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Reflections on circumcision

A number of excellent books are available on the subject of circumcision (also known as ‘male genital mutilation’ – MGM). Especially illuminating are the books by Dr. Paul M. Fleiss, MD, Ronald Goldman, and – for a broad historical perspective – Leonard R. Glick’s Marked in the Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America.

And there are many useful videos, analyses, and testimonies on the internet. I don’t want to repeat points already well made by others but I do have various reflections to offer.1

Judaic circumcision

No one knows when Judaic circumcision began or for what purpose. It is no doubt an ancient practice, but not quite as ancient as a literal reading of Genesis would suggest. The methods of modern biblical criticism indicate that while the main part of the passage about God’s covenant with Abraham does indeed come from an early source the verses in which God commands circumcision as a sign of this covenant were added by temple priests at a much later period. Circumcision may therefore have arisen at a different time and for different purposes.

Following Freud, Glick suggests that circumcision arose as a substitute for human sacrifice, which was a persistent practice among the ancient Hebrews.2 ‘Originally the father had to circumcise his own son, risking what is most precious to him... Since circumcision is a kind of sacrifice, or a representation of sacrifice, might it have been instituted ... as a “substitution ritual” symbolizing (and recalling) child sacrifice?’ (pp. 18, 22-3).  

In support of this hypothesis Glick notes the wording of a prayer traditionally offered following circumcision (but no longer in wide use): ‘King of the Universe, may it be Your will to regard and accept this [the prepuce] as though I had offered him [the child] before Your glorious throne’ (p. 58; my italics – SS). Let us also recall that a newborn animal was sacrificed at the Temple on the eighth day of its life and that circumcision is also performed when the victim is eight days old. True, other explanations of the coincidence are possible.

I dipped into the Talmud in search of further enlightenment. One rabbi draws a parallel between circumcision and the ritual slaughter of animals for consumption (shechita):

Rav Noson teaches that shechita is associated with circumcision. Just as circumcision is performed with a sharp implement to cut away the foreskin (which contains the spiritual energies of immorality), so too ritual slaughter cuts away animalism, which contains the spiritual energies of immorality (http://www.breslov.com/world/parsha/shemini_5756.html)

In other words, it is forbidden to eat meat from which the blood has not been fully drained for the same reason that the prepuce is removed: both bloody meat and the prepuce embody ‘immorality’ – that is, sexuality.

From the Talmud I also gained an impression of just how awful circumcision was in pre-modern times. The sages speak of fathers who pray for the death of their son after the mohel accidentally cuts off his penis or crushes his testicles, one reason being that with such a deformity the boy would be excluded from participation in the community. Such things still happen, though less frequently. I also chanced upon a Talmudic rule that if a woman had already borne two sons who had died as a result of circumcision then her third son need not be circumcised; if three sons had died then the fourth should definitely not be circumcised. This was a humane provision, for there is no biblical justification for it.   

In general, however, circumcision has never been a matter of choice in Judaism. Thus, in their struggle ‘for the freedom of Israel’ the Maccabees, whose example is celebrated every Chanukah, ‘circumcised by force every uncircumcised boy they found’ (1 Maccabees 2:46). Those Jews who now advocate an alternative peaceful way of welcoming the newborn child into the covenant (Brit Shalom instead of Brit Milah) are wrestling with the weight of millennia.

Moslem circumcision

Common as circumcision is among Moslems, the holy texts of Islam actually offer much better prospects for overcoming the practice. Circumcision is recommended in the Sunnah (life of Muhammad) but receives no explicit mention in the Quran, which has much greater authority. On the contrary, the authors of the website ‘Quranic Path’ argue that the Quran implicitly prohibits genital (or any other) mutilation of either sex: several suras state that the human body was designed and created by God to perfection, while another says that evil actions to change God’s perfect design are incited by the Devil (Iblis).

Circumcision and Jew-hatred (anti-Semitism)

Many pro-circumcision Jews routinely accuse opponents of circumcision of Jew-hatred (anti-Semitism). Their defense mechanisms against understanding the true motives of anti-circumcision activists are so strong that they can only interpret them in this manner. Sometimes, however, anti-circumcision feeling does manifest itself as anti-Semitism. This may or may not be because anti-Semites exploit the issue for their own purposes.

I was suddenly made aware of this while viewing videos on YouTube showing family Brit Milah celebrations. Some of these videos are open to comments; others are closed. Some hide the actual circumcision from view; others show it quite clearly. This gives rise to comments like: ‘What is he [the mohel] doing? It looks like he is licking the penis’ [in fact, sucking blood from the wound]. And then: ‘Aren’t Jews disgusting?’ After a momentary shock I thought to myself: ‘Well, circumcision really is disgusting, and it is a short step from “what Jews do is disgusting” to “Jews are disgusting”.’ A short step, but one that I ask people not to take. Hate Judaism by all means, but please do not hate Jews. For one thing, Jews are the main victims of Judaism. Even the mohel was first a victim of circumcision and only much later a perpetrator.

The same goes for other religions with ‘disgusting’ practices: hate Islam but not Moslems (a distinction confused by the newly fashionable term ‘Islamophobia’), Hinduism but not Hindus, and so on.

Should people avoid or play down the issue of circumcision out of fear of fueling anti-Semitism (or ‘Islamophobia’)? No, certainly not, and for the following reasons:

1) Circumcision does incomparably more harm to Jews than anti-Semitism can do (at least in the forms that currently exist or are likely to arise in the foreseeable future).

2) It is increasingly difficult to avoid the issue of circumcision even if we want to. The video discussed above illustrates how the internet reveals everything to public view and debate. More and more Gentiles are going to see Jews mutilating babies and they are going to ask: ‘What shall I think about these Jews, who do such terrible things?’ They have to be answered and the only effective answer is to put an end to circumcision.  

Circumcision and the Catholic Church

The Vatican takes a firm stand against circumcision. This does not prevent Catholic hospitals, guided by medical myths and financial considerations, from performing circumcisions, but it creates favorable conditions for a movement among Catholics to end the practice. Moreover, it is largely thanks to Catholic opposition to abortion that some hospitals now recognize the right of the individual nurse or doctor to ‘conscientious objection’ – i.e., to refuse to perform or assist at an operation that goes against her or his conscience, whether that be abortion or circumcision. Thus, a campaign (‘Right to Life’) that it is ‘politically correct’ to regard as regressive can have very positive effects.       

Medical circumcision

The United States has witnessed the spread of circumcision beyond religious and ethnic groups for which the rite is traditional to the general population, justified on fraudulent medical grounds. People from other parts of the world are astonished and shocked when they first encounter this unique and unprecedented phenomenon. 

One very plausible explanation stresses the financial interests of doctors and hospitals. In the US many young people enter the field of medicine not with a view to helping their fellow man but in search of ‘big bucks.’ And there are big bucks in circumcision. As a lecturer in one video put it, ‘every baby boy comes into the world with a $400 bill wrapped around his penis.’ For similar reasons the American medical industry routinely performs many operations, procedures, and tests that in other countries are regarded as usually unnecessary and sometimes harmful (indiscriminate screening that exposes healthy people to radiation, tonsillectomy, hysterectomy, etc.).

Another explanation focuses on the role played by doctors of Jewish origin in promoting circumcision among the general population. However, there is a puzzle here. A central function of ritual circumcision among Jews is to strengthen the feeling of separation between Jews and Gentiles, to make Jews feel ‘special’ – God’s chosen people – by ‘marking them in their flesh.’ But the spread of circumcision among Gentiles undermines this function. It is against the cultic interest of Judaism. That is why despite the financial incentive few mohels are willing to circumcise Gentiles (a certain demand for this service exists where medical circumcision is not readily available). Why then should Jewish doctors behave otherwise?

As the son of a Jewish doctor, I permit myself to speculate a little on this matter. I suspect that many or most doctors of Jewish origin no longer sincerely believe in the Judaic cult, which is hard to reconcile with a scientific education. For social and psychological reasons, however, they want to hang on to some sort of Jewish identity. This inclines them to seek ‘scientific’ rationales for an operation that they really value for completely non-scientific reasons. But insofar as they come to believe in these rationales they are logically compelled to apply them to Gentiles as well as Jews.

Notes of an intactivist

Until recently I had never heard of the word ‘intactivist,’ which means someone who uses the internet to campaign against circumcision (though I don’t see why it should not have a broader usage). Now it seems that I am one.

There are numerous blogs and websites for or against circumcision – and even some (not many) that are genuinely neutral. The most striking difference is that hardly any pro-circumcision sites allow open discussion while all the anti-circumcision sites I have seen host vigorous debate with numerous participants. To my mind this shows the weakness of the pro-circumcision position and the strength of the argument against circumcision.   

Support for circumcision is not always overt. Thus, the websites of clinics that offer circumcision services have a superficially balanced appearance, with equally long lists of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ supposedly to help parents make up their minds. However, close examination reveals a clear bias. The most telling arguments against circumcision are omitted or drastically understated – for instance, ‘the child may feel some pain’ (my italics – SS).

Notes

 1. I plan a separate essay on the sexual politics of circumcision.

 2. The story of the ‘binding of Isaac’ (Akedah), in which Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command but an angel sent by God stays his hand and substitutes a ram, is often cited as evidence that animal sacrifice replaced human sacrifice at the very birth of Judaism. However, both the oral tradition and modern biblical scholarship suggest that in the earliest version of the story Isaac was duly sacrificed. The angelic intervention was added much later by temple priests. We know that human sacrifice was still practiced several centuries later from the story of Jephthah, who sacrifices his daughter and only child as a burnt offering for success in battle against the Ammonites (Judges 11:31-40) – and not an angel in sight to rescue the poor girl!

 

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