Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power


"Isaac's Circumcision," as depicted in the Regensburg Pentateuch, Germany, c. 1300. Credit: Creative Commons/

Circumcision is seen as the central mitzvah (or commandment) of Judaism. Even for nonreligious Jews, circumcision continues to be perceived as the sine qua non of Jewish identity. And yet, unlike any other controversial topic that we Jews address, the subject of circumcision is not to be challenged. We can calmly discuss whether there is a G-d or no G-d, if G-d is masculine, feminine, or neuter, or whether homosexuals should become rabbis. Yet, questioning circumcision has been out of bounds. This taboo, in and of itself, is indicative of how strong the feelings are that surround this ancient rite, and how much lies below the surface, in the dark silence, where powerful forces have coalesced for thousands of years.

In order to attempt to understand the role of circumcision in Judaism, we need to explore not simply the biblical injunction found in Genesis 17:10-12. We are also obliged to focus on the functions that male genital cutting serves — socially, politically, psychologically, and individually — in order to see what and whose invisible needs are being fulfilled. Some of this information comes to us from scholarship; some can only be derived by examining the more subtle ramifications that result from the permanent alteration of male sexual organs.

Circumcision is hardly unique to Judaism. However, two elements distinguish the Jewish version of male genital cutting. First, in Judaism circumcision is expressed as the divine mandate, which seals and perpetuates the covenant, G-d’s contractual and eternal relationship, with the Jewish people. Second, it is commanded to occur on the eighth day of the baby boy’s life. Other than these unique identifiers, circumcision in Judaism shares much with rites of circumcision in other societies.

What I intend to do here is to show that cutting out a portion of a child’s genitalia is fundamentally about gender and power. This is true whether the mandate is divine, tribal, secular, or pseudo-medical, and it pertains to little girls as well as little boys.

For those of us who have grown up with the normalcy of newborn male circumcision, this may seem like a bold, perhaps even outrageous statement. As Karen Ericksen Paige and Jeffrey M. Paige state in their book, The Politics of Reproductive Ritual, of the many theories advanced that attempt to explain the function of reproductive ritual, all agree that “the purposes of ritual are seldom if ever the object of conscious knowledge.”

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For the past twenty years, Miriam Pollack, member of a Conservative Synagogue, has been advocating, locally and internationally, for intactivism. She is founder/director of the Literacy & Language Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Source Citation

Pollack, Miriam. 2011. Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power. Tikkun 26(3).

tags: Gender & Sexuality, Judaism, Rethinking Religion   
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11 Responses to Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power

  1. Sigismond (MH Navoiseau-Bertaux) July 7, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Excellent, very witty article that introduces us to these:

    “Sexual mutilation and the moral order”

    “Abraham against circumcision, a formidable Biblical breakthrough”

    * * * * * “Thou shalt not circumcise.”, the abolition of circumcision by the Second Commandment”

    “A new Biblical breakthrough: Moses’s son forcibly circumcised against his father’s will”

    Thanks, Miriam.

  2. m3writer July 16, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    While I appreciate the compliments, I am not at all sure that the above referenced articles are credible. When dealing with this subject, it is extremely important to stay with the facts.–Miriam Pollack

  3. A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision July 17, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Miriam Pollack’s article is long overdue, and hopefully will encourage others to expand on her ideas.

    Lately, Jewish Intactivists have been more active than usual. The SF circumcision referendum seems to have broken the silence on this issue.

    The Other Side Of The Circumcision Debate by Ronald Goldman, PhD.

    The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective by Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

    Jewish Journal: Circumcision critic has Board links

    Time to Ban Male Circumcision? (Op-Ed, Guardian Law, 14 June 2011)
    Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld

    To the Mohel Who Cut Me by Shea Levy

    On Circumcision, Authority and the Perpetuation of Abuse by Jonathan Friedman

  4. A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision July 20, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny: How Judaic is the circumcision?

    Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision – A Movie by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

    Ending Circumcision in the Jewish Community? by Moshe Rothenberg, MSW

    Being rational about circumcision and Jewish observance by Moshe Rothenberg, MSW

    Dr Leonard Glick explains how he came to write Marked In Your Flesh

  5. A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision July 20, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    “Mutilation of the divinely made human body is as far from Judaism as anything could be. Even criminals are not mutilated, and the law limits the number of lashes to avoid permanent damage. Judaism objects to cuts made in grievance, and loathe spilling human blood.”

    - Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny, How Judaic is the circumcision?

    “It seems to me that for liberal Jews the choice comes down to this. Do we want to in some way circumscribe the sexual possibilities of our sons by performing a body modification when they are infants so as to bear witness to the covenant? Are there not other ways to bear witness? Are there not other ways to maintain our distinctiveness from the society around us? Despite having circumcised my two sons, the more I think about the issue, the more likely – were I a resident of San Francisco – I would support the referendum.”

    - Sandford Borins, Ph.D., The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective

  6. A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision July 31, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Jewish Voices: The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    Jewish Voices: The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2

    Some Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors

  7. Darren August 5, 2011 at 10:58 am

    This is a debate that will go on forever, when I was a kid, circumcision was a lot more common than it is now. Even though circumcision is probably more uncommon than common these days, I still had my young three-year-old circumcised when he was a baby. The argument for both sides seem compelling, I think it comes down to parental choice and everybody rights should be respected

  8. m3writer August 5, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    What about the baby’s rights? Circumcision destroys forever the most erotic tissue on that little baby boys’ body. Yes, sex can still be pleasurable, but the nerves that tell a man where he is in the climb to orgasm, the nuanced control involved as climax is approaching are gone. Pre-mature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction are much more common in circumcised men, than intact men.

  9. A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision August 9, 2011 at 1:24 am

    Jews are finally starting to question circumcision in the mainstream. It is good to see the conversation starting.

    Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews? By Eli Ungar-Sargon

    Brit Shalom Celebrants by Dr. Reiss

    Brit without Milah

    Kahal – Intact Jews in Israel

    Jews for the Rights of the Child

  10. Pingback: “Circoncision : identité, genre et pouvoir”, un passionnant article de Miriam Pollack » Savoir ou se faire avoir

  11. Flora April 1, 2015 at 9:12 am

    I discovered Humanistic Judaism just days ago and it feels like home! I’m so proud of being Jewish, but am also – with much thuoght & reading – an Atheist so the Jewish religious groups while interesting & welcoming haven’t been quite the right place for me. I’m thrilled there’s groups in the UK and am looking into setting-up one in my area. Big thanks to everyone involved here.

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