For the vast majority of my life, I never even considered questioning the ethics of male circumcision. When something is so ingrained in one’s culture, it seems strange to question it. And I’m not referring to the fact that the United States has a circumcision rate of 75%. Growing up in a Jewish community, in a Jewish family, with only Jewish friends (that is, until I entered high school), 100% of the boys and men I knew were circumcised. It was simply a part of one’s identity.
But as I grew up and met men who weren’t circumcised, and as I became more interested and knowledgeable in feminist and liberal discourse, I began to wonder why Jews cling to this particular ritual in the way that we do. I can’t truthfully call myself an observant Jew – I don’t attend synagogue and I eat ham, use electricity on the Sabbath and celebrate Christmas with my fiancé’s family – but Judaism is an intrinsic aspect of my identity and culture. And, for many Jewish families, circumcision is the ultimate embodiment of that intrinsic identity, a ritual not easy to dismiss, even for progressive Jews. So why is circumcision different from all other Jewish rituals? What has made circumcision a fundamental attribute of being a Jewish male, rather than a product of practicing Judaism? And is ritual circumcision compatible with feminism?
Let’s start at the beginning. The Torah teaches that Abraham and his followers circumcised themselves as a physical manifestation of Abraham’s covenant with G-d. And in order to preserve that covenant – to make sure that the Jewish people would always be united – G-d commanded that every male descendant of Abraham be circumcised as well. (In Hebrew, the covenant is known as brit milah.) So right from the beginning, we understand that circumcision is about membership. It’s about belonging to a single culture and knowing that, throughout history and across all denominations of the religion, this one particular signifier of membership will always be consistent.
But that can’t be all, can it? After all, if a child is born to a Jewish mother, that child is already a part of the Jewish faith. Is family not enough to validate one’s membership in a group?
Dana Goldstein of The American Prospect offers another perspective:
But there’s also a deep emotional tie to circumcision; a feeling of pride that Jews are physically marked as such — that a Jewish man can never totally escape his Jewishness, because it is inscribed on his body through circumcision. During the Holocaust, this was one way in which Jews were identified by the Nazis. We Jews are rightfully attached to that history. One of my friends, who is studying to become a rabbi, recently told me he considers circumcision the single most important Jewish religious obligation.
Goldstein’s sentiment makes sense to me. It reminds me of a conversation I once had with my mother, in which she said that Judaism is an innate part of one’s identity. If you are born a Jew, you will always be one, regardless of what rituals you observe or whether or not you believe in G-d. And nothing expresses that message better than circumcision. Having a physical marking like that — something that stays with you though every stage of life and every personal transformation — grounds you to your heritage. So it makes sense, when one thinks about it from Goldstein’s point of view, that brit milah is still widely practiced and considered to be a critical rite of passage for Jewish boys.
But none of that answers the other question — Is ritual circumcision compatible with feminism? I’m not so sure that it is. After all, isn’t bodily autonomy a fundamental tenet of feminism? Brit milah takes place when a Jewish boy is only eight days old; it is impossible to argue that babies can consent to circumcision. By the time a boy is old enough to comprehend the concept of circumcision and its significance (religious or otherwise), his decision has long been made. To protect the bodily autonomy of baby boys, some progressive Jews have developed the tradition of brit shalom — essentially, the ceremony of welcoming the child into the Jewish faith without actually conducting a circumcision. And though the normalcy of circumcision is so much a part of my culture and upbringing, the idea of a brit shalom does make me feel relieved in some ways. After all, if I believe that my choices regarding my own body should be made by me alone, shouldn’t that be true across the board, for all people, regardless of gender? It makes it hard for me to reconcile circumcision from a truly feminist viewpoint.
And there’s another reason why ritual male circumcision and feminism don’t quite mesh — there is no directly equivalent ceremony for girls. A ceremony geared toward girls — simchat bat — in which the baby is welcomed into the faith and officially given a Hebrew name, is now practiced in most denominations of Judaism. Often the name is related to the name of a relative who has passed away, providing an important intergenerational familial link. But there’s a difference between a name — something that one can change, hide or ignore — and a physical marking that can never be undone. (And, by the way, Jewish boys are given Hebrew names as well, as part of the brit milah ceremony, so naming is not a tradition unique to girls in Judaism.)
Now, I’m certainly not implying that baby girls should be circumcised or in any way bodily altered or mutilated as a cultural initiation into Judaism. I would never support such a thing. But, at the same time, it does feel like an inequity that Jewish men have this permanent manifestation of their faith that Jewish women simply don’t have. It’s almost as if brit milah makes Jewish men more Jewish than Jewish women can ever be. And I know, in reality, that such a belief isn’t true. Many Jewish denominations treat men and women completely equally. But I can’t help but think that there is a certain degree of sexism behind brit milah, even if a directly equivalent ritual for girls isn’t necessarily a good idea.
For so long, I never questioned circumcision. And now, all I have are questions. If I had a son, would I circumcise him? Would I hold a brit shalom for him, allowing him the option to decide for himself whether or not to be circumcised at an older age? And how would I respect my daughter’s bodily autonomy while still making her feel like she has a place in Judaism, equal to the place of any man?
None of these are easy questions to answer. But I’m glad I’m finally considering them.
This article is a part of GAB’s Circumcision Series.