Sunday, November 04, 2007

Lech Lecha/Why Circumcise

Such a tardy poster, am I. Even this is a couple weeks old, but I figure better late than never since I have had a lot of requests for it. Comments welcome.
A friend’s father was born in the Ukraine in the nineteen-forties. After his birth, a mohel traveled over a hundred war torn miles, primarily on foot, to perform his brit milah. When his son was born in the nineteen-seventies, the Soviet regime prohibited circumcision, like the Greeks, Romans, Spaniards and Nazis before them. When the family arrived in the United States during the first big wave of Soviet Jewish emigration, the first thing they did, before finding work or a place to settle, was ensure that their three year old son was circumcised and entered into the brit.

At a bris I recently attended someone was enquiring why we, as modern and enlightened Jews, continue the seemingly antiquated body modification ritual of circumcision. After all the requisite jokes and innuendos, as well as citing virtues both medical and aesthetic, consensus was reached that we undoubtedly should continue, yet the general reasoning offered was intellectually unsatisfying. Reason aside, the suggestion of overturning the rite of circumcision struck me on a visceral level; this wasn’t a public admission of working on Saturday or a taste for Prosciutto, this was anarchy.

Many educated Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contended that circumcision was a vestige of clannishness that isolated us from enlightened society, so this person was far from the first Jew in history to question the validity of this act. Personally, I was used to fielding questions regarding the barbarity of circumcision from non-Jews. Since answering, “Because God told us to,” does not hold much weight in a secular argument, I typically reverted to touting the medical benefits, with the World Health Organization now in my corner, as well as religious freedom of expression. Arguing the point of circumcision is sanitation or a reduction in sexually transmitted diseases is like claiming the origin of kashrut is a precautionary measure against trichinosis and bad oysters. It may be a fortuitous side-affect that makes us say, “See how smart and prescient we are!” but it certainly misses the point. If we are not backed up by the central idea of the Torah, that God and Jews are connected through a covenantal relationship, our cultural markers, both real and imagined, will fizzle out completely in a few generations. Circumcision is about the covenant between us and God and, without honoring our side of the bargain, there is no covenant. Without a covenant, no Jews.

Throughout our history, circumcision has been a mark of the Jewish will to survive, its discontinuation a signal of assimilation. During the Babylonian exile, circumcision, Shabbat and Passover became the central rituals of Judaism as you can observe these in the home, without a Temple, without a high priest, heck, without even a rabbi. Unlike Shabbat, circumcision is not an innovation of Judaism. It was prevalent in the ancient Near East and performed by the majority of neighboring tribes, excluding the Philistines. It is still practiced by diverse cultures throughout the world. Muslims do it, Coptic Christians do it, even some Pacific Islanders and isolated Aborigines do it. There are three central anthropological approaches to the rite of circumcision: predominantly, as a sexual male rite of passage from childhood into adulthood; second, for those with a psychoanalytical bent, as an expression of the fear of castration; or, in our case, as a rite of child initiation, the initial male experience which a newborn undergoes. Shifting the practice away from adolescence – the predominant practice in Abraham’s time – and into infancy reposits the emphasis from sexual to spiritual.

Judaism does not neglect ascribing sexual meaning to act of circumcision. In his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides states that one of the goals of circumcision is to limit sexual intercourse, to weaken the organ as far as possible and thus cause man to be moderate. What’s a plus for Maimonides is a minus for those with different priorities. I had an acting teacher, not Jewish, who was still harboring resentment against his parents forty-some years later for circumcising him and potentially reducing his coital pleasure. Scientific research supports both sides of the debate, with most stating little or no effect on enjoyment. Having read my share of Philip Roth, I am really not too concerned about the satisfaction or the sexual repleteness of the Jewish male.

Circumcision functions to perfect man’s moral shortcomings not, as Maimonides suggests, by physically counteracting excessive lust but by acting as a mnemonic device, a spiritual prophylactic. Like the mezuzah, tallit and tefillin, obeying one commandment functions as a synecdoche of all the miztvot. The rabbis assert that circumcision is a reminder of self-control at the very root of sin and tell a midrash of King David at the bathhouse, stripped of all religious accoutrements but guarded from sinning by the seal of God’s covenant in his flesh; circumcision as a last minute warning before leaping into sexual sin. Although Rashi claims that Joseph was on the verge of succumbing to Mrs. Potiphar until the image of Jacob appeared before him, I like to think the sign of the covenant was his buzz kill.

Sexual abandon implies abandonment of morals, not just inhibitions. Sexual urges unchecked, or played outside of the contained environment of a healthy relationship, produce loss of self-control. In a culture that rarely leaves anything to the imagination, the control symbolized by circumcision might feel overly restricting or unfairly limiting. Let’s face it, Judaism is all about control, regulating the divide between the sacred and the profane. Not ignoring the yatzer ha’ra – or we would have a celibate class – but channeling it purposefully. Sometimes we feel the fences may be too high or, in the case of the fundamentalist strains of our religion, lack adequate ingress and egress or fail to provide healthy ventilation, but they are there to create boundaries and order in the universe. The commandment to circumcise and the promise that the covenant will continue through Isaac’s progeny follows the blessing of Ishamael to be a wild ass of a man. The inheritors of God’s law are different, not wild, but tame and lawful. We are to evolve beyond our natural state and submit to a higher ideal than survival and base urges.

Circumcision is Abraham and his descendant’s role in the covenant that enables the promise of fertility, of continuation to this very day. The Hebrew term “orlah/foreskin” represents an obstacle to the proper functioning of an organ: Moses calls his stutter the foreskin on his lips, the Israelites in the desert are asked to remove the foreskin of their hearts, Jeremiah’s audience is unable to receive his prophetic message because of the foreskin on their ears. If circumcision and continuation are inextricably linked then, symbolically, the male foreskin is an impediment to God’s plan for us to be a nation apart, to be partners in God’s work. The act obtains its value not from the physical operation but the meaning and feeling behind it.

Other than diminished sexual pleasure, detractors argue for leaving the body how it is. Asked, “If circumcision is so beloved of God, why was the mark of circumcision not given to Adam at his creation?” Rabbi Judah responded, “Almost everything that was created during the six days of creation needs finishing – even man.” A Roman governor asked Rabbi Akiva why Jews are circumcised. He replied that the works of humans are more beautiful than those of God, and compared the respective beauty of loaves of bread to ears of grain, woven garments to stalks of flax. God gives us the raw materials, it is up to us to make something of them. We are partners with God in creation, entrusted with perfecting the world in which God created us. The world was created in seven days, on the eighth day we take over.

When God appears to Abraham in a vision and promises him the land he asks, “O Lord God, how shall I know I am to possess it?” God answers by requesting a series of sacrifices that mirror a royal land-grant treaty. In it, the sacrifices are cut in two – the first brit in this parsha. Cutting animals in Mesopotamian sources warned that the violator of the treaty would be sliced in half, as criminals were. More metaphorically, those who violate a promise are cut in two emotionally: the half that broke the promise and the half that wishes they never did. By not cutting in good faith, one is cut off from the covenant, the land and the people.

In the covenant with Noah God asks nothing of man. With Abraham going forth, humanity is now ready for a reciprocal partnership and God needs a piece of us to make the covenant manifest. It has to be something dramatic and permanent, but something we ultimately do not need to function properly and healthily. Unlike body modification rituals in other cultures, with tattooing on the lower end of the pain scale on a litany of initiation rites too gruesome even to mention, the emphasis is not on proving faith by withstanding pain. Religious debates and medical studies disagree as to the degree of pain felt by a newborn, pain is an unfortunate side-affect, not the central part of the experience. There is no Talmudic objection should parents wish for a local anesthetic, although it is usually not required as a mohel’s extensive training focuses on exactness, speed and minimizing pain. It is heartbreaking listening to cries during routine shots, yet most parents do not hesitate to vaccinate their children since the pain of a needle is much less than the pain of tuberculosis. If I ever have a son I am sure I will be a bloody wreck at his bris, despite anecdotal evidence of babies who barely peep. Like hundreds of generations before me, I will steel myself knowing this spiritual vaccination is the portal through which my child joins an everlasting covenant.

On the subject of children, the birth of Isaac, through whom God’s part in the pact manifests, is foretold in conjunction with the commandment for circumcision. Although Isaac himself has not yet appeared, let’s flash forward to the akedah. The ambiguity of Abraham’s struggle between religious faith and parental love is a topic for next week; today, I am going to propose that Abraham was testing God as much as God was testing him. In Lech Lecha, God promises to make him a mighty nation through this son, in Vayera God sets the ultimate trial because showing is stronger than telling. The outcome of the sacrifice of Isaac is the proof in the covenantal pudding that God is not going to exact an additional price in worship, other than the one to which both parties agreed. To a certain extent, Jewish circumcision replaces the cult of human sacrifice. When your son's foreskin is removed, you should be thanking God that this is all the sacrifice that is demanded.

I think part of what makes circumcision’s detractors vehement is the involvement of blood. Despite our culture’s predilection for violent entertainment and our willingness to go under the knife merely for cosmetic purposes, the notion that blood is the key element in a holy act is anathema to the modern age – it sounds a bit like voodoo. With all our technological and medical progress, we like to dismiss anything that taps into our primal nature as outmoded, a connection which we fancy we have outgrown, as if something primitive holds no truth, or that its truth is somehow embarrassing. An atheist can view blood from merely a scientific perspective, but for those who believe that there is more to life than the syntax of things know in their hearts that the blood in our veins does more than just carry around oxygen and nutrients and remove waste. For the poets and the pious, blood is the ultimate mystical substance and most religious systems acknowledge this. From the sacrifices and Temple purification rituals we no longer perform to family purity laws and not consuming animal blood that we still practice, these rites focus on blood, the essence of life. Even Christianity which, borrowing our bible, overturned all of these practices, recognized the crucial mystical power of blood rituals and placed the Eucharist and the blood of Christ at the center of their faith. The metaphysical importance of blood is summed up simply by Joss Whedon, “It has always got to be blood. Blood is life. It’s what keeps you going. Makes you warm. Makes you hard. Makes you not dead.” Blood brothers, blood oath, signing in blood – these put your heart where your mouth is, open your soul, and seal an unbreakable deal.

A final objection brought up by the provocateur behind this drash was that the exclusion of women was another indication of circumcision’s obsoleteness and, with this, the topic of female circumcision was broached. Frankly, I find the lack of female circumcision in Judaism an expression of divine kindness rather than exclusion. Unlike the male counterpart which, as surgical procedures go, is quite minor and definitely outpatient, female circumcision is excruciating, without any medical benefits and destroys sexual pleasure.

I am sure patriarchy has something to do with this omission, though perhaps not inasmuch that women do not count but in the sense that women do not require a visible sign of the covenant, whether because of the old chestnut that we are closer to God or, staying in the home, we are not in a position necessary to prove it to outsiders. The tangential inclusion via God blessing Sarah so that she shall give rise to nations implies that women enter a covenant through childbirth – a far more bloody affair than circumcision. This would exclude women unable or uninterested in having children and, although childbirth was one of the most spiritual and certainly the most primal experience I have undergone, I can not subscribe to the idea of women as vessels who are only fulfilled and tied to God through their reproductive capacity.

For those who find matrilineal descent or that we all stood at Sinai is not enough, or find the notion that women were keepers of hearth and home anachronistic or offensive, I think creating equality by doing away with male circumcision is not the answer, but rather creating a meaningful ritual that emulates the power, mystery and sentiment of the brit milah, the ultimate expression of our faith in God. When our daughter was born, it was of paramount importance that we held a brit bat for her – not just a naming or a simchat bat, since our joy was not a substitute for entering our child into a covenant, for committing her to the faith of Sarah and Abraham and into a relationship with God.



Blogger Joe Armetta said...

This is an excellent analytical look as to why circumcision is God’s chosen sign of the covenant. I have had the question in my mind- “Why there?” What purpose will it serve to have a “mark” of a covenant in an area where no one else can witness? After reading your analysis, the understanding that it is a sign between the man and his God is one that I agree upon. After all else is removed, the man still bears the mark of THE primary responsibility of honoring God’s commands. As a Christian, this is further supported by Paul’s words that that sexual sin as a sin against God, Himself (1 Cor. 6). Thank you for your words.

9:58 AM  

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