Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: Freud and the Zohar

Some months ago I received a brief note, in German, from Chaim Bloch, the eminent student of Judaism, Cabbala, and Hasidism. He wrote that he had seen a review of my book, Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, in the Day-Journal, and wanted to inform me that he had been acquired with Freud. He enclosed a clipping on himself from a biographical dictionary to let me know who he was. He asked me if he might have an opportunity to look at my book; although he could not read English, he might, with the help of his children, be able to get the meaning out of it.

I read Chaim Bloch’s letter with some amount of excitement. In my book I had advanced the thesis that there were certain relationships between the development of psychoanalysis and the Jewish mystical tradition. But I had provided, in the book, little or no direct evidence of any such connections; indeed, I have several reservations concerning the importance of a direct connection, and especially of the importance of Freud’s having had a scholarly interest in Jewish mysticism. Nevertheless I could not help but be very much interested—for, also in my book, I had mentioned the fact that Freud conversed on such matters with Chaim Bloch. It had not occurred to me that I might be able to communicate with the same Chaim Bloch.

I immediately wrapped up a copy of my book and sent it to Bloch at his home address in New York. Since I was myself going to New York in several weeks, I wrote and asked if I might come and see him. He replied affirmatively, telling me that he had some information on Freud which I would find interesting.

I arrived at his home in the Bronx, carrying a tape recorder, in order to have a permanent record of the conversation. He did not let me use it, saying that his children would object because it reminds them too much of Nazis and that sort of thing. We spoke in Yiddish. He inquired about my background, especially the parts of Europe where my parents came from. Rapport was quickly established when he found out that I too was a Galicianer.

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Then he told me his tale. He had been closely associated with Joseph Bloch, one of the leaders of the fight against anti-Semitism in Vienna. Joseph Bloch (to whom he was not related) had been a kind of mentor to him, and had urged him to do a translation of the works of Chaim Vital, the 16th—17th century Cabbalist. He began the work, but somehow found the ideas of Chaim Vital not to his taste. Still, he kept working on it as long as Joseph Bloch was alive. When Joseph Bloch died, he abandoned the work.

But once he had a dream in which Joseph Bloch appeared to him, shook his finger in his face, and asked him why he did not bring the work on Chaim Vital to a close. He arose out of the dream and energized himself sufficiently to complete the task. Yet the ideas of Vital still seemed so unsavory to him that he could not bring himself to publish the book on his own responsibility. He therefore sought someone to write a foreword to it: in effect, he wished for someone to help him bear the responsibility for its publication. He approached Sigmund Freud.

Freud, said Chaim Bloch, was beside himself with excitement on reading the manuscript. “This is gold,” Freud said, and asked why Chaim Vital’s work had never been brought to his attention before. He agreed to write the foreword, and even volunteered assistance in getting the book published.

Then Freud turned to Bloch and told him he too had written a book on Judaism; and took out the manuscript of the Moses and Monotheism. Bloch was openly aghast. “Anti-Semites,” he said, “accuse us of killing the founder of Christianity. Now a Jew adds that we also killed the founder of Judaism. You are digging a trap for the Jewish people.” And, “Have you examined the birth records and death records of ancient Egypt and found conclusive evidence that Moses was an Egyptian and the Jews killed him?”1

Freud was incensed with Bloch and told him that he would have nothing further to do with him, and nothing to do with the work on Chaim Vital. Freud left the room in anger.

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Bloch did not know what to do, he said. He was loath to leave at once for fear of appearing impolite, and so he stayed in the room. On the desk were both manuscripts, his on Vital, and Freud’s on Moses, both having been written on the same kind of paper. The manuscripts were somewhat strewn. Bloch said that the yetzer hara, the evil impulse, spoke to him saying that it would be a completely “understandable” error if the two manuscripts became mixed up, and he took them away; and that would have been the end of Moses and Monotheism. But, he thought, if Freud should have a copy of the Moses, what would it avail?

The significant piece of information for me, however, was the following: while waiting, Bloch occupied himself by looking over Freud’s books. In Freud’s library was a large collection of Judaica (which is absent from the presumptive “Freud library” which is now housed in the library of the New York Psychiatric Institute). Among the books were a number of books on Cabbala in German, and, most importantly, a copy of the French translation of the Zohar!

In my book on Freud, I give considerable attention to the Zohar, since this is without question the most important work in the Jewish mystical tradition. A number of features in the Zohar strongly suggest relationship to the psychoanalytic movement—among them the concept of man’s bisexuality, and concepts of sexuality in general. There is also in the Zohar the notion that man can be studied by the exegetical techniques associated with the study of Torah; and a theory of the nature of anti-Semitism almost identical with that contained in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Perhaps even more important, there is an atmospheric similarity—one which cannot, indeed, be conveyed in any brief description.

Although I had felt it was very probable that Freud had had some contact with the Zohar, I did not wish to assert this without some actual supporting data. As a matter of fact, I even wrote in the Preface: “Our attempt to understand Freud in terms of Jewish history should not be taken as indicating that we believe Freud to have been a secret scholar of Jewish lore. An image of him poring over Cabbalistic books in the dead of night is not supported by the facts; although to have done this would not have been inconsistent with the patterns of the Jewish mystical leaders.”

This new bit of information from Chaim Bloch has made me wonder. Freud did indeed know of the Zohar, and his connection with Jewish mysticism may thus have had a scholarly feature.

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Footnotes

1 Bloch has published parts of this interview: “An Encounter with Freud,” Bitzaron, November 1950.

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