Circumcision

By , June 28, 2010 7:19 pm

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha-milah. Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu lihach-neeso bivreito shel Avraham aveenu.

Blessed are You, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and has given us the command concerning circumcision. Blessed are You, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and hast commanded us to make our sons enter the covenant of Abraham our father. (Source)

Eight days after birth, Jewish boys are supposed to be circumcised as part of the covenant between God and Abraham (in Genesis), as specified in Leviticus. In this way, Jewish boys are supposed to continue the line of the Children of Israel, fulfilling the obligations and duties laid out for them in the Torah.

There are no required rituals or ceremonies to mark the birth of a girl.

Circumcision Tools

Snip snip!

What does that mean for me?

I was circumcised. I did not ask for the circumcision, the gender it carried as baggage, or to enter in any sort of covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but I was circumcised.

According to Jewish law, have I renounced that covenant by transitioning? If a circumcision is a ‘male’ ceremony, one which need not apply to those created from Adam’s rib, is my circumcision null and void by rejecting that male identity? Biblically, will that rejection only be complete if I go through with The Surgery?

All of this very much links back with my Ba(r/t) Mitzvah post, because the deeper I dig into Judaism the more frustrated I get with the historic, institutionalized, ritualized, ceremonialized, holy gender roles.

Take, for example, the following passage. It’s something I came across while doing some research for this post. From Being Jewish:

It is noteworthy that woman has no similar Commandment. Most things in the world were created before man, so that it would all be completed and ready for humanity’s use when we were created. Woman, however, was created after man. Thus, we find that woman was created at a higher level. Therefore, man needs woman to become complete, and until a man gets married, says the Talmud, he is not complete. Men are required by Jewish Law to get married. A man breaks a Commandment if he doesn’t get married, but women have no such requirement, and do not break the Commandment if they don’t.

Woman is the completion of man, but woman needs no completion herself.

That is why a woman says the blessing, each morning, “Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the universe, Who has made me according to His will.” Woman is made according to G-d’s will, but man is not! (For more about this, see my wife’s letter on this subject.) Man needs woman for completion, man needs circumcision for elevation, but woman needs nothing except what is within her, which was granted her by G-d. The man cannot say that G-d has made him according to G-d’s will. G-d’s will in this case is something that man must complete.

Circumcision Rates

Ah, the midwest. Corn. Farm girls. Circumcised cocks.

That’s pretty fucked up, both in terms of assigned gender roles and in how it highlights the absurdity of circumcision in the first place: how could man possibly not be made to God’s will? How else would man be made? It’s God’s will (apparently) that men go through self-mutilation of their genitals, but that doesn’t mean the foreskin is anti-God somehow. By the creation story (stories, actually) in Genesis, everything is made in and by God’s will.

More to my point, the above passage is a really odd interpretation of circumcision. Its author is saying that women are somehow more “complete” than man, and thus needs no direct covenant with God. Wouldn’t it be a simpler (and less ridiculous) reading of the Torah to say that, biblically, women just aren’t as important as men? So no covenant is needed, by virtue of no one caring what women think in the first place.

Awesome.

I emailed my mom and asked about my own circumcision, how and when it happened, and here’s what she had to say:

Wow!  What a weird question.  Yikes!  I so think of you as female that it’s hard to imagine circumcision for you.  Anywho….. in answer to your question, you were circumcised at the hospital.  I complained because they would not allow me to accompany you.  I couldn’t get out of bed when [older brother 1] was circumcised & [older brother 2] was 6 when he asked for it.  They said that’s how it’s done in the hospital-no parents allowed.  I couldn’t handle the idea of some old guy giving you wine & then using (what in my mind was) a dirty old knife. And your father would not even consider a home circumcision.  That’s the story.

Wow!  What a weird question.  Yikes!  I so think of you as female that it’s hard to imagine circumcision for you.  Anywho….. in answer to your question, you were circumcised at Evanston Hospital.  I complained because they would not allow me to accompany you.  I couldn’t get out of bed when Josh was circumcised & Charlie was 6 when he asked for it.  They said that’s how it’s done in the hospital-no parents allowed.  I couldn’t handle the idea of some old guy giving you wine & then using (what in my mind was) a dirty old knife. And your father would not even consider a home circumcision.  That’s the storWow!  What a weird question.  Yikes!  I so think of you as female that it’s hard to imagine circumcision for you.  Anywho….. in answer to your question, you were circumcised at Evanston Hospital.  I complained because they would not allow me to accompany you.  I couldn’t get out of bed when Josh was circumcised & Charlie was 6 when he asked for it.  They said that’s how it’s done in the hospital-no parents allowed.  I couldn’t handle the idea of some old guy giving you wine & then using (what in my mind was) a dirty old knife. And your father would not even consider a home circumcision.  That’s the story.y.

(Yes, her font of choice is Comic Sans. I apologize.)

So it sounds like my circumcision was somewhat religious, but was also done under the auspicious of the medical establishment.

The older I get, the more anti-circumcision I’ve become, at least if it’s done at birth. I don’t have a problem with an adult choosing, of their own free will, to get circumcised. I think it’s kind of silly, but I’m not against it. But I do have very real problems concerning at-birth circumcision, problems related to personal autonomy and the sanctity of one’s own body. If it’s not alright to medically assign genders to children, why is circumcision considered an “acceptable” genital modification?

Fitting circumcision in with my identity as a Jew is even trickier. I already feel Judaism is at best complacent in the unwanted and unwarranted gendering of children, if not an active encourager. To go a step further and surgically mark children assigned “male” at birth really upsets me, and makes me feel violated in the name of a religion to which I’m not sure I subscribe.

Little TorahAnd where do trans men fit within the Jewish community? Would it be better for a penis created via phaloplasty to be uncircumcised, so the Jewish man might under go the requirements of the covenant, or already circumcised, a retroactive circumcision? Am I, as a circumcised woman, higher in the Jewish religious hierarchy, or am I already so far outside it by virtue of being trans that my circumcision is irrelevant?

These may sound like stupid questions, but that’s what Judaism is implicitly and explicitly saying I should be thinking about, by virtue of placing so much importance on the penis in the first place.

8 Responses to “Circumcision”

  1. RMJ says:

    This is a really good post! Do you read transtorah.org?

    I personally find circumcision at birth to be pretty out of line. It’s not something I’d do to my child.

    • Rebecca says:

      I’ve done a bit of exploration at Trans Torah, but thanks for the reminder. I’ve been meaning to do a bit more reading of what they have to offer.

  2. Rachel_in_WY says:

    Wouldn’t it be a simpler (and less ridiculous) reading of the Torah to say that, biblically, women just aren’t as important as men?
    I grew up in a fairly fundamentalist Christian church, and this was exactly the kind of thing they would say to defend their belief that women are straight-up inferior to men and can never have any authority in the church or family structure. In that context it takes the form of “women and men have different but complementary roles – they complete each other – but if they try to be each other then everything will get all whacked out.” Of course, the emphasis is on the “different,” but the reality is men are more important and have more power and autonomy, and women just need to suck it up and submit and stop trying to wear the pants already. I have also always thought it would be better to just be honest about this than to try to whitewash it.

    • Rebecca says:

      That’s been a big part of my problem with Judaism: the Torah has some very specific info on how and why to be sexist, racist, xenophobic, and so on, all of which (most) modern Jews disagree with. But it’s more likely to find BS arguments about “different times” and “evaluating behavior based on the context,” rather than saying, “Yes. The Torah has some horrible things. But it’s still valuable because of XYZ.” Some people do think that latter argument is true, but I’ve yet to hear a really satisfying XYZ.

      (For what it’s worth, I think the “different times” and relative morality arguments are legitimate when discussing the behavior of people, but not when discussing the behavior of an ostensibly-omnipotent deity…)

  3. RadDyke says:

    Brilliant post. This is one of the reasons I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with Judaism over the past few years…I mean, hell, every morning when they daven, men are supposed to say a prayer that thanks God that they were not made to be a woman. I can’t deal with that. It was interesting to think about connecting circumcison to gender….I’ll probably have more thoughts on this later once I mull it over a bit.

  4. Jonah says:

    When a circumcised man converts to Judaism, they draw a drop of blood from the penis instead of doing another circumcision. There’s an argument in the gemarra (I think- it may actually be in the commentary) about whether a person who grows a penis/ becomes male after being eight days old should be circumcised, but I forget what the conclusion is. I think it’s no. They were discussing people whose testes descend at puberty or something like that. Anyhow.
    I would most definitely have a son born to me or adopted as a very young child circumcised ASAP. Nothing but religion enters into it. My own penis grew looking circumcised (yes, this is a complicated discussion but lets not discuss my anatomy further) but I haven’t even considered having a drop of blood drawn from it. I have not accepted the mantle of being a Jewish man, actually.

    • Rebecca says:

      Nothing but religion enters into it.

      I realize religion is an emotionally charged subject, but I’m arguing that consent and personal autonomy enter into it as well.

  5. [...] Circumcisions. Bar Mitzvahs. Mourning ceremonies. [...]

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