Opinion

More Ritual, Less Circumcision

Ilya Melnikov

Until Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is so kind as to take a look at the evidence and decide whether or not to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (good God, either way, just decide already!), finally redeeming Israelis from the limbo in which they have been thrust between one election campaign and the next, until then, all that’s left to do is storytelling.

As it happens, my dear aunt from America paid me a short visit this past week. She showed up at the café where we arranged to meet in a beautiful black dress with a stylish cut at the collar. I complemented her on the dress and jokingly commented that she looked like she had just come from saying kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, at the cemetery, since in the Jewish tradition, mourners rip their collars.

My well-dressed aunt politely explained that in her community, some people no longer observe the custom of tearing an actual garment. Instead, mourners wear a pin with a cut black ribbon on their lapels at the funeral and during the shivah.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Please explain, I asked teasingly. Are you telling me that you American Jews were so put off by the idea of sacrificing a good shirt on the altar of mourning for your closest relatives that you invented a symbolic substitute - but that you have no problem actually cutting the foreskin of your sons to represent the covenant with God?

As expected, my aunt totally rejected the comparison and promptly justified circumcision on customary as well as on medical grounds. As proof, she reminded me that most Americans circumcise their sons.

I, as expected, shot back that she was actually reciting propaganda and that anyone who thoroughly considers whether or not to circumcise their son would come across countervailing research (as reported several years ago in Haaretz by Netta Ahituv).

In Europe, for instance, circumcision is not widely practiced, and some are even fighting for legislation that would outlaw male circumcision in the same way that female circumcision is illegal.

The conversation never went beyond that. Our sons are grown and the decisions we made, when it came to them, were made years ago. But the funny comparison between rending a shirt and cutting a foreskin, and Jews’ adamant refusal – regardless of their religious beliefs – to agree to sublimate their covenant with God, stuck in my mind. How could it be that even Jews who are no longer observant still fervently observe this most violent of all customs?

How is it possible that in our day and age – when awareness of children’s right to the autonomy of their own bodies is at its height, when what is natural is sanctified, when sexuality is not perceived as something that should be suppressed and when veganism is flourishing – isn’t there room to consider observing Jewish ritual circumcision without actually cutting the foreskin?

Imagine what a relief it would be for mothers to attend a metaphorical ritual circumcision that would represent the biblical binding of Isaac, in which Abraham demonstrated his devotion to God by being willing to sacrifice his son, before being stopped by an angel.

AP

How happy the celebration would be if the baby was brought before those gathered, with the guests then standing up in the baby’s honor, after which the mohel, the ritual circumciser, would bless him.

The father, wrapped in a prayer shawl, would receive the newborn into his arms and undress him. And like the patriarch Abraham before him, he would wave his hand, ready to circumcise his son, before, at the last moment, sparing him, akin to the angel telling Abraham, “lay not thy hand upon the lad.” Reforming instead of deforming. You can already hear a resounding sigh of relief from our future sons.