Commentary Magazine

Freud's Jewish Problem

All psychological systems, Sigmund Freud’s included—indeed, all systems of thought—are stamped with the limitations of their creators. This might seem a gloomy and cynical way of looking at the history of ideas, yet in most cases, the limitations not only spur the creation of the system but also constitute its very stuff. The biases of a man, with their traumatic origin, make him think, force him to rummage through his world, discovering why he burns with the need to understand, to illuminate, why he thinks and acts in a particular way. To ask why ideas come into existence is a step toward learning their meaning and application.

On October 15, 1897, during the self-analysis that led to The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote to his friend and colleague, Wilhelm Fliess, that he had discovered in himself what he was later to call the Oedipus complex: “I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too.” The development of psychoanalysis was thus determined, and centered on incest and aggression. Freud’s accounts of his complex are sketchy, but the main cause is touched upon in Ernest Jones’s biography, namely, an incestuous dependence upon a domineering mother. This dependence was encouraged by her strong affection for him as her first-born and favorite child; by her beauty and extreme youthfulness in comparison with his father, Jakob Freud, who was twenty years older and had been married before; by the death of her second child when Freud was eighteen months old; by her affliction with tuberculosis which required confinement in a sanatorium; and by the overly demonstrative and excessive protection that Jewish mothers have often given their children, perhaps to inure them against hardships that they have been liable to suffer as Jews.

But if incestuous dependence can account for Freud’s unconscious attachment to his mother, incestuous rivalry alone cannot account for the virulence of Freud’s unconscious hostility toward his father. Jakob Freud was by no means an overbearing or indifferent father; on the contrary, he was kind, affectionate, and proud of his son, though he was somewhat detached by his age and temperament from the rest of the family. Yet in Freud’s dreams his father is constantly degraded by association with illiteracy, feeble-mindedness, sexual immorality, drunkenness, urination, or defecation. A death-wish against his father is expressed in a dream in which Freud hands him a urinal shaped like a poisoned chalice belonging to Lucrezia Borgia. Interpreting another of his dreams, Freud writes, “I have broken off at thoughts which would have contained an unfriendly criticism of my father.” No doubt he exercised his censorship elsewhere as well.

Some of Freud’s theories about fathers are cruelly defamatory and obscene. For over four years (1893-97), he held to the theory that hysteria in women is the result of seduction by their fathers. According to Jones, Freud believed that his own father, too, was guilty of such acts. Similarly, he thought at first that neurotics had syphilitic fathers. Aggression against the father appears in Freud’s stress upon the Oedipus complex (which he first called the “father complex”), as the father stands accused of causing castration-anxiety and neurosis.

Freud was suspiciously eager to lend support to far-fetched theories involving the murder of the father, or father-image. He believed, for example, that in primitive times sons murdered their fathers in order to have the women. Likewise, he thought that the Jews had murdered their father-figure, Moses, in the desert. Still, it is interesting that although Freud generally had few inhibitions about publishing his work, precisely those books in which the theme of parricide figures most strongly—The Interpretation of Dreams, Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism—were published only after hesitation and delay. After reading Totem and Taboo, Jones and Sandor Ferenczi suggested to Freud that his work was a sublimation of parricidal impulses, that “he had in his imagination lived through the experiences he described in his book, that his elation represented the excitement of killing and eating the father, and that his doubts were only the reaction.”

Errors in Freud’s dreams often signify hostility to the father. Interpreting one of his own dreams containing an error, Freud reveals that in it he was identifying himself with a patient who, as a result of his desire to murder his father, “was unable to go out into the street because he was tortured by the fear that he would kill everyone he met.” His dream confusion of Hasdrubal with Hamilcar, in which he put the brother’s name instead of the father’s, seems to him to expose “dissatisfaction with my father’s behavior toward the ‘enemies of our people’” and fantasies of being the son not of his father, but of his half-brother, Emanuel.

In another dream, Freud is overcome with hostility and says of a deceased colleague, Josef Paneth, non vixit (he did not live) rather than non vivit (he is not alive). Marthe Robert, in her book From Oedipus to Moses, interprets this to indicate a desire by Freud that his father had never lived, a surmise given added credibility by the fact that the dream occurred during the week of the second anniversary of Jakob Freud’s death. Another error in this dream, the substitution of patriae for publicae on an inscription, reveals more directly that Freud’s underlying concern is the father. In the dream, Freud discovered that by looking straight at apparitions of the dead he could make them disappear. No doubt he wanted his father’s memory, too, and all that he stood for, to stop haunting him.



Freud was himself shocked by his discovery, precipitated by the death of Jakob Freud in 1896, that he hated his father. The crisis which followed lasted for several years and is reflected in Freud’s major work, The Interpretation of Dreams. In this period, he was afflicted by an exacerbation of neurotic symptoms which drove him to self-analysis. He was much sicker, especially at this time, than Jones’s biography leads us to believe. His moods fluctuated intensely between despair and optimism; he had severe migraines and nasal catarrh, chronic indigestion, anxiety attacks, a dread of dying, particularly through heart failure, and impaired potency. From studying his illnesses, believing that by penetrating to their causes he could cure himself, Freud concluded that his symptoms were partly a self-punishment because he had unconsciously wanted his father’s death. What caused these parricidal tendencies and self-punishment? According to Freud, it was incestuous rivalry for the mother.

Incestuous rivalry is, presumably, a universal cause of the animosity sons feel toward their fathers. However, Freud’s own difficulties also had other, more circumstantial causes, involving Jewishness and anti-Semitism. Jones does not give these factors the attention they deserve. A major cause of tension between father and son was the fact that Freud went much further than his father along the path of assimilation from a deeply religious Eastern European environment into a non-Jewish Western milieu.

Jakob Freud was born in 1815, the year of Waterloo, in the Galician shtetl of Tysmenitz. Until he was about twenty, when he moved to Freiburg, he was as observant as a modern Hasid in Williamsburgh. His father, who died shortly before Freud was born in 1856, had been a hasidic rabbi (Freud was named Shlomo in his memory). His family background and the cultural environment in which he was raised meant that Jakob Freud was steeped in Jewish learning and rituals.

By 1855, when he reached Vienna, Jakob Freud had dispensed with many of his early religious observances. Nevertheless, he was Jewish to the core. That he was able to conduct by heart the Passover seder—which is recited only twice a year in the Diaspora—indicates how deeply engrained was his Jewish education. He regularly studied Talmud and Hebrew literature. In some ways he was a typical Jew of the Haskalah (the period of the Enlightenment), disillusioned with a traditionally religious way of life (and preferring Hebrew or German to Yiddish), but unable to abandon it completely or find anything to take its place. When he gave his son a Bible for his thirty-fifth birthday, he wrote a Hebrew inscription which could have been written by a more observant Jew than the one he had become: “Thou hast seen in this Book the vision of the Almighty, thou hast heard willingly, thou hast done and hast tried to fly high upon the wings of the Holy Spirit.”

Still, the religious feeling behind these words had apparently faded long before. T.S. Eliot’s observation on the Elizabethan dramatist Philip Massinger has relevance to Freud’s father and, in general, to German-speaking Jews of the 19th century: “As soon as the emotion disappears, the morality which ordered it appears hideous.” Hideous indeed were Jewish rituals to Freud, for as he usually saw them observed at home and by other assimilated Viennese Jews, they were empty and meaningless.

Freud came to despise Jewish religion, indeed, all religion, as a form of psychological illness, a compulsive neurosis, a sign of communal immaturity. He did not hold to this rigidly, but it was his view. The vehemence of his rejection of religion was a symbolic rejection of the father who represented, though he did not properly observe or teach, a traditional Jewish way of life. Although ritualistic elements are part of psychoanalysis, Freud placed little emphasis upon the fact that ritual may have a positive function in life. The fearful and defensive side of religion, rather than the loving side, loomed largest in his mind.



It is likely that the poverty of his Jewishness helped to generate Freud’s anger at his father. Judaism as Freud learned it from his father was a thing of shreds and patches to which one paid lip-service. The hypocrisy of it was abhorrent to Freud. His sense of what it meant to be Jewish was inauthentic and confused. It is true that the closest adult friend of Freud’s youth was his beloved teacher, Samuel Hammerschlag, who for many years taught him Hebrew and Bible. But Freud also had a Catholic nanny who frequently took him to church. Afterward he would deliver imitations of sermons. From childhood, Freud was fascinated by Jesus and Paul. He chose to open his medical practice on Easter Sunday, presumably as a gesture of identification with Jesus, and confessed to the Protestant theologian Oskar Pfister a special sympathy for Paul as “a genuinely Jewish character.” Such interests were utterly foreign, and probably anathema, to Jakob Freud.

Freud’s distorted view of Judaism betrays an unmistakable Oedipal bias. His rejection of the father and of the “Father religion” went side by side: “The Mosaic religion had been a Father religion: Christianity became a Son religion. The old God, the Father, took second place; Christ, the Son, stood in his place, just as in those dark days every son had longed to do. . . . From now on Jewish religion was, so to speak, a fossil” (Moses and Monotheism). Upon the stage of Jewish ritual, the drama of Freud’s troubled relationship with his father was enacted. While Jakob Freud continued to observe the vestiges of an Orthodox Jewish life, his son emphatically refused to do so. He wrote to Martha Bernays during their engagement: “Am I to fast on Yom Kippur? . . . Surely not.”

Characteristically, Freud opposed having a traditional Jewish burial service for his father. His late arrival at the funeral, a dream of his suggests, aroused strong compunction. (For himself he chose cremation, a final act of defiance against his father, as it is a violation of Jewish law.) The idea of being married under a chupa (canopy) was loathsome to Freud; rather than undergo this ordeal, he went so far as to discuss with Josef Breuer the possibility of conversion to Christianity. He once went to a Jewish wedding and, as Jones tells it, “gazed at the scene with fascinated horror and then wrote a letter of sixteen pages describing all the odious details in a spirit of malign mockery.”

Freud’s life as a husband and father involved a defiance of Jewish tradition. That he married a strictly Orthodox Jewish girl, the granddaughter of a famous rabbi, shows how strong was the influence of his background. During their engagement, he promised Martha that “something of the core, of the essence of this meaningful and life-affirming Judaism will not be absent from our home.” But after marrying her, he persuaded her, somewhat against her will, to become as completely non-Orthodox as himself. Isaiah Berlin has recalled that Freud at the end of his life was still bickering with Martha about whether to light candles on Friday nights (he was against it).

Freud had not learned from his father “meaningful and life-affirming Judaism,” and he could not give this to his children. He raised them in abysmal ignorance of their heritage. They were aware that something was missing. Martin, his son, tells a revealing anecdote about Martha’s mother, Emmeline: “On Saturdays we used to hear her singing Jewish prayers in a small but firm and melodious voice. All of this, strangely enough in a Jewish family, seemed alien to us children who had been brought up without any instruction in Jewish ritual.”

Raised in an environment which taught him both to look askance upon his religious heritage and to struggle to gain advancement in a hostile Gentile world, Freud had little to shield him from feeling that the religion of his fathers was an odious handicap. He wished at times that he were not his father’s son, and not the son of any Jew. His dreams betrayed the wish for better origins: “If only I had been the second generation, the son of a professor or court counselor, I would certainly have got on faster.” He had fantasies of how different things would have been had he been born the son of his half-brother, Emanuel, who had gone to England to escape the clutches of anti-Semitism. To his colleague, Karl Abraham, he complained, “If my name were Oberhüber, in spite of everything, my innovations would have met with far less resistance.”

Perhaps out of disdain for the humble Jewish background of his father, Freud had a preference for noble origins. He subscribed to the theory that the works attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by the Earl of Oxford, and to the theory that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian prince. While Freud greatly admired the heroic side of Jewish history, he could not but feel, living in one of the most virulently anti-Semitic countries in the world, that his Jewishness was a millstone around his neck.



As in the case of many Jewish families at the time, a touchstone of conflict between father and son was education. Jakob Freud’s early life in the shtetl was one in which only the Bible, the prayer book, and Jewish legal texts—especially the Talmud—were thought to have real value. Jakob Freud probably did not consciously preserve this attitude, but evidently he did not altogether respect secular learning. Freud recalled that as a child he had once been handed a book by his father to destroy: “Not easy to justify from an educational point of view!” He mentions in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life that his hostility toward his father was connected with books. As Jakob Freud’s education was predominantly talmudic, he was unable to advise his son in his career. The contrast in education between father and son, not so unusual for the period, was nevertheless striking: while Jakob Freud studied the legal discourses of the Talmud, his son kept a diary in Greek. Freud, enlightened and university-educated, abhorred his father’s continuing interest in the Talmud, considering it backward. Jones tells us that the only examination which Freud ever failed was in medical jurisprudence. This failure, from a Freudian viewpoint, might indicate an unconscious rejection of the father whom Freud identified with law.

Jakob Freud’s defective education and his consequent limitations rankled with Freud, all the more so as Jakob Freud was an ineffectual provider and the family was impoverished. Freud’s own success gave rise to a sense of guilt. At the end of his life he wrote of people “wrecked with success” who “fall ill or even go entirely to pieces, because an overwhelmingly powerful wish of theirs has been fulfilled.” He omits mention of the great crisis in his life after his own “overwhelmingly powerful wish,” the death of his father, had come about, but gives a related example—a mysterious depression which he felt before visiting the Acropolis in 1905, and a reaction at the site that “what I see is not real.” He explains:

A sense of guilt was attached to the satisfaction in having gone such a long way: there was something about it that was wrong, that from earliest times had been forbidden. It was something to do with a child’s criticism of his father, with the undervaluation of earlier childhood. It seems as though the essence of success was to have got further than one’s father, and as though to excel one’s father was still something forbidden. . . . The very theme of Athens and the Acropolis in itself contained evidence of the son’s superiority. Our father had had no secondary education, and Athens could not have meant much to him. Thus what interfered with our enjoyment of the journey to Athens was a feeling of filial piety.

With his father’s encouragement, Freud had achieved the intellectual perspective which made criticism of his way of life and even hatred of it almost inevitable. In the non-Jewish world (symbolized by Athens or Rome), Freud went much further than his father. His superiority was at times a distressing burden. In The Interpretation of Dreams he tells of waking in a fright after dreaming that children can achieve what their fathers fail to do.



Here it might be asked whether the urge to go further than one’s father necessarily gives rise to guilt or fear. Traditionally in Jewish life sons are encouraged to achieve as much as possible and thereby bring honor to their parents. According to a rabbinic saying, “No father envies his son.” Then what was the source of Freud’s pathological desire to outdo his father (which, after all, was not so very difficult), and make intellectual conquests? Once again his relation to his own Jewishness provides the key. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud tells of a turning point in his early life, his deep hurt and disillusionment upon hearing of his father’s unheroic conduct when humiliated by an anti-Semite. From then on, he was obsessed with Rome as a symbol of the Catholic Church and of anti-Semitism, and he worshipped Hannibal, the Semitic general who, unlike Jakob Freud, fought Rome courageously. Inwardly he raged against qualities which he associated with his father and his Jewishness—passivity, cowardice, ignorance.

Unlike his father, Freud was never passive in the face of anti-Semitism. This cost him a good deal of strain as he was himself a rather shy, unobtrusive man. Through intense yearning for heroism and lifelong hero worship, Freud reacted against his father’s—and his own—powerlessness, and the traditional, powerless life of the Jews. To Martha he wrote during their engagement: “I have often felt as though I had inherited all the passion and all the defiance with which our ancestors defended their Temple and could gladly sacrifice my life for one great moment in history. And with all that I was always so powerless and could not express my flowing passions.” Freud’s sympathy for Zionism was owing partly to the fact that the Zionists, unlike most traditional Jews at that time, were prepared to fight and if necessary give up their lives for their land.

Military heroes, especially those whom he identified as or associated with Jews, such as Moses, Hannibal, Oliver Cromwell (after whom he named one of his sons), and Napoleon, received Freud’s highest admiration. These men, unlike his father, could fight back. In his youth, Freud had ambitions of being a great general and was responsible, at the age of ten, for naming his brother Alexander, after Alexander the Great. His very system of thought, with its frequent use of the language and imagery of warfare, was a kind of intellectual military operation—he described himself once as a “conquistador.” At the end of his life, during the night journey across the Channel to England, Freud dreamed that he was landing at Pevensey. When he related this dream to his son, he explained that Pevensey was where William the Conqueror had landed in 1066. These heroes and their bravery were as far removed from the character and life of Jakob Freud as is imaginable.



But Freud was more like his father than he dared admit. For all his unconscious quarrels with his father, he loved him deeply. His anger at his father for remaining passive in the face of anti-Semitism is, in a deeper sense, an assertion of love; the thought of his father humiliated was unbearable to Freud. Moreover, his love for his father was bound up inextricably with the issue of Jewishness. As he himself suffered from anti-Semitic prejudice, it is probable that, to some extent, feelings and thoughts which Freud interprets as signs of hostility toward his father, and which he generalizes into a universal human problem, reflect the peculiar conditions of being Jewish in antipathetic surroundings. Freud’s very theories can be seen as an implicit attack upon anti-Semitism, and upon human prejudice in general, for his central assumption is that all men are driven by the same impulses and are, in a sense, equally wicked; therefore, it is ludicrous for any set of men to regard themselves as racially superior.

Freud believed that the Gentile world was, on the whole, anti-Semitic. (This, ironically, more than anything else, gave him a sense of identity as a Jew.) After seeing Herzl’s play, Das Neue Ghetto, Freud had the following dream: “On account of certain events which had taken place in the city of Rome, it had become necessary to remove the children to safety, and this was done. . . . I was sitting on the edge of a fountain and was greatly depressed and almost in tears.” Freud comments that the dream alludes to the Psalm beginning, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,” and that the dream-thoughts involve “the Jewish question, concern about the future of one’s children to whom one cannot give a country of their own.” Freud was deeply moved by a dream in which the apparition of Herzl appeared to him and spoke of the perilous condition of the Jewish people, and the need to act immediately if they were to be saved.

Freud’s famous “revolutionary” dream shows how hatred of the father and the effects of anti-Semitism are intertwined. According to Freud, this dream goes back to his rebellion against his father. Nevertheless, certain aspects of it point more directly to problems caused by anti-Semitism. During the dream, Freud, to his surprise, expresses fierce German nationalist feeling. He then finds that the gates to the university and the main train station are “cordoned off.” He can use only the local railroad. The dream ends with Freud standing at a main-line station, hoping to “get away” with the help of his invalid father, while giving vent, through association, to immense hostility toward him.

In the dream, Freud’s surprise at showing patriotic feeling can be explained by the fact that he is a Jew whose country sanctions discriminations which “cordon” him off from a normal life and from gaining advancement and recognition. In the dream he can use only the local line (indeed, the local Jews of Vienna, especially the B’nai B’rith, were the only ones who valued his work at the start). Freud’s aggresssion toward his father later in the dream might, therefore, be caused partly by anti-Semitism which embittered his life, frustrated his ambitions, and worsened the conflict with his father. Ironically, the discovery of this aggression did enable Freud to “get away,” and gain international recognition along the “main line” of Western thought. He himself interpreted the aggression as a symptom of the Oedipus complex, a universal phenomenon, but in doing so he suppressed the “local” or circumstantial factors having to do with his Jewish background.



Freud’s sensitivity about his origins was so acute that he hardly spoke of them, even to his children. Like his Viennese contemporary, Gustav Mahler (who, however, was a convert to Christianity), he obliterated practically everything pertaining to his early life. This is astonishing in view of the importance which Freud attached to childhood and family background. His entire life was a denial of his roots. While he often admitted the general social and psychological importance of his Jewishness, he never acknowledged the normative and healthy aspects of the tradition which he rescinded, or publicized his enormous debt to it.

In utterly rejecting Jewish ritual, Freud protested too much. He ignored the practical importance of the talmudic background to his way of thinking. He did not openly concede that he had probably inherited his prodigious memory and analytical ability from his rabbinic ancestors. He did not consider seriously that the psychoanalytic role he had created for himself was in some ways similar to that of the Eastern European rabbi, who often advised members of his congregation in their personal lives. And, while he was highly critical of his father’s education, he did not mention how much he owed to the educational tradition sustained by the Jewish religion, which for hundreds of years had made the Jews the only large group in Europe among whom illiteracy was practically unknown.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that Freud probably chose to downplay his Jewishness and the role of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred in stimulating conflict with his father for fear of diverting attention from the allegedly universal nature of the Oedipus complex. Yet the fact remains that Freud’s hatred of his father was caused not only by incestuous rivalry, but also by the extraordinary social conditions of the Jews in 19th-century Europe, and the vast cultural and psychological changes that they underwent in the passage to modernity.

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