Commentary Magazine

Ritual: Psychoanalytic Studies, by Theodor Reik

Freud and Judaism
Ritual: Psychoanalytic Studies.
by Theodor Reik.
New York, Farrar, Straus, 1946. 367 pp. $5.00.


In his chapter on “The Shofar” in the present work, Dr. Reik applies the orthodox Freudian exegesis to demonstrate that the early Israelites variously conceived of Yahweh (Jehovah) as a bull, a snake, or a stone. He makes his case insistently and defiantly. If we turn to A Bird’s-eye View of Jewish History, published in 1935 by the highly respectable Union of American Hebrew Congregations, we find Dr. Cecil Roth remarking almost casually that in the Mosaic period “YHWH was, in effect, a deity of the same type as any other, represented at various times by a bull, or a snake, or a sacred stone. It was only very much later . . . that this ‘monolatry’ . . . became . . . ‘monotheism’ in the proper sense of the word.”

The first German edition of Reik’s work was published in 1919; the chapters on “Couvade” and “The Puberty Rites of Savages” date from 1914 and 1915. (It might even be maintained that the entire work is but a long footnote to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, written in 1912.) Since the psychoanalytic victory has been so largely won, even the conventional today being mostly conventionally Freudian, why is Reik still so defiant, insisting in his preface of 1946 that “no essential changes were necessary”? Dr. Reik is of the first generation of Freud’s personal disciples. (Ritual includes a preface by Freud.) Can it be that Reik resents anthropology’s having selected the kernels of the Freudian contribution and rejected the husks of its dogma?

For the truth is that the anthropology of Freud’s Totem and Taboo is by now no more modern than that of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Both are as great in their field as Darwin’s work was in biology, and both have been similarly transcended. What anthropology has retained of Freud’s teachings is essentially the decisive importance of infancy in molding the personality, and the potency of non-rational factors in determining behavior. It has not retained Freud’s leveling approach to different societies—perhaps the consequence of a too great emphasis on biology—according to which, for example, the Oedipus complex is one and indivisible, everywhere and always, among all peoples in all times.

Today anthropologists hold to “the basic personality,” which in one culture can have significant elements of difference from that of another culture. This implies that apparently similar initiation rites need not have in Polynesia, for instance, the same (subconscious) meaning they have in Australia. And this in turn implies that the pre-history of some tribes may not have known the killing and devouring of (God) the Father by the Primal Horde, and the Horde’s subsequent coupling with the Father’s wives (its mothers). Hence it may not be entirely valid to assume, as Freud and Reik do, the persistence of the Oedipus complex in the subconscious of humanity, with every man in his own development recapitulating a racial Oedipal trauma. Which is to say that much of the anthropological work of Freud (and Reik) may be as much myth as anthropology.

Observations of this sort are not new. Although intended to cast doubt only on Freud’s anthropology, not on his therapy, they have usually been dismissed by the devoutly orthodox with an assertion that such ideas are “mere” rationalizations for a neurotic rejection of psychoanalysis; devout Marxists are wont to answer criticisms of their dogmas by labeling them “mere” reflections of the class interests of the bourgeoisie. Yet Freud himself would have despised this kind of argument. In his History of the Psychoanalytic Movement he says: “He who wishes to use analysis with polemic intent must offer no objection if the person so analyzed will, in his turn, use analysis against him, and if the discussion merges into a state in which the awakening of a conviction in an impartial third party is entirely excluded.”



Although two of the four chapters of Reik’s book are chiefly devoted to the customs of primitive peoples, a number of indications make it clear that even when Reik is discussing Caribs, Kaffirs, or Dyaks, he is always thinking of the Jews. In the other two chapters the Jews are no longer the repressed, but have become the manifest content.

The introduction to “Kol Nidre” includes this very interesting passage: “When a student, I had joined the Jewish National Association. Holding no positive religious belief, my mind had been occupied in following the conflict of contemporary political opinions—a subject on which I felt strongly. My interest at this time had been aroused by an annually recurring event . . . the appearance of the Vienna Deutsche Volksblatt on the eve of the Day of Atonement, when the full text of the Kol Nidre was printed in Hebrew type, with the German translation in juxtaposition. The text was to the effect that all oaths which believers take between one Day of Atonement and the next are declared invalid. The Deutsche Volksblatt invariably availed itself of the opportunity to deduce from this edict a moral depravity on the part of the Jewish race. . . . It effectually aroused in me a feeling of intense opposition, and, at the same time, I was conscious of a feeling of humiliation at my intellectual limitations and inability to disprove the charge. . . . We desire, however, to approach the question free from bias on either side, and to observe a neutral standpoint between anti-Semitic fervor and overzealousness in favor of the Jews.”

Free from bias or not, Reik succeeds in “disproving the charge.” His disproof is based on two main concepts: the Oedipal relation of the Jews to God the Father, which need not detain us; and, closely associated with this relation, the ambivalence of the Jews toward their God. (Ambivalence is the coexistence in one person of two contrary feelings about a person or thing: love-hate, tenderness-cruelty, domination-subordination, etc. Ambivalence knows nothing of Aristotelian logic, in which identities cannot be contraries, and vice versa. There is general agreement that in our emotions, at least, we are more obedient to Freud’s law than to Aristotle’s.) In his analysis of the Kol Nidre, Reik’s basic argument runs along these lines: the Jews are submissive to God, honor his commandments, and are in fact zealously scrupulous in respecting the sanctity of the oath; this submissiveness to God the Father is subconsciously resented and hated; in an annual act of symbolic rebellion the burden is repudiated; by a characteristic and ironical paradox, the rite of repudiation, the Kol Nidre, is placed at the very beginning of the devotions of the Day of Atonement, the most solemn annual rite of submission to God the Father, and is vested with much of the emotional charge of the entire Yom Kippur ritual; actually, this gesture of rebellion only serves, after giving a fleeting satisfaction to the suppressed resentment, to enable the Jews to preserve intact the sanctity of their oaths for another year, after which the whole process will be repeated, and so on forever. Few will deny that the argument is elegant, subtle, and witty.

Since Dr. Reik has here undertaken a task of “Jewish defense,” one wonders how he would answer the even more vicious and more patently false charge of ritual murder, which accuses the Jews of slaughtering non-Jewish children at the Passover, with the alleged purpose of draining the blood for use in the preparation of unleavened bread. Reik does not consider this question in Ritual, but he does deal with it in a chapter of his Der eigene und der fremde Gott (“One’s Own and the Foreign God,” 1923), entitled “Das Unheimliche aus infantilen Komplexen” (“The Uncanny as It Derives from Infantile Complexes”). There he attempts to “disprove the charge,” as well as to explain why it should be made at all. The disproof consists primarily in citing very similar accusations by the Roman pagans against the early Christians and refutations by several Fathers of the Church. The latter can be paraphrased thus: “Let us examine who makes the accusation, and against whom it is made. Those who make it are notorious for the violence, immorality, and impiety of their mode of life; those against whom it is made are celebrated for their meekness, compassion, and abhorrence of bloodshed. If any children are slaughtered at all—which is most doubtful—it is certain that the perpetrators of so foul a crime must be found among the accusers rather than among the accused.” Dr. Reik quotes these refutations with seeming approval and with the strong implication that they are of equal validity in the case of medieval and modern accusations of ritual murder against the Jews. (He also includes a long passage containing charges of ritual murder against Christian missionaries, made by Chinese intellectuals who fomented the Boxer Rebellion, in the early years of this century.)

As to the causes for the charge of ritual murder against the Jews in modem Europe, Dr. Reik finds them in the feeling of un-canniness aroused in non-Jews by Jewish circumcision. Un-canniness is the subconscious and ambivalent (repelled-attracted) racial memory of practices long suppressed, aroused in the observer by the persistence of such practice in a contemporaneous alien group. Ultimately, un-canniness is associated with the killing and devouring of the Father of the Primal Horde by his incestuous sons. It is aroused by circumcision because circumcision is an attenuated form of castration, which in turn is an attenuated form of human sacrifice, which derives proximately from the sacrifice of the first-born son, which, finally, derives from the killing and devouring of the Father of the Horde. Hence the association between the ideas of circumcision and of the slaughter of a child for the purpose of eating it—an association strengthened by the circumstance that the Passover, after all, is the direct descendant of the totem feast, which in turn descends from the slaying and eating of the Primal Father; all of which is readily apparent to the racial subconscious.

Two questions must be asked of Dr. Reik: why has he allowed his analytical tool of ambivalence, which he wielded so deftly in the Kol Nidre case, to lie idle in dealing with ritual murder; and is circumcision really as uncanny as he says it is?

Ambivalence might have embarrassed a Freudian early Christian confronted by a Freudian Roman pagan reasoning in this wise: “Your very protestation that you abhor bloodshed strengthens me in the belief that you do indeed slaughter an infant once a year. This you do so that your subconscious resentment against your heavy burden of piety may be momentarily appeased (as well as for many other complex psychoanalytic reasons), whereupon you will be able to resume your yoke for another year. Witness our Saturnalia, and witness too what Dr. Reik will write many centuries from now on the Kol Nidre of the Jews.” Writers concerned with disproving charges would do well to leave ambivalence alone; by its nature a dualistic concept, it is also a two-edged polemical weapon.

Circumcision, in the Western world, is uncanny—thus Dr. Reik. There is a strong temptation to believe that in saying this he is universalizing a phenomenon more or less specific to the Germany and Hapsburg Empire of his youth. Some recent writing on anti-Semitism by German-speaking Jewish psychoanalysts (for example, Otto Fenichel’s “A Psychoanalytic Approach to Anti-Semitism,” COMMENTARY, July 1946) refers to the language and costume of East European Orthodox Jewry as being uncanny, awakening atavistic memories in the modern German or Austrian. (Yiddish and the kapote and shtreiml are recognizable survivals of the speech and costume of medieval Christian Germany.) But surely there is no relation between Yiddish and the Primal Horde! Nor does it seem likely that circumcision is uncanny in the United States; for un-canniness is, as it were, the tickling of a racial memory, while in this country an ever increasing number of hospitals have made it a matter of course to circumcise newly born male infants, Jewish and non-Jewish, for reasons of hygiene and with no thought of introducing those who would otherwise be among the uncircumcised into the covenant of our father Abraham. What is winning such general popularity can scarcely be considered uncanny.

It has been said of Freud that he took the nature of the Viennese bourgeois of the late nineteenth century to be immutable and universal human nature. However that may be, it does seem that those psychoanalysts from Austria and Germany who have engaged in the perennially popular Jewish pastime of seeking “the traits of [other] Jews that contribute to anti-Semitism” have been dignifying the anti-Semitism of their early milieu by relating it to the Primal Horde, when it was only anti-Semitism of the Austrian and German varieties, 1870-1939.



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