A Modest Proposal

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published June 27, 2011, issue of July 01, 2011.
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For several decades, opposition to circumcision has been building in the United States and within the American Jewish community. This year, the people of San Francisco will see on their ballots a proposed ordinance banning circumcision entirely, with no exception for religious Jews or Muslims. As others have written in these pages already, this measure is offensive and overbroad, and at least some of its proponents are clearly guilty of anti-Semitism. (It is also, in my view, unconstitutional.) Civil liberties groups and Jewish organizations have roundly condemned it, and defeat seems likely.

Circumcision: Jay Michaelson suggests a third option in the circumcision debate.
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Circumcision: Jay Michaelson suggests a third option in the circumcision debate.

But San Francisco is a harbinger of things to come, and critiques of circumcision are not limited to the lunatic fringe. Opponents say that circumcision is a brutal, nonconsensual mutilation of a child that results in a permanent loss of sensitivity. Our society doesn’t allow parents to abuse their children, this argument runs, so why should we allow this particular form of violence, which is irrevocable and damaging? Proponents counter that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV transmission and of some STDs, that the “mutilation” in question is relatively minor, and that, in the case of religious communities, it is time honored and religiously mandated.

Personally, were it not for my Jewish heritage, I would never circumcise a child of my own. (I do not have children, though my partner and I are considering it.) There is no question that circumcision reduces sexual pleasure, which I find philosophically repugnant. In fact, whether or not this was the original purpose of the mitzvah, the power of circumcision to reduce pleasure was well known to Jewish sages; Maimonides, for example, praises circumcision for just that reason. In addition, it is an unnecessary form of surgery, and it is indeed permanent; your son cannot change his mind about it later, even if he were to discontinue Jewish religious observance. And all of us who have been to a circumcision ceremony know that — for some babies, at least — it does seem to hurt. Finally, while there may be marginal health benefits to circumcision, I’d rather invest the time teaching my son about safer sex than slice into the body that God and nature have formed.

But like many other American Jews, I also take the tradition seriously. As has been lamented by Shalom Auslander, studied by such scholars as Lawrence Hoffman and Leonard Glick, and lambasted by dozens of anti-circumcision partisans, brit milah is one of those mitzvot that seem fundamental to (male) Jewish identity. It is arguably the first specifically Jewish commandment in the Torah, and a primal, embodied ritual that, precisely because it is barbaric and ancient, resonates with a power that seems greater than reason. Circumcision is the physical making of a Jewish male body and, especially in light of the Apostle Paul’s attack on the practice, is a distinctively Jewish form of ritual observance.

What, then, are Jews concerned about circumcision to do? For too long, the choice has been falsely seen as all or nothing. In fact, there is a middle way, and I want to propose it as a compromise solution for progressive Jews. (Note: The next few paragraphs may cause men to cringe.)

Circumcision, as it is performed today by religious Jews, is really an amalgam of three different procedures: milah, periah and metzizah. Milah is the actual circumcision, the removal of the tip of the foreskin. It is thought that this was the entire ceremony in biblical times: A metal shield was placed on the end of the penis, and the foreskin was stretched forward; in this way, only the tip — the part that usually, in nonerect penises, extends past the glans, was removed. The prepuce itself remained, and the shaft of the penis (and sometimes part of the glans) remained covered. See Michelangelo’s “David” for an example of this.

Periah is something additional: not circumcision, but “tearing” and removing the prepuce, as well. The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) describes it this way: “After the excision has been completed, the mohel seizes the inner lining of the prepuce, which still covers the glans, with the thumb-nail and index-finger of each hand, and tears it so that he can roll it fully back over the glans and expose the latter completely. The mohel usually has his thumb-nail suitably trimmed for the purpose.” (Wincing yet?) It is this tearing of the membrane — now often performed with the circumcision knife rather than with fingernails — that removes the entire foreskin and exposes the entire glans and penis, including the highly sensitive area just below the glans. This is a much more significant change in the male anatomy, with much more significant consequences in terms of sensation.

Metzizah, the removal of the blood from the wound, is not relevant here. Until recently, it was performed by the mohel, who would directly suck the blood from the infant’s bleeding penis. Nowadays, it is usually performed with a glass tube, if at all — although New York area readers may remember that in 2005, a scandal erupted when a mohel was found to be carrying out traditional metzizah and spreading herpes among infants.

The fact that circumcision consists of multiple elements is explicitly recognized in the Talmud. Mishna Shabbat 19:2 states that “one performs all the necessary steps for the milah on Shabbat: circumcising (milah), tearing (periah) sucking out the blood (metzizah), and bandaging the wound.” Rabbis seeking to discontinue the practice of metzizah, which many see as both unseemly and dangerous, note that this Mishna clearly distinguishes the different components of the overall process, raising the possibility that not all of them are essential to the mitzvah. Rabbis have taken this view despite BT Shabbat 133b, which states that a mohel who does not perform metzizah loses his license to practice circumcision. So why not use it to discontinue periah, as well?

Well, later in the same section of the Mishna, periah is seen as integral to the mitzvah. Mishna Shabbat 19:6 states “Mal v’lo para’, k’ilu shelo mal”: “circumcised but not torn, it’s as if uncircumcised.” Why this stricture? Some sources including the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion) speculate that it was to more clearly distinguish circumcised Jewish men from uncircumcised Greek and Roman ones. There is some logic to this theory: Earlier, at the time of the Maccabean Revolt, Hellenizing Jews avoided circumcision in order to have their sons better blend in at the (all-nude) gymnasium. Others hung weights from their penises to “re-circumcise” themselves — a practice still around today. In addition to marking Jewish boys as distinctly Jewish, circumcision was also seen as embarrassing: Since, in uncircumcised men, the glans is visible only during arousal, circumcised penises were seen as “nude” in a way that uncircumcised ones were not. Competing in the gymnasium with your glans visible would be like going to the gym today with your fly unzipped.

But all this is speculation. And it is universally accepted today that a full circumcision ceremony includes both milah and periah. For this reason, milah without periah is not an option for Orthodox Jews or other traditional Jews committed to a strict reading of Jewish law. Moreover, a non-periah penis will look different from a traditionally circumcised one. I personally don’t give much weight to the problem of a boy “looking different” from other boys, but it is something to consider.

Yet the reasons for periah-free circumcision are many. There is no evidence that biblical circumcision included periah, which renders it a rabbinic addition to the biblical rule rather than the core of the mitzvah itself. A circumcision without periah leaves intact most of the genital organ’s sensitive areas. It fulfills the biblical commandment without the long-term and essentially irrevocable damage to an infant boy’s body.

My research indicates that, so far, this distinction has mainly been discussed among the loony “intactivist” fringe, the same people who have brought “Monster Mohel” into California’s political discourse. But respectable folks should reclaim it from the dustheap. Mohels need not receive much additional training; milah without periah is simply performing half the customary work. And rabbis and other communal leaders in the non-Orthodox world should take seriously their parishioners’ qualms about this ancient practice and allow a broader range of options than the “yes or no” choice facing Jewish parents today.

Now, I am sympathetic to more radical proposals, such as the “brit shalom,” a nonsurgical and nongendered covenant that emphasizes a nontriumphalist and universalist approach to Jewish identity. In addition to avoiding the sensation-reducing effects of physical circumcision, such new approaches offer an important corrective to the historic ethnocentrism of conversion: In the Bible and beyond, “uncircumcised” (arelim) has been a derogatory euphemism for gentiles. (See, for examples, Joshua 5:9, I Samuel 14:6 and 31:4, and Isaiah 52:1, as well as the traditional Sabbath Musaf Amidah.) Precisely because this genital cut demarcates a boundary between them and us (the term arelim has even been applied to physically circumcised “others,” such as Muslims), I am sympathetic to attempts to simply stop performing it.

I am also sympathetic to feminist critiques of circumcision. If circumcision is indeed as fundamental and central as I have suggested, then it is deeply troubling that it is the exclusive property of men. At the very least, I would certainly hope to hold a Simchat Bat (a ceremony rejoicing in the birth of a girl) if one day I have a daughter. But gendering of this “fundamental” commandment must trouble those of us committed to feminism. (What is sometimes called “female circumcision” is now more widely, and properly, known as “female genital mutilation” and involves the wholesale removal of the clitoris. This abominable practice has never had a place in Judaism and, God willing, never will.)

I am sympathetic to these concerns — but not in the camp of those who would do away with this mitzvah. For thousands of years, it has been at the core of Jewish identity. Pirkei Avot 3:15 says, “One who breaks the Covenant of Abraham, even if he has Torah and good deeds, has no portion in the World To Come.” In kabbalistic traditions, it is regarded as essential to opening the body and soul to the Divine. And for all its cruelty, it does affirm the importance of the body in spiritual life, a value I want to affirm.

Yet Jewish intellectual history teaches that law and life are intertwined. While upholding the essence of this commandment, we as a community can find ways to lessen its severity — as rabbis have done for generations, in every aspect of Jewish law. The zealots in California invite our censure, but more sensible people have long had qualms about this most ancient of Jewish rites. For them, and for all of us, a compromise is possible.

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