really rooted in Traditional Jewish thought. That's not to take away from Freud who, in his brilliant creativity, took those roots and grew them into the modern-day theories of today. However, this all leads us to a question concerning Freud. If so much of his theories is rooted in traditional Jewish literature then why doesn't he acknowledge it? Additionally, is it really even correct to say that his theories were rooted in Traditional Jewish literature when he so strongly denied any connection to traditional Judaism!? After all, he personally labeled himself "a G-dless Jew" (Gay, 1987)!
One school of thought views Freud as very distant from traditional Judaism. This school of thought holds that Freud's parents were themselves thoroughly secular both having "shed virtually all traces of religious observance (Gay, 1987)." Gay and his predecessors believe Freud when he says that he couldn't understand a word of Hebrew and even had trouble in identifying a Menorah - one of the more basic symbols of Judaism. For this school of thought, the numerous comparisons between Freud's theories and Judaic literature is troubling indeed. However, there is another school of thought, spearheaded by Dr. Emanuel Rice, who picks apart those biographers who hold that Freud's theories were not really affected by the rabbinic literature. Dr. Rice proves, rather convincingly (as we shall soon see), that Freud's exposure and knowledge to Judaism was much more than what superficially appears.
Dr. Rice uses many proofs to show that Freud's parents were quite observant of the Jewish tradition. He quotes from the granddaughter of Freud's father (Jacob) the following: "my grandfather...divided his time between reading the Talmud (in the original) at home, sitting in a coffee house, and walking in the parks." From this, Dr. Rice infers that Jacob Freud most likely went to a Yeshiva for many years as he states "For Jacob Freud to be able to study the Talmud alone implies that he must have spent many years as a student in a Yeshiva...Jacob was always referred to fondly by family and friends as the 'Yeshiva Bocher', the Hebrew expression for a young yeshiva student totally immersed in his studies." In addition to this Dr. Rice ponders a discovery made by the curators at the Freud museum in London. They found the complete, 12 volume German translation of the Babylonian Talmud in Freud's's library! He wonders if perhaps Freud read them!? "Was the influence of Jacob Freud's intense interest in the Talmud a factor...?"
Another point that Rice brings in as proof is the inscription that Jacob Freud made for Sigmund/Shmuel on his 35th birthday. An analysis of the inscription reveals a mastery over biblical texts and complete fluency in Hebrew. Rice asks, if Freud could not read Hebrew as he so avowedly claims, then why would Jacob write such a meaningful and deep dedication to his son in a language that he couldn't understand! Rice also points out that the Hebrew text of the Bible had many markings in it, with some words underlined in red, blue, and green pencil. Interestingly enough, many of Freud's books were similarly underlined in red, blue, and green! When Freud's desk was opened, red, blue, and green pencils were found in the drawer...
Rice points out that if you examine Freud's school records you find that he had a total of twelve years of exposure to Hebrew studies. Since Freud received the highest marks in his class, "he must have attained some degree of mastery over the subject matter (pg. 48)!"
Rice summarizes his findings by telling us that Freud's parents did retain many traditional religious practices, Jacob Freud attended Yeshiva and attained some level of proficiency in Talmud and Bible studies, and that Sigmund Freud himself "had a more traditional upbringing than he openly admitted."
If so, why does Freud adamantly deny any connection to traditional Judaism? He writes "I had such a non-Jewish upbringing that today I am not even able to read your dedication which is evidently in Hebrew characters (Rice, 1990)." At another time Freud writes "My father spoke the holy language as well as in the German or even better. He let me grow up in perfect ignorance on everything concerning Judaism." Time after time Freud writes blurbs such as those!
I would like to suggest two possible answers to this question of Freud's denial. The first answer goes back to the way Freud looked at himself and his theories. He felt that he was similar to Copernicus and Darwin in striking "blows at man's pride by forcing him to take a less grandiose view of himself (Fancher, 1973)." Freud felt that he had delivered the "psychological blow by shattering illusions about the infallibility of human reason and consciousness, the existence of free will, and the essential 'purity' of human nature (Fancher, 1973)." Additionally, Freud, who lived in a time of intense anti-Semitism, developed a "lonely crusader" attitude that it was him against the world. As Fancher explains, Freud had "a sense of being one against the crowd, of having to do battle against the odds and an overwhelming negative public opinion. Freud's sense of being a lonely crusader...was of great solace to him later in life..." Perhaps, looking at Freud in a negative way, this feeling of being against the world got to him so much that he tried to take as much credit as he could for his theories. Denying that his theories have any roots in rabbinical Judaism, in fact that he himself has no connection to it, forces us to attribute all that he propounded upon to be solely of his creation.
A second answer, and one which is more favorable to him, is that he consciously denyied any connection to traditional Judaism as a method of protecting his theories against the powerful anti-Semitism of his time. Furthermore, he felt that in order to allow his theories to be universal and generalizable, he had to play down the role that his religion had on the theories. Otherwise people would just call it a" Jewish psychology" instead of being the universal science that he sought. It was for this same reason that he pushed so hard for Jung to be made the permanent president of the Psycho-Analytic congress. When backing Jung he said:
Most of you are Jews, and therefore you are incompetent to win friends for the new teaching. Jews must be content with the modest role of preparing the ground. It is absolutely essential that I should form ties in the world of general science. I am getting on in years, and am weary of being perpetually attacked. we are all in danger..."
Perhaps then, Freud felt that in order to gain the global acceptance he so greatly desired, he had to deny that which had the most influence of all on him, traditional Judaism.
Amsel, Abraham (1970). Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 11 (2), 60 - 73.
Bakan, David (1958). Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition. Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company.
Fancher, Raymond (1973). Psychoanalytic Psychology The Development of Freud's Thought. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Gay, Peter (1987). A Godless Jew. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Granatstein, Melvin (1970). Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 11 (2), 5-16.
Rice, Emanuel (1990). Freud and Moses: The Long Journey Home. Albany: State University of Albany Press.
Spero, Moshe Halevi (1975). Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 15 (1- 2), 97 - 111.
Please e-mail me with your comments! My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to go back to my home page