Fromm, Freud, and Midrash.
Elliot B. Gertel
Issue: Fall, 1999
THE WRITINGS OF ERICH FROMM (1908-1980) REPRESENT a significant chapter
not only in the annals of psychoanalysis but in the history of Jewish hermeneutics.
Indeed, one cannot help being struck by the fact that almost all of Fromm's
work, whether a discussion of psychoanalysis, Marxism, or contemporary society,
draws heavily upon the Bible, and even at times refers to the Talmud, Hasidic
works, and other Jewish religious sources. Where Freud saw psychoanalysis
as a "metamorphosed extension of Judaism," as YosefHaim Yerushalim notes,
 Fromm followed in the footsteps of his master and created a body of work
that is midrashic.
One encounters in Fromm's works various exegetical
genres of a Jewish mode. The most basic of these devices is, of course, the
quoting of Scripture, especially to begin and conclude. On the frontispiece
of The Revolution of Hope (1968), for example, one is welcomed by the words
of Koheleth: "For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope"
(Ecclesiastes 9:4). In Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx
and Freud (1962), Fromm cites Psalm 135 to illustrate his concept of idolatry
and further draws upon Hosea 14:3, which describes idolatrous man as bowing
to the work of his own hands.  This volume ends with a verse from Isaiah,
chosen to summarize Fromm's argument. So, too, in The Sane Society (1955),
one of the earlier works, Fromm draws upon biblical verses dealing with idolatry
to help the reader understand his pioneering discussion of modem alienation.
The book closes with the famous verse from Deuteronomy: "I put before thee
life and death, the blessing and the curse ... therefor e choose life" (Deuteronomy
This Scripture quoting persists throughout Fromm's work.
It began with his first book, Escape From Freedom (1941) which is, in its
largest sense, a modern commentary on--or perhaps response to--the Book of
Exodus. To illustrate the unhealthy phenomenon of the excessive dependence
of certain social classes, Fromm cites the biblical expression, "clay in
the potter's hand" (Jeremiah 18:6), transforming it from a description of
man's dependence on God to an indictment of excessive dependence on fellow
In fact, one finds throughout Fromm's writings the old homiletical
device of using biblical texts and stories to illustrate more contemporary
convictions. Thus, in Escape From Freedom, You Shall Be As Gods (1966), and
other works, Fromm utilizes the Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis as a
paradigm for man's "process of individualization," wherein he "cuts his ties
with nature" so that history--and alienation--can emerge.  To Fromm, the
messianic visions in the Bible represent a complete victory of man over incestuous
ties --a quintessential psychoanalytic interpretation! In The Forgotten
Language (1955), the Book of Jonah is interpreted as describing the state
of being protracted and isolated;  and in Man For Himself(1947), Fromm
adds that the Book of Jonah teaches that the essence of love is to labor.
 In the same place, he compares Jonah to Cain, so engaging in the homiletical
device frequently utilized by the Rabbis of drawing parallels between biblical
characters. And in The Heart of Man: It s Genius For Good and Evil (1964)
, Fromm interprets the biblical story of King Solomon, the baby, and the
two women as a depiction of the "necrophilious person" (the villain in Fromm's
works), who is more willing to kill or to be killed than to achieve justice
through life-affirming means.