Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Reik portrait

The Vienna-born Theodor Reik (1888-1969) was a psychoanalyst who trained as one of Freud’s first students and became a pioneer of lay analysis in the United States. He received a Ph.D. degree in psychology from the University of Vienna (1912), where his dissertation, a study of Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, was the first psychoanalytic dissertation ever written.

Reik emigrated from Germany to Holland (1934) and, in flight from the Nazis, to the United States (1938), where he became a naturalized citizen (1944). Although he was rejected from the dominant community of medical psychoanalysts in the U.S. because he did not possess an M.D. degree, he went on to found one of the first psychoanalytic training centers for psychologists, the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (1948), which remains one of the largest and best-known such training institutes. As part of his conflict with the medical psychoanalytic community, he famously participated in the first lawsuit that helped to define and legitimize the practice of psychoanalysis by non-physicians, and his methods for training non-medical analysts, such as psychologists and social workers, are now broadly accepted.


Reik’s first major work was The Compulsion to Confess (1925), in which he argued that neurotic symptoms such as blushing and stuttering can be seen as unconscious confessions that express the patient’s repressed impulses while also punishing the patient for communicating these impulses. He further explored this theme in The Unknown Murderer (1932), in which he examined the process of psychologically profiling unknown criminals and presented the now universally accepted idea that, because of unconscious guilt, criminals often leave clues that can lead to their identification and arrest.

In A Psychologist Looks at Love (1944), he presented a forceful criticism of traditional Freudian theory and, in perhaps his most famous book, Listening with the Third Ear (1948), he describes how psychoanalysts intuitively use their own unconscious minds to detect and decipher the unconscious wishes and fantasies of their patients.

An original theorist and somewhat iconoclastic thinker, Reik’s more than fifty published books include much of Jewish interest, including Ritual, Psychoanalytic Studies (1928), which incorporates papers dealing with Kol Nidre and the shofar; Pagan Rites in Judaism (1964), in which he argued that much of the pagan and prehistoric survives in contemporary Jewish practice; and Jewish Wit (1962), in which he undertook a detailed study of the nature and origins of Jewish humor and argues that “the shlemiel,” a frequent character in Jewish humor, is essentially a “paranoid masochistic personality.”

Reik proudly boasts of his autograph from Herzl.

Reik visited Eretz Yisrael in the early 1930s, but his controversial Jerusalem lectures were not well received because of his critical approach to Jewish customs and practice, which will be discussed in some detail below. Nonetheless, he was apparently a Zionist, as evidenced by the proud June 6, 1954, handwritten note exhibited here that he has written on the back of a “Build the Theodor Reik Clinic” cardstock:

[In German] What is my last wish on earth? That shy little Jews become proud young Jews.

[In English] Th. Herzl wrote this into my autograph album.

Reik’s correspondence: Do Jews believe in life after death?

In the May 19, 1964 correspondence on his personal letterhead exhibited here, Reik preposterously claims that “Jews don’t believe in life after death (`You only live once – and scarcely that.’) . . . This patently incorrect statement may serve as a predicate for the consideration of much of his work on Jewish subjects, including his studies on the shofar and Kol Nidre discussed below, in which he manifests great erudition regarding the Biblical, Talmudic, Midrashic, Kabbalistic, and secular and religious historical sources, but has no evident understanding of, or appreciation for, the doctrine of Torah Mi-Sinai or the halachic gestalt.


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Reik’s Shofar (1919) is a truly fascinating, albeit thoroughly sacrilegious, study in which his prose alternates between outright blasphemy and beautifully expressive verse. He prides himself for his “brave” employment of the psychoanalytic method, which he characterizes as drawing in large part from the “science of religion” – the ultimate anathema to Torah truth, the halachic process, and genuine Jewish understanding. As such, and to be clear, it is not my purpose here to rebut Reik’s arguments but rather to present his very warped, but nonetheless engaging, perspective and analysis on the origins and meanings of the shofar rite.

Noting that Judaism is the only faith not to ascribe the creation of music directly to G-d himself, Reik begins with a discussion of the invention of music by Yuval who, according to Genesis 4:21, “was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipes.” He sees it as no mere coincidence that “Yuval” is the same word as “Yovel,” the Jubilee year on the Jewish calendar marked by the blowing of the shofar, and that Yuval is also a Hebrew word for “ram.” Although the horn of the antelope and hollowed-out mammoth tusks are found as wind instruments in prehistoric buried places, “the shofar is not only the sole primitive instrument which still plays a part in ritual Judaism, but it is also one of the oldest wind instruments known.”

After citing Ibn Ezra’s view that the Sinaic Revelation marked the first time that the Jews heard the shofar blown, Reik provides a historical review of the circumstances when a shofar was used. These include marking certain great occasions, as when the shofar was blown at the Simchat Beit Hashoevah (the Sukkot “joy of the water libation”) and summoning the people for important events and solemn occasions, such as when King David moved the ark to Jerusalem. The shofar was also sounded at times of war, and many of the prophets, including Ezekiel and Jeremiah, blew it to alert the people about impending battle. In the siege of Jericho by Joshua, the shofar was blown to bring the walls down, and Amos 3:5 makes clear that its purpose was to terrify enemies: “Should a shofar be blown in the city, and the people be not afraid?”

Displaying his great facility with Jewish sources, Reik provides explanations that, even today, are central to the Rosh Hashana shofar-blowing rite: the association between shofar and sin and a call to repentance; the idea that if we blow the shofar at the investiture of earthly kings, how much more so should we blow the shofar to anoint the King of Kings on Yom Hazikaron; and, perhaps most importantly, reminding G-d about the Binding of Isaac, which is designed to evoke G-d’s compassion, to confuse the Satan, and to awaken G-d’s memory of His promise to redeem the Jews in the future (which is why the shofar is blown at the end of Yom Kipper as a harbinger of the Messianic Age). After the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, however, the only remaining ritual use of the shofar is on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

After accurately describing the order of the shofar blowing during the Musaf prayer in great detail, Reik waxes poetic about the ritual and shows that, notwithstanding his protests to the contrary, at least some of his Jewish soul resonates with Jewish feeling:

It is difficult to estimate the intensity of the effect of this ceremony on believers among the general mass of the people. The tones of this primitive, national and religious instrument are usually awaited with great tension, its reverberations are listened to with very deep and sincere contrition . . .

How much do these sounds signify! History and life, past and future, national and religious matters, elevations and depressions, allusions to the sublimity of G-d as well as to the sinfulness of human beings . . . now also an ancient voice may serve for a remembering, i.e., for introspection, for the rejuvenation and renewal of spiritual life and religious sincerity, a warning of eternal obligations to a sacred covenant, to serve a noble past and a sublime future.

It is a long time since I heard the sounds of the shofar, and when recently, in the interest of this work, I heard the shofar blown on New Year’s Day, I could not completely avoid the emotion which these four crude, fearsome, moaning, loud-sounding, and long-drawn-out-sounds produced – I do not attempt to decide whether the reason for my emotion was the fact that I was accustomed to this sound from my youth, or whether it was an effect which everyone might feel.

Although he admits that Rabbinical and Kabbalistic expositions offer an abundance of explanations regarding the origins and purposes of the shofar, Reik is “bewildered at the confused mass of moral and theological speculations [sic] which surround the blowing of the shofar.” He then turns to the essence of his thesis: bringing the “science of religion” and a psychoanalytic approach to bear on the question of the true meaning of the shofar although, he says, the literature on this subject is “appallingly vague.”

Reik employs his psychoanalytic approach together with the primal Semitic idea of “totemism” so prevalent amongst many psychologists and secular ancient historians, pursuant to which a natural object or animal is believed by a society to have spiritual significance that is reflected in the adoption of an emblem.

First – again, readers should be warned about the degree of sacrilege in all this – Reik contends that the voice of the shofar is not designed to merely evoke the voice of G-d, but that it is the actual voice of G-d. He argues this from the pshat (plain interpretation) of the verse, “Hashem B’Kol Shofar” (Psalms 47:6) and that the traditional explanation – pursuant to which G-d communicates amongst a great din, a crescendo of sound – is illogical. He further notes that the reason that an imperfect shofar with a hole in it may be used halachically, but only if it doesn’t affect the sound, is because it is the actual voice of G-d and therefore holy.

According to Reik, the shofar, a form of totemism in which animals were first subjects of worship (e.g., the Golden Calf) and then used as sacrifices, carried forward the use of such animals for expiatory sacrifices for guilt. He argues that that the views of traditional Jewish Orthodox sources represent a “psychical sublimation” of the original bovine character of the shofar; and that, in any event, the totemic origins of the shofar were forgotten during Talmudic times. As such, he says, the onomatopoetic sounds of the shofar imitate both the roar of a totemic animal and the authentic divine voice.

Reik’s second theory, to which I will give short shrift here because it is so offensive to authentic Torah truth, is predicated on an extension of Freud’s oedipal theory, pursuant to which boys want to kill their fathers, to a national-religious complex, pursuant to which the people want to “kill G-d.” Accordingly, as Reik would have it, the ancient origins of the purpose of the shofar – which he argues at length was originally a bull’s horn – was as a totem to symbolize the might and power of the beast and the voice of the shofar as a sign of rebellion, independence, and self-realization. unbound by divine mandates.

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In Kol Nidre (1918), Reik begins with a recollection of visiting the home of a music-loving friend and having an inexplicably strong reaction to a haunting minor musical passage that sounded very familiar to him but which he could not place. It was Op. 47 by Max Bruch, aka “Kol Nidre,” which, he says, explained his familiarity with the music, but not his intense emotion.

Reminiscing about the Yom Kippurs he spent as a child in his grandfather’s house in a little Hungarian town, he remembered the primitive synagogue; the long-bearded men in white robes, moving their bodies rhythmically in prayer; and the “mysterious trembling” that possessed the congregation when the cantor began Kol Nidre, “so fraught with terror and yet so rich in mercy.” Yet, as carried away as he was by the congregational repentance, he was personally unaware of any specific wrongdoing that would justify such contrition and, unable to understand the words of the prayer, he squeezed himself into a corner of the synagogue so as not to disturb the believers.

Reik’s concern regarding the language and the implications of the text of Kol Nidre began after he joined the Jewish National Association as a young man, although he professes to have held no religious feelings. His interest was aroused when, on Erev Yom Kippur, German antisemites printed the text of Kol Nidre in the Vienna Deutsche Volksblatt to prove Jewish depravity and how their word is not to be trusted because their religion exempts them from fulfilling their vows. Reik was humiliated because he did not know how to answer them.

As such, he raises three questions. First, why does the formulaic prayer so completely contradict the emphasis on the duty to fulfill oaths in both the Biblical text and Rabbinic Judaism? Second, why is this bare and judicial formula accompanied by such a deeply affecting melody, so antithetical to the character of the text? And third, what is the source of the emotional power of this prayer, which is little more than a legal contract?

Tracing the history of both the prayer and the melody, Reik says that while nothing is known about the actual origins of the melody, we have a description of it as early as 1148 by the Karaite Yehuda Hadassi. As to the text, although it has long been in Aramaic, the old Soncino Machzor (1485) and other early versions of the prayer were entirely in Hebrew. A seventh-century vase on display in the National Museum of Paris is engraved with fragments of Kol Nidre and, in his Order of Prayer, Amram Gaon of Sura (circa 869) recognized the formula as one commonly used.

Reik traces the long history of opposition to Kol Nidre by the non-Jewish communities among whom the Jews lived, beginning as early as 1239, when Nikolaus Donn accused the Jews of annulling their vows by means of Kol Nidre. In Germany, the prayer was decried as “an insult to civilization, a culpable deception of the Aryans by Jews. A Jew can commit perjury in court; his religious convictions allow him to do it,” and so on.

Reik argues that while Jews have many answers, they seem to contradict each other. He presents four explanations for the manifest incongruity of Kol Nidre given the critical importance that Judaism ascribes to fulfilling vows, beginning with the “inviolability of the oath” argument. He again displays his broad knowledge of the Jewish sources as he presents a comprehensive exposition of the magnitude of the duty in Judaism to fulfill oaths, ranging from the Torah, to Tractate Nedarim, to the Shulchan Aruch, to Maimonides, and so on. He proves that perjury is among the gravest sins, to the point that many Jews of his time would forfeit legitimate legal claims rather than have to take an oath in court, and he pointedly notes the common practice among Orthodox Jews of being careful to always use the phrase bli neder (“I am not making an oath”) when speaking. But, he says, that only makes Kol Nidre more bewildering and inexplicable.

Second, in the “exegetic” argument, he suggests that that he meaning of Kol Nidre is very different from what is commonly, albeit erroneously, understood. An oath between two people may be broken only if the person to whom the vow was given unambiguously releases the oath-taker – and, even then, the vow-taker must appear before a tribunal of three laypersons, explain the reason for the requested release, and exhibit signs of repentance for having taken the vow. He emphasizes the particular language in Kol Nidre regarding vows “. . . which we have taken upon our souls;” in other words, Kol Nidre does not release a person from obligations to others but, rather, only from obligations that he has taken upon himself.

However, he questions the validity of this argument, suggesting that it was only promulgated by “exegetic apologists” to assuage the antisemitic agitators and the non-Jewish communities in which the Jews lived.

Third, in the “historical argument,” Reik suggests that that Kol Nidre is a response to the situation of the anusim, Jews who were forcibly converted during the Inquisition. In a tradition dating back to Meir of Rothenburg (second half of the 13th century), these transgressors, who were ordinarily banned from participation in communal prayer, were permitted to join the congregation for Kol Nidre, which would constitute their solemn declaration that their apostasy was only due to the Inquisition and that, notwithstanding any future acts of faithlessness that would be forced upon them in the coming year, they would always remain true Jews at heart. Moreover, Christians were forced to swear before a Christian tribunal that they would never participate in any Jewish ceremony, and Kol Nidre renders such oaths taken by anusim invalid.

However, Reik rejects this argument, too, for several reasons. First, Kol Nidre by far predates the era of the Inquisition; second, it was halachically impossible for a person to ever cancel his own vow; and, third, forced vows are void ab initio such that no revocation or atonement is required.

Finally, Reik’s “psychological argument,” which he considers to be the most persuasive, is based upon the historic development on oaths in general by tracing its psychological-religious history through the use of advanced knowledge in “the science of Old Testament religion” and Hebrew archaeology. He begins with a historical/ethnological analysis of an oath which, in primitive societies, took the form of a “self-curse” invoking evil upon oneself. Taking an oath was a grave matter of divine judgment, where great “invisible powers” threaten perjurers with punishment and even death.

The essence of this approach is that Reik treats Orthodox Jews like obsessive-compulsive patients. Analyzing in great detail the pedantic and obsessively and scrupulously observed Jewish prohibitions associated with perjury, he concludes that the Jewish attitude toward vows is classic obsessive-neurotic and, much as there comes a time when the obsessive-compulsive seeks to break through his repression and relieve himself of the burden of “over-conscientiousness” and the fear of punishment, there comes a time when traditional Jews seek to rid themselves of the overwhelming psychic weight represented by their vows.

The human character is such that, notwithstanding the best intentions, it is inevitable that a person will act on his impulses; Reik characterizes this as “the indestructibility and everlastingness of all original human impulses in the face of every moral demand.” Accordingly, Kol Nidre is a response to the “psychic displacement” that takes place when a Jew violates, or contemplates violating, a vow. Consistent with the gestalt theme of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre is actually a confession of imperfection, specifically regarding the desire to violate oaths. Thus, when all is said and done, not only does Kol Nidre not contradict the high regard in which Judaism views the obligation to fulfill oaths, it actually enhances an awareness of the duty. The melody is therefore justified because it is unrelated to the actual text of the prayer but, rather, reflects the communal unconscious feelings of remorse, contrition, and a terrified request for mercy in the face of death.

Finally, Reik provides an interesting explanation for why a plea for compassion and exculpation, in which we ask for forgiveness for all the sins of the Jewish people because “the entire nation is B’shegaga” (error or sin through ignorance”), immediately follows Kol Nidre. He reads it as “forgive all our forbidden wishes and unconscious temptations to violate prohibitions” (including vows). And, he says, the confessional nature of Kol Nidre explains the subsequent relaxion of psychological tension and fear felt by believers . . . because G-d announces salachti! (“I have forgiven”).


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].