The Fear of Infanticide and Filicide in the Emotional Journey from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur

By Stein, Howard F. | The Journal of Psychohistory, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Fear of Infanticide and Filicide in the Emotional Journey from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur


Stein, Howard F., The Journal of Psychohistory


This paper continues a series of essays in which I have sought to explore various aspects of Judaism and Jewish identity psychohistorically (Stein, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1984, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2005). In this paper I shall attempt to understand the special and central emotional significance the annual period beginning with Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and ending with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) holds for millions of Jews. It is a commonplace occurrence that Jews who are otherwise not ritually "observant," who do not regularly attend synagogue or temple, or who rarely think of themselves as religious, nonetheless go out of their way to attend religious services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At least on these High Holy Days, many Jews feel that they must go to a Jewish house of worship. In this paper I try to understand why this is so. I shall be arguing that a (if not the) central organizing fantasy and dread of the ten "Days of Awe" bridging Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is that one will be killed; and that the underlying or overarching function of Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur ritual and liturgy is apotropaic, that is, to prevent the killing from occurring, to reassure oneself that one will be spared and that one is loved. I shall further argue that this death anxiety is not only textually rooted in the liturgy of the High Holy Days, but derives from the never entirely repressed anxiety over infanticide and filicide. This, I believe, is the impetus behind the fervent desire to be "Inscribed (or Written) into the Book of Life" on Rosh Hashanah, and "Sealed into the Book of Life" on Yom Kippur.

The fear that one might die is more concretely the fear that one might be killed by G-d. Worshippers bring the fantasy and the dread to the religious services, which simultaneously make manifest the dimly remembered fear and ritually/ symbolically attempt to resolve it. At the root of the liturgy is the fear of infanticide and filicide. The liturgy and ritual both engender a regression to and attempt a symbolic resolution of these primal dreads.

In saying this, I do not in any way wish to diminish the later accretions of meaning and prayer that have come to surround the Days of Awe. For instance, I think of this period of time as one of profound introspection ("soul searching") and of making amends to fellow human beings whom one has harmed, of repair of one's human and spiritual relationships (as in the Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun olam [repair of the world]). What I am arguing is that the underlying tenor percolates "upward" as it were, into the subsequent more conscious, ideologically-central, ideas, feelings, meanings and symbols, and is what gives this ten-day period its dire urgency. Put simply, it is the displaced petition to God: "I/we have been bad and done evil things. I/we feel terribly guilty. Don't kill me/us for it."

Theoretically and methodologically, my argument has much in common with that of Rudolph Binion in his book, Sounding the Classics: From Sophocles to Thomas Mann (1997). In it, Binion argues that every classic has not only a text, but also a subtext that comments upon and opposes the manifest text. For Binion, "such fiction draws its broad and lasting appeal not merely from its express theme, structure, or wording, but equally from that theme's traffic with a second message or meaning conveyed only tacitly" (1997, p. 3). The experience of the text is like that of a dream, whose latent message is conveyed unconsciously. Further, the journey through the text and subtext is one of "traumatic reliving" (1997, 2003), wherein one becomes master rather than victim of the trauma.

I supplement Binion's textual/subtextual distinction with a question, and an attempt to answer it: Does the subtext sometimes/always not only reflect universal unconscious themes, but lingering childhood fears and fantasies? I will be arguing that for the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur ritual cycle, (1) at least part of the subtext can be found in the liturgical text (or in other Jewish texts), and (2) that the experience making both text and counter-text emotionally compelling lies in a rekindling of childhood dreads, fantasies, and anxieties. …

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