Opinion |

It's Time to Give Up Circumcision

Judaism can survive in the post-ethnic world only if its rabbis give up the ceremony of cutting off babies' foreskins of their own initiative

Yigal Ben-Nun
Yigal Ben-Nun
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A rabbi cheers as another rabbi holds his son during the circumcision ceremony at the Chabad Lubawitsch Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Berlin, Germany, March 3, 2013.
A rabbi cheers as another rabbi holds his son during the circumcision ceremony at the Chabad Lubawitsch Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Berlin, Germany, March 3, 2013.Credit: AP
Yigal Ben-Nun
Yigal Ben-Nun

Circumcision, eating restrictions and resting on Shabbat differentiated Jews from the polytheistic nations of the Hellenist world and the Roman Empire. But during the period of the Jewish commonwealth and most of the Persian period, residents of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah didn’t circumcise their sons. All the kings of Israel and Judah, from King David through Zedekiah, were uncircumcised. The prophets, from Amos and Hosea to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were also uncircumcised.

So why did the Jews adopt this problematic, sickening act as the sole definer of their identity? Hasn’t the time come for Judaism to abandon male circumcision, out of the same loathing that we feel toward female circumcision?

In the Bible, the phrase “And she conceived and bore a son” appears around 65 times, but not the obvious follow-up: “She conceived and bore a son and circumcised him and named him X.” The reason is obvious: The theological command that appears in the cycle of stories about Abraham in the Book of Genesis was written only toward the end of the Persian era. Only then did cutting off the foreskin of an 8-day-old baby receive the significance of forging a covenant between the people and its God.

Until then, cutting off the foreskin was connected to a popular belief rooted in fear of demons, and specifically in protecting against a demon which attacks adults who didn’t remove their foreskins before embarking on a journey through the desert. An echo of this demonic custom can be found in the Book of Exodus (4:24-26), which describes Moses’ journey from his father-in-law’s house in Midian en route to meeting his brother in Egypt. The reason for God’s decision to kill Moses becomes clear when his wife Zipporah decides to cut off his foreskin (not that of her son), thereby saving Moses from death.

In 1933, two Canaanite amulets with oaths on them were discovered at the archaeological site of Arslan Tash (Hadatu) in northern Syria. This ancient visual source, like the Talmudic legends, bolsters the demonic explanation for circumcision.

The amulets contain writing that has been dated to the seventh century B.C.E., around the time when the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy was written. One of them has a picture of a hybrid monster with the body of a man, the legs of a scorpion and the head of a serpent, and it is depicted swallowing a man, but only as far as his sexual organ. The second amulet shows a crouching beast swallowing a man, with only his legs remaining outside the man.

The most surprising reservations about the custom of circumcision is found in the Bible itself. The authors of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the school of Shaphan ben Azaliah, loathed this custom and proposed replacing it with ethical behavior. Instead of circumcising the flesh, they advocated circumcising the heart: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16), “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6).

This was a challenge to the priestly cult, akin to the prophets’ reservations about using bloody sacrifices on the altar to atone for sins. The significance of this amendment is a spiritual rather than a physical removal, of evil from the hearts of men.

Unfortunately, rabbinic Judaism interpreted the cult of the altar in accordance with the authors of Deuteronomy rather than the ethical worldview of the prophets, and it didn’t have the courage to get rid of this problematic custom. In contrast, it had no problem getting rid of other Biblical laws that didn’t fit the rabbis’ times.

Thus over the course of generations, the laws of the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch were written, and these laws were adapted to the times in which they were written. Halakhah (Jewish law) is dynamic, and its goal is to change in accordance with reality.

The public battle being waged against female circumcision today has conferred moral legitimacy on outlawing male circumcision. In the enlightened world, more and more people are denouncing this injury done to babies. Can modern-day Judaism produce a rabbinic council wise enough and attentive enough to the zeitgeist to dare to issue a halakhic ruling that will replace the covenant of circumcision with an ethical covenant?

The image of Israeli Judaism has currently reached a moral and spiritual nadir. It is characterized to a great extent by rabbinic criminality, which sometimes leads to trials and jail sentences. Religious charlatans use practical kabbala, amulets and magic, to gain money, primarily from people in distress.

In my view, Judaism can survive in the post-ethnic world only if its rabbis give up the ceremony of cutting off babies’ foreskins of their own initiative, just like in the past, our sages replaced animal sacrifices with communal prayer. There’s no reason why the Jewish religion shouldn’t return to being enlightened and sensitive to the changing times.

The author is a historian and author of “A Brief History of YHWH” (Resling).

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