Is Circumcision the Source of Jewish Angst? Genital Mutilation and Psychic Trauma

A compassionate approach to Jewishness

1. Is circumcision an epigenetic trauma?

Recently, the Icelandic parliament proposed a bill to ban circumcision for non-medical reasons as a violation of children’s rights punishable by up to six years in prison, drawing parallels with female genital mutilations, which is already prohibited in many European countries.

Just like in Germany six years ago, European Jewish leaders and organizations successfully lobbied against the Icelandic bill, calling it anti-Semitic: “The Nazis enacted such a law in 1933 and we know how it ended,” declared (quite wrongly) Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, adding with satisfaction: “I think that the international pressure has made them back off, but the fight for milah [circumcision], and shechitah [animal sacrifice] as well, is going to continue around Europe.”

Indeed it is, and not just in Europe. The fight has actually been going on since the Roman era, if not before. In modern times, it has often opposed Jews themselves. Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), one of the founders of Reformed Judaism in Germany, advocated giving up this “barbarian and bloody rite,” pointing out that it is not part of the Mosaic Covenant and not even mentioned in Deuteronomy.

He brought against himself an alliance of Orthodox and Reformed rabbis. Today the so-called “intactivist” movement includes many Jews advocating the replacement of the bloody ritual by a symbolic one, called brit shalom. Their arguments have failed so far to be heard, due to the strong mobilization of pro-circumcision Jewish activists such as Jake Waskett, who has made almost 14,000 edits at Wikipedia to show a pro-circumcision bias.

But the fight will go on indeed, because the issue of circumcision is at the very core of the Jewish question. It is, perhaps, the taboo within the taboo. Baruch Spinoza believed that “circumcision alone will preserve the Jewish nation for ever.”1 At the very least, it is a factor that should not be ignored by anyone seriously seeking to understand the Jewish question. Here is why.

2. Endogamy and circumcision

As I wrote earlier, Jewishness—which encompasses Judaism, Zionism, and much more—has the fundamental nature of a covenant. Religious Jews believe it is a covenant between God and the only people He really cares for. But most of the Jewish intellectual, cultural, financial, political or criminal elite, those admitted for example in the B’nai B’rith (“Sons of the Covenant”), assume it is a covenant of Jews with themselves.

They may not believe in Yahweh, but they assume that the Covenant is very ancient, going back to something like a hundred generations; it is therefore rooted in a deep ancestral bond (or the illusion of it). “God did not choose Israel; Israel chose God,” liked to say atheist David Ben-Gurion, by which he meant that, regardless of the question of the existence of Yahweh, Jews have secured for themselves the destiny that goes with chosenness, world domination: “If you faithfully obey the voice of Yahweh your God […], Yahweh your God will raise you higher than every other nation in the world” (Deuteronomy 28:1).

What Yahweh asked in return is, above anything else, religious exclusivism: “You shall have no other gods to rival me” (Exodus 20:3). That commandment goes together with strict endogamy. Yahweh forbids Jews to marry their children to non-Jews because “your son would be seduced from following me into serving other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:3).

From the viewpoint of an atheist Jew, endogamy is the real issue of the Covenant, and Yahweh’s jealousy only a religious justification: “divinity in Judaism is contained in the exaltation of the entity represented by the race” (Isaac Kadmi-Cohen, Essay on the Jewish Soul, 1929).2 That is also the viewpoint of Darwinian social psychologist Kevin MacDonald, who argues powerfully that Judaism is a “group evolutionary strategy” disguised as religion.3

Endogamy is so highly valued in the Bible that it even trumps the prohibition of incest as understood by most cultures. Abraham marries his half-sister Sarah. His son Isaac receives an Egyptian wife in his youth, but his heirs are the children he has with Rebecca, the daughter of his cousin Bethuel (whose mother, Milcah, had married his uncle Nahor, according to Genesis 11:29).

Rebecca, horrified at the idea that her son Jacob should marry outside of the family, sends him to her brother Laban so he can marry one of Laban’s two daughters; Jacob marries both (Genesis 28). The case of Esau, Jacob’s older brother, is similar: he first marries two Hittite women, “a bitter disappointment to Isaac and Rebekah” 26:35), but repents and takes to wife his cousin Mahalath, daughter of his uncle Ishmael (28:9). Ishmael being himself of impure lineage, as the son of Abraham and his Egyptian handmaid Hagar, Esau is excluded from the chosen people anyway; he is the ancestor of the Edomites (Genesis 36).

Historians believe that these genealogies were invented by the Levitic priesthood during their Babylonian exile, and mostly at the end of it, when Babylon had fallen under Persian rule and the exiled Judeans were preparing for the reconquest of Palestine4. It is among the Babylonian exiles that purity of blood and strict endogamy became the very cornerstone of ancient Judaism, as reflected in the Book of Ezra.

Among the ruling elite, and especially among the priestly families claiming Aaron as their ancestor, unions between cousins or uncle and niece were highly valued. Ezra himself, an Aaronite priest who travelled to Jerusalem eighty years after King Cyrus the Great had allowed the first contingent to settle back in Palestine, complains that these early pioneers (42,360 people with their 7,337 servants and 200 male and female singers, according to Ezra 2:64–67) “have been unfaithful” to Yahweh “by marrying foreign women from the people of the country” (Ezra 10:2).

By “the people of the country,” Ezra meant the Palestinian population over whom the Judeo-Babylonians intended to reign. These indigenous people, who believed themselves the rightful inhabitants of the land, were declared “foreigners” in the inverted view of history imposed by the Persian-backed settlers. Ezra tells his fellow Babylonian Jews:

“The country which you are about to possess is a polluted country, polluted by the people of the country and their disgusting practices, which have filled it with their filth from end to end.

Hence you are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, or let their daughters marry your sons, or ever concern yourselves about peace or good relations with them, if you want to grow stronger, to live off the fat of the land and bequeath it to your sons forever” (Ezra 9:11–12).

Ezra requires that all the perpetrators repudiate their foreign wives and the children born of them. The fact that the prohibition of intermarriage by Ezra echoes the one formulated in Deuteronomy, and that the mixed marriages condemned by Ezra are reminiscent of those blamed on the Hebrews in the books of Numbers and Kings, must be interpreted in reverse, according to recent historians, since much of the Pentateuch and all the Deuteronomistic literature were edited to support the theocratic project of Ezra.

Neonatal circumcision is probably one of those innovations introduced by the Judeo-Babylonians into Palestine. It appears in the Book of Genesis, as a direct commandment from Yahweh to Abraham, long before Yahweh spoke to Moses. But Abraham is unknown to pre-exilic prophets, and his journey from the city of Ur, “beyond the river” (Euphrates), to Palestine, motivated by Yahweh’s promise “to give you this country as your possession” (Genesis 15:7), was probably written during the Persian period as a model for the (re)conquest of the “Promised Land”.5 Circumcision is the only commandment of the Abrahamic Covenant:

“You for your part must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you, generation after generation. This is my covenant which you must keep between myself and you, and your descendants after you: every one of your males must be circumcised.

You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that will be the sign of the covenant between myself and you. As soon as he is eight days old, every one of your males, generation after generation, must be circumcised, including slaves born within the household or bought from a foreigner not of your descent. Whether born within the household or bought, they must be circumcised.

My covenant must be marked in your flesh as a covenant in perpetuity. The uncircumcised male, whose foreskin has not been circumcised—that person must be cut off from his people: he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:9–14).

Circumcision was not in itself a novelty. It was unknown in Mesopotamia, but was practiced in ancient Egypt on fourteen-year-old boys. Such practice can be compared to the rites of passage practiced in other traditional societies, by which young males are painfully extracted from the world of women and integrated into the world of men.

Circumcision of prepubescent or adolescent males was also practiced in Syria, although not uniformly, and probably more in southern parts, close to Egypt, than in the northern regions. It may have also been performed in pre-Islamic Arabia, as it is today in Islamic societies.

Circumcision of adolescents in ancient Egypt

It is reasonable to assume that circumcision rites practiced in ancient Judea before the Babylonian Exile were consistent with the practices of other neighboring people, which would explain why it is not even mentioned in the Mosaic covenant.

According to the Book of Joshua, it is only when the Hebrews had settled in the Promised Land of Canaan that “Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites on the Hill of Foreskins” (Joshua 5:3). The explanation given in the following verses, according to which circumcision had to be resumed because it had been temporarily abandoned during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, may be a post-exilic gloss.

There is an important story in Genesis 34, which may also inform us both on the pre-exilic context and on its post-exilic reinterpretation. Hamor, the king of the Canaanite city of Shechem, once made the following proposal to Jacob: “My son Shechem’s heart is set on your daughter. Please allow her to marry him. Intermarry with us; give us your daughters and take our daughters for yourselves. We can live together, and the country will be open to you, for you to live in, and move about in, and acquire holdings.’”

Jacob’s sons feigned to agree on the condition that “you become like us by circumcising all your males. Then we will give you our daughters, taking yours for ourselves; and we will stay with you to make one nation.” Hamor consented and convinced all his male subjects to be circumcised. Three days later, “when the men were still in pain,” Jacob’s sons attacked the town: they “slaughtered all the males,” Hamor and Shechem included, and “took all their children and wives captive and looted everything to be found in the houses”.

This passage records the ambiguity of the relationship between endogamy and circumcision. In theory, people can be converted into Israelite nationality (rather than religion) by circumcision. But in practice, this doesn’t happen, and strict endogamy prevails. This contradiction may reflect the radical change that took place during the Exile, when ancient chronicles were edited to fit the new ideology.

In the Abrahamic Covenant, invented by the Levites in Babylon and projected back before the Mosaic Covenant, circumcision is not presented as a rite of conversion. Quite the opposite: It concerns exclusively Abraham’s descent. In exchange of the sacrifice of all his male descendants’ foreskins, Yahweh promises to Abraham innumerable progeny (“I shall make you exceedingly fertile.

I shall make you into nations, and your issue will be kings”) and a piece of the Fertile Crescent as inalienable possession (“And to you and to your descendants after you, I shall give the country where you are now immigrants, the entire land of Canaan, to own in perpetuity”) (Genesis 17:6-8). As a mark in the flesh artificially transmitted from father to son, brith mila, the “covenant of circumcision,” is like a superimposed genetic trait.

It is easy to understand that the Yahwist priesthood who ruled over the Judean community in Mesopotamia and Persia would value circumcision as a marker of ethnic identity, in a land where nobody else practiced it. But why would they introduce the radical novelty of circumcision on newborn babies? One reason appears to be linked to the earlier practice of human sacrifice, which is abundantly documented in the Torah, and was to be performed on the eighth day according to Exodus 22:28-29: “You will give me the first-born of your children; you will do the same with your flocks and herds. For the first seven days the first-born will stay with its mother; on the eighth day you will give it to me.” Sacrifices of first-born males, both human and animal, in the name of Yahweh are abundantly documented in the Hebrew Bible (Yahweh himself admits it in Ezekiel 20:25).

They may have been on the decline before the Exile, but it was only in Babylon that they were officially banned, certainly by Persian law (read my earlier article). It was then decided that the first-born sons should be “redeemed” by a substitute offering to the Levites (Exodus 34:19-20 and 13:11-13; Leviticus 27:26), as were the first-born of “unclean animals” unfit for consumption (Numbers 18:15-17). The story of Yahweh ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son then holding back his arm and asking for a ram instead was made up to accompany this reform. Circumcision of newborn males (on the eighth day) was also introduced as a substitute for the sacrifice of the first-born male (on the eighth day).

Another purpose for circumcising males in infancy rather than in adolescence may have been to reduce the high percentage of Judeans who chose to assimilate into Mesopotamian and Persian culture. Chapter 44 of the Book of Jeremiah shows that Judeans who had fled to Egypt before the Babylonian conquest were strongly inclined to give up the national cult of Yahweh and turn to the more universal cult of Asherah (read my article). There is no reason to suppose that things were much different among those taken into exile in Babylon.

Whereas Judeans in Egypt may have had no problem keeping their circumcision tradition in Egypt, those in Babylon were probably discouraged from doing so by the local culture. Forcing parents to circumcise their male children at birth was surely an efficient way to stem this tendency.

There may also be a more sinister reason: eighth-day circumcision does not just mark the Covenant in the flesh; it engraves it in the deepest and unreachable layers of the subconscious, through traumatic pain and symbolic castration.

3. The trauma of neonatal circumcision

Even when done on children over eight years old, as is generally the case among Muslims, ritual circumcision raises serious questions in modern societies, which are supposed to outlaw attacks on the physical integrity of children for any other reason than medical. But circumcision of very young infants raises an additional range of disturbing questions.

Unlike the child or teenager, the newborn baby is psychologically incapable of giving any positive meaning to the violence done to him. He takes no active part in it and cannot symbolically appropriate it as part of his identity. Eight days after emerging from his mother’s womb — a trauma in itself, but a natural one — what he needs is to strengthen an unshakable trust in the benevolence of those who welcomed him into this world.

Because infants cannot speak, rabbis who defend the tradition speak in their place to minimize their physical pain and psychological plight. But according to Professor Ronald Goldman, author of Circumcision, the Hidden Trauma, scientific studies prove the neurological impact of infant circumcision, for which no anesthesia is used. Behavioral changes observed after the operation, including sleep disorders and inhibition in mother-child bonding, are signs of a post-traumatic stress syndrome.6

The trauma of eight-day circumcision doesn’t seem to have much preoccupied psychotherapists, even among those with a focus on early trauma. Arthur Janov, celebrated author of The Primal Scream (1970), whose “primal therapy” involves “repeatedly descending into, feeling, and experiencing long-repressed childhood pain” (Wikipedia), has famously succeeded—so he says—to lead his patients into “re-living” their births. But he has never mentioned anyone re-living their circumcision, a trauma which, judging from the cries of the babies, is of a much higher traumatic degree.

Nevertheless, unsolicited and unexpected re-activation of the trauma of circumcision are not rare in regressive therapies. In a well-documented article on “The Impact of Neonatal Circumcision” Robert Clover Johnson writes about the “discovery by many men in various forms of regressive psychotherapy that the intense genital pain and terror suffered during circumcision have never been forgotten by the unconscious mind.”

Although “recovered memories” in hypnotic therapy should not, generally, be considered real memories in the common sense, the hypothesis that long forgotten traumas (or traumas endured so young that they never really made it into consciousness) can have “lasting, damaging effects on men’s emotional and psychological, as well as sexual, development,” is supported by recent discoveries that “certain parts of the ‘lower’ human brain—most notably the twin amygdala in the limbic system—have the function of recording experiences of intense pain and such emotions as terror and rage.”7

According to French Professor Roger Dommergue de Menasce, who relies on the work of the endocrinologist Jean Gautier, Jewish circumcision causes “serious psycho-endocrine imbalances,” because on the eighth day precisely begins a momentous process of hormonal balancing that it is called the “first puberty”, and lasts twenty-one days. A Jew by birth himself, Roger Dommergue believes that this practice, reproduced for hundreds of generations, has played a determining role in Jewish collective psychology, namely hypertrophy of the intellect and low emotional empathy.8

Metzitzah b’peh, the ritual followed by some Orthodox communities wherein the mohel sucks blood from the wound following circumcision, has reportedly caused many infections, some fatal.

During the Jewish ceremony of brit milah, the mother is normally kept away from the scene, and the baby’s screams are partly covered by the cheers of the men surrounding it—a clear message to the baby in itself. But mothers who happen to simply hear their child’s screams of pain and distress suffer enduring trauma themselves: “The screams of my baby remain embedded in my bones and haunt my mind,” says Miriam Pollack.

“His cry sounded like he was being butchered. I lost my milk.”  Nancy Wainer Cohen: “I will go to my grave hearing that horrible wail, and feeling somewhat responsible.” Elizabeth Pickard-Ginsburg: “I don’t feel I can recover from it. […] We had this beautiful baby boy and seven beautiful days and this beautiful rhythm starting, and it was like something had been shattered! … When he was first born there was a tie with my young one, my newborn. And when the circumcision happened, in order to allow it I had to cut off the bond.

I had to cut off my natural instincts, and in doing so I cut off a lot of feelings towards Jesse. I cut it off to repress the pain and to repress the natural instinct to stop the circumcision.” These testimonies, and more, can be found on the Circumcision Resource Center web page “Mothers Who Observed Circumcision.”

What did Sigmund Freud, that great explorer of the psyche, have to say about the circumcision of infants? He has been rather discreet on the subject—though he didn’t have his own children circumcised. He broaches it in his latest books, but only in the context of anthropological speculations. In New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, we read: “It is our suspicion that during the human family’s primeval period castration used actually to be carried out by a jealous and cruel father upon growing boys, and that circumcision, which so frequently plays a part in puberty rites among primitive people, is a clearly recognizable relic of it.”9 Freud touches again on the subject in Moses and Monotheism, published a few months before his death: “Circumcision is a symbolical substitute of castration, a punishment which the primeval father dealt his sons long ago out of the awfulness of his power, and whosoever accepted this symbol showed by so doing that he was ready to submit to his father’s will, although it was at the cost of a painful sacrifice.”10

Among Freud’s disciples, almost all of them Jewish, the only one to have reflected upon the psychological consequences of infantile circumcision is Sándor Ferenczi, whom Freud long considered his most gifted disciple, before ostracizing him when he started questioning some fundamental tenets of Freudian theory. The story of the rift between Freud and Ferenczi is a long one, going back to the very foundation of psychoanalysis. But it is worth delving into it for the indirect light it sheds on the trauma of Jewish circumcision and the powerful forces that seek to keep it hidden. The story has been told with deep insight by Jeffrey Masson in Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984). The beginning is summarized like in his introduction:

“In 1895 and 1896 Freud, in listening to his women patients, learned that something dreadful and violent lay in their past. The psychiatrists who had heard these stories before Freud had accused their patients of being hysterical liars and had dismissed their memories as fantasy.

Freud was the first psychiatrist who believed his patients were telling the truth. These women were sick, not because they came from “tainted” families, but because something terrible and secret had been done to them as children.

Freud announced his discovery in a paper which he gave in April 1896 to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna, his first major public address to his peers. The paper—Freud’s most brilliant, in my opinion—met with total silence. Afterwards, he was urged never to publish it, lest his reputation be damaged beyond repair.

The silence around him deepened, as did his loneliness. But he defied his colleagues and published ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria,’ an act of great courage. Eventually, however, for reasons which I will attempt to elucidate in this book, Freud decided that he had made a mistake in believing his women patients.

This, Freud later claimed, marked the beginning of psychoanalysis as a science, a therapy, and a profession.”11

From 1897, Freud determined that what he had previously taken as repressed memories of sexual abuse, were in fact “phantasies.” For the rest of his life, he would keep telling how he heroically overcame his error and discovered that “these phantasies were intended to cover up the auto-erotic activity of the first years of childhood, to embellish it and raise it to a higher plane. And now, from behind the phantasies, the whole range of a child’s sexual life came to light” (The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, 1919).

From the standpoint of Freud’s earlier theory—called the “seduction theory” by euphemism—his new theory of spontaneous infantile sexuality can be seen as a projection: the children themselves are now accused of both sexual passion and murderous fantasies toward their own parents. By repressing these self-generated impulses, says Freudian orthodoxy, they create their own neuroses which may, in hysterics, take the forms of false memories of child abuse.

Thirty five years after Freud’s replacement of his seduction theory by the alternative Oedipus theory, his most trusted disciple stumbled on the same realization that Freud had renounced. Frenczi wrote in his diary, in July 1932, that the Oedipus complex could well be “the result of real acts on the part of adults, namely violent passions directed toward the child, who then develops a fixation, not from desire [as Freud maintained], but from fear. ‘My mother and father will kill me if I don’t love them, and identify with their wishes.’”

Overcoming his fear of Freud’s reaction, Ferenczi finally presented his conclusions before the 12th International Psycho-Analytic Congress, in a paper titled “Confusion of tongues between the adults and the child.” It met with the same disapproval as had Freud’s “Etiology of Hysteria” had met from Viennese psychiatrists. Ferenczi was ostracized by Freud and his sectarian disciples, and his paper never translated in English. He died a few years later.

In his remarkable article, Ferenczi drew sharp observations and insights from his therapeutic experience. For example, he noticed that abused children often showed some form of premature development, and he drew the hypothesis that the intensity of the trauma, accompanied by fear of death, can hasten this maturity, preventing a more healthy and balanced development, a process for which he uses the metaphor of “a fruit that ripens or becomes sweet prematurely when injured by the beak of a bird, or of the premature ripening of wormy fruit.

Shock can cause a part of the person to mature suddenly, not only emotionally but intellectually as well.” This artificial maturation is connected to a process of identification of the abused child with his aggressor, who “disappears as external reality and becomes intrapsychic instead of extrapsychic.” This identification is based on fear and a sense of helplessness, and may include “the introjection of the guilt feeling of the adult.”

In his diary, in response to a question from a patient as to why she cannot remember having been raped, but dreams of it incessantly, Ferenczi writes: “I know from other analyses that a part of our being can ‘die’ and while the remaining part of our self may survive the trauma, it awakens with a gap in its memory. Actually it is a gap in the personality, because not only is the memory of the struggle-to-the-death effaced, but all other associatively linked memories disappear…perhaps forever.” and in his article, Ferenczi writes : “there can be no shock, no fright, without traces of a personality split.”

This insight is consistent with the findings of French medical doctor and psychologist Pierre Janet (1859-1947), whose work had long been overshadowed by Freudian psychology, but has generated increased interest since the 1980s in the United States. Janet theorized the first model of “dissociative identity disorders,” now included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Dissociation is for Janet a psychological defense mechanism against an overflow of affects from a traumatic experience.

In Les Névroses, published in 1909, he wrote: “Just as synthesis and association are the great characteristics of all normal psychological operations, so dissociation is the essential characteristic of all diseases of the mind.” Dissociation indeed exists in many degrees, from the most common avoidance mechanism of a person refusing to face some reality, to severe cases of trauma-induced multiple personnalities. Dissociation accounts for the evolution of traumatic memories, composed of physiological, sensory, affective, and cognitive experiences, which Janet calls “idées fixes.”

These fragmented aspects of the experience do not allow a real memory to develop and integrate into the biography of the subject, and instead develop into separate psychic entities which interfere with the main personnality.

4. The Oedipus cover-up of the Isaac complex

At the end of his fascinating investigation, Masson admits that the full reasons for Freud’s radical change eludes him: deliberate deception for personal ambition is a bit short an explanation. Self-deception is a more likely explanation, and French author Marie Balmary offers some convincing insight on the process. In L’Homme aux statues. Freud et la faute cachée du père (1997), Balmary shows that Freud’s turnaround happened in the year following the death of his own father Jakob, October 23, 1896.

“All the past resurfaces,” he wrote then to his friend and confident Wilhelm Fliess, also sharing with him a recurring dream with a sign in a railway station, saying, “You are requested to close an eye.” Two months and a half after his father’s death, he also wrote to Fliess: ‘’Unfortunately, my own father was one of these perverts and is responsible for the hysteria of my brother (all of whose symptoms are identifications) and those of several younger sisters.’’ But then, shortly before the first anniversary of his father’s death, while in Vienna to take care of the tombstone, he goes through an intense psychological crisis which paralyzes him intellectually, and writes to Fliess: “The patient of mine that worries me the most is myself.”

Soon after, he emerges with great enthusiasm and proudly announces to his friend: “I no longer believe in my neurotica [seduction theory],” mentionning among several explanations, “the surprise that in all cases the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse,” something which he considered unacceptable. In the next letter, writing about his own neurosis, he claims: “in my case the father played no active role.”12

Balmary builds a strong case that Freud backed off from a theory which tarnished the ideal image of the father he was grieving. He could not bring himself to accuse his dead father, and submitted, so to speak, to the deceased’s request to “close one eye” on the truth.

Balmary relies on recent biographical research to document Jakob Freud’s less than perfect behavior and the family secrets that may have haunted Sigmund; these include the mysterious disappearance, possibly by suicide, of a former wife named Rebecca, possibly after the conception of Sigmund, whose date of birth Jakob Freud had falsified. I find wholly convincing the thesis that Freud surrendered to his unconscious’s imperative, especially in light of post-Freudian developments in transgenerational depth-psychology on the impact of family secrets.

To cover-up the threatening truth, Freud invented the Oedipus complex, which he first mentioned to Fliess on October 15, 1897. But, as Balmary points out, Freud actually truncated the Greek myth of all that concerns the faults of Oedipus’s father, Theban king Laius, which include pederasty and infanticide. According to Greek tragedians, Laius was cursed by the gods for seducing a young teenager and leading to his suicide. Then, frightened by the oracle’s prophecy that he would be killed by his own son if he conceived one with his wife, he had the infant abandoned in the forest, “ankles pierced by the middle with iron spikes” (Euripides, The Phoenicians).

Thus, in the complete myth, Oedipus’s predestination to kill his father and marry his mother is not determined by his own impulses, but by the faults of his father, these faults that Freud wanted to keep repressed in the secret of the unconscious.

There is still one more aspect to the story that neither Masson not Balmary mentions: the Jewish factor. In the 1890s, when Freud laid the groundwork for his theory, almost all of his patients were Jewish. Most of the disciples that he attracted with his theory of infantile sexuality—the cover-up for widespread incest among the families of his patients—were Jews (with the notable exception of Carl Jung, whom Freud would name president of the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1910 precisely to deflect the critic of psychoanalysis as a “Jewish science”).13 Most significantly, Freud was initiated into the B’nai Brith in September 1897, precisely the time of his about-face on the etiology of hysteria and neuroses. He found there solace from his isolation. For the next ten years, he was a very active member, and even the “founding father” of a second lodge in Vienna.

He often read his work in masonic meetings before publishing them in academic journals. Freud’s attachment to his Jewish roots are often downplayed, but toward the end of his life, in December 1930, Freud wrote in the preface for the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo, speaking of himself in the third person: “If the question were 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 assessable to the scientific mind.”14

Marie Balmary is probably right to believe that Freud’s denial of the widespread reality of sexual and violent abuses on children is connected to his failure to come to terms with his father’s faults. But I would suggest that both Freud’s discovery and his subsequent denial of the sexual abuses suffered by his patients are also connected to Freud’s Jewish background, and to his tortured relationship to Judaism.

The two factors are interconnected, since Judaism means essentially a covenant with the Jewish God, who, as Freud himself saw it, is nothing but a collective mental projection of the father. God, the father, and the superego are identical from the perspective of Freud’s depth psychology, and they are certainly so in Freud’s personal psyche (psychoanalysis, remember, is essentially founded on Freud’s “self-analysis” started in 1897).

The relationship of all this to circumcision should be obvious. Given the Jewish undercurrent in Freud’s intellectual biography, it seems likely that Freud’s denial of the reality of sexual abuses by father figures is also connected to his inability to deal with the issue of Jewish circumcision.

The first abuse suffered by every Jew from his parents (or his parents’ representatives) is circumcision on the eighth day (which, incidently, is not unlike the piercing of the ankles of the infant Oedipus). And it is during that ritual that the symbolic identity of the Jewish father and the Jewish God is the strongest. It physically impresses on every Jew, and on all Jews collectively, the traumatic domination of Yahweh and his Covenant.

The son’s repressed wish to murder his father, which is part of the Oedipus complex, is perhaps one of Freud’s most fertile intuitions, but Freud has mistakenly generalized it as a universal fact, as a consequence of his closing his eyes on the reality of abusive fathers and father figures—including his own father. In reality, only the son of a destructive and manipulative father—or father figure—needs to “kill the father.” Yet Freud’s generalization can also be counted as an example of the tendency of Jewish intellectuals to project Jewish issues on all humankind. In other word, the child’s murder wish may not be universal, but there may be something universally Jewish to it. For every Jew aspires in the depths of his soul to free himself from Yahweh, the archetypal abusive and castrating Father.

By choosing a Greek myth as a metaphor for his theory, Freud was involved, consciously or not, in projecting on Gentiles a Jewish problem. Had he seen the strong Jewish overtone of the complex, he would have called it, perhaps, the “Isaac complex,” since Isaac is the son that Abraham was asked by Yahweh to sacrifice as a test of faith. Yahweh’s commandment to circumcise eight-day-old boys was also given to Abraham, and Jewish tradition connects those two ritual sacrifices, regarding the circumcision of Isaac as a substitute for his sacrifice (even though it contradicts biblical chronology).

The expression “Isaac complex” has actually been used by French psychoanalyst Jean-Pierre Fresco, who defines it as “the overall consequences in the son’s psyche of a father perceived as psychologically threatening, destroying or murderous.”15 Fresco calls such a father “Abrahamic.” He draws his insight from a reading of Franz Kafka’s autobiographical and posthumously published Letter to his father, in which Kafka describes the devastating effect on his personality of an abusive father whose means of education were “abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and—oddly enough—self-pity.” Most interestingly, Kafka perceived his sadistic father as a cruel divinity, whose laws were totally arbitrary and yet unquestionable: “for me as a child everything you called out to me was positively a heavenly commandment.” “From your armchair you ruled the world. […]

Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right.” I find it very significant that Kafka’s writing is considered inherently Jewish by Jewish literary critics—Kafka is “the Jewish writer,” claims Harold Bloom16—, while he himself believed his writing to be entirely determined by his relationship to a sadistic father: “My writing was all about you, all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast.”

Does Kafka’s genius come from his being Jewish, or from his having a psychopathic father? This quiproquo reminds me of Philip Roth’s insight, expressed through the character of Smilesburger in Operation Shylock: “A Jew knows God and how, from the very first day He created man, He has been irritated with him from morning till night. […] To appeal to a crazy, irritated father, that is what it is to be a Jew. To appeal to a crazy, violent father, and for three thousand years, that is what it is to be a crazy Jew!”17

Freud and Ferenczi next to each other in a group portrait

5. Jewish self-hatred

It would be hard to argue that circumcision at the age of eight days do not constitute a trauma capable of causing massive dissociation in the child’s personnality. A trauma caused at this age has little chance to ever be brought back into consciousness and be healed.

I am neither a doctor nor a psychologist, and I am only making hypotheses. More research is desperately needed; for example on the possible link between Jewish circumcision and the well-known high rate of mental diseases among Jews. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia had an entry on the subject: “The Jews are more subject to diseases of the nervous system than the other races and peoples among which they dwell.

Hysteria and neurasthenia appear to be most frequent.”18 In his Essay on the Jewish Soul (1929), Isaac Kadmi-Cohen spoke of “a congenital neurosis characterized by a lack of balance between objective data and judgment […] a nervous excitability, a chronic exaltation of passion.”19 Research done by sociologist Leo Srole in the 1960s shows that the Jewish rate of neuroses and character disorders was about three times as high as that of Catholics and Protestants.20

Since abused children are notoriously suffering from a low self-esteem, is it farfetched to suggest that the trauma of eight-day circumcision has some relevance to the famous “Jewish self-hatred” syndrome? Before becoming a convenient insult thrown at any Jew critical of Jewishness, of Zionism, or simply of other Jews, the concept of “self-hatred” was the subject of a book by Theodor Lessing (1872-1933), published in Berlin in 1930.

For Lessing, self-hatred is inherent in Jewishness: “There is not a single man of Jewish blood in whom cannot be detected at least the beginning of Jewish self-hatred.” Lessing’s explanation, however, is far from satisfying. “To the question: ‘Why cannot we love ourselves?’ Jewish doctrine answers since the beginning of time: ‘Because we are guilty’ […] In every Jewish man there is a deeply buried tendency to interpret any misfortune that strikes him as the atonement for a fault he has committed.”21 There is a deep truth in this diagnosis, but Lessing’s formulation is confusing.

He cannot possibly mean that Jews are prone to seek to understand what they did to their persecutors to deserve their hostility. For two thousand years, Jews have been reminded by their elites that the persecutions they suffer are not the result of offensive behavior against Gentiles, but rather their efforts to live with them in harmony—efforts that amount to infidelity to God and to their vocation as “a people apart.”

The modern, secular version of this disastrous cognitive pattern is the notion that Judeophobia (recently renamed anti-Semitism) is a totally irrational impulse mysteriously infecting all of humankind. “Judeophobia is a variety of demonopathy, with the distinction that it is not peculiar to particular races but is common to the whole of mankind,” writes Leon Pinsker, a medical doctor. It is “a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years it is incurable.”22

Such a notion helps to maintain Israelis in a state of perpetual fear of the next Holocaust, which may strike any time Gentiles experience a new outburst of collective anti-Semitic hysteria, regardless of what Israel does. Benzion Netanyahu, declared in February 2009, the day before his son’s election: “Today we are facing, plain and simple, a danger of annihilation. This is not only the ongoing existential danger to Israel, but a real danger of complete annihilation. People think that the Shoah [Holocaust] is over but it’s not. It is continuing all the time.”23

Such propaganda is a form of mass psychological abuse, terrorism in the purest sense. But why are Jews, even the most intelligent ones, so easily drawn into this “pre-traumatic stress syndrome” (as Gilad Atzmon calls it)24? Could it be that the trauma of circumcision has created a special predisposition, a pre-programmed paranoia that impairs their capacity to relate and react rationally to certain situations?

Is eighth-day circumcision, invented some twenty-three centuries ago by a sect conspiring for world domination, a kind of ritual trauma designed to enslave mentally millions of people? Is it the ultimate lock of the “Jewish prison” (as French journalist Jean Daniel calls it, from experience)?25

According to a study by a team of researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York under the direction of Rachel Yehuda, the “the trauma of the Holocaust is transmitted genetically” from survivors (meaning every Jew who survived 1945) to their descendants, by “epigenetic heredity.”26 I suggest to Professor Yehuda that he now conducts a study on the epigenetic transmission of the trauma of eight-day circumcision.


Laurent Guyénot is the author of JFK-9/11: 50 years of Deep State, Progressive Press, 2014, and From Yahweh to Zion: Jealous God, Chosen People, Promised Land … Clash of Civilizations, 2018.  (or $30 shipping included from Sifting and Winnowing, POB 221, Lone Rock, WI 53556).


1 Benedict de Spinoza, Theological-political treatise, chapter 3, §12, Cambridge UP, 2007, p. 55: “the sign of circumcision has such great importance as almost to persuade me that this thing alone will preserve their nation for ever.”

2 Isaac Kadmi-Cohen, Nomades: Essai sur l’âme juive, Felix Alcan, 1929 (archive.org), p. 143.

3 Kevin MacDonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, Praeger, 1994, kindle 2013.

4 One of the founders of this minimalist school now gaining wide recognition is Philip Davies, author of In Search of “Ancient Israel”: A Study in Biblical Origins, Journal of the Study of the Old Testament, 1992. See further notes for more sources. Also influential has been Niels Peter Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition, John Knox Press, 1998. A more recent proponent of the same approach is Thomas Romer, who has summarized his conclusions in The Invention of God, Harvard University Press, 2016.

5 Mario Liverani, La Bible et l’invention de l’histoire, Gallimard, 2012, pp. 354–355.

6 Ronald Goldman, Circumcision, the Hidden Trauma: How an American Cultural Practice Affects Infants and Ultimately Us All, Vanguard, 1997. Goldman is addressing the practice of hygienic neonatal circumcision widespread in America since the 1970s, and not specifically Jewish circumcision.

7 Published in Genital Autonomy: Protecting Personal Choice, edited by Denniston, Hodges, Milos, Springer Science and Business Media, 2010, pp. 149-166.

8 Roger Dommergue de Ménasce, Dossiers secrets du XXIe siècle, p. 19, on www.histoireebook.com/index.php?post/2012/02/10/Dommergue-Polacco-de-Menasce-Roger-Dossiers-secrets-du-XXIeme-siecle ; Listen to the author on www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4dZTCdvFzI, from minute 14.

9 Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), Hogarth Press, 1964, p. 86.

10 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, Hogarth Press, 1939, p. 192.

11 Jeffrey Masson, Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, Farrar Strauss & Giroud, 1984.

12 Marie Balmary, L’Homme aux statues. Freud et la faute cachée du père, Grasset, 1997, pp. 113, 137, 214-215, 244.

13 Andrew Heinze, Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century, Princeton University Press, 2004.

14 Richard J. Bernstein, Freud and the Legacy of Moses, Cambridge UP, 1998, p. 1, on http://assets.cambridge.org/97805216/30962/sample/9780521630962web.pdf

15 Jean-Pierre Fresco, “Kafka et le complexe d’Isaac,” Le Coq-Héron, 2003/2 (n° 173), pp. 108-120, on www.cairn.info/revue-le-coq-heron-2003-2-page-108.htm

16 “Foreword” in Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982), University of Washington Press, 2011.

17 Philip Roth, Operation Shylock: A Confession, Simon & Schuster, 1993, p. 110.

18 “Nervous diseases,” by Joseph Jacobs and Maurice Fishberg, on www.jewishency
clopedia.com/articles/11446-nervous-diseases.

19 Isaac Kadmi-Cohen, Nomades: Essai sur l’âme juive, Felix Alcan, 1929 (archive.org), p. 36.

20 Nathan Agi, “The Neurotic Jew,” The Beacon, December 5, 2011, on thebeaconmag
.websitesbyrafi.com.

21 Theodor Lessing, La Haine de soi: ou le refus d'être juif (1930), Pocket, 2011, pp. 68, 46–47.

22 Leon Pinsker, Auto-Emancipation: An Appeal to His People by a Russian Jew (1882), on www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Zionism/pinsker.html.

23 Quoted in Alan Hart, Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews, vol. 3: Conflict Without End?, Clarity Press, 2010, p. 364.

24 Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, Zero Books, 2011, pp. 130-131.

25 Jean Daniel, La Prison juive. Humeurs et méditations d’un témoin, Odile Jacob, 2003.

26 Tori Rodrigues, “Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones,” Scientific American, March 1, 2015, on www.scientificamerican.com.

Our commenting rules: You can say pretty much anything except the F word. If you are abusive, obscene, or a paid troll, we will ban you. Full statement from the Editor, Charles Bausman.