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