Passover, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sigmund Freud, and the Psychology of Bigotry

On the Enduring Lessons of the Exodus Story

Confronting The Plague of Bigotry: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on Passover eve, 1943.
Getty Images
Confronting The Plague of Bigotry: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on Passover eve, 1943.

By Austin Ratner

Published March 15, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 3)

The term “scapegoat,” which is by now a commonplace in explanations of racism, has to do with, of course, guilt — what else? It furthermore derives from the traditions of the ancient Jews — who else? Today, we use the term to mean a person or a people blamed for something he/they didn’t do. It’s invoked almost in a sense of mistaken identity or sloppy detective work. Yet the origins of the word itself in the book of Leviticus point directly back to the psychology of guilt management. What William Tyndale translated as a “scapegoat” in 1530 was a reference to an actual goat in primitive Jewish atonement ritual; the goat was magically bestowed with the sins of the Jewish people and then shooed into the wilderness to carry away the sins. In one of Leviticus’s creepier dalliances with paganism, the Lord decreed that the scapegoat should specifically be dispatched to an angry demon of the wilderness named Azazel (who is thenceforth scarce in the Bible but does turn up in Marvel Comics as an ancient mutant enemy of the X-Men).

The Pole by the ghetto wall seems to have used a scapegoat in the ancient, literal sense more so than in the modern, metaphorical sense: He has used the Jews to carry off his guilt and shame as if by a magical goat — not into the wilds belonging to the demon Azazel, but onto the pyre of the Warsaw Ghetto. He bears no sin; they do. And now the fire does. And now the sin is gone in the smoke, curling up and away from the earth.

Such magic acts derive from a condition of blindness, a refusal to look with the rational mind. The Freudian irony is that the courage to look upon and acknowledge a sense of guilt instead of invoking goats and demons to dispel it, helps forestall criminality of a much more damning kind. That is to say that the parable of Reicher and the Pole instructs that there would perhaps be fewer great sins in the world if people were not so frantic to purify themselves of small ones.

Austin Ratner is the author of “The Jump Artist” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009) and the recently released “In The Land of the Living” (Reagan Arthur Books).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.