Circumcision: A Good Trick for Preserving Jewish Identity

Most Jews define themselves as Jews without committing to the praxis that justifies this status.

Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon
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Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon

In contrast to the impression emanating from the circumcision matter, the claim being heard lately in certain liberal circles in Israel and abroad is neither new nor original.

Roman law also treated it negatively, not out of any desire to attack the Jewish faith or a national perspective, but rather in objection to maiming the genitals. Caesar Adrian forbade circumcision as part of the fight against castration; he viewed this custom as a barbaric act that damages the body.

In many regards, his position dovetails with the enlightened view of our day. From the perspective of the ancient Jews, who saw this custom as a divine commandment, the Roman objection was a decree of religious persecution that must be fought. And indeed, there are many religious arguments on behalf of circumcision.

Suffice it to say that the commandment appears in the Book of Genesis regarding the covenant that God made with Abraham, and it is also one of the few commandments whose violation carries the divine punishment of untimely death. The fact that even today the overwhelming majority of secular Jews are faithful to this custom is not tied to religious arguments but rather to the notion that circumcision is an expression of the historic continuity of the Jewish people.

A society cannot exist without symbols. Circumcision became established over thousands of years as a clear symbol of Judaism, from both a nationalist and a religious angle. And yet, the main claim by those who oppose circumcision is that you can realize Jewish identity without it.

There are three responses to this claim. First, that the claim is not brave enough − because the real question that circumcision opponents need to ask is not whether it is a primitive and superfluous custom but rather the whole business of Jewish identity and its ancient ceremonies. For indeed there’s no need to go into too much depth about the extent of thoughts on life to conclude that all of us, sooner or later, are human beings. The identity of a person as a Jew, Muslim or anything else is in many regards irrational. Therefore, it would be better for circumcision opponents to go all the way on the matter and say that the very act of carrying out religious ceremonies is baseless.

The second response to those who wonder why we insist on this vulgar and invasive act is precisely just because. That is to say, a secular Jew is naturally diligent about circumcision precisely because it confronts him with realizing an unreasonable custom that is not to be abolished.

The third response is more substantial. Those who seek to preserve their Jewishness by faith in certain values and do away with circumcision miss the fact that the basic idea in Judaism is grounded in praxis, not faith or its ideas. A person can be a terrific Protestant if he believes in the principles of Christian doctrine, but in Judaism it is customary to say that the hearts are drawn after acts. That is to say, praxis provides spiritual inspiration, not the opposite.

In the State of Israel, in which there is type of orthodox secular majority, a Protestant Judaism has been created in practice. Most Jews define themselves as Jews without committing to the praxis that justifies this status.

In a certain sense, the existence of circumcision meshes well with this approach because it is a sophisticated trick for preserving Jewish identity. On one hand it is a unique, radical act. On the other it is a one-time act that causes no harm and does not require an extensive effort.

This is the reason that both the man who deserves to be considered the first secular Jew, Baruch Spinoza, and Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzniks, who rebelled against Jewish tradition, understood the importance of carrying out this custom.

Circumcision (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime

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