Kabbalah and Sigmund Freud: Joseph Berke uncovers The Hidden Freud

The Covert Freud and the Lights He Lit on Western Culture


There were many Freuds: the scholar, the academic, the researcher, the neurologist, the founder of the new discipline: psychoanalysis, and Viennese professional. All were noted for their rejection of religion and their identification with prevalent German culture. This was the picture painted by Freud’s principal  biographers: Ernest Jones, Peter Gay and Ronald Clark. They agreed that Freud came from an assimilated Jewish background and he was a completely secular intellectual.

However, more recent studies, especially those of David Bakan, Yosef Yerushalmi, Marianne Krüll, Emanuel Rice, and Tom Keve show a very different and more complicated Freud. This Freud emerged from a deeply religious Hassidic background, with generations of distinguished rabbis and scholars on both his maternal, paternal and marital sides. They show that Freud was very knowledgeable about Jewish ideas and practices and that he was conversant with both Hebrew and Yiddish.


‘The Hidden Freud: His Hassidic Roots’ discusses the meetings that took place in 1903 between Freud and the great hassidic leader, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, as a point of departure to consider Freud’s Jewish identity

It is clear that Freud was a master of dissimulation. This Freud was extremely ambitious. He denied what he knew in order to be seen and treated as an eminent German doctor. He was also determined to deflect the pervasive anti-semitism in Vienna away from himself and his creation. We can say that there was a revealed or overt Freud and a concealed or covert Freud. The former has been well documented. In The Hidden Freud: His Hassidic Roots (Karmic Books, 2015) I consider the hidden or covert dimension of Freud’s persona and explore how it reflected his struggle with his Jewish, indeed Kabalistic, antecedents. Concomitantly, the title of my book does not just refer to his encounters with an hassidic leader, but also to disputations with his rabbinic alter ego.


Freud with his beloved chow dog, Jofie.

This is not to say that Freud was or wanted to be a believing Jew, far from it. The overt Freud was closer to the genus Judaeus Psychologicus (psychological Jew) a term the renowned historian, Yosef Yerushalmi, coined to denote a man who was charmingly ignorant of Jewish culture and customs. Yet, as Yerushalmi also emphasized, Freud maintained some ‘strikingly mutant traits.’ The covert Freud was proud of and strongly asserted his ancestral lineage. He willingly joined the board of governors of the Hebrew University. And, he vehemently objected when a friend did not refer to his beloved chow dog by her correct Hebrew name. Indeed, his writings are littered with Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases.

Why did Freud choose to denude his work of religious content?  Certainly, as an adult, he needed to establish his own identity, in the face of strong familial pressures to follow in the footsteps of his father’s father, a pious man, after whom he was named. Hence we see Freud the rebel, who tried to reject his hassidic heritage. But, his rejection of religion was closely connected to a deeply felt sense of maternal deprivation.

Sigmund was born to Amalie Nathansohn, a new bride and his father’s third wife just past her teens. At the time the Freud household was still mourning the death of his grandfather, Shlomo. Amalie became pregnant again with her second son, Julius. This baby also carried the same name of Amalie’s brother and beloved companion.

Baby Julius died when Sigmund was two years old from an infection and Amalie’s brother passed on at around the same time from tuberculosis. Both loses left his mother heartbroken and emotionally unavailable to Sigmund. He was then passed on to a Czech Catholic nursemaid, Resi Wittek, to whom he became very attached, emotionally and physically. Suddenly, at the age of three, while his mother was confined with his sister, Anna, Resi disappeared, never to return. Sigmund’s religious, older step-brother, Phillip, found that she had stolen some household money and had her sent to prison.

PHIL0169-Freud and the Jewish Hermeneutical Tradition-FM

Freud and the Jewish Hermeneutical Tradition

Both his mother and nursemaid were very observant. It is likely that Freud transferred the sense of rejection and rage he felt for being abandoned into disdain and contempt for Jewish religious observance and ritual, and subsequently, all religious practice. These views reflect the overt Freud. They seem to have surfaced in his grandchildren and their descendants, none of whom have maintained an attachment to Judaism. The covert Freud was more dutiful. He visited his aged mother every Sunday, even though he suffered from headaches or gastric upset beforehand. And he did try to grapple with his Jewish inheritance through the questions he posed in his last book, Moses and Monotheism.

Freud’s lasting legacy is manifold. His creation, psychoanalysis, is a method, a way of thinking, a discipline through which we can find meaning in the experiences which make us human. It is a science of subjectivity.

Psychoanalysis carries the added cachet of opening a door to the discoveries and mysteries of Kabbalah. It is a way by which the Jewish mystical tradition has entered and enriched the mainstream of society. Kabbalistic ideas include the concept of bisexuality, methods of dream interpretation, the dialectic between good and evil, and the significance of reparation, perhaps the most important imprint of them all.

Moreover, as Naftali Loewenthal, Lecturer in Jewish Spirituality at University College, London, points out, ”This is not just a book about Freud, but it is also a subtle disclosure of the self-deception at the heart of Western culture,” and the means to overcome it.

32099Joseph H. Berke is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working with individuals and families. He is a lecturer, writer and teacher and has lived in London since 1965. Beforehand he attended Columbia College of Columbia University and graduated from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York. Dr Berke moved to London to study with R.D. Laing and assisted in establishing the Kingsley Hall Community. Dr Berke and colleagues founded the Arbours Housing Association in London in order provide personal, psychotherapeutic care and shelter for people in emotional distress. Later he founded and was the director of the Arbours Crisis Centre. He is the author of many papers and books on psychotherapy, social psychiatry, psychosis, therapeutic communities and transpersonal psychology as well as on Kabbalah and Hassidism.  His latest work, The Hidden Freud: His Hassidic Roots, is published this week (Karnac Books, 2015).



Reviews for The Hidden Freud: His Hassidic Roots

‘A thrilling work uniting rigorous scholarship with profound care and devotion. It compellingly investigates the intertwining of Jewish mysticism and psychoanalysis. Berke adroitly examines Freud’s life and relationships, and not only exhumes but brings to life a profound creative spirit.’
Michael Eigen, PhD, author of Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, and Faith

‘In this ground-breaking book, Joseph Berke retraces the paradoxical visions of Freud and other psychoanalysts, to show how closely their perspectives relate to Jewish mystical concepts. Dr Berke demonstrates both the striking parallels between psychoanalysis and the Jewish mystical tradition, and how each contributes to a psychological and spiritual process of reparation and healing.’
Stephen Frosh, Professor of Psychology, Birkbeck, University of London

3 thoughts on “Kabbalah and Sigmund Freud: Joseph Berke uncovers The Hidden Freud

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