Freud’s Passionate Conviction

In this clip from The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama examines famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s fascination with Jewish identity and experience.

Among Freud’s collection of ancient figurines and sculptures from religions and cultures long dead, was an artifact that told a different story about endurance and survival: an ancient Hanukkah lamp, a commemoration of the Temple light that tradition said kept burning. Godless he may have been, but Freud never gave up on his Jewishness, and as the dark stain of Nazi anti-Semitism began to spread he proclaimed it publicly and loudly.  He was also driven to begin his own exploration of the roots of the Jewish story, work that would dominate the final years of his life, first in Vienna and then in London.

Freud’s psychoanalysis was driven by the belief that in our origins lay the explanation of everything that followed. Dismayed by the dark hatreds unleashed by the Nazis, Freud applied his theory to the Jews. At the heart of the Jewish story was an old obsession of Freud’s – Moses, the domineering father figure who had led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and placed on their shoulders the gift and the burden of 10 Commandments.

After much study, Freud declared that the ancient Israelites had rebelled against Moses and murdered him, but then, consumed by guilt and remorse, had adopted the Laws he had carried down from Mount Sinai with an obsessive devotion that had endured despite millennia of suffering, exile and persecution.

When it was finally published, his writing caused a scandal that cast a dark shadow over the last few months of the psychoanalyst’s prolific life. Yet, something supremely important had been lost in the controversy: Freud’s passionate conviction that by preserving their religion, whether consciously or unconsciously, the Jews had given themselves an extraordinary possibility of enduring not just a faith but as a people when everything else had been lost – land, kingdom and power. That was the meaning of the traveling Menorah and why Freud had kept it: the idea of sustaining an identity around things intellectual, cultural and spiritual.

  • mybgbreyes

    What is the name of the book Freud wrote and published that you refer to in this segment? I

  • relatham

    My guess is:
    Moses and monotheism / [by] Sigmund Freud ; translated from the German by Katherine Jones, New York : Knopf, 1939

  • Shelli

    Freud, so German! Patricide, not really a Jewish thing, the emphasis much more on respecting one’s elders. Must be the Greek and Shakespearean influence. JUST what we were taught to avoid.

    Thank you for bringing this beautiful, illuminated program to America. The research has been displayed so engagingly, I hope that many people, both Jews and non Jews will see it and appreciate “this good teaching” and to understand the real sources of anti Jewishness aka anti-semitism.

© 2014 WNET. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
PBS IS A 501(C)(3) NOT-FOR-PROFIT ORGANIZATION.
THE STORY OF THE JEWS IS A SERIES WRITTEN & PRESENTED BY SIMON SCHAMA BBC, THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC.