The first cut

Why has Jewish ritual of circumcision survived so long, and remained so resonant?

Sigmund Freud, in his writings on primal trauma, may have inadvertently provided an explanation

Sigmund Freud (photo credit: Max Halberstadt /LIFE/Wikimedia Commons)
Sigmund Freud (photo credit: Max Halberstadt /LIFE/Wikimedia Commons)

The practice of circumcision is one of the great mysteries of Judaism. A ritual of immense antiquity, and already common throughout the Near East when Judaism first emerged from its pagan origins, it remains controversial, though (German court rulings notwithstanding) not nearly as much as in previous times, when it has — for example, under the Roman emperor Hadrian — been equated to castration and banned under penalty of death.

While it is now quite common among non-Jews, usually for medical reasons, it remains sanctified only in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, and only Judaism practices infant circumcision, literally within days of birth. This begs the question: Why has this, of all the ancient practices of the Hebrews — unlike animal sacrifice, for example — survived the long centuries of Jewish history into modern times?

Various explanations have been proposed by both critics and proponents: It is a holdover, a faint recollection, of ancient practices of animal and even human sacrifice; it has proven its medical efficacy over time; it provides a physical mark upon the body that differentiates Jews from others; and, among the faithful, it is an ageless commandment of and covenant with God.

None of these explanations, however, fully explains the primal emotional impact of the practice, to the extent that even those without any other connection to Jewish tradition have felt compelled to partake in it. Nor does it explain why Judaism, alone among the monotheistic faiths, not only practices it, but does so only in the earliest stages of life.

Indeed, there are many other religions and cultures that make use of circumcision and/or other forms of genital and bodily modification. But these rituals almost always take place at adolescence, as a rite of passage — usually for boys — to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. It plays the role, in other words, that the Bar Mitzvah plays in Jewish tradition.

Why then, has circumcision survived as a practice in Judaism? Why is it enacted only at infancy? And how does it wield such extraordinary emotional power?

Sigmund Freud (photo credit: Max Halberstadt/LIFE/Wikimedia Commons)
Sigmund Freud (photo credit: Max Halberstadt/LIFE/Wikimedia Commons)

The answer, perhaps, may be found in the one of the more unique and controversial studies of the origins of Judaism, Sigmund Freud’s “Moses and Monotheism.” In this, his final published work, Freud sought to apply his psychoanalytic theories to the story of the Exodus, which is, of course, the story of the formation of the Jewish people through the giving of the law at Sinai.

While Freud barely touches on the details of Jewish law, which includes, of course, the commandment to practice circumcision, he may inadvertently have provided an explanation for the ritual. And in classic Freudian fashion, he may have done so through what many consider one of his book’s greatest failures.

In trying to explain the origins of Judaism, Freud used his concept of a “primal murder” as the origin of human civilization. Without going into lengthy details, the primal murder was essentially a trauma occasioned by mankind’s transition from a primitive form of social organization (the “primal horde”) to the beginnings of modern civilization. The accomplishments and neuroses of civilization were, Freud believed, driven by the reaction to and repression of this primal trauma. It was, in other words, the Oedipal complex applied to the life of a collective, rather than that of an individual human being.

Freud ran into a serious problem, however, when he tried to explain how the psychological impact of this trauma was passed down over the millennia of human civilization. Since a civilization is not a single individual, and thus by definition has no memory, how could the impact of the primal trauma be conveyed to each new generation?

In what many consider the greatest flaw in his book, Freud ultimately concluded that the memory (or “memory traces,” as he called them) of this trauma must have been passed down genetically, through what is referred to as a Lamarckian form of evolution, in which acquired traits can be transmitted to offspring by their parents.

The only problem was that even at the time Freud was writing — the middle- to late-1930s — Lamarckism had been discredited in favor of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. Darwinism held that acquired traits could not be passed genetically, for fairly obvious commonsense reasons: If you cut off your hand, for example, your children will still be born with both hands. Freud did not long survive the publication of “Moses and Monotheism,” and even when confronted with the flaws in his Lamarckian theories, refused to deny that at least something like it must have occurred.

Freud’s failure, however, may point us in the direction of an answer to the riddle of circumcision.

If we accept his theory that the foundation of any civilization is a traumatic event, and it seems reasonable to do so — if only because when a group of people join together in a civilization, they must discard and destroy the pre-civilizational culture and way of life according to which generations of them have lived — then the nature, power, and essential role of circumcision begins to become clear: It is nothing less than the means by which the primal trauma of a civilization is passed to the next generation; because it is, in effect, the re-infliction of the primal trauma upon each new generation. The primal trauma, which is the motive power behind any civilization, thus not only survives but is re-experienced again and again over the course of history.

It may be argued that circumcision in the Jewish context does not constitute a trauma, since the infant does not remember it. This is true, of course. But the child who emerges from the infant will — at some point after attaining an age at which conscious memories develop — become aware of the fact that a part of him, indeed, an essential and often taboo part of his body, has been somehow modified in a sudden and violent manner. This is especially the case for a Jewish child in a gentile society, in which, historically at least, being circumcised constituted an essential and inescapable difference from the bodies of non-Jews.

In this manner, the child experiences over again an echo of the same trauma his ancestors experienced in their turn, and which — according to Freud — all civilizations experience at the moment they come into existence: The realization that, at some primal moment before one’s emergence into conscious life, a catastrophic and violent change took place, one that has permanently and irrevocably changed one’s physical being. By this means, a psychological change also takes place, forming a personality that is, in many essential aspects, akin to that of the previous generation.

So, in the same way that the Exodus was perhaps Judaism’s primal trauma, suddenly and violently tearing the Jewish people from its previous, enslaved way of life and transforming them into a people confronted with the perils of freedom, circumcision appears to be the means through which not the memory but the actual experience of that primal trauma has survived the passage of time and history, and retained to an extraordinary extent its psychological and emotional power.

Indeed, it has done so to such an extent that even those most alienated and even opposed to Jewish tradition have found its impact impossible to erase.

It may be, then, that circumcision has survived because we need it; because without it, we lose our connection not to tradition or ancestry, but rather to the thing that made them what they were and, in turn, makes us what we are.

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