Monday, July 11, 2011

Circumcision Circumscribed

The San Francisco initiative to ban circumcision has been lauded by many within the liberal Jewish community as forward thinking and has gained enough legitimacy that it has been promoted in the Forward (July 10, 2011). Ironically these foreskin advocates are reminiscent of the Neanderthals who needed that protective sheath in order to maintain the integrity of their glans when roaming through the wilds, foraging and hunting in their state of nakedness. It seems we’ve come a long way, or have we? Perhaps we have and we long for the days when men were real men. Making believe we are hunters again by driving a SUV just doesn’t cut it—neither does cutting foreskin. The San Francisco initiative also brings to mind the Hellenized Jews of the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE of which the Macabees fought against and prevailed. At least one could argue, that the Hellenized Jews had a feeble excuse in that their initiative to mimic the Greeks (by avoiding Periah—removal of prepuce) predated normative Judaism. Judaism was in a flux, and although the mitzvah of milah (circumcision) was crystal clear, normative Judaism as it came down to us through the pharisaic/rabbinic tradition was only in its infancy.

There are Jews in America who have done whatever possible to undermine normative Judaism from declaring the legitimacy of patrilineal descent in defining the religious pedigree of offspring to lobbying for the deligitimization of circumcision that has been the sine qua non of the male rite of passage into the tribal fold; an inviolable fundamental right and rite of the Jewish community. If an individual seeks not to circumcise that ought to be his individual right; the male child still considered a member of the tribe. But the tribe has its rites and rights of self-definition and determination. It is because we have exercised these rites for thousands of years in spite of adverse conditions, we have forged a mighty character that has served us well.

Jews have survived and thrived with our unique customs and laws. Oddly enough, it’s those Jews that have clung to their traditions are the ones who ultimately thrived and survived. The ones that sought to undergo Hellenization are the ones who disappeared. Assimilation is nothing new to us. We have experienced break off groups over the centuries that, because of their interpretation (or lack there of) have ultimately become cults, splintering off from the corpus of the Jewish people. We are small, tough, nimble and we are rather selective of who we admit, and because of that we have prevailed. For many of us traditional Jews, the idea of eating meat while downing a glass of milk is absolutely nauseating. The idea of having sex with a foreskin intact is equally nauseating (so I’ve been told). As in all societies there are taboos and in ours, male foreskin happens to be one of those taboos. If you don’t like it, you may choose not to follow. But do not try to ruin it for the preponderant community of Jews (regardless of denomination) that subscribe to normative Judaism and the taboos that it engenders.

This dastardly, narcissistic and self-serving attempt to rationalize the banning of circumcision by siting Mishnaic/Talmudic sources that the sages themselves weren’t certain as to what truly constitutes circumcision; milah (circumcision) with or without periah (removing the prepuce) is disingenuous. It reminds me of the old Yiddish expression “chazir fissel kosher,” the pig presents himself as kosher because he has split hoofs! The bottom line is, just as the pig doesn’t chew its cud and therefore not kosher, milah without periah isn’t milah. The interpretive guidelines of the sages are precisely what makes and defines normative Judaism. To negate that is to negate the basic, core fundamental structure of normative Judaism. It is those interpretive guidelines that have formed the Jewish laws and customs to which we subscribe to collectively, as a people, even though individuals may opt to not observe them. Thus, a kosher household isn’t one that follows the dietary laws of the Pentateuch, for that kind of household would be deemed non kosher by normative Judaism. A household that follows the dietary laws as defined by the sages and rabbis over thousands of years has become the gold standard, with perhaps variation as a result of technology and cultural modifications.

Similarly the Biblical injunction “An Eye for an Eye” if followed literally would mean that we would behave barbarously toward our adversaries rather than solving disputes by rule of law, as our tradition requires. That rule of law is embedded in the wisdom of the sages who ultimately fashioned for future generations normative Judaism. Without their wisdom we would understand justice as poking out eyes (probably how the uncircumcised Neanderthal settled disputes), sitting in the dark on Shabbat, witch hunting and “killing non-believers in your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:12-16). Periah too falls into the very same line of reasoning. If you accept the wisdom of the sages in interpreting our laws then how can you cut out the law of periah that defines authentic and proper milah?

On second thought, these enlightened Jews may have it right. As some Hellenized Jews opted for a painful procedure of covering the glans, mimicking a foreskin and/or avoiding circumcision altogether then maybe we could do the same. Perhaps America’s talented plastic surgeons can do a reverse “circumcision plasti.” It isn’t so unreasonable. If plastic surgeons have developed the famed and sought after “vaginal plasti,” why not a “glans plasti” making us men again, real men who can hunt and fish just like our Neanderthal ancestors who preferred poking out an eye rather than resorting to the sophistication of a justice system.