Love him or hate him, Sigmund Freud still commands attention in Western and Jewish culture. The father of psychoanalysis continues to cause controversy with the validity of his theories. His last book, Moses and Monotheism, is now the subject of a lengthy and probing analysis by R.J. “Roov” Koret, a cum laude graduate of Princeton University with a religion degree (Koret and I were Princeton classmates). Koret made aliya, found a place as an entrepreneur in Start-Up Nation and in publishing, then moved on other global interests. In his new book Heroic Fraud: How Sigmund Freud Got Away with Literary Murder, Koret returns to the last literary work of Freud, who has interested Koret since his senior-thesis days.
In Heroic Fraud, Koret takes a deep dive into Freud’s hidden messages in Moses and Monotheism, suggested by a quote from Moses:
The distortion of a text is not unlike a murder. The difficulty lies not in perpetuating the deed but in eliminating the traces.
Koret and I recently had a wide-ranging online discussion of the 40-year gestation of the book, its complex ideas, the startling nature of his own translation of Moses and Monotheism (eschewing the softening language of past translators), the mystery at the heart of the misunderstood book, and what comes next following his trilogy of analysis and translation.
He also shared his revised view on Freud’s Jewishness as it arose from their intensive textual engagement: “I realized that Freud was echad m’shelanu—one of our own.”
What led you to become a religion major at Princeton?
Probably the use of psychedelics in my freshman year at Princeton had something to do with it. Carlos Castaneda comes to mind. My interest initially was more indigenous American and Eastern religions and far less Judeo-Christian. I was raised Jewish, but at first I felt no deep connection with Judaism, or Israel, for that matter. This research, plus the trigger of Jew-hatred I felt in New York after the Lebanon War soon after, brought me to be a proud Jew and Israeli.
When did you become interested in Freud?
I wrote a creative thesis—produced and acted in a music play about Biblical characters going through college together. The head of the Religion Department decided at the last moment that I needed to supplement it with something more traditional—or not graduate. So I thought it would be easy and quick to write a Freudian interpretation of the dreams of the biblical Joseph, since he was a main character in my play.
I soon discovered that Freud had a lifelong connection with the figure of Joseph—his father was named Jakob, he was the elder favorite son of a second wife, and he was the same ambitious dreamer type. His first major work was The Interpretation of Dreams and in a footnote in that book he confesses that his ego finds it easy to hide behind the biblical figure and, indeed, there are many dreams involving the figure of Joseph.
And how did that connect to the figure of Moses, the main subject of your book?
Well, I learned immediately that Moses and Monotheism was Freud’s last book, written in the 1930s, just after Hitler came to power, so I was naturally curious what connection that might have to his Joseph identification. In a footnote, again, he mentions the story of Joseph and his brethren in connection with anti-Semitism: that the sibling rivalry and jealousy of the goyim relative to the Jews was comparable to that of the brothers toward their upstart brother.
But what was striking about the book was its shocking claims—that Moses was an Egyptian, not a Hebrew, that he was murdered by the “savage Semites,” that the guilt from that murder eventually led to Judaism. Perhaps most shockingly, he implied that the claim that the Jews killed Christ had some truth in it. Not surprisingly, scholars and critics panned the book, said it was a product of senility, of panic from the dire political situation, of Jewish self-hatred.
And how did you connect that to your Joseph thesis?
At first, I didn’t. But the text of the book seemed to have all kinds of hints that there was another layer of meaning, that something was lying between its lines. Freud wrote that “the distortion of a text is not unlike a murder, that the difficulty was not in doing the deed but in eliminating the traces.” There were strange repetitions, internal contradictions, historical inaccuracies, errors that would shame a schoolboy. It was full of seeming Freudian slips, and critics leaped on these to make the case that the book was best forgotten and an embarrassment to Freud’s legacy.
But then I begin thinking of the Joseph story, how in a catastrophic time Joseph’s brothers came down to Egypt seeking sustenance and came before their brother, garbed as a powerful Egyptian, not recognizing him. And what does Joseph do? He sets them up, falsely accuses them, takes away one of them, all to test them. And I began to wonder, maybe just maybe Freud was doing something similar with his Moses. Maybe, like many authors writing under conditions of persecution, he had to write in a kind of code, communicate “between the lines” to evade censorship and punishment for dangerous thoughts about the root causes of anti-Semitism.
What kind of code did he use? It’s a published book, after all.
Well, in fact he withheld the last part of his book, more than half the content, until after he had fled Austria in 1938, in the last year of his life. He told friends that the book was too controversial to publish in Vienna and would lead to the prohibition of psychoanalysis by the Christian authorities. Initially, he only published the first two chapters in his psychoanalytic journal, Imago. He published the full book only after arrival in exile in London. The English translation came out just months before his death, exactly 80 years ago.
If you carefully read the book, Freud lays out lots of clues to what he is secretly doing. Essentially, he says his “treatment” is an application of psychoanalysis, and only those familiar with its interpretive method would understand it. What he didn’t say, at least explicitly, is that the book is written as if it were a dream, actually two pairs of daydreams: one about Moses being an Egyptian and the other about how the Jews supposedly killed their liberator and lawgiver. In Freudian theory, each dream has a manifest content and a hidden latent content. The manifest content is a kind of façade—distorted, displaced, symbolically represented—that needs to be taken apart, element by element, following various associations to get back to the latent intent and the secret forbidden wish that produced the impulse for the dream or, in this case, the book.
And what is the forbidden wish that you say is hidden inside the text of Moses?
Well, I don’t want to give away a spoiler about what’s essentially at the heart of my mystery—a kind of criminal case history. I argue that Freud got away with a kind of literary murder. At the heart of the book there are death wishes—more than one, in fact—directed against Freud’s enemies. The book is about Jew-hatred and its causes, so it’s not rocket science to guess that he’s after those who were persecuting him, and his people.
Besides your own analysis, are there other writers or scholars who have suggested something like this?
Not really. Most scholars were content to huff and puff about how weak and speculative his arguments were. No one really connected the Joseph and Moses themes in Freud’s life. The ones who got the closest were David Bakan, who wrote Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition in the 1950s, suggesting that Freud created Moses as a kind of self-deprecating joke, playing the fool to deflect hostility of the goyim. Even closer was a 1991 work by Israeli scholar Yosef Yerushalmi—in Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable—who found some of the pro-Jewish elements in Moses yet did not suspect that there was any kind of effort to dissemble or disguise the book’s meaning or to fabricate a kind of dream that needed interpretation.
Are there no contemporaries of Freud who could corroborate your claim?
There is a famous contemporary of Freud who I believe understood exactly what he was doing—and confirmed it publicly. Thomas Mann—the Nobel-winning author, a German and a Christian—was at the time writing his own epic novel, Joseph and His Brothers—and he gave the keynote lecture at Freud’s festive 80th birthday celebration in 1936. He seems almost to talk more about Joseph than about Freud and even refers to a chapter of this book called “The Great Hoaxing” in which biblical characters follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, re-enacting previous mythical stories. Mann implies that there are historical figures who do the same, modeling their lives on these legendary prototypes.
Not only does Mann make this assertion, but Freud responds to him in a subsequent letter, recalling the novelist’s festive address and wondering whether there isn’t a modern figure who followed in the footsteps of the biblical Joseph! Freud goes on to say that he is thinking of Napoleon Bonaparte, but the letter is full of little mistakes, and when your trace those “Freudian slips” to references to French history and literature in his previous writings, you find case after case in which Freud puts himself in the place of the great man, in effect displacing Napoleon. So, like Joseph said to his brothers, he is indirectly confirming what he called his “secret daemonic motor” to Mann, saying, in essence, about the biblical interpreter of dreams: “I am he.” So this relationship between Freud and Mann is a centerpiece of my first book.
Let’s get back to your own personal history. You made all these discoveries in your mid-20s. Why didn’t you publish then?
I wrote a manuscript and submitted it to the University of Chicago Press, a really suitable house at the time. I signed a contract with them, and I lectured at the Freud Museum in London. I published an article about my thesis in the Jewish journal, Response. But when I submitted my manuscript to the publisher’s academic readers, two of the three said it was not scholarly enough, too unconventional. I had no Ph.D. to establish my credentials. So they canceled the contract. It was a devastating blow to my 25-year-old ego, and for decades I laid the book aside.
You moved to Israel, and then what happened?
I made aliya, got married, raised a family, immersed myself in Israeli life, the start-up nation, the technology scene. I had my own mini-exit with some Harvard University partners, selling a website called Africana.com to AOL Time Warner for an eight-figure sum. I prematurely considered myself a philanthropist. I started Israel Insider, a site about Israeli politics. My media agency produced big web Israeli sites like Israel21c, and Birthright. I was writing, editing and publishing full-time, but the Freud book still haunted me like an unlaid ghost.
What finally convinced you to move ahead with Heroic Fraud?
Almost 40 years after the initial discovery at Princeton, it really was a kind of wandering in the wilderness. I had a glimpse of the promised land of publication, but never entered it. And then I began looking into the self-publication avenue, talking to people who had done it, and decide I would set aside my pride and the need for validation from a scholarly house, and just do it. I went to Vienna for a couple of years, learned some German, researched at Freud’s house there, and knocked out not only an improved version of the book, but a fresh new translation of Moses and Monotheism itself.
Both Heroic Fraud and my translation of Moses and Monotheism are now available on Amazon, in paperback and Kindle editions. There is third volume called Pious Freud coming out soon: that completes the story, focusing on “the return of the repressed” and Freud’s emotional and intellectual homecoming to Judaism, to the witty, enlightened faith of his father Jakob.
What was the toughest part of the project?
The toughest—and most gratifying—part of the work was the initial research and analysis of Moses, tracing down the various clues and hints and slips he left in the text to references to the same subjects and terms in his previous writings. His collected writings can be understood as a kind of personal unconscious: the challenge was treating his clues as associations to traces in his unconscious mind to unpack his intended meaning. In so doing, I gained insight into how a playful genius thinks—I would say talmudically—how he created a kind of literary puzzle game of back-links for an inquisitive reader to follow and solve. I felt myself a protégé of the master, learning at his feet about psychoanalysis, his worldview, his literary realm, and his Jewishness.
Freud is a challenge to read in English, how did you become fluent enough in German to translate him?
My initial analysis of Moses relied on the two existing translations, by Katharine Jones and James Strachey, and I was able to get the gist of what Freud was doing even through those linguistic filters. But along the way, I realized that I needed to get back to the original German to reach a deeper level of understanding. I went to live in Vienna for a couple of years, I studied manuscripts and resources in the library and museum that now fills his former home and clinic.
Spoken German is still a problem for me: hearing “Achtung!” on the U-Bahn can still send chills down by spine. Reading German is more manageable and methodical: yes, the word order is at first disorienting, but it is an exacting, explicit language. I went sentence by sentence, accounting for each word, trying to choose the English phrasings that most closely matched the words Freud chose. In the original, I discovered much more word-play and hints to his secret intent: it becomes clear in various places that he is begging the reader to apply psychoanalytic interpretive technique to his “treatment:” that, to be correctly understood, his text had to be treated as a dream. Striking, too, is the softening by previous Christian translators of Freud’s bitter sarcasm and biting irony. His references to “Jew-hatred” are neutered to “anti-Semitism.” His reference to Moses leaving his “Fatherland” with his Jews is ignored. I guess it takes a Jew to get a Jewish joke.
Did the process of research change your thinking about Freud?
Dramatically. As a college student, he appeared just another “old guy” who smoked cigars and was obsessed with sex. But as I read his collected writings, another man emerged: kind of a heroic composite of Joseph and Moses. He could be petty, and vindictive, authoritarian—but at heart he was was what Israelis would call a shovav. As a writer, he is creative, playful, mischievous, almost a joker, even as he invented a science and really transformed our culture.
You know the old joke about how sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. On the other hand, sometimes a book is not just a book, and a Jew is not just a Jew. As my own Jewishness developed throughout my lifetime, nurtured by the experiment in Jewish diversity that it is Israel, I realized that Freud was echad m’shelanu—one of our own. Not pious in an orthodox sense, for sure, but taking his place in Judaism’s prophetic tradition, a voice crying in the wilderness: the defiant, furious yet self-restrained leader and lawgiver, profoundly a Jew to his core.
Is there a contemporary message for Jews in Moses and Monotheism? How accessible is that message to more general readers?
At its core, Moses is about the essence of Judaism and anti-Semitism. It isn’t the version you will hear in Sunday School, or in shul for that matter. But it is an incisive investigation into the kind of radical Jew-hatred that reared it head in the 1930s and 1940s but originated way way back and has never really gone away, though its shape shifts from decade to decade and place to place, including the present day. It also is an incisive and damning indictment of Christian and scholarly complicity with the Nazis, especially from Freud’s former colleague Carl Jung and so many other academics who accommodated the Jew-haters. Essentially Freud saw his theory of the killing of the primal, patriarchal father by the resentful barbaric sons—some doing the deed and others standing by and rationalizing it—being re-enacted by the Nazis before the eyes of the world. A passion play, indeed, that has much in common with the story of the judicial killing of another Jew, with the father religion displaced by the son-religion.
Heroic Fraud and Pious Freud are not easy reading, nor are they intended to be. They are labors of love written for a reader ready to question conventional wisdom and use original thinking to explore something complex and disturbing: the Jewish essence, the root causes of why our people have attracted such undying hatred. I am especially proud of my fresh, more literal English translation of Moses and Monotheism. It really brings to light what the author wrote, rather than what previous translators embellished or diluted. I think that it is far more accessible to general readers than any previous edition. Amazingly, all this available with a click!
What’s next for you, Roov? More books on Freud, something totally different, or just kicking back on the beach?
I think Freud deserves to rest in peace for a while. As for me, after a difficult divorce, and some years wandering in Europe and Asia, I am looking forward to coming home, reconnecting with my kids and my adopted country. I have found that, via the Internet, a good writer can always find work and, to paraphrase birkat hamazon, won’t starve. That was a discovery I needed to leave Israel to make. I return with stories from my travels in the fleshpots of the galut, but I am also curious to discover what awaits in Israel and to be reminded what is the same-same!