Finding Fathers:
Hannah Arendt and Sigmund Freud
Write Their Jewish Histories


Jack Marmorstein

University of Minnesota

Copyright © 1999 by Jack Marmorstein, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

"For all the time that I was carried about, away from my own land, as long as I called to mind the Name of the Great God, and gave up my very life for the sake of his God-head, even the peoples of the earth did not despise me." (Targum to the Song of Songs, 8:1)

"We have become orphans, fatherless." (Lamentations, 5:3)

  1. In her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt proposes a detailed and compelling analysis of the history of European Jewry in modernity. She traces the general emergence of modern racism, of the modern nation-state, and of totalitarianism alongside the particular path of Jewry from the emancipation from the ghettos to the Nazi death camps. In amongst the writings about Jewish history she produced while working on Origins of Totalitarianism, however, there is one particularly anomalous and telling piece. "Jewish History, Revised" is a short engagement with the seventeenth century mystical, messianic movement of Sabbatai Tzwi. Arendt celebrates the Sabbatian mystical heresy as a great moment of Jewish political engagement. According to her reading, Sabbatian mysticism allowed Jews "to develop instruments for active participation in the destiny of mankind" (1978, 102). At first glance, the essay is a little disconcerting. Why would she stray so far from her focus--European Jewry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--to celebrate a mystical enthusiasm that originated two hundred years earlier and a continent away? And why would she deploy her usually down-to-earth political judgment in support of an ideology of cosmic redemption?
  2. One set of answers to these questions makes reference to Arendt's biography and the historical context of her intellectual development. During Arendt's flight from Europe she encountered the meditations on mystical messianism of her fellow German-Jewish ex-patriots Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem. Her arguments about the Sabbatian heresy most likely originated while reading Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism in Paris with Benjamin. Later, Benjamin entrusted her to take his manuscripts to America. Arendt read Benjamin's messianic essay "Theses on the Philosophy of History" aloud to her fellow refugees as they sat on a dock in Lisbon anxiously awaiting passage to America. Like Sabbatai Tzwi before them, Scholem, Benjamin and Arendt all looked toward a messianic engagement with the fate of the world at the moment of an unspeakable historical catastrophe and of their unbearable helplessness. The experience of tragedy affected each individual at the level of both personal loss and political grief. Similarly, the meaning that redemption had for each of them was equally personal and political. At the personal level, Arendt's essay was engaging Benjamin and Scholem; at the political level, she was engaging Zionism.
  3. Indeed, an answer to the question of why such an unmitigated historical disaster as the Sabbatian heresy would become a powerful myth for displaced European Jews can be seen in the larger context of Zionist intellectual work. Arendt was introduced to Zionism by her close friend and mentor Kurt Blumenfield, and her understanding of Jewish history and politics was profoundly influenced by Zionism. Although she was in the process of developing a substantial critique of Zionism while writing Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt's analysis of the political impotence of assimilated European Jewry shares a great deal with the Zionist indictment of the weakness of Jews in the diaspora. Additionally, her celebration of the Sabbatian heresy has its antecedents in the Zionist search for an ideology of political redemption in Sabbatian doctrine. Indeed, one president of the World Zionist Congress and two presidents of Israel were all originally scholars of Sabbatianism (Liebes, 93). So, following in the tradition of her close friends and in the tradition of the Jewish political thought of the day, Arendt uncharacteristically celebrates an otherworldly theology for its belief in worldly redemption.
  4. But the historical and biographical reasons for Arendt's engagement with Sabbatianism are not sufficient to account for the importance of the Sabbatian movement in Arendt's vision of the history of modern Jewry. Indeed, Arendt would, at times, emphatically distance herself from Zionism, from Scholem and from Judaism. In examining her work on the Sabbatian heresy, the questions still remain: why does she hold a religious movement in such high political esteem, and why does she follow Zionism and Scholem with such uncharacteristic fidelity? Far from thinking of herself as following conventional wisdom, however, Arendt conceives of the article as an effort to rewrite Jewish history in order to resurrect its repressed truth. In this vein, Arendt's piece shares more than one might expect with another strange rewriting of Jewish history of the decade before: Freud's Moses and Monotheism. For Arendt, the Sabbatian heresy is the antidote to the tragic history of Jewry in modernity not only because it shows Jews as active political agents--this is largely a Zionist projection anyway (Liebes, 93)--but because Sabbatai Tzwi does for Arendt the imaginary work that Moses does for Freud in Moses and Monotheism.
  5. In looking to one variety of father or another (Moses the deliverer, Sabbatai Tzwi the messiah) to answer the questions raised by their own Jewish identities and by the fate of their coreligionists, Freud and Arendt seek the to explain the power of the absence of positive content of their Jewish identity. For answers, they look to an origin that is traditionally hidden from conscious knowledge. The lost father that they seek at the origin can be seen as a father who approximates the ineffable, monotheist God of the Jews in their insistently secular intellects (Freud himself claims that his Moses reveals nothing less than the psychological origins of monotheism). To find this father, both Freud and Arendt reach deeply into history and pull out the most unexpected stories. Yet far from being the arbitrary inventions of one or another over-active imagination, the histories that emerge are precisely the ones that can answer the negative question posed by those belonging to Jewry in modernity: if being a Jew is neither the sum of a given set of behaviors and beliefs, nor some genetically or racially encoded essence, then what is a Jew and what makes me one?
  6. The direct answers that both Arendt and Freud articulate for themselves are only a starting point--Freud announces, for example, that he "feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew" (S.E., XIII, xv) and Arendt states, "I merely belong to them [the Jews] as a matter of course, beyond dispute and argument" (1978, 247). But beyond the undeniable fact of their Jewish parentage, both nonbelievers seek something in Judaism. Rather than claiming recourse to the inadequate category of "cultural Jew," both find in the religious history of the Jews the most meaningful explanations of their identity. In the way that both Freud and Arendt imagine their Jewish identity, there is something about being Jewish that cannot be adequately accounted for by socialization or acculturation. In whatever way being Jewish exceeds its social and cultural dimensions, it cannot but make reference to its religious dimension. Even for the nonbeliever, the secular reality of Jewishness needs to be supplemented by the sacred real of Judaism in order to signify a Jewish identity. Both Freud and Arendt propose their own versions of monotheism in the histories that they write of the fathers of their Jewish experiences. Able to signify their relationships with their Jewish identity only elliptically, their stories echo the singular attribute of the Jewish God: its ineffable, inexpressible power in spite of its absence. Despite their atheism, Freud and Arendt move towards this God. The other path, that of the flight of the Jews away from Judaism, away from their "religion of the father" (Freud), is, for Freud and Arendt, the beginning of the tragedy of modern European Jewry.
  7. "The deeper motives of anti-Semitism. . . come from the unconscious. . . I venture to assert that the jealousy which the Jews evoked in other peoples by maintaining that they were the favourite child of God the Father has not yet been overcome by those others." (Freud, S.E., XXIII, 91, translation altered[1])

  8. Arendt saw modern Jewish history as occurring in the tension between the old segregated life of the ghetto and the new demand that Jewry join in the great ideologies of modernity. Anticipating recent work on nationalism and colonialism, Arendt describes the difficult path of the minority from pre-modern forms of social organization to identities formed in relation to the modern nation-state, to modern racism and to the modern economy. Indeed, Arendt's analysis of anti-Semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism draws significantly from her analysis of colonialism. In her work on colonialism, Arendt finds three keys to her understanding of the Jewish experience in modern Europe: 1) colonizers were the first to essentialize racial identity, thereby laying the conceptual groundwork for all modern racism; 2) the governance of colonies required the bureaucratic organization that Arendt suggests is at the heart of totalitarianism; and 3) the conducting of "administrative massacres" in the colonies was, for Arendt, the chilling avatar of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. In turn, the psychology Arendt proposes to account for the exacerbation of racial violence during the twentieth century speaks directly to the experience of minorities in Europe and America today. Slavoj Zizek suggests that today's racism is a "universalized anti-Semitism" (79). And Arendt's portrait of anti-Semitism, containing as it does the horrifying alchemy of essentialized, geneticized identities, of envy and fanaticism and of judgment and punishment, supports Zizek's own emphasis on what Lacan calls jouissance at the heart of modern racial hatred.
  9. According to Arendt, Jews who were no longer defined either by their life within the walls of the ghetto or by their public affirmation of Judaic monotheism were the first to hold that their Jewishness consisted of a certain underlying essence. Their movement away from Judaism and toward assimilation began with the interiorization of an essentialized Jewishness. Arendt writes:
  10. Instead of being defined by a nationality or religion, Jews were being transformed into a social group whose members shared certain psychological attributes and reactions, the sum total of which was supposed to constitute "Jewishness." (1979, 66)

    Jewishness, not Judaism, came to be the foundation of the identity of secular, assimilated Jews. These Jews, divorced from both the sacred roots of their identity and the political necessity of their affiliation, paradoxically took their belonging to the chosen people as a mantel of their superiority and a guarantor of their continuity. Belief in their chosenness and the status that it conferred bolstered the assimilated Jews against the psychological toll taken by persistent anti-Semitism. Jewishness was, Arendt explains, deployed to "combat feelings of social inferiority" (1979,73).

  11. Playing on their Jewishness for personal gain, the socially ambitious, politically naive Jews--the parvenus against whom Arendt levels her most vicious attack--both discarded their Judaism most completely and simultaneously traded on its exoticism to enhance their prestige. There emerged, Arendt argues, "a very real Jewish chauvinism. . . . From now on, the old religious concept of chosenness was no longer the essence of Judaism; it became the essence of Jewishness" (1979, 74). Chosenness, in other words, ceased to indicate the relationship of a people to God and Torah and began to be a personal attribute, a marker of superiority. While religious faith had remained strong, chosenness had signalled a responsibility: Jews were the priestly class of humankind, expected to fulfill their covenant with God by following an elaborate set of laws and practices to which the rest of humankind was not subject. The movement away from this world-view marked the disintegration of Judaism--i.e., the public, communal set of common practices and beliefs that bound Jewry even in the diaspora--and the establishment in its place of a psychological fantasy of Jewishness--an identity motivated by the gratification of belonging to an elite clique.[2]
  12. The parvenus enjoyed their Jewishness. These Jews, Arendt writes bluntly, "were obsessed by [their Jewishness] as one might be by a physical defect or advantage, and addicted to it as one may be to a vice" (1979, 84). The internalization of an essential identity and the fantasizing of a uniquely "Jewish" psyche inaugurated both a new experience of being Jewish and, for the majority culture, a new relationship to the Jews in their midst. Indeed, the widespread admission of Jews into the social elite in the nineteenth century, Arendt claims, can be traced to the new form of Jewish identity that inspired fascination and curiosity. A select number of "exception Jews," as Arendt calls them, were able to gain access to the rarified worlds of the Prussian salons of the early nineteenth century and later to the crumbling Faubourg Saint Germain of the Second Empire. That the social success of the parvenu came at the expense of others and that social climbing was an individual sport were of no concern to those who had little awareness of the divisions that they were exacerbating. The social acceptance that Jews gained, according to Arendt, always came at the expense of their political viability. Willing to pay any price, socially ambitious Jews flaunted their essential value while at the same time emphasizing their distance from their coreligionists.
  13. To build a link between the social phenomenon of growing assimilation and the dominance of anti-Semitism in Nazi totalitarianism, Arendt introduces a typology of virtue and vice within which the imagined essence of the minority found itself. Eventually, Arendt claims, totalitarian anti-Semitism became a sort of vice-squad to eradicate the minority essence where vice inexorably resided. Prior to emancipation, Judaism had generally been a crime (i.e., the act of worshiping the Jewish God was prohibited in the public realm of a society--it was tolerated only when done secretly or behind the walls of the ghetto). In the eyes of the majority, the modern, emancipated Jew, no longer proscribed, internalized this crime in his/her essence. And essence became morally coded to refer either to virtue in the eyes of the chosen or to vice in the eyes of everyone else. Rather than being an outlaw, the Jew became a sort of genetic mutant, someone who inspired either fascination or hatred as a member of an "accursed race" (Proust). According to Arendt, post-emancipation majority society oscillated wildly between philosemitism and anti-Semitism. While the laws that once forbade Jewish observance had been aimed at Jewish communal practice, society's rules took as their object the secret, essential Jew. Arendt writes:
  14. Jewish origin, without religious and political connotation, became everywhere a psychological quality, was changed into "Jewishness," and from then on could be considered only in the categories of virtue and vice. If it is true that "Jewishness" could not have been perverted into an interesting vice without considering it a crime, it is also true that such perversion was made possible by those Jews who considered it an innate virtue. (1979, 83)

    Jewishness became entrapped in the circuitry of virtue or vice when the Jew gained entrance to society by taking advantage of society's philosemitism. For Arendt, the philosemitism that enabled the social acceptance of the Jews became part and parcel of the mind-set that would later whole-heartedly support their extermination.

  15. According to Arendt, the non-Jewish social elite (aristocrats and their entourage), bored by their dwindling role in the nation-state and threatened by encroaching ideologies of equality, were fascinated by exotic others. In these others, they saw the perverse reflection of their own pedigrees. Their own sense of superiority was confirmed in those who had racial lineage, even if that lineage had previously signalled inferiority and exclusion. Society's decadent curiosity was happily satisfied by the novelty of the Jew's secret essence. In society, however, the Jew had entered into the domain laden with social values in which secrets of genealogy, inheritance, chauvinism, and rank reigned supreme even as the new bourgeoisie attempted to establish an equality among national citizens.[3] Public law only addressed the universal man who is devoid of essential predicates or inbred virtues or vices. For parvenus and philosemites, however, society's ruthless code of conduct (and later racist ideology) posited the existence of an essential trait that the Jew is helpless to resist; and as the parvenus submitted their application to society, they also submitted to a more ruthless regime of judgment than public law.
  16. Arendt suggests that society was willing to accept vice because of its predestined quality that the individual is helpless to combat. Yet this apparent generosity, "if allowed to establish its own code of law, will invariably prove more cruel and inhuman than laws, no matter how severe, which respect and recognize man's independent responsibility for his behavior" (1979, 81). In the case of laws that take predication into account, the law is misunderstood to be directed against the individuals' essential traits rather than their actions. Eradicating vice would therefore inevitably involve exterminating those whose essence was itself a vice. Once considered an essential virtue or vice, Jewishness, the Jew's "secret treasure" (Freud), metamorphosed uncontrollably between an object of hatred and love--each stance amplified by the hidden meaning beyond reason that being Jewish took on.
  17. Arendt claims that "[s]ocial 'philosemitism' always ended by adding to political antisemitism that mysterious fanaticism" (1979, 87, emphasis added). The perverse enjoyment that the philosemites receive from their intimacy with Jews as exotic others is easily transformed into a perverse enjoyment of their expulsion and annihilation. Arendt writes:
  18. If there is any psychological truth to the scapegoat theory, it is as the effect of this social attitude toward Jews; for when antisemitic legislation forced society to oust the Jews, [the] "philosemites" felt as though they had to purge themselves of secret viciousness, to cleanse themselves of a stigma which they had mysteriously and wickedly loved. (1979, 86)

    According to Arendt, the philosemite and the anti-Semite enjoy their relation with the Jew in the same way, even as their treatment of the Jew seems antithetical. When high social value is accorded to a given essential identity, then its indulgence is sanctioned and widespread; when the National Front or the Nazi Party demand the renunciation of this arrangement, then it is renounced--all with equal enjoyment (virtue can, after all, be as detestable as vice).

  19. Arendt begins the work of understanding the excesses of philosemitism and modern anti-Semitism when she theorizes essential identity as vice. Therein, she suggests what is unique about modern anti-Semitism: the object of its fanaticism is the idea of Jewishness, of a secularized chosenness, and not individual Jews or the collective practices of Judaism. Or, as Alain Finkielkraut points out, "anti-Semitism turned racist only on the fateful day when, as a consequence of Emancipation, you could no longer pick Jews out of a crowd at first glance" (83). According to Slavoj Zizek, the novelty of modern anti-Semitism consists of the belief that the insidious, invisible threat--Jewishness--has to be annihilated instead of simply subordinated (the latter is what the Nazis had planned for most other "races" and nationalities). Zizek believes that this logic of limitless extermination has come to be typical of all racisms, so that today, "we are dealing with universalized anti-Semitism" (79).
  20. In pointing us to the circuitry of virtue and vice, of love and abjection, Arendt pushes her critique of essential identity to the violent frontier of all modern racism. The existence of these dynamics are a structural feature, albeit a hidden one, of society itself. Julia Kristeva claims that Arendt's analysis of virtue and vice points towards the play of abjection and incorporation, of aggression and submission, and of sadism and masochism that is the bedrock of society's order (in Garb and Nochlin, eds., 153). What Arendt refers to as the "mysterious fanaticism" that accompanies social judgement, and what Kristeva calls the "sadism and masochism" at the heart of society, can be called by the Lacanian term jouissance. Jouissance, in this incarnation, refers to the aggression and envy the object of which is the imagined essence of the Jews, their "secret treasure." Arendt's conclusion is that the Jews' enjoyment of their chosenness and the racist's enjoyment of the other's racial essence were a perfect match.
  21. The flight from Judaism and towards assimilation are the two tracks that Arendt follows to account both for the virulence of Nazi anti-Semitism and for the lack of a viable, Jewish and non-Jewish response to Nazi anti-Semitism before it became fatal. Written at the same time as her work on the Sabbatian movement, the latter work provides a foil for her indictment of the path of modern Jewry. Sabbatai and his followers had re-invigorated religious enthusiasm and political enfranchisement after the malaise and assimilation that had followed the Spanish Inquisition. The failure of the Sabbatian movement and the institutional repression of its history would, for Arendt, provide the groundwork for the failed marriage between Jewry and Europe. By denying its mystical enthusiasms, Jewry disguised its difference. Aiming at blending in, post-Sabbatai Jewry took the wrong turn away from their passionate commitment to their own, unique enfranchisement in the fate of the world and towards the Enlightenment's liberal politics of assimilation and abstract citizenship.
  22. "Now, if you obey Me faithfully and keep my Covenant, you shall be to me a special treasure among all peoples. . . you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests." (Exodus 19:4-5)

  23. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud claims that the Biblical Moses is actually an Egyptian Prince who allies himself with Akhenaten's brief but violent conversion of Egyptian polytheism to monotheistic heliolotry. After the defeat of Akhenaten and his new religion, Moses finds his only followers in the Hebrew slaves. He leads his adopted people to freedom and asserts his ruthless authority upon them. The Hebrew slaves, angered by the excessive rigidity of Moses's law and by the despotic violence of Moses's rule, rise up and kill him. They subsequently repress the memory of this historical trauma and go into exile in Midian. There, the residual strains of Moses's monotheism combine with a nascent monotheism among the Midians to form Judaism. Moses's legacy eventually returns in the form of written laws after the trauma of his murder fades. For Freud, the continuity of Judaism thus originates in a radical discontinuity between its two births: the first in the traumatic exodus from Egypt and the second in the gradual synthesis of Hebrew and Midian monotheisms.
  24. As a people whose beginning is split between conscious knowledge and unconscious truth, the Jews become the product of an absent origin, a missing center. The Jew is other to him/herself. These structural features of Jewish identity are what Freud accounts for in the story he tells of the Exodus from Egypt. Freud's Judaism--the religion that emerges out of the Exodus drama--carries with it three lingering effects of its traumatic prehistory: 1) Judaism's doubled origins signal not only a gap in its continuity, but also the impossibility of total self-identity and self-knowledge: its unity is permanently opaque; 2) The fact of an Egyptian Moses and of the assimilation of the Hebrew slaves into Median culture insists upon the racial, cultural and theological heterogeneity of Jewry: it is composed of a strange alchemy of traditions and nations; and 3) The suppression of Moses's murder prevents the organization of religion around a martyrdom: the history of Jewry has been almost entirely free of the quasi-idolatrous cult of the individual.
  25. Jewishness, the nature of the Jewish God, the secret of Jewish continuity--all can most readily be described by what they are not. These silent aspects of Judaism are precisely the ones that speak most clearly to Freud. The repressed truth that the Torah contains is the historical truth of the birth of memory in the traumatic encounter with the jouissance of what Freud calls the primal father. To understand the primal father's jouissance that is at the root of these structures, we must return to Freud's first and last major works of group psychology: Totem and Taboo (1913) and Moses and Monotheism (1939). Both investigate the threshold between nature and culture--the imprecise analogue at the group level to the threshold between body and psyche that the psychoanalysis of the individual investigates. The borders of the subject--between unconscious and conscious, between internal and external--are the points where the subject encounters jouissance. Jouissance originates where the body's thresholds--mouth, eyes, genitals, skin--meet the mind's thresholds--dreams, hallucinations, delirious and ecstatic states, drug use. The most limited definition of jouissance as orgasm is itself instructive as it cannot be placed wholly in the category of either mind or body. Somewhere in the nervous system where the physiological effects of sex or drugs or arousal or disgust intersect with the psyche's faculty of imagination, jouissance becomes at once the most individual of experiences as well as a viable social phenomenon. The encounter between nature and culture, like that between body and mind, is saturated with jouissance. Whether mass hysteria in pogroms, massacres, and celebrations, or mass obsession in witch-hunts, scapegoating, and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, the antisocial jouissance in the bedrock of social organization is never far from the surface. In both Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, Freud finds at the threshold between nature and culture Darwin's intellectually dubious concept of the primal father.
  26. The drama of the primal father and his murder by the sons is the hinge between the rule of violence and the rule of law, between social orders without language and those with language, and between the innocent affirmation of jouissance and its uncanny return as abject. The primal father, which Lacan affectionately calls Freud's "Darwinian foolishness" (1991, 129), Lacan also elevates to the status of "the only modern myth" (1992, 176). Like all myth, it combines the particular ideology of its day (Reason, Science, Positivism) with the hidden knowledge of jouissance. Deduced by Darwin as a necessary stage in the evolution of human society, the primal father is consistent with the anthropological and ethnographic science of the nineteenth century. Yet in both Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, Freud's choices of ethnographic, anthropological and historical sources are notoriously weak. This weakness could serve as an alibi for the dismissal of insights built on data that don't represent reality. Or we can join Lacan and understand that the truth value of myth has never been its proximity to reality. In fact, the opposite seems far more accurate: the truth that myth conveys is the truth that exceeds reality. The père jouissant--Lacan's name for the primal father--is real because there is no evidence of his reality. He ex-ists because there is no evidence of his existence. Like all good conspiracies, the cabal of brothers that murdered him leaves only intriguing traces (Liu). If he were a symbolic function like any other (and therefore a part of our known experience), if there were a smoking gun that gave proof of his murder, then he wouldn't be the bearer of unconscious knowledge: namely, the knowledge of a real that is heterogenous to, and necessary for, our symbolic universe. Remember, from the perspective of the symbolic, the truth only ever ex-ists "out there." Freud reads the contours of this silent truth. Conspiracy theories, like the one about the murder of the primal father, sound crazy precisely because they verge on territory that cannot be spoken of. Jouissance makes no sense. Its senseless excess is embodied by the figure of the primal father.
  27. Freud explains the primal father with a history that seems implausible at best. Prehistoric hordes, the first and most primitive forms of organization, were ruled by a primal father. He was a ruthless autocrat. He wielded his violent will freely and satisfied his limitless appetites without end. He was bound by none of the prohibitions that he inflicted upon the others. He subjected his male inferiors to the threat of castration and possessed the women of the horde without exception. The problem with the mythic primal father is that his jouissance both makes him what he is and brings about his end. His jouissance is excessive and repulsive and disgusting and enviable. Much as the modern dictator's abuse of power and accumulation of wealth inspires the wrath of the revolutionary and the righteous indignation of the liberal, the primal father creates many enemies. The birth of culture occurs when the sons join together and murder the primal father. The sons eat the corpse of the dead father in the ritual that would later be repeated both in the totem feast and in communion. The sons ingest their share of the father's power and jouissance and consent to the terms of its distribution. They incorporate aspects of the primal father's identity but are forbidden by their covenant with one another to become him. Motivated by the ambivalent conflict between identification with and love for the father on the one hand and guilt about his murder on the other, the sons erect the Law in the name of the father; they discipline sexuality with the incest taboo; and they transform the real of jouissance into the symbolic economy of exchange and desire and lack. The patriarchal function that results is one saturated with symbolic authority. The name of the father, its symbolic function, thereby overwrites the senseless jouissance of the primal father.
  28. Jouissance and the real thus become the invisible terms at the absent origin of the symbolic universe. They cannot function as foundations or ultimate truths. Rather, they are the heterogenous terms that enable the symbolic to cohere. So, in Judaism's origin, Freud sees re-played the origin of culture itself. In Judaism, the absence where the jouissance of the primal father (Moses) had been is filled by the written law and the textual enthusiasm it has engendered throughout the history of Jewry. Indeed, the esteem accorded the name of the father in Jewish theology has been noted by Lacan and other psychoanalysts. But for the modern Jew like Freud or Arendt, the symbolic function of the name of the father leaves something to be desired. Their commitment to Judaism falls short of taking it at its word. They still can only say what it means to be a Jew by saying what it is not. Freud reminds the readers of the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo that he "is ignorant of the language of holy writ . . . completely estranged from the religion of [his] fathers--as well as from every other religion--and . . . [he] cannot share in nationalist ideals" of the Jews (XIII, xv). Arendt, too, repudiates all allegiance to the Jewish people even as she affirms her belonging to them. She insists, "I do not 'love' the Jews, nor do I believe in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute and argument" (1978, 247). Thus Judaism, however central to Freud's and Arendt's imagination, still only demarcates the absence of the father.
  29. Yet according to Michel deCerteau's interpretation of Moses and Monotheism, the negativity of Freud's reading delivers him back to the heart of monotheism. The tetragrammaton itself, according to deCerteau, is the emblem of the negativity Freud finds at the center of Judaism. The tetragrammaton, which explicitly does not represent God, represents Jewry's general distance from the illusion that language references the real. Jouissance, according to Lacan, cannot be represented not because it is unreal but because it is real. Lacan's real is the term heterogenous to the symbolic universe of sense, experience and knowledge. The condition of negative, unrepresentable knowledge of the real is the apprehension of the jouissance of the primal father at the absent origin of the positive, representable symbolic.[4] The impossibility of answering the question, "what is a Jew?" hits upon the most profound insight of the religion itself: that the category of Jewish identity, like the Jewish divinity itself, is necessarily meaningful and unnameable.
  30. The name of the father, the written law of the Jews and the patriarchal authority that that law invests in its wisest readers, holds this vertiginous unnameability at bay. Religion needs to provide the moorings of meaning and law, even if it is driven by sublime mystery and hidden origins. But true to themselves, Arendt and Freud rush headlong into the unexplored regions of Jewish historical speculation. Through his engagement with the primal father, we can perceive Freud's Jewish religion. His is a monotheism of the real, of the singular, necessary, original inscription of the primal father's jouissance at the origin of all subjectivity. In his search for that which haunts the subject from his/her prehistory, Freud accounts for the real anterior to all subjects through Judaic monotheism. Arendt goes seeking the prehistory that haunts the trajectory of Jewish history. Her search, too, ends in the father. What makes secular Jews like Freud and Arendt Jewish? When they consider this question for themselves, they look to the father at the origin.
  31. "If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet him" (Avot de-Rabbi Natan B 31)
    "[the Messiah] comes only in an age which is either completely guilty or completely innocent" (Babylonian Talmud, Senhadrin, 98a)

  32. Arendt's connection to messianic Jewish mysticism is an odd one. Yet her questionable reading of the historical starting point of Jewish modernity carries with it the uncanny truth that is often found in hidden origins. Returning to what she sees as the repressed cause of Jewish modernity, Arendt perceives most clearly the gaps and absences in the narrative of modern Jewish history. In light of her desire to set the record straight, the title of the article that she would write on Sabbatian mysticism, "Jewish History, Revised," should, perhaps, read, "Jewish History, Unrevised."
  33. According to Scholem, the Sabbatian heresy that swept Europe in 1665-6 had its distant origins in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the slaughter of thousands more, and the general persecution of the Spanish Inquisition created a Jewish population eager to hear a theological explanation for their suffering in exile. The plight of the Marranos, the Spanish Jews who had nominally converted to Catholicism but practiced Judaism secretly, became emblematic of the psychic toll of exile. Their inability to practice traditional Judaism and their desire to reconcile their historical necessities with their faith made them a receptive audience to Isaac Luria's mystical theology of exile. Lurianic mysticism built a link between the condition of exile and the condition of the fallen fragments of the sacred trapped in the secular realm. Redemption--what Luria called Tikkun, or repair--comes through the return of the fragments of the sacred to their rightful realm. The secular reality of the Jews in exile therefore had its analogue in the fallen state of the sacred. All of this remained a rather abstract mystical theology until midway through the seventeenth century. Again confronted with a massive outbreak of anti-Semitic violence, this time in Chmielnitzki in 1648-9, the tinder of redemptive longing met the flames of messianic enthusiasts, and Sabbatai Tzwi's great messianic fervor spread like wild-fire.
  34. Scholem's monumental biography of Tzwi, itself an artifact of the fascination he elicited among the Israeli intelligentsia, presents him initially as an undistinguished if eccentric student of Rabbinic Judaism and Lurianic mysticism who, at a certain point, announced that he was the Messiah. He was properly ostracized by the Rabbinic authorities for his insolence and was generally ignored. All that changed when another student, Nathan of Gaza, saw Sabbatai as the Messiah in a vision and became the spokesperson and champion of his cause. In a gesture of interfaith, intellectual chutzpah, Scholem claims Nathan was to Sabbatai what Paul and John the Babtist together were for Christ (1995, 295). What Sabbatai lacked, Nathan possessed prodigiously--Nathan brought to Sabbatai's messianic movement intellectual brilliance, strategic mastery and a powerful historical and theological vision. The messianic enthusiasm captured the imagination of Jews throughout Europe and the Middle East with astonishing speed, to the point that the belief that Sabbatai was the Messiah became, in a matter of months, accepted truth from Lithuania to Persia (Liebes, 95). Followers of Sabbatai went to the extremes of repentance and deprivation in preparing for redemption. Wealthy Jews sold all their possessions; fasting Jews starved themselves to death. Sabbatai himself is singular among all Jewish mystics who precedes him in embracing antinomianism--the paradoxical sacred transgression of the law. Among his many excesses, he pronounced the unspeakable name of God and his sexual desires reportedly gave birth to demons. And, to bring about the final deliverance, Nathan and Sabbatai boldly conspired to convert the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and to command his armies to bring Europe to its knees. Sabbatai's nerve failed him at the last moment, however, and, instead of converting the Sultan, Sabbatai was imprisoned by the Sultan and, to the horror of the Jewish world, Sabbatai himself converted to Islam.
  35. The catastrophic dashing of messianic hopes led to several immoderate responses. These responses are, for Arendt and Scholem, the roots of modern Jewish life. There was, on the one hand, a general resurgence of orthodox Rabbinic authority that sought to put down the remaining traces of the heretical movement. Among the masses, there was little resistance to this consolidation of power, and a general sense of resignation set it. On the other hand, there were those who stretched Sabbatian faith to its farthest bounds, either amplifying Sabbatai's antinomian tendencies in movements of extreme libertinage and orgiastic excess, or following his apostasy with their own, joining Islam or Catholicism while at the same time remaining covertly loyal to Sabbatai. Either way, the experience of exile was exacerbated to an unbearable point. The schizophrenic experience of the Marranos who were at once Catholic and Jewish, became a generalized condition of Jews whose hopes had been betrayed: Jews were pulled between their excessive flight from Judaism to apostasy, heresy and libertinage, and their tragic longing for a uniquely Jewish redemption. Scholem's boldest assertion, and the one that the psychoanalyst may view with the greatest interest, is that the bizarre twists and turns of this movement may be seen to stem from the single distinguishing trait possessed by Sabbatai Tzwi himself. There is a general scholarly consensus that he suffered from what would now be known as a bipolar personality disorder. Scholem writes: "The inner law of the Sabbatian movement sprang from the depth of its founder's torn personality" (1975, 147). Oscillating wildly between manic ecstacies and bouts of the severest depression, Sabbatai's movement similarly encompassed the extreme poles of antinomian excess and depressed resignation.
  36. Eventually, Rabbinic Orthodoxy wiped out virtually all remaining traces of the manic traits of Sabbatianism. The general feeling among post-Enlightenment Jews was that the irrational excesses of their past were best hidden from sight. Significant for Arendt's argument about the political passivity of the Jews is the fact that the depressive legacy of Sabbatianism, the lingering sense of resignation and pessimism, persisted long after the manic enthusiasm of the Messianic movement had been erased from the historical record. Arendt follows Scholem, moreover, in suggesting that what modern Rabbinic orthodoxy sought to repress was not simply an embarrassing blemish but the very origins of Jewish modernity itself. The trajectory from irrational mystical enthusiasm to rationalist assimilation is the trajectory from one end of Luria's theology of exile to another. Rather than shedding the vestiges of premodern superstition, the modern Jew is its logical conclusion. Arendt writes:
  37. For the first time, the role of the 'protagonist in the drama of the world' was defined in terms [of exile] which applied to every Jew. One remarkable aspect of this 'Myth of Exile' is that it served two conflicting purposes: through its mystical interpretation of exile as action instead of suffering, it could rouse the people to hasten the coming of the Messiah...But after the decline of this [Sabbatian] movement, it served equally well the needs of the disillusioned people who, having lost the Messianic hope, wanted a new, more general justification of exile, of their inactive existence and mere survival. In the latter form, Isaac Luria's theory has been adopted by assimilated Jewry--though its representatives would not have enjoyed Scholem's discovery that they are heirs of Kabbalism. (1978, 103)

    For Arendt and Scholem, all the new forms of being Jewish that have emerged since the eighteenth century, from Hasidism to Reform Judaism to assimilation, stem from an attitude towards the diaspora that became universal after the failure of the Sabbatian Messiah. After the extraordinary couple of years during which time Jewry felt itself to be the prime actor in the cosmological drama of redemption, there returned an equally powerful sense of utter resignation towards exile. The passive suffering of Jews in exile had been miraculously transmuted into a global sense that Jewry held the fate of the universe in its hands. But in the end, exiled Jewry returned to its original state, hardened in its conviction of its own impotence. The same mysticism that had revealed to the Jews the redemptive light at the end of the tunnel of exile came to justify the depressed withdrawal of the Jews from their role as protagonist in the redemptive drama. On this tragic note, Arendt concludes that the "catastrophe of this victory of mystical thought was greater for the Jewish people than all other persecutions had been, if we are to measure it by the only available yardstick, its far-reaching influence upon the future of the people. . . . The catastrophe of Sabbatai Zwi, after closing one book of Jewish history, becomes the cradle of a new era" (1978, 104-5). The success of Rabbinic Jewry's repression of Sabbatai's manic excesses signals, for Arendt, the paradoxical victory of mysticism over Rabbinism. In defeat, Luria's resigned diaspora spent the next three hundred years drifting farther and farther from Rabbinic Jewry.

  38. At the manifest level, Arendt's history of the Sabbatian heresy, as well as her analysis of it, make sense only insofar as they stick to the narrative that Scholem already set out. The draw of the event, however, was the primal nature of it: it was the trauma from which modern Jewry emerged but from which it never escaped. On the one hand, this makes Jewish history a function of a Jewish trauma, not one imposed upon it by one anti-Semitic outbreak or another. And on the other, it shows that there exists a critique within Jewry itself of its own modern situation. The trauma determined the course of modernity for the worse, but the violence of this trauma, the catastrophic, repressed origin, haunts the official legacy that attempts to repress it. In returning to haunt the present, in undermining the orthodox Rabbinic narrative, Arendt seems to believe that the traumatic origin opens up a possible path free of resignation and depression. Rather than a pure absence at the origin--either the non-existence of God or the gap left by anti-Semitic violence--there is the jouissance of a Jewish primal father.
  39. The question, which is never confronted in Arendt's text, is why she would believe that the return of this repressed jouissance would have a historically significant impact. It would, I suggest, because this jouissance is the return of the repressed encounter at the origin of subjectivity itself. Following Scholem and Arendt, one is struck by the way that Sabbatai's biography, his theology and his movement place him and his jouissance at the heart of the Jewish history of the next three hundred years. Like Job, whose sufferings at the hands of God's jouissance were read to prefigure Sabbatai's own torment, Sabbatai is possessed by the jouissance that mercilessly sends him from ecstacy to despair and back again. Like Moses, to whom Sabbatai likened himself, his extraordinary spiritual innovations, his claim to unmediated contact with God, and his absolute authority over his movement all show him to be the possessor of immense power that he enjoys at will. Nathan, the great theological interpreter of Sabbatai, likens him to the immoderate, primeval, destructive forces that swept the universe before creation. And his apostasy, like Moses's destroying the Tablets of the Law upon seeing the Golden Calf, were seen to represent his punitive wrath at the disobedience of the Jews (Liebes, 111-112).
  40. As both above the law and law-giver, as adored and later despised, Sabbatai is as near as there can be to a modern equivalent to Freud's Moses. His memory and his traumatic end are similarly repressed and sustained. His legacy, Arendt seems to propose, can serve an adoptive paternal function to those orphaned first by the dissolution of the ghetto and then by the holocaust itself. As repressed, the sublime power of Moses and Sabbatai Tzwi is inverted in the passive assimilation of the Jews fleeing Egypt into Midian and in the passive assimilation of modern Jewry into post-Enlightenment Europe. According to Freud, the legacy of Moses's traumatic reign eventually returned in the symbolic form of the Torah and the foundational texts and legal codes of the Jews. Perhaps Arendt, Scholem and others saw the legacy of Sabbatai's activist redemption in certain trends in Zionist activism. Yet we know that in the Bible Moses's story is followed by the violence and slaughter of Judean empire building in Canaan. So we are also aware of the tragic violence that Zionism, in spite of its best intentions, has to be held responsible for. How does the spectre of the father return apart from the abuse of power in the name of the God's jouissance?
  41. "With the birthpangs of the Messiah . . . the empire shall fall into heresy and there shall be none to utter reproof. . . . They that shun sin shall be judged contemptible. . . . Children shall shame their elders and the elders shall rise up before the children. . . . On whom can we rely? On our father in heaven." (Mishnah, Sotah 9:15)

  42. When Arendt and Freud look to the father, they do not seek to usurp his sublime power (i.e., his jouissance) to authorize their own agendas. Rather than enlisting the father in chauvinism or fundamentalism, Arendt and Freud see the father as the term that holds these tendencies at bay. They envision a Jewish continuity underwritten not by essentialism or Zionism, but by the heterodoxy and heterogeneity that make up Jewish history. The histories that they write index a certain orientation towards that past and the future. What remains for Freud and Arendt of the messianic dream of the Jews is what Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi sees at the heart of all Jewish historiography: "the anticipation of a specific hope for the future" (1991, 95). The legacy of the father imparts the expectation of an encounter with the repressed past that orients our horizon towards a time yet to come. Rather than siding with a rationalist, secular critique of religion, Arendt and Freud hold to the framework of an ultimately religious faith in the future, in an Olam ha'Ba, a world to come. That the future is radically other to the present, that it is elsewhere, is nothing new for a Judaism that carries a sublime absence at its core.
  43. Separated from God, exiled from the sacred, ignorant of the Name, Jewry is uniquely reconciled to an indeterminate unity. Rabbinic Jewry revitalized Judaism after the destruction of the Temple by writing the Talmud around the catastrophic absence of what had previously centered Judaism: the Temple, the priesthood, sacrifices and pilgrimages. In the foundational texts of post-Temple Judaism, the Rabbis allegorized the Jews' unified heterogeneity in their own polyvocal interpretive method. What is it about these texts and the study of them that leads Freud to conclude: "From now on [in exile], it was the Holy Book and the study of it, that kept a scattered people together. . . . The preference through two thousand years the Jews have given to spiritual endeavors has, of course, had its effect; it has helped build a dike against brutality and the inclination to violence which are usually found where athletic development becomes the ideal of a people" (XXIII, 115, translation altered)?
  44. Exiled from God and homeland, the Jews, Lacan writes, "are very clear about what they call the Father. They shove him into some part of a hole we cannot even imagine: 'I am that I am'--that's a hole isn't it? A hole . . . swallows things up, and sometimes spits them out again. What does it spit out? The name, the Father as a name" (quoted by François Regnault, in Feldstein, et al., eds, 73, emphasis added). The father, his name and his jouissance were the spécialité du jour on the menu for the original communion. According to Freud, modern communion in all its forms is itself the reminder of the eating of the corpse of the primal father's corpse. Sharing in this feast represents the formation of the law among the brothers. They eat the father, and, as sublimated in the Law, he, the dead father, keeps all the brothers at an equal distance from jouissance. If the eating of the primal father is mistakenly equated with the interiorization of the Law (i.e., the making of the Law proper to one's own essence), then it can introduce a new sort of jouissance: the Law as misunderstood to command jouissance (Lacan, 1975, 10) and based upon the aggression of the oral drive itself. Lacan insists that "the interiorization of the Law has nothing to do with the Law" (1992, 310). The Name of the Father is not established in the eating (the "interiorization"), but, as Lacan suggests, in the spitting out. It is the indigestible, un-interiorizable, term that shields the subject from the jouissance of the primal father or divine judge. The Name of the Father and the Law are interior to, and embodied by, no one. The opaque non-identity between each individual and the law prevents the perverse enjoyment of judging and punishing others. The firm establishment of the Name of the Father between the subject and jouissance is, for both Freud and Lacan, the major accomplishment of Judaism. As the Biblical patriarchs moderate God's wrath (see, for example, Genesis 18:20-32, Exodus 32:9-14), so the Talmud puts in place a human law to stand between the fallen humans and God's stern judgment. The Name of the Father suspends the torturous circuitry of the sons' identification and aggression. No small feat, the Name of the Father becomes the dike against violence to which Freud refers; rather than engendering frustration and aggression, the barrier that separates the Jews from identification with God's jouissance motivates their textual enthusiasm and their ex-static love of "spiritual endeavors" (Freud, above).
  45. Surprisingly, Freud and Arendt both ally themselves with these "spiritual endeavors." Both suggest that the greatness of the Jewish people is owed entirely to its relationship with a God in whom neither believed.[5] This relationship, expressed through absence and negation, sustains and inspires even those Jews who feel God's absence on Earth most strongly. We see the power that the memory of the father holds evidenced in Freud's lifelong fascination with Moses and in Arendt's celebration of an otherworldly mystical enthusiast. In their engagement with these fathers, Freud's and Arendt's intellectual powers are at their most creative. By virtue of the very absence of positive content to their Jewishness, Freud and Arendt are able to draw personal and intellectual vitality from their identity and history.


  1. The translations have sometimes been altered in favor of the Katherine Jones translation of Moses and Monotheism. At times, I find Jones' translation closer to the elegance of Freud's German than Strachey's. The alterations to the quotations occur solely at the level of syntax and word choice; among the passages quoted in this paper, there were no significant discrepancies in meaning between the two translations.Back
  2. The essence of Jewishness became what Freud called the "secret treasure" (S.E., XXIII, 105-06) of the Jews. Freud also notes the gratification that results from the feeling among Jews that being Jewish demands the greatest sacrifice, the greatest suffering (S.E., XXIII, 117).Back
  3. Proust: "society secretly [became] more hierarchical as it became outwardly more democratic" (in Arendt, 1979, 86). Back
  4. Freud originally found the traumatic origin of the psychic life of the individual subject in the repressed encounter with the sexuality of the parent(s). Initially, Freud believed that the cause of the hysteria that he treated in young women was their sexual abuse at the hands of adult men. Freud later came to doubt this conclusion. Recently, Freud has been attacked for allegedly telling victims of sexual abuse that it was all intheir heads. The answer to the riddle, however, lies not in the reality or fantasy of the primal encounter, but in the real, structural necessity that brings about the birth of the subject: the encounter with the jouissance of the primal father. The negative, unrepresentable knowledge of the origin haunts the subject at the core of the symbolic. Back
  5. The historical understanding of Freud and Arendt seems haunted by the God whose impact is undeniable yet whose existence both deny. Freud writes: "No one can doubt that it was only the idea of this . . . god that enabled the people of Israel to survive all the blows of fate and that kept them alive to our own days" (XXIII, 50-51). And Arendt: "The greatness of [the Jewish] people was once that it believed in God, and believed in him in such a way that its trust and love towards him was greater than its fear" (1978, 247). Back



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---. The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age. Ron H. Feldman, ed. New York: Grove Press, 1978.

DeCerteau, Michel. The Writing of History. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.

Derrida, Jacques. "Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression." Diacritics 25.2 (Summer 1995): 9-63.

Feldstein, Richard, Bruce Fink, and Maire Jaanus, eds. Reading Seminar XI: Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vols. I-XXIV. London: Hogarth Press, 1974.

---. Moses and Monotheism. Trans. Katherine Jones. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1955.

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Lacan, Jacques. "Introduction to the Names-of-the-Father Seminar." October 40 (Spring, 1987): 81-95.

---. Seminar XX: Encore. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975.

---. Seminar XVII: L'Envers de la psychoanalyse. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1991.

---. Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton, 1992.

Liebes, Yehuda. Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993.

Liu, Catherine. "Psychoanalysis as Conspiracy Theory or One Aspect of the Feminist Fantasy." Clinical Studies 2: 2 (1996). 87-102.

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken, 1995.

---. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1975.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Freud's Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

---. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1982.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Metastasis of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality. New York: Verso, 1994.

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