Penis Ennui–Bridled Male Power/Why Hebrews Circumcised

     I am the only person I know to have fainted at a brit milah, the ceremonial religious cutting of an eight-day-old Jewish boy’s foreskin. I was among colleagues from Akiba Hebrew Academy just west of Philadelphia, at the home of my friend, Rabbi Steve Stroiman and his wife, Lucy. We were standing, facing living room windows on a very bright and crisp fall, mid-1970s morning; their newborn, Danny was held high in one hand by the mohel as he, Steve, and Lucy chanted a prayer. As the mohel raised his other hand, his knife glinting in the sunlight, I went down. Only the grace of another guest, who swiftly moved a folding chair beneath me, prevented me from smacking my face to the floor. She tells me she patted my cheeks and gave me a little brandy to bring me around. By way of introducing this piece, I feel duty-bound to admit that the only ritual circumcision encounter I recall didn’t go so well.

     I once shared here my hope that Congress would pass the proposed “Girls Protection Act,” to make it harder for families to spirit girls living here overseas to perform genital mutilation in accordance with ancient custom. It now appears that there’s an equally strong, if as yet localized push (in California), to outlaw ritual and non-ritual male circumcision. Activists in the movement—they call themselves “intactivists”—argue that regardless of religious or cultural dictates, the practice is nothing more than genital mutilation and must be banned.


     According to a New York Times article by Jennifer Medina, a group in San Francisco has already garnered 7,100 signatures, more than the required number to get the issue to ballot in November 2012. Santa Monica is considering a similar move. The measure would “make it illegal to snip the foreskin of a minor within city limits.” The law would criminalize a common practice, and not only among Jews and Muslims, for whom the ritual is sacred. The author of the two proposed laws, Matthew Hess of San Diego, says he intends to push his proposals well beyond his home state.

     Ms. Medina notes that the movement has alarmed the Jewish community throughout the country. The concern among Jews is that circumcision is intertwined with religious bigotry. In ancient times, circumcision was banned; in the 20th century, it was used to identify and remove Jews from the general population by both the Czar’s armies and, more recently by Hitler’s S.S.

     The article further notes that circumcision is now performed on between thirty and fifty percent of male babies in the United States; most medical groups take no position on the practice, except to agree that there is no evidence of harm as a general rule.

     If a ban were approved in either or both cities, the Supreme Court would be called upon to weigh in on the political, religious, legal and social (not to mention philosophical and medical) complexities that the issue represents. This would not be that body’s first foray into ruling whether religious practices may be socially unacceptable. The Supreme Court tackled the issue of polygamy in 1878 in Reynolds v. US. In its decision, the Court noted that not every action stemming from religious beliefs qualified for First Amendment protection. To make its case, it used as an example the possibility of human sacrifice: however sincere were the beliefs of the practitioners, the practice clearly would subvert public order.

     Mr. Hess and his supporters argue that the ruling applies to circumcision: society must see it as harmful both to the social order and to millions of individual boys, as we view female genital mutilation. His motivations may be more complicated, however; he is the publisher of Foreskin Man, an online comic book featuring a “superhero” who does battle with a variety of visual Orthodox-looking stereotypes that theAmerican Anit-Defamation League has denounced “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery.”

     Regardless of whether bias is involved, I don’t hold with a ban on circumcision. My reasons might surprise you.

     Female genital mutilation and male circumcision are fundamentally different, not only because one has been shown to have many ill effects on the lives of girls and women and the other has never been shown to be harmful to boys and men. The fact is that female genital mutilation appears to be, everywhere it occurs, less a matter of any religious commitment than a cultural practice designed to keep women subservient.Nowhere do its practitioners make even a pretense of religious compulsion. And that matters to me, because while I am not religious myself, I do respect a practice more—particularly a harmless one—if it is done to honor precepts more enduring and honorable than the refrain, “this is the way we’ve always done it.”

     Moreover, for many years I have wondered why my ancient Hebrew clans chose brit milah, circumcision, as the definitive sign of attachment to and loyalty to the One. There needn’t have been any physical mark to distinguish Hebrews from all the other nations competing for land and power in the ancient Near East. But what many Hebrews believed (and many Jews today believe) was that the circumcision was a Divine Edict, ordered in order to signify a special bond.

     Why the male? My theory: to tame him.

     Before, say, 9,000 to 11,000 years ago, worship seemed to center on the earth goddess. Birth, the act of carrying a child and giving birth, was seen as supremely powerful: Creation Itself, replicating over and again everything that is. Women possessed fecundity, an awesome power, perhaps the most regularly-occurring awesome power known. Earth goddesses, we know, were often visualized as pregnant.

     Gradually, men became aware of their role in creating new life, their part in producing progeny. A shift in power occurred. Men were larger, possessing superior strength, particularly in numbers. They began to worship male gods like Zeus, all powerful, all-controlling of even their goddesses and certainly capable of great violence. The new order was male; it was about strength and force and subjugation.

     The ritual of circumcision served as at least a symbolic check  on male power: it was the first known acknowledgement by men that there is a presence more powerful than male group power. Circumcision became a foundational admission by men that their own very potent force must be sublimated to a higher Truth in order for society to be Just. This is hardly, of course, to suggest that the Hebrew clans always acted justly (or that their descendants always behave justly today). It is to say that somehow the ancient Hebrew clans separated themselves from other ancient Near East tribes by announcing in brit milah that unbridled male power never can result in a just world, and only in living by a code not considered wholly made by them could Justice possibly flourish and endure.

     Honoring an Ideal that is greater than we are is what circumcision is about. We would do well to think long and hard about upending a practice that recognizes the horrors of male rule untethered to any higher moral authority.

Note:  Since this was originally published (Does This Make Sense) the courts and the voters have rejected the bans in California.