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  • Moses Tragicus: Freud, Schoenberg, and the Defeated MosesFreud Birthday Lecture, Sigmund Freud Museum Vienna 6.5.2006 Translated by Pamela Cooper-White
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Jan Assmann and Michelangelo's Moses

[End Page 569]

In the early 1930s, in the face of the increasing anti-Semitism and the barbarism that unfolded, there were two assimilated Viennese Jews who—independently and presumably unaware of one another—were founding fathers and lawgivers of their respective disciplines: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and Arnold Schoenberg, the father of twelve-tone technique. Each, like the other, began to deal with his Judaism in relation to another paradigmatic founding father and lawgiver: the figure Moses. Schoenberg's opera "Moses and Aron" was written in 1928–32; Freud's "Moses and Monotheism" in 1934–38. Both saw themselves as revolutionaries, embattled professionally, and threatened existentially as Jews, so they saw in Moses a likeness to themselves, besieged and imperiled as they represented him in their works and encountered the lawless and inhumane evil spirits of their own time.

Freud's Moses is slain; Schoenberg's Moses doubts his mission and sinks to the ground in despair. And in a certain sense, both the scientist and the composer failed with their Moses works, at least initially. Schoenberg succeeded neither in composing the third act as planned, nor in acknowledging that the existing two acts with the tragic conclusion might stand as completed. Freud admitted to the reader that his form of presentation was "no less inexpedient than it is inartistic [unkünstlerisch]. I myself deplore it unreservedly" (Freud, 1964/1939, p. 103). Readers, despite the brilliance of the text, appear to have agreed with Freud's confession. For over fifty years, the book's content was abandoned as outdated and formally unresolved. However, both works have had a glorious comeback. "Moses und Aron" has now arrived not only in the musical canon, but also in the operatic performance repertory, and Freud's Moses book has now, for about 30 years, been one of the most discussed books of the 20th century.

Moses himself already appears in the Bible as an ambivalent figure, alternating between triumph and failure. In Numbers 12:3, we learn, "And the man Moses was very humble, more than all men on earth," while in Exodus 11:3, it is said, "And the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt." Incidentally, as far as I can see, these are the only places where the Bible, like Freud, speaks of the "man Moses." Freud, who had a very good ear for such dualities in the biblical text, went so far as [End Page 570] to split the biblical Moses figure into an Egyptian Moses and a Midianite Moses—one a great lord, popular leader, legislator, and liberator; the other a modest man, a priest and shepherd. Schoenberg also splits the Moses figure, distinguishing between Moses the thinker and Aron the herald. In Freud, it is Moses the Egyptian who is slain; in Schoenberg, it is Moses the thinker who despairs. In both works—in Schoenberg's even more than Freud's—the tragic aspect of the Moses figure and, in close connection with this, the ambivalent, even problematic, character of monotheism is expressed.1 It would be appealing to compare these two Moses works, but since this Sigmund Freud lecture is on Freud's birthday today, I want to emphasize and start with Freud's Moses book. (In the following, I will specify "the biblical Moses"2 when referring to the biblical figure, and then simply "Moses" when referring to the protagonist of Freud's book and Schoenberg's opera.)

Freud's book, as I said, was mostly disregarded for fifty years, and then had such a glorious comeback in the late 1980s—one could almost speak of the return of the repressed—that today, after another thirty years, it is scarcely necessary to sketch more than the most general features of its content. Freud had already written about Moses in 1914, publishing this paper anonymously as "The Moses of Michelangelo" (1955/1914). In this essay, he interprets Moses' gaze and gesture from the scene of the dance around the golden calf, where according to the biblical account, Moses smashes the tablets of the law in anger. Freud also perceives wrath and scorn in the sculpted Moses' features, but this Moses conquers his impulse, does not smash the tablets—instead, he plunges his hand into his beard in a gesture that is reduced to a drive derivative. An unquestionably ingenious interpretation, but it overlooks the fact that Moses already bears the radiating horns, which come to him only after the crisis with the Golden Calf, when he climbs the mountain once more to reconcile with God. He succeeds, being permitted to see God from behind, whereupon, as the Bible says: karan (panav)—"the skin of his face shone"—and since the Hebrew word karan means both "radiate" and "horn," it was translated in the Vulgate Bible as "cornuta esset facies sua" ("his face was horned"). As represented by Michelangelo, this is decidedly the triumphant and not the defeated Moses. The shining rays and [End Page 571] the tablets are attributes that characterize Moses as the Man of God, who received the tablets from God and bears the reflection of God's presence in his face. His imperious gaze to one side is probably explained by the original plan of the tomb, in which a figure of Paul was to stand on a pedestal opposite him. Of course, Moses does not look happily upon Paul, who abolished the law God entrusted to Moses.

One can assume that Freud was looking through the eyes of Michelangelo's Moses when he wrote his Moses book. And so was Arnold Schoenberg, who in a letter to Walter Eidlitz (who had sent Schoenberg his Moses book, The Mountain in the Wilderness [Der Berg in der Wüste]) confessed: "My Aaron rather more resembles your Moses [. . .] My Moses more resembles—of course only in outward aspect—Michelangelo's. He is not human at all."3

Both had Michelangelo's Moses in mind, as the great, overpowering man. For Freud, the biblical Moses was the Egyptian, not the Midianite—Moses the great lord, who was slain according to Freud, and in Schoenberg's version, despairing. Thus: Moses tragicus. According to Freud, this Moses is an Egyptian, and indeed a follower of Akhenaten, that heretic king who abolished the traditional religion in Egypt and introduced the new cult the one God of Sun and Light, Aton. When, after the death of Akhenaten, the new religion was persecuted, Moses went over to the Jews (or the "Hebrews" ["die Hebräer"] as Freud calls them), and taught monotheism in an even more severe form than Akhenaten's. They did not tolerate this for long, and killed him for it. This Moses' God had nothing to do with Akhnaten's Sun—Moses' God was invisible, abstract and purely moral, averse to all magical and mantic practices of cultic influence, and inaccessible. By contrast, and a greater contrast is scarcely imaginable, Freud sees the god of the Midianite Moses as an "uncanny" ("unheimlich"), bloodthirsty daemon who goes about by night and avoids the light of day" (Freud, 1964/1939, p. 34),4 and who dwelled on a volcano on the western edge of Arabia. His priests brought the Jews their volcanic gods and gave them laws when they camped in Meribat-Qadesh, an oasis between Palestine and Arabia. He took the place of the murdered Moses, whose form and doctrine, however, could not be [End Page 572] completely suppressed and gradually became established over the centuries with the advent of the prophets.

This is all quite ingenious, but completely untenable historically. In his Theological Theology of Paul, Jacob Taubes (2004) writes: "The book is a provocation. Any whippersnapper [Schnösel], whether Old Testament or Egyptologist, can go to town here: absolute nonsense, Moses as Egyptian, Moses murdered, and so on" (p. 89). But unfortunately, in both roles, as an Egyptologist and an Old Testament "whippersnapper," I cannot help but assign Freud's construction to the realm of fantasy. Freud himself often regretted having to put his colossus on clay feet. The construction of the murdered Egyptian Moses is the clay feet; the colossus is the analysis of monotheism as obsessional neurosis and the uncovering of the pathogenic dynamics that led to its enforcement. This construction, however bold and imaginative, belongs to the method of psychoanalysis, which relies on constructions for its thrusts into the unconscious. And although philology and history can not entirely dispense with constructions, the method of free association is forbidden to them.

Why the relationship between Moses and Akhenaten is untenable, I will not expand upon here. These names stand for two forms of religion—or rather two worldviews and ideas of God—which have nothing to do with each other. Akhenaten discovers the sun as the one and only origin of all life; Moses represents the covenant of God and the principle of exclusive faithfulness to this one, in full recognition of the existence of other gods (otherwise the commandment of faith would have no meaning). In the Books of Moses (that is, Books 2–5 of the Torah), God appears consistently as "[the one] who led you out of Egypt," as a deliverer, and not as the creator of heaven and earth.

Akhenaten lived in the 14th century BCE; we do not know when or whether Moses lived at all, but the related covenantal theology associated with his name is a construction of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Likewise, the Midianite Moses and the bloodthirsty volcano god can be assigned to the realm of fantasy. The wrath of God belongs to the semantics of covenant and fidelity, and has nothing to do with natural phenomena such [End Page 573] as volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricane. What, then, is to be salvaged from Freud's thesis of Moses' murder?

Freud took over this thesis, which Goethe had already proposed for entirely different reasons, from Ernst Sellin, a then very prominent and successful Old Testament scholar and pioneer of biblical archeology. Freud could have even met Sellin personally because they were of approximately the same age: Sellin was born in 1867 and was active from 1897 to 1907 as an associate professor in Vienna. It is very likely that Sellin also would have given public lectures on his excavations, and it is quite possible that Freud, who was passionately interested in archeology, attended one of those events. Sellin (1922) developed his thesis of Moses' murder in his small, popular book Mose und seine Bedeutung für die israelitisch-jüdische Religionsgeschichte [Moses and His Significance for the History of Israelite-Jewish Religion] (1922), and later in the first volume of his scholarly work Geschichte des israelitisch-jüdischen Volkes [History of the Israelite-Jewish People] (1924/1935). He failed to convince his own field, but in Freud he found his most attentive reader.

Sellin had a lifelong preoccupation with finding a new solution to "the mystery of the Deutero-Isaiah book," and published a book of the same name in Leipzig in 1908 (Das Rätsel des deuterojesajanischen Buches, Sellin, 1908). The mystery lies in the identity of the Suffering Servant, slain for the sins of his people, in the four songs of Isaiah chapters 52–53, with whom Jesus was identified. Sellin sees in these songs the liturgical expression of a memory of the biblical Moses, who was persecuted and killed as a martyr of his religion, as were many of the prophets after him. Sellin claims to be able to prove, according to passages from the prophet Hosea, that Moses was slain in Shittim, where, according to the book of Numbers, the Israelites camped at the end of the 40-year desert migration, and united with the Moabites for the feast of their God. In this context, he uses the concept of the tragic:

Hosea knows the continuation of Numbers 25: 3,5 still in its original form; he knows that Moses was treacherously killed in Shittim, in the sanctuary of his God, by his own people after their apostasy to Baal Peor—for which he called them to repentance and required atonement. [End Page 574] His sons may have suffered death with him. All of this is a tragic, moving description beyond compare.

(Sellin, 1908, pp. 49ff, trans. Cooper-White)

Hardly anyone followed Sellin in this interpretation.5 But what is meanwhile completely out of the question is the tradition of the violent destiny of the prophets, which Sellin lit upon and which-independently of the question of whether Moses was murdered or not-was his actual topic. Because this, for Sellin, was already connected with the thesis of the pathogenic dynamics of this tradition. For him it is an assured

fact that in the third century BCE—in spite of all the cover-ups from the priestly side—the tradition of Moses' death as a martyr lived on; that this murder and apostasy was perceived by [the tradition] as the great sin of the people, by which they had become mortally ill,6 and which must first be lifted, before salvation could break in. By rejecting their own founder, who had brought them an unadorned faith in the one holy God and his clear and simple moral will, the people perished, and only by turning to him could they once more find their redemption.

(Sellin, 1922, p. 114, trans. Cooper-White)

"The great sin of the people, by which they had become mortally ill," writes Sellin. He already thinks it has to do with a collective history of pathology. This sin leads Sellin back to the murder of Moses, and he believes that he has found clear evidence (if not outright proof) in Hosea. This evidence, however, is achieved via dodgy text revisions, which no one accepts today. But this does not alter his discovery of the tradition of the violent fate of the prophets, which leads through Nehemiah and Deutero-Isaiah to Jesus and Stephen. Odil Hannes Steck, who does not mention (and not appear to know) Sellin's book, examined this tradition and worked out the following scheme:

A. The unruly, disobedient people,

B. exhorted by prophets to repent,

C. remained stubborn / C1. killed the prophets

D. and drew the punishment of God upon themselves. [End Page 575]

In the A-B-C-D form, this scheme pervades the whole deuteronomistic history and the books of the prophets (especially Jeremiah); in the intensified form A-B-C1-D, it is first encountered in Nehemiah and then in an astonishing density in intertestamental, New Testament, and rabbinic sources, as well as in Flavius Josephus. The hopes for a renewal of the covenant in the name of salvation history have not been fulfilled; Israel remains a province first under Persian, then Seleucid, and finally Roman rule, and so "also bears the weight of the entire history of the people's guilt, with which this judgment has burdened it" (Steck, 1967, p. 125).7

Sellin could not have wished for better confirmation of his general thesis. He is not concerned in the first place with the murder of Moses (the only point about which Freud references Sellin), but the tragic side of Judeo-Christian history, the idea of the sins of the fathers, for which YHWH afflicted the children and grandchildren, and the general sense of guilt that the fathers brought upon themselves by their unfaithfulness, handing the curse down to their children. While Freud feels called upon to be able to treat this guilt-consciousness as a neurosis by tracing it back to traumatic experiences in prehistoric times, Steck associates it with the deuteronomistic conception of history, which had lived on in liturgical confessions and penitential prayers.

What is this all about, that Sellin and Freud trace this great sin and sense of guilt back to the alleged murder of Moses? It is nothing but the prophets' rebuke for having broken the covenant God made with the people through Moses' mediation. The historical experience—first in 722 BCE with the downfall of the northern kingdom, then in 587 with the downfall of the southern empire, the loss of state, monarchy, capital and temple in the time of Babylonian captivity, and the continued loss of sovereignty—fed the perception of continuing to stand under the curse of the broken covenant and divine wrath. The Bible is completely explicit here. The murder of Moses is a completely unnecessary construction. Sellin himself later came to see this, and revoked his murder thesis. Besides, he was right about his thesis of resistance to Moses and the prophets. The Israelites rebelled against Moses fourteen times during their exodus from Egypt, and Moses was twice on the verge of being stoned. [End Page 576]

And so it happened to the prophets, who never tired of claiming allegiance to the covenant and its commandments. The circles of prophetic and deuteronomistic opposition were ruled not only by the awareness of having committed grave sins, which bore out the facts of the breach of the covenant, but also of persecuting and killing some of the messengers that God sent to his people in order to warn their rulers and prevent the inevitable punishment. The revelation of the covenant, which God granted to those who were freed from Egypt, and which committed them to absolute steadfast faithfulness, met with resistance from the very beginning among the Israelites. This is what the Old Testament says, and the New [Testament] brings this consciousness of failure into the briefest conceivable formula in the Gospel of John: "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not consume it."8

Freud, too, could have been simply satisfied with opposition, deadly hatred, the declared intention of killing. In Totem and Taboo he himself wrote:

What lie behind the sense of guilt of neurotics are always psychical realities and never factual ones. [. . .] Accordingly the mere hostile impulse against the father, the mere existence of a wishful phantasy of killing and devouring him, would have been enough to produce the moral reaction that created totemism and taboo.

(Freud, 1912–13, pp. 159–160)

There was plenty of hostility—even a declared intent to kill if one wants to believe the Bible, in which fourteen rebellions against Moses are reported during the exodus from Egypt and the desert migration. But Freud insisted on an actual murder. After an extensive discussion of the possibility of only killing the forefather in fantasy, he concludes Totem and Taboo with the Goethe quote: "In the beginning was the deed" (Freud, 1912–13, p. 161). Therefore, for him, the act, not the thought, had to be at the beginning of Mosaic monotheism. He could not break away from this construction, because it was the basis of his theory of the archaic inheritance of the Oedipus complex, and thus the foundation of his psychoanalysis. This fixation blinded him to the Bible. In light of his theory of the [End Page 577] primal horde (if we can speak of "light" here), the murder of Moses turned out to be a repetition of the murder of the primal father, i.e., as an act that expressed a repressed memory, which led to a re-traumatization.

It would be worthwhile to understand how it was that the monotheist idea made such a deep impression precisely on the Jewish people and that they were able to maintain it so tenaciously. It is possible, I think, to find an answer. Fate had brought the great deed and misdeed of primaeval 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 was a case of 'acting out' instead of remembering, as happens so often with neurotics during the work of analysis.

(Freud, 1964/1939, pp. 88–89)

Thus, the deed was repressed, and led to a neurotic illness of the whole people:

Early trauma—defence—latency—outbreak of neurotic illness—partial return of the repressed. Such is the formula which we have laid down for the development of a neurosis. The reader is now invited to take the step of supposing that something occurred in the life of the human species similar to what occurs in the life of individuals: of supposing, that is, that here too events occurred of a sexually aggressive nature, which left behind them permanent consequences but were for the most part fended off and forgotten, and which after a long latency came into effect and created phenomena similar to symptoms in their structure and purpose.

According to Freud, neurosis arises from the interplay of ontogenetic experience and phylogenetic memory—the archaic inheritance from the primal horde—which, in Freud's words, "comprises not only dispositions but also subject-matter—memory-traces of the experience of earlier generations. In this way the compass as well as the importance of the archaic [End Page 578] heritage would be significantly extended" (1964/1939, p. 99). Because: "If we assume the survival of these memory-traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gulf between individual and group psychology: we can deal with peoples as we do with an individual neurotic" (p. 100).

In contrast with the fantastic nature of these constructions—the life and murder of the primal horde, the continuation of corresponding memory traces in a genetically inheritable phylogenetic memory, and the project of a peoples' therapy founded on it—Freud believed the "clay feet" on his Colossus were harmless by comparison.

Nevertheless, one point remains worrisomely persuasive—that is, Freud's definition of Jewish monotheism as a Father-religion. The ambivalence of a covenantal theology that promises to bless obedience and curse unfaithfulness eerily corresponds to Freud's explanation of the ambivalence of the relationship with the father, who is both loved and admired, and hated and feared:

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.

(1964/1939, p. 134)

Even without the theory of primal horde, this formulation makes the point upon which Freud and Sellin agree. Toward the end of the second part, Freud offers a long quote from Sellin, which clearly shows what they are both about:

Consequently we must picture the true religion of Moses—his belief in the one moral God whom he preaches—as thenceforward necessarily the property of a small circle of the people. We must necessarily not expect to meet with it in the official cult, in the religion of the priests or in the beliefs of the people. We can necessarily only reckon to find an occasional spark emerging, now here and now there, from the spiritual torch which he once kindled, to find that his ideas have not entirely [End Page 579] perished but have been silently at work here and there upon beliefs and customs, till sooner or later, through the effect of special experiences or of persons specially moved by his spirit, it has broken out more strongly once more and gained influence on wider masses of the population. It is from this point of view that the history of the ancient religion of Israel is necessarily to be regarded. Anyone who sought to construct the Mosaic religion on the lines of the religion we meet with, according to the chronicles, in the life of the people during their first five hundred years in Canaan, would be committing the gravest methodological error.

(pp. 50–51)

Freud has dealt with Sellin's idea of marginalization (rather than trauma-driven repression) of the Moses tradition very seriously, coming back to it at the end of his book, where he writes:

The religion of Moses, however, had not disappeared without leaving a trace. A kind of memory of it had survived, obscured and distorted, supported, perhaps, among individual members of the priestly caste by ancient records. And it was this tradition of a great past which continued to work in the background, as it were, which gradually gained more and more power over men›s minds, and which finally succeeded in transforming the god Yahweh into the god of Moses and in calling back to life the religion of Moses which had been established and then abandoned long centuries earlier.

(Sellin, 1922, as quoted in Freud, 1964/1939, p. 124)

Where Sellin may be considered correct from today's perspective, is the thesis that the Moses-religion, i.e., prophetic monotheism, met with strong opposition from the leaders and the people, and prevailed only in and after the catastrophe, in the form of early Judaism. But what is not correct—in either Freud's or Sellin's account—is that this was an ancient religion founded by Moses on Sinai in the 14th or 13th century, marginalized or repressed for centuries, and later emerging from latency. The covenantal idea, which first appears in Hosea with the metaphor of betrothal, marriage and adultery, evolves into [End Page 580] a covenantal theology and a religion only in the Deuteronomic tradition, and only with the founding of the Second Temple. There has never been a latency here – but there has been resistance and some tragedy. The metaphor of betrothal and marriage appears in the prophetic texts only in relation to adultery, and is invoked to accuse the people of breaking the covenant. The pathogenesis of monotheism is grounded in the related feeling of guilt – the pathological moment inscribed in it from the very beginning, as expressed in fanaticism and zealotry, fundamentalism and totalitarianism. Freud perceives this in the "irresistible claim to truth against which logical objections remain powerless: a kind of 'credo quia absurdum.' This remarkable feature can only be understood on the pattern of the delusions of psychotics" (1964/1939, p. 85).

It must be said, one can scarcely comment on religion or monotheism without having some understanding. For Freud, religion is a collective obsessive-compulsive neurosis. In the Moses book, he holds fast to this diagnosis, which was already developed in Totem and Taboo, and repeated in The Future of an Illusion. (Freud, 1961/1927) Nevertheless, he admits that monotheistic religion led to a "higher degree of intellectuality"9 (Freud, 1964/1939, p. 114) with the prohibition of images and the proclamation of an invisible God. "For it meant that a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea—a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality or, strictly speaking, an instinctual renunciation, with all its necessary psychological consequences" (p. 113). Freud adds:

All such advances in intellectuality, have as their consequence that the individual's self-esteem is increased, that he is made proud—so that he feels superior to other people who have remained under the spell of sensuality. Moses, as we know, conveyed to the Jews an exalted sense of being a chosen people.

(p. 114)

According to Sigmund Freud, the tragic, dilemma-laden aspect of the Moses figure, and the monotheistic religion he bequeathed, or rather proclaimed, takes a back seat to Freud's psychoanalytic interpretive frame and therapeutic interest. Freud believes that monotheism can be diagnosed and treated [End Page 581] as a collective neurosis "like the individual neurotic," and that Moses, though slain, experiences a tremendous resurrection in his creation—Judaism—and its progress in intellectuality/ spirituality [Geistigkeit]. His informant Sellin has at least a "tragic, poignant portrayal of no equal" with reference to Hosea. According to Sellin, however, who extends the tragic line to Golgotha, the story even finds a kind of "Happy Ending"10 in the form of Christianity and its singular success story."

In Schoenberg's opera "Moses and Aron," to which I would like to return once more, we are dealing with the same motifs as Freud's: spirituality [Geistigkeit], law, and election, versus sensuality, regression, and national narcissism. Schoenberg, in contrast to Freud, however, was "religiously musical"—moreover, he was a committed seeker of God. He wanted neither to debunk nor to psychoanalyze monotheism, whose dilemma he emphasizes. His opera is the work in which the tragic aspect of the theme—Moses and the monotheistic religion—is most clearly expressed, indeed with only one condition: except for the extant text drafts for Act III, which Schoenberg left off composing even though he had 20 years to complete the work.

Let's take a quick look at the structure of the work. The first act is comprised of four major scenes: 1. "Moses' Vocation"—the scene at the burning bush, which was originally intended as a cantata11; 2. "Moses meets Aron in the Desert," a dialogue in which both, as noted in the stage directions, are meant to talk over each other; 3. "Moses and Aron Proclaim the Message of God to the People"; and 4., without a title, the polyphonic and ambivalent response of the people.

Reluctantly receiving the divine commission, Moses expounds his idea of the One, Eternal, Almighty, Invisible and Inconceivable God. Aron translates this into concrete biblical images of a loving, rewarding, punishing, saving God entangled in human history. Moses holds firmly against this: "The irresistible law of the Idea12 compels fulfillment" (Cooper-White, trans.).13

After an interlude—"Where is Moses?" the perplexed people ask, now that Moses has stayed away for forty days—the second act begins with the open revolt of the people, which Aaron can only quell with the production of the Golden Calf. "O Israel, I give you back your gods, and also give you to them, [End Page 582] just as you have desired. Leave what is remote to the Infinite! For you the gods have ever-present, everyday substance." The people want to go away from the new invisible God, back to their visible, tangible, punitive and rewarding gods, who set clear ethical guidelines. Schoenberg also hints musically at this anti-modernist yearning for the rewards of regression, for a falling-back into the world of enchantment. "Glorify yourselves in this symbol!" Aron shouts to the enthusiastic people. For Schoenberg, this is the great sin: "ethno-theism," the people's self-idolatry, the worship of one's own collective and its dreams, which hold it together at its very core and take on a visible form in the figure of the golden calf. Schoenberg strikingly characterized the particular idolatry of his own time.

The image of the presence of the old gods unleashes the instincts of devotion and violence in the people. The meaning of this cascade of images is set before the viewer's eyes: liberation of the people from the power of false gods, in whose form their own impulses and fears, desires, compulsions, addictions, and needs are bound up with the sensual and the transient. Idolatry is exposed as false, not because it is powerless—a purely priestly deceit and an illusionistic event—but on the contrary, because it is overwhelmingly powerful. The sick really are cured, and suicides sacrifice themselves of their own free will; this religion does not lack in authenticity. It is only too real, because it is anchored in human nature. But people should go beyond their own nature. In Schoenberg's and Thomas Mann's and Sigmund Freud's eyes, this is the meaning of the prohibition of images [Bilderverbot].14 Schoenberg, too, is concerned with the progress in spirituality for which his Moses stands. The orgiastic scenes around the Golden Calf, illustrate, by contrast, a relapse into sensuality.

As Moses descends from the mountains with the tablets of the law, the orgy is in full swing. Merely with his word, he destroys the Calf: "Begone, you image of powerlessness to grasp the Boundless in a finite image!" When asked—"Aaron, what have you done?"—Aaron presents the Calf as merely one more of his "wonders": "when your Idea gave forth no word, and my word gave forth no image for them, I performed a miracle [Wunder] before their ears, their eyes." Aaron accuses Moses of having done nothing more than a magic act himself when he [End Page 583] destroyed the image with his word. Moses holds up the tablets against him: "This is no image, no miracle! This is the Law!" When Aron plays his last trump and reproaches Moses that the tablets of the law are "merely an image, a fragment of the whole Idea," Moses smashes the tablets. In the background, the people and probably also Aaron move on, led by the fire and cloudy pillar; lonely and left behind on the front of the stage, Moses is overcome with doubts about his mission: "So everything was madness, what I thought, and cannot and must not be spoken." He sinks down to the ground in despair, crying out, " O Word, thou Word that I lack!"

Act III, which consists of only one scene, ought to bring the solution. In Schoenberg's view, the opera absolutely could not end with Moses' failure and Aron's triumph. So Moses, who has miraculously recovered from his despair, now appears as a ruling leader and Schoenberg once again puts Aaron on the stage, bound in chains between two soldiers. Here the biblical basis is a scene in Numbers 20, which I would like to briefly recapitulate: once again the people are outraged against Moses and Aaron because they are thirsty and find no water. The two consult God, and Moses receives the instruction: "Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them" (Numbers 20:8.)15

Moses and Aaron do as they are told, and gather the congregation, but then they do not speak to the rock, but Moses strikes it twice with his staff, whereupon "water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank."1 (Numbers 20: 11) Then God speaks: "Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them." (Numbers 20: 12)In fact, Aaron dies in the desert soon after, and Moses dies before entering the Promised Land, but at least he can still see it from Mount Nebo. A somewhat enigmatic scene! Carl Philip Emanuel Bach based his oratorio "The Israelites in the Wilderness" on this, but included only the triumph of drawing water from the rock—not Moses' failings and God's punishment. This in turn is the theme of Schoenberg's treatment of this strange scene. But in Schoenberg, [End Page 584] God is kept out of the scene; here it is Moses who asks Aaron why he has hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Again, Aaron has performed magic and produced an image, instead of expressing the concept [Begriff] in words. "So you won the people, not for the Eternal One, but for yourself." "Shall we kill him?" ask the warriors. "Let him go free," Moses answers, "and if he is able, he may live." Aaron, freed, falls dead.

But Moses, who now speaks to the people without a mouthpiece, warns against settling in any Promised Land. "But in the wilderness you shall be invincible, and shall reach the goal: united with God" (Schoenburg, 1957).

What goal other than death a people can reach in the desert remains unclear. This conclusion only underscores once again the tragedy of monotheism as a utopia that is not collectively achievable in life, and the tragedy of Moses, who, out of his desperation, is only able to achieve dictatorial harshness. Schoenberg was right not to compose this third act, which is aesthetically and intellectually unsatisfactory. The two-act work, it seems, is wiser than its author, who refused to accept the grand finale of the second act. That gives us the right, I think, to limit our analysis to the two-act work and to regard it as a tragedy, without this gruesome happy ending.

Thirteen years later, however, Odile Hannes Steck (the same author who wrote the great work Israel und das gewaltsame Geschick der Propheten [Israel and the Violent Fate of the Prophets]), published a small, highly instructive book on the libretto of Schoenberg's opera, in which he held a completely different opinion on this point. For Steck, the meaning of the work is fulfilled only in the third act as a synthesis of thesis (Act I: monotheism), antithesis (Act II, return to paganism in the dance of the Golden Calf) and synthesis (Act III, Aaron's death, and proclamation renouncing demagogic untruth). But Act III, which simply does away with Aron without offering some sort of solution to the conflict between Idea and communication, utopia and life, in fact does not provide a synthesis of uncommunicable monotheism and (self-) destructive paganism. One might express this also as a "synthesis of the God of the philosophers (Moses) and the God of the Fathers (Aaron)." Pascal failed to make this synthesis by rejecting the philosopher's god and throwing himself into the God of the Fathers; [End Page 585] Lessing went the other way, rejecting the God of the Fathers ("the orthodox concepts of deity")16; Spinoza confessed ("Hen kai pan" ["One and All"]).17 Jacobi thought that it was not possible to get from one to the other except through a salto mortale.18 Neither did Schoenberg achieve this synthesis; he allowed both Moses and Aaron to fail to proclaim the God of the philosophers as the God of the Bible.

Sellin did not have this problem, because as a Christian Old Testament scholar, he saw the dilemma solved in Christ: Trinitarian Christianity as synthesis of world-bound paganism and world-alienated Judaism. Freud did not have this problem because he thought he could overcome monotheism as a collective obsessional neurosis through psychoanalysis. The fact that Schoenberg was ultimately unable to believe that his violent, fundamentally fascistoid [fastischoide] conception of Zionism19 was not the solution to the conflict—as he had laid it out shortly before "Moses and Aaron" in his drama "Der biblische Weg" ["The Biblical Way"] and took up again in the third act of the opera—is greatly to his credit. Against the will of its author, "Moses and Aaron" really is a tragedy. [End Page 586]

Jan Assmann

Jan Assmann, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Egyptology, Heidelberg University and Honorary Professor of Cultural and Religious Studies, University of Constance. He is the recipient of many honorary doctorates and awards, including the Prix Europeen de l'Essay, the German Historians' Prize, the Thomas Mann Prize, and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Professor Assmann has authored many books on Ancient Egypt (The Mind of Egypt, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt), cultural theory (Cultural Memory and Ancient Civilizations), the origins of monotheism (Of God and Gods), the reception of Egypt in the West (Moses the Egyptian), Thomas Mann (Thomas Mann and Ägypten: Mythos und Monotheismus in den Josephsromanen), and Mozart's Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote—Oper und Mysterium).


1. Translator's note: As also noted by Hermann Westerink in his public introduction to this lecture, Jan Assmann has previously asserted that monotheism introduced exclusiveness and competition among religions, which previously (as represented by Egyptian polytheism, pantheism, and other ancient near-eastern religious traditions) recognized and even tolerated the presence of one another's gods (Assmann, 1997). Assmann and his wife Aleida have asserted that a human tendency toward pantheism lives on in collective human memory, and may stand as an antidote for religious exceptionalism and violence. For further development of this line of argument, see also, e.g., Assmann, 2005, 2009.

2. Translator's note: Assmann uses the German form "Mose" in the original lecture for this.

3. Letter to Walter Eidlitz, Berlin, March 15, 1933 in Stein, 1964, p. 172.

4. Translator's note: Freud here also cites Meyer, 1906, pp. 38, 58.

6. Emphasis in original.

7. Translator's note: In English, see also Steck, 2000, pp. 5, 141, et passim.

8. John 1:5. Assmann quotes as: "Das Licht scheint in der Finsternis und die Finsternis hat es nicht angenommen."

9. Translator's note: Geistigkeit = either "spirituality" or as Strachey translates, "intellectuality." In translating Freud, the latter seems most appropriate; in translating Schoenberg, "spirituality" is often more correct.

10. English in original Assmann text: "Happy End."

11. Translator's note: Actually, per Schoenberg's original sketches, an "oratorio." Re: unpublished source materials for 'Moses und Aron,' see [Cooper-]White, 1985; "Moses und Aron" source archives at the Arnold Schoenberg Center, Vienna. Retrieved from

12. Translator's note: The "Idea" (der Gedanke) has a particular connotation in "Moses und Aron" based in large part on Schoenberg's reading of Schopenhauer and the philosophical problem of Idea (Schoenberg uses Gedanke more often than Idee or Vorstellung) vs. Representation (Darstellung). ([Cooper-]White, 1984, 1985).

13. Cf., Allen Forte's translation, Schoenberg, 1957.

14. Translator's note: "Bilderverbot" here refers to the second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." (Exodus 20:4 – King James Version)

15. English translation = New Revised Standard Version.

16. Translator's note: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, discussed further in Assmann, 1997, pp. 139–143.

17. Translator's note: Assmann discusses "Hen Kai Pan" and the influence of pan[en] theism (with reference to Baruch Spinoza. (Ibid., pp. 80, 139–143 et passim)

18. Translator's note: Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, as cited in Assmann, ibid., pp. 139–141 et passim.

19. Translator's note: Assmann's use of the term "fastischoide" is no doubt controversial. Assmann makes no bones about deploring Schoenberg's militant Zionism, especially as expressed in Schoenberg's 1927 political play [Tendenzstück] "Der biblische Weg." (Personal communication, May 6, 2019) To quote Klara Móricz (2008), "The affinity of Schoenberg's political views to fascism is one of the most uncomfortable issues in Schoenberg scholarship." (p. 214) For many years after Schoenberg's death, his Zionist views during the late 1920's and early 1930's – mostly represented only in unpublished documents – were mentioned but not discussed in any detail in the musicology literature. The first published discussion in any depth was written by Schoenberg's grandson, E. Randol Schoenberg (1987). The first serious examination of "Der biblische Weg" appeared in the 1994 volume of the Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, including the first English translation (Schoenberg, 1994/1927) and an explanatory essay by Moshe Lazar (1994). For further discussion of Schoenberg's Zionsim from various points of view, see also Lindenberger, 1989; and Brown, 2014. My own view, based on my recent archival research at the Arnold Schoenberg Center (during May-June, 2019), is that Schoenberg's uncompromising Zionist views were shaped by his traumatic experiences of antisemitism and exile, and although at times he put forth highly unrealistic plans for his vision (which were not taken seriously by major leaders of the Zionist movement), they represent a prescience about the extent of the Nazis' genocidal intentions, and a desire to fight fire (fascism) with fire (including authoritarian, violent means). (Cooper-White, [2020])


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