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Malev, M. (1966). The Jewish Orthodox Circumcision Ceremony—Its Meaning from Direct Study of the Rite. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 14:510-517.

(1966). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 14:510-517

The Jewish Orthodox Circumcision Ceremony—Its Meaning from Direct Study of the Rite

Milton Malev, M.D.


Psychoanalytic investigation has shown that the state of being circumcised or uncircumcised has profound unconscious meanings for a person and his feelings about himself; moreover, it may stimulate special feelings in others, such as contempt, awe, fear, envy or hate. The purposes of pubertal rites in savages, which include phallic mutilation, have already been studied. An effort is here made to determine whether the form and accompanying service of Jewish orthodox circumcision, as currently practiced, can similarly be made to yield its unconscious meaning, in the light of psychoanalytic understanding.

For many men, the birth of a new son may rearouse their own repressed competitive strivings with their own fathers, and their own repressed fears in connection with such strivings. Cases are adduced to show how such anxieties manifest themselves in new fathers, and in the fathers of pubertal and adolescent sons. It is shown from internal evidence that circumcision as practiced is designed specifically to deal with these anxieties. It introduces symbolic representation of the feared grandfather, and actually carries out a partial punitive castration by the father or his agent, diverted from himself to his new son, with the explicit purpose of preserving the main portion of the phallus by sacrificing a minor portion. Adult masculinity and paternity are thereby made licit. Quotations in translation from the Hebrew Service are presented in support of this view, and there is express evidence from the language of the Service that this is its purpose and function.

Various features of the ritual are described and explained psychoanalytically in the light of the over-all unconscious object of the rite, with additional illustration from case material, particularly for symbolic representation of a rejected alternative paternity—abjuring pars-pro-toto defense, homosexuality.

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