Sigmund Freud, the “father of psychology,” was thoroughly secular in his professed beliefs and practices. Throughout his writings he expresses a marked disdain, if not outright hostility, towards all religions, including Judaism. “Religion is a universal obsessional neurosis,” he once wrote, and described himself as a “godless Jew” and “one of the most dangerous enemies of religion.”

You get the picture.

In 1930, Freud penned a preface for the publication of a Hebrew translation of one of his works, “Totem and Taboo.” In it he characteristically declares himself as adopting “no Jewish standpoint and making no exceptions in favor of Jewry” and describes himself as having abandoned “all common characteristics” of his fellow Jewish people.

In light of that, what he writes further can only be described as remarkable.

“No reader … will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of an author who is … completely estranged from the religion of his fathers … but who has yet never repudiated his people. Who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that … If the question were to be put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply: ‘A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.”

The “author” of whom he speaks is, of course, himself.

Truly remarkable! Freud is telling the world that regardless of his seemingly complete and utter disaffection from the ideas and practices of Judaism, he remains Jewish in his essence — and admits that this is something his scientific mind cannot fully explain.

When unpacked, I believe that this remarkable statement reflects a critical idea that holds the key to understanding one of the Jewish People’s most puzzling characteristics.

A Pattern of Discord

There’s the well-worn quip about two Jews having three opinions, which actually holds a great deal of truth. We Jews are not in the habit of agreeing with each other about much of anything. Euphemistically we refer to it as Jewish diversity, but it really seems more like we’re just hard-wired with a penchant for discord. What’s more, it has been this way for the longest time, going back to the hair-splitting Talmudic debates between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel, and even earlier. The Talmud seems to suggest that this is the way it was meant to be: “Just as their faces are not alike, so their opinions are not alike.”1

That’s just the way it is.

Jews can argue about almost everything under the sun, and we do. We not only debate how to observe Shabbat, what kind of food we should eat, or what our synagogues ought to look like. We also argue about how to achieve peace for Israel, immigration policy, and what to do about gun violence, growing assimilation and anti-semitism. And we have nearly as many prayer liturgies as there are Jews...

Is Jewish Unity a Realistic Objective?

What is so utterly baffling about this phenomenon is that at the same time that we relentlessly squabble with each other, most of us sincerely crave Jewish unity. We long for it, we moralize to each other about it, and we wring our hands in despair when it eludes us. (Then we turn around and blame each other for that...) Conversely, we exult over any fleeting manifestations of Jewish togetherness. We get goosebumps every time we witness a momentary coming together of Jews from differing persuasions, ancestral traditions or modes of practice.

So, what gives? How can a people so divided into philosophical groups and subgroups, schools of thought, affiliations and what-have-you even talk about being an Am Echad — a unified, singular people, a nation of one? How can we be expected to “love our fellow as we love ourselves”, when we can hardly identify any commonalities between us?

Am I expected to love that fellow who makes me cringe every time he opens his mouth? The one whose understanding of Judaism I think is completely off the rails? The one whose behavior I consider to be an outright disgrace?

With such intense discord, how can we realistically aspire to Jewish unity?

The Soul Factor

Enter the concept of the Jewish neshamah, the soul, which the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman (1745-1812), teaches is the enduring spiritual core of every Jew. The place of our unvarying and indivisible Jewishness, he writes, is a spark of Divinity identical within each and every Jew. This is the essence of our Jewishness, and it supersedes and transcends the many differences that separate us.2

It is true that we differ about matters of vital importance. We may be oceans apart when it comes to the fundamentals of Judaism: G‑d, Torah, mitzvot. But remarkably, those differences don't define the core of our inner Jewishness. What defines our Jewish selves is the neshama, by which we are all essentially and equally Jewish. Repeat: essentially and equally Jewish.

Despite our profound disagreements about what being Jewish is supposed to look like, and how our Jewishness ought to be manifested, our underlying Jewishness is absolute and uniform.

The same concept applies on the individual level. We all experience ups and downs in our day-to-day Jewish performance. Some days we just do better Jewishly than others… But despite those variations in our “doing Jewish,” the nature of our “being Jewish” remains unchanged. Even more: it is unchangeable. It is a constant. It is who we are. Each and every one of us. All the time.

Freud, the self-described “godless Jew,” understood this about his Jewishness. And while he acknowledges his inability to explain it, he readily accepts the existence of his Jewish essence and fully embraces it. Rabbi Schneur Zalman and the Rebbes of Chabad would hardly be surprised. I can imagine them smiling knowingly…

The Key to Unity

Now, returning to the puzzle of Jewish unity. How can there possibly be Jewish unity In the face of all the discord and disunity that exists within our people? It is by realizing that as Jews our kinship is not the product of similar ideas or shared values, or even our commitment to Torah and mitzvot. Realistically, those vary from time to time and from individual to individual. Rather, our unity is a reality far deeper, far more enduring and far more consistent than any of our ideas or behaviors. Our unity is the oneness of our essence.

If we would take the time to reflect on the lofty inner nature of every Jewish soul, we would discover that the imperative to “love our fellow as we love ourselves” is not an idealistic exaggeration or a poetic platitude, but a reality that sits within each of us, which we are urged to uncover and to embrace. To be sure, the path to reaching that destination is not an easy one to navigate, but it is very much within our ability to achieve.