Aggression in the Torah

One of the many criticisms made against Jews is that the Hebrew Bible is filled with aggression, dysfunctional families, murders, rapes, and other horrors. The claim is that this is bad; it harms children who are led to copy what they read. But it appears that the opposite is true.

The Austrian Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) was a very insightful psychologist. He informs us that contrary to what many people think (1) fairy tales are filled with aggressive behaviors and (2) these stories as well as the aggressive accounts in the Bible are good for children.

As he points out in several of his books, including his National Book Award and National Book critics Circle Award book The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,[1] and in Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays,[2] and other books, that fairy tales, although written for children, are narratives filled with horror.

He tells us in The Uses of Enchantment that the enormous violence and extreme emotions of many fairy tales and ancient legends and myths help children by easing their natural urges and emotions, helping them come to terms with their inner drives, and by educating them about life. The ancients realized that children need to read and hear aggressive accounts.

Bettelheim writes in Freud’s Vienna,[3] “There is plenty of violence and crime in Old Testament stories, as well as fairy tales. There is a lot of cruelty, enmity within family, homicide, and even patricide in Greek drama, as there is in Shakespeare’s plays. This suggests that people always needed a fare of violent fantasies as an integral part of popular entertainment. Aristotle said that such fare is required for catharsis – for the relief of emotional tensions. Children need as much of that relief as adults – perhaps more – and they always will…”

“Many children not only enjoy aggressive fantasies, but also need them. They need material for aggressive and retaliatory daydreams in which they can vicariously act out their hostile feelings without hurting close relatives…”

“As part of a study on violence and television published in 1976, in an experiment, violent cartoons were shown to both normal and emotionally impaired children. The latter, being unstable, were expected to be more vulnerable to the cartoons’ influence. But after watching the violent scenes, children in both groups were less chaotic in expressing their aggressiveness and did so in a random fashion. Having acted out aggressive feelings vicariously in fantasy as they watched the cartoons, most of these children had less need to act aggressively in reality.”

 

[1] Random House, 1975.

[2] Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

[3] Pages 151-153.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 40 books.
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