Moses, Murder, and the Jewish Psyche

The shocking story that Freud tells—or appears to tell—in Moses and Monotheism is well known. Perhaps no one has given a clearer and more concise account of it than Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi at the beginning of his brilliant tour de force Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable.

I presume that the bare plot (though not the essential drama) of Freud’s Moses is, by now, notorious. Monotheism is not of Jewish origin but an Egyptian discovery. The pharaoh Amenhotep IV established it as his state religion in the form of an exclusive worship of the sun-power, or Aton, thereafter calling himself Ikhnaton. The Aton religion, according to Freud, was characterized by the exclusive belief in one God, the rejection of anthropomorphism, magic, and sorcery, and the absolute denial of an afterlife. Upon Ikhnaton’s death, however, his great heresy was rapidly undone, and the Egyptians reverted to their old gods. Moses was not a Hebrew but an Egyptian priest or noble, and a fervent monotheist. In order to save the Aton religion from extinction he placed himself at the head of an oppressed Semitic tribe then living in Egypt, brought them forth from bondage, and created a new nation. He gave them an even more spiritualized, imageless form of monotheistic religion and, in order to set them apart, introduced the Egyptian custom of circumcision. But the crude mass of former slaves could not bear the severe demands of the new faith. In a mob revolt Moses was killed and the memory of the murder repressed. The Israelites went on to forge an alliance of compromise with kindred Semitic tribes in Midian whose fierce volcanic deity . . . now became their national god. As a result, the god of Moses was fused with [this god] and the deeds of Moses ascribed to a Midianite priest also called Moses. However, over a period of centuries the submerged tradition of the true faith and its founder gathered sufficient force to reassert itself and emerge victorious . . . though the memory of Moses’ murder remained repressed among the Jews, reemerging only in a very disguised form with the rise of Christianity.

As Yerushalmi notes, behind “the bare plot” of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism lies its “essential drama.” Again, we can do no better than to cite his description of that psychological drama.

In the beginning the primeval father was slain by his sons. Ultimately, in polytheism, he was completely forgotten, his memory repressed. In its very essence, therefore, monotheism represented the return of that long latent memory in the form of the one omnipotent God beside whom there is no other. The tremendous impact of what Moses revealed to the Israelites lay, one might say, in a shock of recognition, in their profound sense of reunion and reconciliation with the long lost Father for whom mankind had always unconsciously yearned. This, indeed, was the origin of their feeling of being the Chosen People. But even then Moses’ teachings could not become a “tradition.” For this, in a repetition of the primal patricide, Moses had first to be slain and his teachings forgotten. Only after another period of latency that lasted some five to eight centuries did the Mosaic religion return to group consciousness and grip the Jewish people for all ages to come.

From the very moment of its appearance until today Moses and Monotheism has been controversial. Yet amid all the discussion and debate, criticism and defense, historical analysis and, yes, psychoanalysis—Freud had, after all, always identified personally with Moses—one point of Moses and Monotheism that has stood firm and unchanging is its “bare plot,” Freud’s story. But is this story as stable as is generally believed? Scholars have all been struck by the work’s unusual and ungainly structure: prefaces that cancel each other out, hesitations, apologies, the imbalance of its parts, repetitions, stops, and starts. And yet they have all tacitly assumed that throughout the winding, discursive, and digressive course of the three essays that comprise the work—“Moses an Egyptian”; “. . . If Moses Was an Egyptian”; and “Moses, His People and Monotheistic Religion” (this last essay consisting of two parts)—the story itself, though repeated and repeated again, remains the same. But does it?

As Yerushalmi’s account makes clear, Freud in Moses and Monotheism sets forth three exceptionally controversial historical claims: Moses was an Egyptian, the Israelites murdered him, and there were actually two Moseses, an Egyptian Moses and a Midianite Moses. And yet, although Freud never explicitly repudiates any of these claims, a close reading of his text shows that he silently drops all of them. Moses was an Egyptian: gone. The Israelites murdered Moses: gone. There were two Moseses: gone.

That Freud wrote Moses and Monotheism near the end of his life, after the Nazi rise to power, and as he himself began to reread the Bible his father had inscribed to him and rethink the nature of the Jewish psyche, is crucial for understanding Freud’s intellectual biography. And any analysis of his famous claims must both subject them to historical criticism and put them in the context of postbiblical discussions of Moses that go back to late antiquity. Jan Assmann, Richard Bernstein, and others have done so, and yet they, and innumerable others, have presumed that we know the story that Freud settled on. But do we?

 I will work my way backward, starting with Freud’s thesis of the two Moseses, moving to the murder of Moses, and finishing with Moses the Egyptian.

First the two Moseses: Freud proposes that there was first an Egyptian Moses and later a Midianite Moses, in the second essay of Moses and Monotheism.

[T]he Jewish tribes . . . in a certain locality known as Meribah-Kadesh . . . took over the worship of [the volcano] god, probably from the neighboring Arabian tribe of Midianites. . . . The mediator between God and the people [that is, the Jewish tribes] in the founding of this religion was named Moses. He was the son-in-law of the Midianite priest Jethro, and was keeping his flocks when he received the summons from God.

However, in his historical résumé at the beginning of the third essay, he writes that after the Jews who had left Egypt had murdered Moses, they wandered in the desert, “and . . . in a well-watered locality named Kadesh, under the influence of the Arab Midianites, they took on a new religion, the worship of the volcano god.” Freud speaks here, as he did in the second essay, of the “Arab Midianites,” but of their Midianite Moses, who in the second essay played such a key role, he has nothing to say. This second Moses, Jethro’s non-Egyptian son-in-law, has simply disappeared from the story, never to be mentioned again. How are we to account for this?

In truth, Freud doesn’t need the second Moses. As we just saw, it suffices for him to assert that after the Jews had murdered the Egyptian Moses and rejected his religion, they at some later point, under the influence of Arab Midianites, adopted a new, lower, more primitive form of religion, consisting of the worship of the volcano god. So why did Freud introduce this second Moses to begin with?

To understand this, we must realize that the first two essays of Moses and Monotheism take the form of a detective story or quest. Freud keeps trying to develop his story, but at key points he seems to arrive at a dead end, an insuperable problem. But then he somehow manages to overcome the difficulty and proceed with his account. Indeed, the very insuperable difficulty turns out to be the vehicle for further progress. So it is with the two Moseses: In the second essay, Freud develops his view that Moses was an Egyptian. But now he faces a problem. The noted scholar Eduard Meyer seemed to have demonstrated, in Freud’s view, that it was a Midianite Moses, who could not possibly be identified with Freud’s Egyptian Moses, who gave the Israelite tribes at Kadesh a rather primitive form of religion, centered around the worship of the volcano god. So, who was the real Moses? “Unexpectedly,” Freud writes, “here once more a way of escape presents itself.”

At this point, Freud introduces his controversial claim, based on, it must be said, a rather flimsily grounded argument of the German biblical scholar Ernst Sellin, that the Israelites killed the Egyptian Moses. So, both Freud is right and Meyer is right, because there were two distinct Moseses. The reason, then, that Freud introduces Meyer’s thesis of a second Moses is in order to pose the problem of the two Moseses, which problem requires for its answer the murder of the Egyptian Moses—and this has been Freud’s true goal all along.

However, in the historical résumé with which he begins the third essay, Freud takes the murder of Moses as a given, and he thus no longer needs the thesis of a second Moses for his basic story. Indeed, when Freud in a letter of June 1935 to Lou Andreas-Salomé provided her with an ordered summary of Moses and Monotheism, he omitted any mention of a second Moses, saying only that Midianite priests later introduced a new god to the Israelites.

Funerary figure of Ikhnaton, ca. 1353–1336 B.C.E. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Why was it important to Freud to claim that Moses was an Egyptian and that he was murdered by the Israelites? As we get further into Moses and Monotheism, it turns out that its real goal is to suggest a historical scenario that would explain the Jewish psyche. As Freud wrote to an unidentified “Herr Doktor” in 1937, “Several years ago, I started asking myself how the Jews acquired this special character and, following my usual custom, I went back to the earliest beginnings.” More specifically, he wished to understand the emergence of what might seem to be the paradoxical, but in his eyes undeniable, combination of Jewish self-confidence and Jewish guilt. The repression of the memory of their savior’s murder served to account for Israelite guilt. And the fact that this savior, the Egyptian Moses, had chosen the Israelites helped Freud to account for the emergence of Jewish self-confidence.

Again, working our way backward, let us look at Freud’s claim regarding the murder of Moses. The murder and, perhaps even more so, the repression of its memory are the key elements of both the second essay in Moses and Monotheism and the first part of the third essay. As Freud writes:

The Jewish people under Moses were just as little able to tolerate [his] highly spiritualized religion . . . [T]he savage Semites took fate into their own hands and rid themselves of their tyrant. . . . There came a time when people began to regret the murder of Moses and to seek to forget it. . . . [T]he distressing fact of his violent end was successfully disavowed.

But then, unexpectedly, as the book is coming to a close, Freud minimizes the murder’s significance and, indeed, even seems to doubt whether it occurred at all. “And if they happened to strike their great man dead, they were simply repeating an atrocity that in primal times had been directed as a sanction against a divine king, and that went back, as we know, to an even older example.” Freud is referring, of course, to his speculative theory in Totem and Taboo that both human guilt and religion have their origins in the killing of the primal father by a horde of jealous brothers. Even more unexpected, after this deflationary reference to the Israelites “happen[ing] to strike their great man dead,” “if” indeed they did so, there is no reference at all throughout the third essay’s second part to Moses’s murder. It is simply dropped. Thus, while Freud goes on to refer in several subsequent passages to the Jewish people’s rejection of the Mosaic religion, he never mentions their murder of Moses again. What is going on here?

Originally, as I briefly stated earlier, Freud needed his thesis of the murder of Moses to account for Jewish guilt. It was the murder of Moses that partially brought to the surface the Jews’ memory of the “original sin,” that is, the murder of the primal father described in Totem and Taboo. The Jews repressed both memories, but, as all good Freudians know, repressed memories are the most potent ones. Hence the “growing sense of guilt [that] . . . seized the Jewish people” and its neurotic power. But, as Freud retells his story, it turns out that it was not the repressed memory of the murder of Moses that triggered Jewish guilt, but something else entirely. But if it was not the repressed memory of the murder of Moses that triggered Jewish guilt, what did? In order to answer this, we must put the question to the side for the moment and turn to the third of Freud’s controversial historical claims, namely, that Moses was an Egyptian, the claim with which he begins Moses and Monotheism.

All scholars agree that the evidence that Freud advances in favor of Moses being an Egyptian is extraordinarily weak. Regarding “Moses” being an Egyptian name, Yerushalmi replies: “[W]hat’s in a name? Both Philo and Josephus knew that the name Moses is etymologically Egyptian, but they did not conclude from this that he was of Egyptian stock.” Regarding Freud’s attempt to deduce Moses’s Egyptian origin from the fact that he introduced the allegedly Egyptian custom of circumcision to the Jewish people, Richard Bernstein responds that one could very well imagine that “even a (Hebrew) Moses who led the Jews out of Egypt appropriated the Egyptian practice of circumcision in order to enhance the self-esteem of the slaves.” Indeed, to sharpen Bernstein’s point, one could very well imagine that this is precisely what an assimilated, Egyptianized Hebrew would have done, just as the assimilated, Westernized Theodor Herzl insisted that the delegates to the First Zionist Congress follow Western practice and wear white ties and tails to the festive opening session in order that “[p]eople should get used to seeing the congress as a most exalted and solemn authority.”

The question arises, then, as to why it was so important for Freud to make this claim. After all, he begins his book with the arresting declaration, “To deprive a people of the man whom they take pride in as the greatest of their sons is not a thing to be gladly or carelessly undertaken, least of all by someone who is himself one of them.” So why does Freud make Moses an Egyptian? I ask here not about his psychological motivations or what this means for his sense of himself as a Jew, but rather about the function that Moses being an Egyptian plays within the book’s overall argument.

For Freud, as he states time and again, the source of the Jewish people’s extraordinary self-confidence is their belief in their election by God. But, of course, for Freud, who does not believe in God, who is one of those who, as he puts it, “are poor in faith,” election by God means election by Moses. For him, just as God is the great other, so Moses has to be other than the people he chose. And here we come to the significance of Moses being an Egyptian. For, to begin, Moses’s otherness, for Freud, is an ethnic otherness. Moses, the Egyptian, chooses the Israelites, who as a group of Semitic tribes are foreigners, are ethnically other than him, to be his new people.

In his second essay, “. . . If Moses Was an Egyptian,” after Freud develops his “hypothesis” that Moses was an aristocratic Egyptian, an “ambitious and energetic . . . convinced adherent of the new religion [of the Aton],” he further suggests that after Ikhnaton’s death and the ensuing rejection of the religion of Aton, Moses decided to find “a new people to whom he would present for their worship the religion which Egypt had disdained.”

Perhaps he was . . . Governor of the frontier province (Goshen) in which certain Semitic tribes had settled . . . These he chose to be his new people . . . He came to an agreement with them, put himself at their head and carried the Exodus through “by strength of hand.”

One might assume that these Semitic tribes were oppressed by the Egyptian empire, but there is nary a word about them being enslaved, much less of their being Yerushalmi’s “crude mass of . . . slaves.” What is significant for Freud here is that Moses, the Egyptian aristocrat, chose foreigners to be his new people. Indeed, it is striking that while Freud in Moses and Monotheism always refers to the biblical Israelites anachronistically as Jews, here he refers to them as “certain Semitic tribes,” emphasizing their ethnic otherness. This, then, is why Moses, for Freud, had to be an Egyptian, for his election of the Jewish people to be “his” people could have meaning only if they, to begin with, were not his people.

But in a famous passage near the end of the book, Freud paints Moses’s election of the Jews very differently, though most scholars, including Yerushalmi, conflate it with the earlier ones. He writes that Moses as “a mighty prototype of a father . . . stooped to the poor Jewish bondsmen to assure them that they were his dear children.” Here there is no mention, as earlier, of the biblical Israelites being a group of Semitic tribes, and there is no need for Freud to make Moses into an Egyptian. For Moses’s otherness, here, is not an ethnic otherness, but a social otherness. Moses’s election of the Jews consists in his being an aristocrat who stoops to the level of Jewish slaves and chooses them to be his children. Note that he does not choose them to be his people—they already are his people. Here Freud’s Moses is, to return to my earlier remark, something of a Theodor Herzl type: the assimilated Jew who returns to his people to redeem them from persecution and oppression. (Freud admired Herzl as a “fighter for the human rights of our people” and inscribed a copy of his Interpretation of Dreams to Herzl.) Therefore, while Freud in this section states that Moses took his monotheism from Ikhnaton, he never refers to Moses as an Egyptian. For it is no longer necessary for Moses to be ethnically other than the Jew in order to elect the Jews.

I can now answer my earlier question. If it was not the repressed memory of the murder of Moses that triggered Jewish guilt, what was it, according to Freud? I would now answer that it was the fatherhood of Moses, his stooping down and choosing poor slaves as his “dear children,” that at one and the same time was the source of the Jewish people’s extraordinary self-confidence and extraordinary guilt. For the appearance of Father Moses, alongside the appearance of God the Father that constituted the substance of his teaching, and behind both the submerged memory of the primal father, elicits both love and hostility. The love toward the father—Moses, God, the primal father, or all three blended together—and the sense of being chosen by him give rise to the sense of self-confidence, while the unacknowledged and repressed hostility toward him gives rise to guilt. In the last section of Moses and Monotheism, Freud writes: 

The first effect of meeting the being who had so long been missed and longed for was overwhelming and was like the traditional description of the law-giving from Mount Sinai. Admiration, awe and thankfulness for having found grace in his eyes—the religion of Moses knew none but these positive feelings towards the father-god. . . . A rapture of devotion to God was thus the first reaction to the return of the great father. . . .

Yet . . . [a]mbivalence is a part of the essence of the relation to the father: in the course of time the hostility too could not fail to stir, which had once driven the sons into killing their admired and dreaded father. There was no place in the framework of the religion of Moses for a direct expression of the murderous hatred of the father. All that could come to light was a mighty reaction against it—a sense of guilt on account of that hostility, a bad conscience for having sinned against God and for not ceasing to sin.

Note that here it is “the murderous hatred of the father,” whether the father be Moses or God or the primal father—more likely all three—that gives rise to the “sense of guilt.” To be sure, that hostility “had once driven the sons into killing their admired and dreaded father,” but there is no indication here that it drove the Israelites to kill their admired and dreaded Father Moses. And indeed, no repressed memory of an actual murder is necessary in order to instill any sense of guilt in the Israelites; the unexpressed hostility and murderous rage are more than sufficient. For, as Freud has taught us, in the depths of the unconscious, the wish is as potent as the deed.

In truth, in both Freud’s earlier account in the book and his later one it is the memory of the father that serves as the source of Jewish guilt and the consequent “deep impression” that the “monotheistic idea made upon them.” However, in the earlier account, the very first time Freud describes Moses as a father figure is at the very moment he, Moses, is murdered. “Fate had brought the great deed and misdeed of primeval days, the killing of the father, closer to the Jewish people by causing them to repeat it on the person of Moses, an outstanding father-figure.” It is almost as if the Jewish people’s murder of Moses turned him into an “outstanding father-figure.” In the later account, however, Moses’s initial appearance to the Jewish people is in the role of a father. To cite the full passage that I excerpted earlier:

There is no doubt that it was a mighty prototype of a father, which, in the person of Moses, stooped to the poor Jewish bondsmen to assure them that they were his dear children. And no less overwhelming must have been the effect upon them of the idea of an only, eternal, almighty God, to whom they were not too mean for him to make a covenant with them and who promised to care for them if they remained loyal to his worship. It was probably not easy for them to distinguish the image of the man Moses from that of his God, and their feeling was right in this, for Moses may have introduced traits of his own personality into the character of his God—such as his wrathful temper and his relentlessness.

To be sure, this passage is immediately followed by Freud’s statement, “And if they then happened to strike this their great man dead, they were simply repeating an atrocity that in primeval times . . . ,” but, given that, as we have seen, the unexpressed hostility and murderous rage toward the father were more than sufficient to instill guilt in the Israelites, we can now understand why he minimizes here the significance of the actual murder of Moses—“if,” indeed, it “happened” at all—and why throughout the rest of the third essay’s second part he drops all mention of it.

In sum, in Freud’s first account, the one everyone knows, it is the repressed memory of the murder of Moses, who becomes a father only when he is murdered, that is the source of Jewish guilt. However, in Freud’s second account, at the close of his book, it is the repressed hostility that the Jewish people felt toward Moses, who from the very beginning appeared as an “adored and feared” father in the eyes of his “dear children,” that serves as the source of their guilt.

In the first account it is the election of the “Semitic” Israelites by the Egyptian Moses that gives rise to their sense of self-confidence, while it is the repressed memory of Moses’s murder that triggers Jewish guilt. But in the second account it is the appearance of Moses, the father, together with his teaching about God the Father and the ambivalent feelings they trigger that, at one and the same time, elicit both Jewish self-confidence and Jewish guilt. This is, at least as psychoanalysis, a plausible claim, and it requires none of the historical pyrotechnics of Freud’s more famous story.

A deep and striking narrative irony, then, lies at the very heart of Moses and Monotheism. At the very beginning of the second part of the third essay Freud writes, “The [second] part of this study . . . is nothing other than a faithful (and often word-for-word) repetition of the first part [of the third essay], abbreviated in some of its critical enquiries and augmented by additions relating to the problem of how the special character of the Jewish people arose.” And readers have taken him at his word. However, in the course of discussing “the problem of how the special character of the Jewish people arose,” Freud changes the book’s storyline radically, dropping the claims about Moses, the Egyptian governor, and his being murdered by the very people he liberated and replacing them with his new picture of Moses, the admired and dreaded “mighty prototype of a father” who, though he was rejected by his “dear children” and served as the object of their (unconscious) “murderous hatred,” was never literally murdered by them.

When someone retells a story—especially a story of great importance—it is never told the same way, despite the teller’s protestations to the contrary. It changes in ways of which the teller may be unaware. This was, of course, a lesson taught by the master, Freud himself, but that does not mean that he himself was exempt from it.

Strikingly, when Jews sit down to retell the story of the exodus on Passover night, the account, as found in the Haggadah, differs radically from that in the Bible. While the biblical account focuses on Moses’s critical role in liberating his people, the account in the Haggadah famously, almost shockingly, makes no mention of Moses at all; the focus is exclusively on God. But this change in the retelling, far from being inadvertent or unconscious, was deliberate. It was as if the Rabbis wished to make sure that Moses’s people would always be able “to distinguish the image of the man Moses from that of his God.” For the rabbis, unlike Freud, were men of faith


  1. ynew23

    Despite Kaplan's best efforts, I, for one, am not convinced. To paraphrase 'Inherit the Wind,' "If it's good enough for Yerushalmi, it's good enough for me." No one did more to unravel Freud's Moses as Professor Rabbi Yosef Chaim Yerushalmi. Yerushalmi, as Kaplan himself quotes at length, understands Freud's Moses to have been an Egyptian, killed by the Jews, and the existent of two Moseses. That Freud doesn't repeat these assertions on every page, doesn't take away from his believing in them. As the talmud itself asserts, Zachor vShamor were said at the same time.

    Rabbi Yossi Newfield

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