The New Enemies of Circumcision
Among the practices that have characterized the Jewish people over the millennia, surely none has been observed more widely, or more faithfully, than circumcision. The Book of Genesis, dating the origin of this practice to the time of the first patriarch, interprets it as the sign of God’s eternal and indefectible covenant not only with Abraham but with the special people that will be descended from him. In this theology, circumcision, itself a divine commandment (mitzvah), is emblematic of the Jews’ fidelity to the God who formed them as a people and gave them the Torah.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that even in modern times, Jews across the denominational spectrum have continued to have the procedure performed on their sons on the eighth day of life, just as the Torah prescribes. What may be more surprising is the durability of circumcision among those Jews for whom traditional theology is un-acceptable. All sorts of other practices bearing the warrant of tradition—Sabbath, dietary laws, daily prayer—have fallen by the wayside, but circumcision, known in Hebrew as brit milah (sometimes simply brit or, in Ashkenazi pronunciation, bris), endures. Remarking on this, no lesser a critic of Jewish traditionalism than Baruch Spinoza could see in circumcision the key to Jewish survival. “So important” is it, wrote this excommunicated Jew in the 17th century, “that I could persuade myself that it alone would preserve the nation forever.”
To be sure, in the United States at least, the practice of circumcision is hardly limited to Jews (or traditional Muslims): performed on male babies in hospitals as a routine medical procedure, it has become, rather, a widespread fact of life. And this is precisely what gives resonance to the recent rise of a serious backlash movement to put a stop to it. Today, attacks on circumcision are not only increasing but becoming increasingly harsh. A veritable alphabet soup of activist organizations has sprung up, including BUFF (Brothers United for Future Foreskins), UNCIRC (UNCircumcising Information and Resources Center), NOHARMM (the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males), and NORM (the National Organization of Restoring Men) and its predecessor, RECAP (Recover a Penis). In many cases, these organizations are not content to limit their efforts to public persuasion but seek nothing less than to make the practice a criminal offense.
Nor is the heightened visibility of such organizations—they are the subject of a sympathetic article, “The Foreskin Saga,” by John Sedgwick in the February GQ—the only sign of the times. In a bitterly ironic comment on Spinoza’s dictum, the anti-circumcision movement today comprises not only non-Jews (among whom there is a long and on the whole dishonorable history of belittlement of brit milah) but also Jews—even some Jews bearing rabbinical ordination. Although actual criminalization of the procedure may seem a remote prospect, the growth of sentiment opposing it is thus a phenomenon worthy of attention. As for the existence of a Jewish wing in the anticircumcision movement, it reveals fault lines within contemporary Jewry that affect a good deal more than the fate of one mitzvah.
The story of circumcision in cross-cultural perspective has now been comprehensively and readably surveyed by David L. Gollaher, a historian of medicine and an opponent of the practice.1 Early on, Gollaher announces his own position: “While there are many understandable religious, cultural, and aesthetic reasons men or parents might choose circumcision, it lacks a persuasive medical basis.” The bulk of the book that follows is devoted to telling how a surgical procedure once restricted to the ritual life of a despised minority came, in 19th-century America, to be widely advocated and increasingly performed for its health benefits—benefits that Gollaher now believes to be largely spurious.
The tale begins in 1870, when Lewis A. Sayre, then the nation’s leading orthopedist, thought he had discovered that circumcision cured some mysterious and strangely resistant cases of paralysis of the legs and hips in boys. Soon Sayre published his remarkable findings, now claiming that removal of the foreskin remedied more ailments than paralysis alone: “Many of the cases of irritable children, with restless sleep, and bad digestion, which are often attributed to worms, is [sic] solely due to the irritation of the nervous system caused by an adherent or constricted prepuce.”
The connection drawn by Sayre was less outlandish than it might seem, at least for those times. As Gollaher explains, “most educated doctors” in the latter third of the 19th century subscribed to a theory of “reflex neurosis,” according to which “a minor agitation or blockage in one part of the body might manifest itself in a seemingly unrelated area.” (For a counterpart today, think of the theory of acupuncture.) The key thing was to find the source of the irritation, and the foreskin, an apparently unnecessary appendage and one relatively easily removed at birth, became a prime suspect in men (just as, in women, Gollaher explains, “the best cure for female ‘nervousness’—a catchall diagnosis for anything from insomnia to depression—was [thought to be] clitoridectomy”).
Other practices and theories of the time helped in the spread of circumcision. One was the germ theory of disease, powerfully advanced by the discoveries of Koch and Pasteur. Another was the growing cult of personal hygiene. An uncircumcised penis is more difficult to keep clean as it releases smegma, “thick sebaceous secretions that collect beneath the foreskin” and that would come to be labeled “infectious.” The rise of interest in circumcision thus coincided with a moment in American history when “scrubbing with soap became a routine for millions of citizens.” As a sign of “social and cultural refinement,” indeed, circumcision became a new norm among white, middle-class Gentiles, helping to separate them, in Gollaher’s words, from “recent immigrants, African Americans, the poor, and others at the margins of respectable society.”2
Circumcision also played a role in another concern of late-19th-century physicians and moralists: masturbation, a practice to which were attributed such diverse conditions as paralysis (again), tuberculosis, and convulsions. In some instances, circumcision was prescribed not only to diminish the pleasure but also to punish, by inflicting pain on the source of a boy’s ill-gotten delights. Thus, John Harvey Kellogg of the famed Battle Creek Sanitarium recommended circumcision “without administering an anesthetic, as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if connected with the idea of punishment.” Some prominent Jewish physicians jumped on this particular bandwagon, claiming that “circumcision served to immunize Jewish boys and men against the bad habit of masturbation.” It was one of those rare occasions in modern times when the new science and traditional morals seemed to coincide.
Surveying the range of current opinion on the medical effects of circumcision, Gollaher pronounces the evidence “stunningly contradictory.” So at odds is the literature concerning both “the immediate risks and complications of the surgery itself” and “the effect circumcision may have on a male’s propensity to suffer a variety of disorders later on” that over the last 30 years the American Academy of Pediatrics has twice reversed its position on the matter. In 1971 it “officially concluded that there were no medical grounds for routine infant circumcision,” then recanted the decision in 1985, but reconfirmed it in 1999.
There is, however, a reason for the indecisiveness. Although many alleged medical benefits have now been debunked, some, as Gollaher reluctantly concedes, still command considerable empirical support.
Well-established, for instance, is the effectiveness of the procedure against cancer of the penis, phimosis (a narrowing of the opening of the foreskin), and balanitis (an inflammation usually associated with phimosis). In the case of sexually transmitted disease (STD, the new name for venereal disease), the evidence in favor of a prophylactic effect is again formidable, especially against syphilis and gonorrhea. According to a recent study from Seattle cited by Gollaher, “the odds of an uncircumcised man’s being infected [with syphilis] were four times greater than for his circumcised counterpart”; for gonorrhea, the odds dropped to 1.6 times but were “certainly still significant.” Ever on the lookout for qualifying factors in his favor, Gollaher pounces on “the fact that the Seattle study only included men who chose testing or treatment at a public-health clinic—a high-risk population.”
When it comes to HIV, the best-known disease often associated with sexual activity, the case for circumcision would again seem strong. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine reported in 1997 that “[m]ale circumcision consistently shows a protective effect against HIV infection,” while a study in another journal found that “men with foreskins were 2.22 times more likely to be infected with HIV than those without.” Again, Gollaher seeks to undermine the seemingly obvious conclusion by wondering “whether the circumcised practice different hygiene, engage in different sexual behaviors, or even eat different foods than the uncircumcised.”
Similarly with urinary tract infection (UTI). A former Army pediatrician named Thomas Wiswell, who had once been of the opinion that routine circumcision was not medically indicated, changed his mind after examining the records of military hospitals: these demonstrated that “as the circumcision rate dropped, the number of UTI cases in boys skyrocketed.” Other studies in this country and Australia report analogous findings. Although Gollaher has a hard time countering such dramatic results, he gives it the old college try, first by conjecturing that some of the infected boys really were circumcised after all and then by questioning whether the gains of circumcision were worth the cost of painful surgery, itself occasionally a source of infection.
Here we come to one heart of the anticircumcision argument. In the minds of activists like Gollaher, whatever the marginal benefits of the procedure, they are more than offset by the pain experienced by the infant boy. Whereas earlier medical literature often denied or minimized this pain, more recent studies—using, Gollaher tells us, such indications as “infants’ heart rates, breathing, intensity and duration of crying, consolability, sociability . . . motor activity, flexion of fingers and toes, and sleep patterns”—conclude that it “is simply too severe to be relieved by a mild analgesic.”
Of course, even if one were to concede the evidence of “severe” pain, one might still think it worth undergoing for the sake of prevention. In some instances—when a boy is at risk of renal infection because of urinary reflux, or a young man is at increased risk of AIDS because of a predisposition to engage in sodomy—it is not hard to imagine parents wishing they had put their son through the operation before tragedy struck. But no such ambiguities exist for David Gollaher, who, by the end of his book, having altogether dropped the stance of the dispassionate observer, has come to liken routine medical circumcision to female genital mutilation (FGM), thus equating a common and very safe procedure that reputable researchers have shown to have prophylactic effects against a variety of genital ailments with a rare procedure whose side effects include (in his own words) “hemorrhage and shock . . . clitoral cysts, labial adhesions, recurrent urinary tract infections, renal scarring and kidney dysfunction, and sterility, and, as intended, loss of sexual feeling.”
Given his partisanship, it is perhaps no surprise that Gollaher utters not a word of criticism of any of the organizations, however outre, that have been formed to abolish circumcision or to reverse its effects surgically by means of foreskin restoration (a medically controversial procedure dating back to Greco-Roman times and described by Gollaher in some detail). By contrast, he has real difficulty acknowledging any positive case at all on the other side. When controlled, double-blind studies speak in favor of circumcision, he immediately suspects bias, while the most outlandish claims for the negative effects of circumcision pass without critical scrutiny or interrogation. One such claim, by a writer named Ronald Goldman, attributes to the procedure American men’s putative “ ‘avoidance of intimacy in male-female relationships’ (which partly explains high divorce rates), disregard for women’s sexuality, and, most alarming, a pandemic of violence manifest in America’s high rates of assault, rape, and murder.” What double-blind study generated those conclusions?
This brings us back to Gollaher’s profession of sympathy at the beginning of his book for the “many understandable” reasons that some people—meaning mostly Jews—“might choose circumcision.” Here, too, his handling of the issues hardly inspires confidence; quite the contrary.
Gollaher prefaces his discussion of brit milah in Judaism with a review of circumcision in Egypt, speculating (as have many before him) that Moses was the conduit between the two cultures. About Egyptian circumcision itself he writes that it was intended to enhance “physical vitality” and “to cleanse the body’s natural flow”—goals familiar enough from modern America but, as it happens, light years away from the predominating rationales of ancient Judaism. By thus attributing the origins of Jewish circumcision to primitive concerns about hygiene, Gollaher not only downplays classical Jewish theology but subtly enables himself to turn today’s medical ambivalence about the practice against the Jewish mitzvah as well.
He also turns Moses himself against it. “Moses was not circumcised while he lived in Pharaoh’s household,” Gollaher writes confidently, and adds, citing a talmudic text, “Strangely enough, he would remain uncircumcised throughout his long life.” It is true that the Bible never mentions Moses’ circumcision (or that of almost any other figure), and some practitioners of Pentateuchal criticism do attribute the norm of circumcision to a late source. But long before the birth of the great lawgiver, as the biblical narrative has it, the norm had already come to Abraham, along with an insistence that the rite be performed on the eighth day. As for Gollaher’s invocation of the Talmud, nowhere in rabbinic literature is it suggested that Moses was uncircumcised. (It was for neglecting to circumcise his son that Moses was punished in the text cited by Gollaher.)
More troubling than any of this is Gollaher’s use of a 17th-century account by the English author Samuel Purchas of the alleged habit among Jews of kidnapping, circumcising, and crucifying a Christian boy every year around Easter. “Was there,” he writes in mock innocence, “any basis for Purchas’s tale?” And, almost incredibly, he continues:
Certainly there are indications of bizarre practices, as in the [18th-century] Anglia Judaica account, “the famous Trial of Jacob of Norwich, and Accomplices for Stealing away, and Circumcising, a Christian child.” In this case, court testimony confirms that a five-year-old boy was abducted while playing in the street, and spirited away to Jacob Norwich’s [sic] house. There his captors blindfolded him and cut off his foreskin. Subsequently, they played a strange game, burying the severed foreskin in a basin filled with dry sand then “blowing the Sand with their Mouths, till they found it again.” The winner of the contest declared the boy a Jew. Somehow the boy was returned home and his kidnappers were brought to trial, where his guardians told the court that “by some art or other” the circumcision had been reversed and the boy’s foreskin restored.
If nothing else, this last detail, about the restoration of the boy’s foreskin “by some art or other,” ought to have raised a doubt—even in David Gollaher’s mind—as to the ability of such “court testimony” to confirm anything other than the virulence of anti-Jewish prejudice in premodern Europe. To take this account as an “indication of bizarre practices” that might lend credibility to Purchas’s version of the infamous medieval blood libel is historiographic impudence of the lowest order. Is the case against routine medical circumcision so weak that its proponents need to resurrect hoary anti-Semitic libels to make their point?
For the Jews of ancient and medieval times, in any event, differing opinions as to the prophylactic effects of circumcision would have elicited little or no interest. They practiced circumcision not out of hygienic concerns but out of obedience to the mitzvot of the Torah. And the same can be said of most traditionalist Jews today, who observe brit milah for the same reason that they observe the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and the laws of daily prayer or marital purity. What is more, as I noted at the outset, to their numbers could be added, at least until now, the mass of Jews who have continued to practice this rite long after their taste for other points of traditional law has diminished or disappeared.
This is not to say that circumcision has always gone unquestioned among modern Jews. In mid-19th-century Germany, for instance, the Society for the Friends of Reform pronounced the ancient rite obsolete, only to retreat before a firestorm of opposition that included many of their fellow Reformers. In the United States, the issue came up in 1885 at a rabbinical conference in Pittsburgh at which were set forth the principles of Reform Judaism.
Whereas some German Reformers had spoken out against circumcision in general, the controversy at Pittsburgh was limited to the case of adult proselytes: Kaufmann Kohler, a leading figure in the movement, pronounced the requirement of circumcision in this case “a barbarous cruelty which disfigures and disgraces our ancestral heirlooms and our holy mission as priests among mankind . . . a national remnant of savage African life.” But once again the anticircumcision party was doomed. For just as the rabbis gathered at Pittsburgh were declaring as a general principle that “[w]e reject all [ceremonies] as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization,” modern civilization, at least in its American guise, was discovering (or imagining) the enormous hygienic benefits of circumcision. And so, in an ironic reversal of the accustomed pattern in these matters, the Jewish impulse toward acculturation weighed in favor of retaining, rather than rejecting, an ancient ritual.3
But now that both scientific opinion and the cultural mood are shifting to some degree, we see the surfacing of an increasingly vocal opposition to circumcision that is itself explicitly Jewish. Thus, the same Ronald Goldman from whom I quoted earlier has recently brought out a work entitled Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective.4 Where David Gollaher sees the practice as backward and medically unnecessary, Goldman, a psychologist, sees it as much worse: a positively demonic force that has caused all manner of devastation to the Jewish people collectively as well as to the unfortunate individuals on whom it has been performed, and whose abolition is essential to the recovery of their psychic health.
Brit milah, according to Goldman, “is an enormous obstacle to the development of basic trust between mother and child.” Since the mother has permitted her baby son to be, in effect, mutilated, the son naturally hates her—and, through her, all other Jewish women as well. Hence “the high rate of intermarriage” in today’s Jewish community, which is itself but a reflection of the “widespread anger in Jewish men toward Jewish women.” Not only that, but when young Jewish men do marry, they are more likely to engage in “spousal abuse . . . a serious problem across the United States and Israel.”
If Goldman’s arguments tend to refute themselves by their absurdity—he does not scruple to explain why is it only in the last generation or two that a millennia-old practice has suddenly led to intermarriage, or offer evidence that uncircumcised Jewish men are less likely to intermarry or to engage in spousal abuse—a much more serious and respectable assault appears in Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism.5 This is a survey of the whole history of circumcision in Judaism by Lawrence A. Hoffman, a distinguished scholar of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary in New York.
Unlike Goldman, Hoffman is a religious insider as well as a generally thoughtful scholar. But for him, too, the mitzvah of brit milah is all but irredeemably tainted, and for not dissimilar reasons. As one whose entire view of Jewish tradition is informed by what he is proud to call his “commitment to feminism,” Hoffman is appalled by the “blatant sexist implications” of this ritual. But his case against it is grounded in what appears at least to be a scrupulous reading of classical Jewish texts, and so demands a closer look.
In the earliest biblical traditions, before circumcision was interpreted as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant, it functioned, Hoffman tells us, as a fertility rite. (His principal evidence here is a law in Leviticus that employs the Hebrew word for “foreskin” to characterize the first three annual crops of a fruit tree, which must not be eaten. “Analogous to pruning fruit trees,” he writes, “circumcision provides a prophylactic against barrenness.”) Only later, in the stratum of Pentateuchal tradition that critical scholars call P—for “Priestly”—does circumcision become “no mere arbitrary sign but an iconic representation of that for which it stands”: namely, membership in the highly fertile nation to come forth from Abraham’s loins. In the process, however, Jewish tradition took a huge step in the direction of the misogyny and sexism that have historically characterized it: “A covenant made with Abraham, but not with Sarah, is sealed with a sign that is itself an iconic reminder that being male, not female, is what matters.” And that made the covenant doubly divisive, demarcating male from female even as it demarcated Jew from non-Jew.
Bad as this was, the talmudic rabbis only worsened it. For them, the key thing about circumcision was the salvific effect of the blood shed in the procedure. But this was specifically male blood, in contradistinction to the female blood of menstruation, which the rabbis saw as a ritual contaminant. Hence another “blatantly sexist” implication: male blood saves, female blood pollutes.
What to say about all this? There is, to begin with, no reason to believe that the law of the fruit tree in Leviticus is connected with fertility or, for that matter, with pruning, and similarly unwarranted is the inference that circumcision was intended to promote fertility. (The use of the term “foreskin” to denote the first three crops most likely relates to the young, new character of the fruit.) If we must have an “iconic” interpretation, then the rite is better seen as an icon of endogamy, which is how it functions in the story of Shechem and Dinah in Genesis 34.
As for Hoffman’s notion that the Priestly source downgrades the status of women and likens them to foreigners, this illustrates only his readiness to adopt feminist readings on the flimsiest evidence. In the pre-Priestly sources that critical scholars isolate, the promise to Abraham (there called “Abram”) and the covenant with him designate no specific woman as the mother of the great nation that he is to father. It is only with the Priestly reformulation that Sarai, now renamed “Sarah” (apparently meaning “princess”), is designated as the matriarch—despite the laws of nature, since she has been barren all her life and is now eighty-nine years old. Hoffman, in other words, has his chronology, and hence his logic, exactly backward.
Nor does the Priestly source declare “an outright war on the matrilineal system,” as Hoffman imagines. Whether there really was such a system is open to doubt. But in any case it is in the Priestly and no earlier source that the chosen people are said to come from both Abraham and Sarah, and not from Abraham alone. Hoffman also misses the fact that the covenant is with the nation collectively and not with Israelites as individuals, and that circumcision symbolizes but does not effectuate this covenant. To say, as he does in a nearby passage, that women are party to the covenant “only in a secondary way” is like saying that American citizenship applies only to those who fly the stars and stripes on their flagpoles, everyone else being a second-class citizen.
Finally, the idea that the saving power of the blood of circumcision is biased against women, whose menstrual blood is a ritual pollutant, is itself biased and surprisingly ignorant. The rabbinic concept probably has its origin in biblical sacrifice, where, as here, a knife is deliberately wielded in fulfillment of a religious intention. In the case of menstruation, no knife is used, and blood is not drawn but expelled involuntarily. To apply the sacrificial concepts to menstruation would have been singularly inapposite (even if the Bible had not already defined the latter as a ritual contaminant). If there were an equivalent surgical procedure for women and the rabbis failed to deem the blood salvific, Hoffman might have a case. As it is, he is simply playing fast and loose with the data.
Do any of these arguments matter? They do if the anticircumcision campaign, in both its general and its Jewish guises, continues to gain momentum, and Jews find themselves casting about for reasons to maintain their allegiance to the practice. Even thoroughgoing traditionalists may find their lives more difficult as the anticircumcision movement makes headway in the general culture. In the worst case, should the activists’ claim that circumcision violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights carry the day, the practice could become illegal, and Jews (and Muslims) who persisted in their traditionalism, as many would surely do, might find themselves the targets of state action. Minimally, one could predict some hard-fought battles over the implications of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.
Because American Jews live in one of the few countries in which hygienic circumcision is widely practiced, they easily forget the role that contempt for the practice has played in the history of anti-Semitism. David Gollaher predicts that routine circumcision for medical reasons will soon “go the way of routine bloodletting”; if it does, brit milah will recover its function as a demarcation of Jews from Gentiles—the sign of the covenant of Abraham. Some might reasonably regard this as a good thing; but history has also shown that the sharper the demarcation between groups, the more vulnerable is the smaller and weaker group. The whiff of anti-Semitism (and/or Jewish self-hate) that one occasionally picks up in the literature of the anticircumcision movement may be a harbinger of much stronger odors to come.
And then there are the less traditionalist or non-traditionalist or antitraditionalist Jews, for many of whom obedience to the commandments is subordinate to individual choice and subjective experience. What recourse will they have? An article that appeared a few years ago in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin, quoting the co-chairman of the brit milah board of Reform Judaism, suggests the scope of the problem:
There are people who find [brit milah] a profoundly meaningful way of connecting with the Jewish people and there are those who don’t. . . . People have to fulfill their inner sense.
The only thing this sentiment, so quintessentially of the moment, neglects to acknowledge is that people’s “inner sense” is itself inextricably connected with the culture in which they find themselves. Should that larger culture come to judge brit milah to be not only medically unnecessary but also brutalizing and mutilating, the number of Jews who find the practice “profoundly meaningful” will assuredly diminish, and the abhorrence of it expressed by some early Reform leaders will return with a vengeance.
Nor is there any assurance that liberal Jews inclined to follow their “inner sense” and violate the mitzvah will be persuaded otherwise by their rabbis. Lawrence Hoffman tells of a study group that he held with fifteen rabbis, male and female:
As we went around the room, several of these young rabbis related the case of their own son’s circumcision, about which, it turns out, they frequently harbored intense rage—rage at themselves for allowing it to happen, and in some cases rage at the mohel [ritual circumciser] who had done it and botched the job.
This experience, Hoffman adds, was not anomalous. In an article not long afterward in the journal of his profession, a Reform rabbi asked:
What about my son’s needs? As he struggled in pain, had I somehow abandoned him for the sake of the ceremony? What kept me from aborting the ceremony on his behalf?
That questions like these are being asked (and implicitly regarded as unanswerable) by ordained religious leaders indicates the depth of the spiritual and moral void in which nontraditionalist Jews are being invited to find their bearings. Whatever private doubts they may have of their own, moreover, are unlikely to be stilled by half-measures like the one proposed by Lawrence Hoffman, who follows his highly negative analysis of the practice with an illogical vote to retain it anyway, while fiddling with the ceremony so that the operation “takes a backseat to the liturgy, thereby emphasizing the theological notion of covenant and playing down the actual procedure.” As anybody knows who has ever attended a brit milah, the liturgy and the ensuing celebratory meal are already far more prominent and lengthier than the actual operation, which is over in minutes and viewed by very few of those present. But all the liturgy in the world will not disguise the fact that the child is a boy, not a girl (or a genderless humanoid), and that what is taking place is an operation and not simply a verbal affirmation of some abstract, disembodied theology.
Another haven for Jews fleeing a newly stigmatized practice might be something along the lines of Ronald Goldman’s much bolder proposal to replace both the operation and its liturgy with a ceremony that he calls the “Bris Shalom.” This is actually an anticircumcision ritual in disguise, in which biblical verses are cleverly misinterpreted to speak against the very practice for which the “Bris Shalom” is a substitute. But Goldman’s ceremony does have one virtue: it poses very starkly the underlying clash of values that separates the anticircumcision ethos (as it might be called) from classical Judaism, and it thereby helps inadvertently to expose the ground on which any forthright defense of the practice must stand.
In Goldman’s transvalued ritual, one line in particular, to be pronounced by the parents, stands out: “This child, created in Your image, is whole, complete, and perfect.”
That man is created in the image of God is, indeed, a powerful biblical idea, affirmed more than once in the Book of Genesis. It is also a sentiment that could conceivably be invoked against the notion that all men should be circumcised. But the Jewish ceremony that the “Bris Shalom” opposes takes as its model not Adam but Abraham—not, that is, the father of universal humanity but the father of the Jewish people. And when Abraham is enjoined in Genesis (as Adam never is) to be “whole,” “complete,” or “perfect,” that injunction is, in fact, closely connected to circumcision. To put it in a nutshell: a man can be a whole person without being circumcised, but he is not yet a whole Jew. Or: Adam intact is Abraham in need of perfection.
Precisely this distinction between Adamic and Abrahamic humanity is crucial to Jewish thought. “A philosopher,” an ancient midrash reports,
asked Rabbi Hoshaya, “If circumcision is so precious, why was it not given to Adam?” Replied the sage: “Whatever was created in the first six days of creation requires that something more be done to it: mustard needs sweetening, lupine needs sweetening, wheat needs grinding, and man, too, needs to be perfected.”
The rabbi’s response is consonant with the broad currents of rabbinic theology. To the Bible and the ancient rabbis alike, brit milah is not a personal option for Jewish boys. It is a mitzvah, a religious act commanded by God as part of His gracious offer to bring the Jewish people close to Him in holiness. To say that a Jewish child will decide whether to fulfill the mitzvah himself upon reaching adulthood—“The only persons who may consent to medically unnecessary procedures upon themselves are the individuals who have reached the age of consent,” goes the Declaration of the First International Symposium on Circumcision—is like saying that he will at the same point decide what his mother tongue will be.
The tenets of rabbinic theology are directed in the first instance, of course, to Jews. But they also have something to say to the culture at large, and not only concerning circumcision. For this is a theology that in general sees human beings as born with a powerful appetite for evil, one that must be restrained, retrained, and redirected by a challenging and unending process of subordination to God’s covenantal will. It is therefore, by definition, diametrically opposed to the Romantic affirmation of natural man and his raw instincts, and to that liberal psychology in which personal choice is sacrosanct, “experience” is the goal, and the traditional virtues of sacrifice, discipline, and obedience are slighted or neglected.
In this key regard, classical Judaism takes its place unmistakably on one side of the struggle over the long-term effects of contemporary liberal culture. Where that culture speaks in terms of human rights and the supremacy of personal choice, the ancient sources of Judaism speak powerfully of human duties (and of more duties for Jews than for Gentiles). Where it tends to endorse the voluntary character of identity, classical Judaism speaks of an inherited membership in a people from whom the individual is not free to resign. Where many today celebrate being whole (“intact”), classical Judaism pursues holiness, and always prefers the moral to the aesthetic. Where liberalism has embraced the interchangeability of sexual roles, Jewish sources see men and women as different by nature and by the plan of nature’s divine Author. Where much of contemporary American culture now places the highest valuation on pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, and on the avoidance of any sort of pain, the classical Jewish texts value the willingness to suffer for a worthy cause, speak of the sanctity of marriage, and elevate self-control over self-expression.
In light of these radical disparities, it begins to seem no accident that circumcision, the very sign of the covenant between the Jews and their God, should have become the latest front in the battle over the Jewish future in America, or that the values at stake in this battle should turn out to include not only those of contemporary Judaism but, mutatis mutandis, those of contemporary America as well, a society undergoing a painful sorting-through of its own moral and cultural dispositions. For the sake of all parties concerned, and quite aside from the fate of specific medical procedures, one can only hope that victory in this struggle goes to the values that once were much more common in America than they have become, and that firmly underlie the theory and practice of brit milah.
1 Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery. Basic Books, 272 pp., $25.00.
2 Ironically, the one group of recent immigrants who had practiced the procedure from time immemorial was still under attack for it. “By the 1880’s,” Gohaller writes, “as more and more Gentile physicians recommended and performed the operation as a neonatal routine, they [also] began to attack brit milah as primitive, unsanitary, and dangerous.”
3 To be sure, the rationale no longer lay in the Torah but in something more changeable, namely, scientific opinion. That may be why not all leaders of American Reform were impressed with it. “A sanitary prophylaxis against what?” asked Emil Hirsch at Pittsburgh. “And why not take vaccination also under our religious sanction?”
4 Vanguard, 133 pp., $11.95.
5 University of Chicago Press, 256 pp., $42.50.