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Sacred Circumcision

Circumcision has become everyone’s favorite whipping boy lately, and I can understand why, when the only perspective offered is that of the hospital frog-in-a-dissection-lab experience. I can understand why, when obscure “studies” comparing men’s sexual experiences (which are entirely subjective and are probably completely devoid of religious Jews) are deemed credible. I can understand why, when circumcisions are performed in the hospital with the same finesse, care, and reverence as many other maternal-fetal medical procedures (in other words, abysmally). I can understand why, when there’s a misunderstanding as to its origin, evolution, and intent. This is why I am finally sharing my perspective, for those willing to learn more about this practice.


The Origin

Male circumcision is as ancient as the Hebrew people and is a practice performed since the first  patriarch, Abraham, and his entire household were commanded by God to do so (believed to be around 2000-1800 BCE).


“And God said to Abraham, "And you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and between your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and between you. And at the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations… And an uncircumcised male, who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin-that soul will be cut off from its people; he has broken My covenant." ~ Bereshit/Genesis 17:9-12 & 14

As outlined in the sacred texts, circumcision is not simply a ritualistic “to-do” to check off your list of righteousness. Circumcision, to those who keep the Torah or deeply value the Torah, is THE sign of THE Covenant — a solemn vow, an agreement, a firmly held promise — between the Divine Sovereign, Creator of the Universe, and Abraham’s descendants. It’s quite literally a “hey, I’ll recognize you and you’re children as the beneficiaries of the promises I’ve made through this identifiable mark (aka your men being circumcised as babies on the 8th day after birth).” And NOT circumcising your sons means you and your children are cut off from this identifiable group and therefore will no longer be a beneficiary along with them.


Before you possibly start reeling about a mean, vindictive God, remember: it’s not a punishment, but a logical consequence. If someone is running a program and the rules are “The families of those in blue shirts get Package A” but someone in the Blue group takes off their shirt, the natural consequence is that their family doesn’t get Package A. It’s a decision they’re making for their family, either way.


The Evolution

Around 175 BCE, the Hellenist, Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed Judaism,  including the rite of circumcision, punishable by death. Throughout the centuries, Judaism has seen persecution and genocide time and again (the Babylonian exile, during the Roman Empire’s rule, the many Crusades, the Damascus affair, with the Islamic rise to power in the Middle East, the Holocaust of WWII and international Nazi influence), even as recently as the 1980s in communist Russia, where accounts are told of KGB raids on Brit Milahs (the ceremony associated with circumcision; Brit “covenant”, Milah “cut”) and other Jewish rituals.


In ancient Greece, prior to Antiochus Ephiphanes’ ban on Judaism, Jewish men would often participate in the popular nude games of the arena, which “made this distinction obnoxious to the Hellenists, or anti-nationalists; and the consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins”)” via hooking small weights to the remaining foreskin in order to stretch the tissue. Because of this, the Rabbinical leadership “instituted the "peri'ah" (the laying bare of the glans)” (quotes by jewishencyclopedia.com) which is the aesthetic version of circumcision most are familiar with today, with the foreskin removed entirely.


The traditional ceremony is generally as follows, leaving room for variations between communities:

On the 8th day after birth (which, interestingly, is when vitamin K, which supports the liver in producing blood clotting factors, reaches its peak in newborns), preceded by a celebratory meal and preparatory study, the Brit Milah is held at home or in the synagogue. The baby is then given sugar water (or sometimes sweet wine), by suckling a soaked cloth, as a sedative, and the circumcision is swiftly performed by a Mohel (someone specifically trained in circumcision) while the father, a revered rabbi, or a relative holds the baby. After the rite, the baby’s name is revealed and he is returned to his mother. Blessings are spoken throughout the ceremony and celebrations follow. Healing usually takes approximately a week.


The Modern Intent

I have heard the proposal of postponing circumcision until the boys are old enough to consent to the — yes — permanent alteration of their bodies, and I can see the logic behind that idea. However, I have two responses to this:

  1. This proposal fails to address a significant piece of the command which is that it be carried out on the 8th day after the baby’s birth; and

  2. I believe the command of circumcision is also a trial of faith for the parents themselves, rather than simply a mark on one’s own body. Having had four boys and living hours away from the nearest mohel, I can attest to this trial firsthand. For my first son, we paid several hundred dollars to bring someone to us, and for my 3rd and 4th sons, we drove several hours across two states (with my 8-days-postpartum body), in addition to paying several hundred dollars (dollars we didn’t really have to spare), in order for this rite to be performed for our family. Each time, we exhausted all options to make it an easier feat, and occasionally we questioned our own dedication to this command, but, ultimately, NOT circumcising our sons on the 8th day was simply unacceptable in our minds.


In today’s modern world, the concept of maintaining an ancient religious rite at all costs is less and less respected, let alone understood. The fact remains, however, that the ritual of circumcision is one of the most sacred to the Jewish people, especially in a world where our holy temple has been destroyed and so many other commands remain out of reach because of it.


Some circumcision advocates cite research on penile cleanliness and statistics on likelihood of avoiding certain diseases. The studies on this that I’ve seen seem flimsy, though I haven’t exhausted all of them, by any means.


Conclusion

Before you deem all circumcision barbaric and evil, I’d like you to compare it to the perceptions of birth in today’s society. Many, if not most, people have only ever been exposed to the cold, chaotic, and high-intervention experience of hospital birth. These people often find it near impossible to envision birth as the holy, peaceful, and empowering experience it can be when done at home. This is the difference between rote, hospital circumcision and intentional, sacred circumcision. I urge everyone to do their own research and pray about their findings.


My personal opinion is that there is no reason (outside of legitimate medical complications) for anyone to circumcise their sons unless it is for a deep, spiritual purpose. If you are not Jewish, not trying to keep the sacred commandment in the Torah, or not otherwise feeling called by the Divine to do so, I simply don’t see a reason for it.


You may not agree with the rite, you may not agree with me, and you may not have changed your mind at all about circumcision; that’s fine. In the end, it’s up to the parental unit within a family to decide what they will choose for their sons, no matter which way you slice it.


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