Incision and Gender

Man who … has a monopoly on the symbolic, has given no thought to his body or his flesh. —Luce Irigary

The uproar over San Francisco’s proposed ban on circumcision has largely died down since a judge struck the measure from the city’s ballot, but the national conversation is far from over. Indeed, just this week, the American Medical Association voted to adopt a policy officially opposing any future attempts by cities or states to outlaw circumcision.

A rabbi presides over a bris. Credit: Creative Commons/Vatsnews.

One fortunate result of this controversy is the resurgence of dialogue about this tradition and its meaning in contemporary society. Arguments have been put forward that this practice should be abandoned by Jews; Miriam Pollack argued in Tikkun that Maimonides’ posited explanation for the practice — that it may weaken sexual desire — is one of many reasons to cease inflicting circumcision on infants, and described it as a “rite of male domination” and “the essence of patriarchy.” Others have also argued that the male nature of this custom is a sign of the patriarchal nature of Jewish society. But can we view circumcision instead as an act of protest against Western gender roles and preconceptions?

It is well known that brit milah (the covenant of circumcision) is a defining characteristic of “being Jewish.” Martyrdom in defense of this commandment is something all Jewish day school students learn from childhood; the holiday of Hanukkah is a commemoration of the resistance to Hellenistic edicts that included a ban on circumcision. The Talmud compares the value of keeping this commandment as being equal to all the other commandments in the Torah, and in fact, legally, the need to perform circumcision outweighs the Sabbath. While Maimonides did suggest one “rational” explanation for milah as being a means to curb sexual desire, consistent with the medieval worldview of holiness as achieving asceticism, his alternative explanation, which he himself deems “equal to or more important than the first” is that it is a sign, a bond that connects those who carry that inscription on their bodies. It is certainly that latter reasoning which resonated with Jews through the centuries.

One can argue that the past is not enough of an argument to justify carrying ritual practice forward. To suggest more contemporary meanings it is perhaps best to review the texts and readings behind brit milah. The origin of this Abrahamic practice is the command narrated to Abraham and his male offspring in the bible (Genesis 17:10-14); for this reason the custom is practiced both by male Jews and Muslims. From a Jewish traditional perspective, however, it is not the epic sections of the text that validate commandments, but their restatement in the halachic (legal) texts that make the practice normative. This verse is found in Leviticus 12:3: “And on the eighth day shall the flesh of the foreskin be circumcised.”

From this verse, many of the laws regarding milah are derived, such as the ones declaring that milah overrides the Sabbath. Curiously, this law is not situated among the seemingly more central laws concerning the Jewish male life cycle; rather it is mentioned almost as a footnote to laws dealing with the woman’s ritual status after childbirth. This is noted early on by the midrashists and textual commentators. The midrash rabba on this passage begins by describing how Man and Woman were initially created as one organism and then separated, and then moves on to tie the seven days of the nidah (the menstrual period) with the eight days of milah. This operation of comparing milah to nidah is done multiple times in the Talmud, including parallel responses to outside oppressors who tried to ban either milah or nidah. The one divergence from these parallels is of interest in attempting to peg the early rabbis in terms of their views on women: while we are told of serious lapses with regard to male circumcision at the time of the exodus from Egypt, to the point where Moses himself was almost punished for his failure with milah, the rabbis of the midrash proclaim that the women were at a higher spiritual level than the men. For example, women didn’t sin during the golden calf episode, and were more eager to receive the Torah at Sinai. As a reward for this, they are said not to have needed to menstruate throughout the sojourn in the desert. It is worth noting that, according to the midrashists, while all men twenty-one or older died in the desert prior to entering the land, none of the women died so they all entered the land.

The mystical writers took these texts to a rather stunning conclusion. Already in the early text known as the Bahir, it is written that “milah and its partner/spouse are considered as one.” The Zohar goes further with this idea, explaining that the milah is the completion of the male—by the addition (or revealing) of the female letter “heh.” So just as Abram’s name is completed to Abraham after the circumcision by the addition of the letter “heh,” so is it with every circumcised male, that circumcision marks the male with the female attribute, as it were, of the Godhead. Furthermore, the choice of the eighth day for the

The Gottingen City Museum in Germany displays traditional brit milah instruments. Credit: Creative Commons/Ingersoll.

ceremony is to unite the male attributes with the supernal female attribute, Binah, which is the female aspect, the divine Mother, as it referred to in the literature, which exists prior to creation, the pre-worldly aspect of the divine (repentance, incidentally, is also described as related to this attribute, as an idea that is beyond the normal limitations of this world).

If we may follow Joan Riviere and Judith Butler in stating that gender is not a fixed concept but one that is enacted through discourse and action, we might say that in the classical Jewish tradition, the female presence is inscribed upon the male, exactly at the point that otherwise, in Irigary’s description of male symbolic “morphology,” should most determine the gendered encoding of the individual. Instead of being seen as an act of empowerment of male hegemonic power, circumcision can be read as evocative of the female. It does so from a biological perspective (milah paralleling nidah) and more so with regard to a spiritual conception, where this mark of milah itself symbolizes the formal presence of the female as a refusal of unmediated male power as a gender construct, preferring to evoke a sense of gender unity or complementarity. Perhaps this explains why, in the midrash, the discussion of milah begins with a myth of the initial creation of human kind in a unified state, transcendent of gender differences. This myth needs to be remembered as we confront a society with more problematic approaches to gender.

(To read more opposing views on circumcision, click here.)


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