T Fool's Reviews > Moses and Monotheism

Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud
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In our time, there seem to be a few ways of defining Jews in a world very largely of non-Jews: 1) As practitioners of one of the main world religions; 2) As a people whose ethnicity was hit not long ago by genocidal European Holocaust ; 3) As Diaspora auxiliary or citizens of the state of Israel situated precariously among Muslim countries to one extent or another hostile to that state; 4) As humans educated disproportionately to their global numbers; 5) As workers disproportionately numbered in the global ranks of business and the professions and with commensurate positions of relative authority. Precarious. Defensive. Resented. Targeted.

Much in and around those defining boundaries cannot be taken at the face value the list seems neutrally to set out. In the minds of some, to be a Jew is to be a bit strange, even, still, suspect of something one might not suspect anyone else of. The history of Jews in relation to other peoples cannot remotely be handled here, nor is it being handled by an intellectual master like Freud in his book. What might be pointed out is the delicacy with which Moses and Monotheism feels it must proceed.

The text itself starts more than once, first when Freud began his project in Vienna and wondered at the reception it might get from Catholic authorities, and then again when he emigrated to England, a freer place, but at a yet more dangerous time, after the Nazi Anschluss with Austria. To be a Jew then was to be marked by a political anthropology aimed to eliminate them. From our vantage, we see the results. Freud could only suspect, but his eyes were open.

Ironically, MAM has taken lumps as a work jeopardizing Jewish ‘standing’. To orthodox minds – to all, perhaps, revolted by the mass exterminations – a work analyzing the source of Judaism and seeming to undermine its authenticity, seems somehow complicit, what we might consider today an ‘enabling’ attitude, what devout Jews see most assimilation as being: self-deceptive distancing and a kind of self-hatred.

But, unfair as that charge may be, it certainly shouldn’t be directed at this book, since Freud gives no solace to anti-Semites, whom he disdains. Critics of Freud took him to task years before not just for upsetting religious orientations, but for challenging the Victorian air everyone at that time breathed. His sacrilege – if we wish to call it that – was both his dedication to science and his stretching its borders to the edge of myth. The scientific view of the modern sensibility simply had no room for religion or myth as explanation.

Even many of the scientists, though, would take issue with speculations Freud makes, but the bones they would pick would be ones of technique and procedure, strength of evidence and inconclusiveness. To the scientist, he steps over the line into speculative philosophy. He’s too mythic. To the theologian, he’s blasphemous.

Freud’s science was medicine. His practice treating the mentally ill led him to define an inner-dynamic of personality development, as we know, surrounding family members, sexual feeling, and the traumas during that development, sometimes particular and unusual, but often just those brought about simply in the human nature of things. Key moments in the personality formation could be reflected in dreams and in speech – a symbolic undertone to the conscious manifest of one’s actions.

By the late 30s when Freud was writing MAM, many of these notions were commonly spoken of and part of European intellectual life. He had written other speculative works, one to which he refers and which has most relevance to MAM being Totem And Taboo, published just before the First World War. In that volume, he reconstructs a primal crime around which later civilization arises.

According to that theory, early bands of humans were ruthlessly ruled by a single male figure, a father who killed off or subjugated his sons and appropriated all the women to himself. At some point, the sons arose, killed their father, and apportioned blame and justification among themselves. The crime was so potent within their psyche, that its memory gets repressed and certain cultural manifestations arise in its stead: the father-killing gets replaced by ‘memory’ of the death of a great animal which becomes the totem of the tribe, women (mothers, sisters) within the tribe become forbidden to the men, thus spurring exogamy and incest taboo.

In Moses And Monotheism, he proposes that the family dynamic he has found in his clinical work and which he extended to cultural formation is no less applicable to the way religion developed in the Western world.

At least two things would offend Jews – and Christians, who also follow Biblical authority:

1) The idea of monotheism did not originate with the Jews, but with Ikhnaton, the Egyptian pharaoh; and 2) There were two ‘Moseses’, the first an Egyptian adherent of Aton, the one god. This Moses banded with the Hebrews and departed Egypt. The second was a leader linked to Midianites. They killed the first Moses, but in a syncretic act, commingled with the ‘wilderness’ Hebrews.

The encountered Midianite god was YHWH, fierce, angry, vengeful, and – far from the universal Aton – quite tribal. In group memory, the Midianite leader took on the identity of Moses and the practice of circumcision. Not until centuries later did an oral, Levitical undercurrent resurface in the stories and laws, the ‘notional imprint’ of the religion as a universal one deriving from a single – the only – God.

Freud sees in that imagined historical movement the replicated fear and wish an individual feels when confronted by great power that seems to threaten (father). Not many of us kill those with power over us, but in honesty, we all must admit that, in passing, we’ve wished to. We resolve those feelings. So, too, Judaism resolved its ‘feelings’ and let re-emerge – in sublimated form to be sure – the repressed memory of its One God, the memory of whose ‘killing-off’ was repressed. For Freud, human cultural and religious institutions form the way earliest human personalities form.

As stunning as those ideas might be when first encountered, the case Freud makes – given adherence to his basic theories and given his conceded reliance on the best, but sketchy, historical evidence – that case rings plausible. It can be dismissed out-of-hand – likely with shock – by readers firm in their commitment to faith, but it has to give pause to readers open to fair speculation.

Whether Freud is right is beside the point. MAM shouldn’t be seen as an atheist’s polemic, let alone an anti-Semitic tract. His boldness and integrity is clear, as is his imaginative reach. If, as a scientist, his reconstructed, speculative history does not register as ‘science’, then any claim he may have made to that label can be challenged. As myth, its explanatory power provides a fertile material grounding to the puzzle of human existence.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
August 15, 2009 – Finished Reading
October 3, 2009 – Shelved
December 20, 2009 – Shelved as: reviewed-books

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