Grappling with Culture
Thursday night, at 10:03PM, my son Uriel was born on our deck in the birthing tub. Lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating Mount St. Helens. He cracked his eye open for the first time and gave me the stinkeye. I get it — it’s all downhill from here, kid.
I am Jewish by blood and tribe, with spiritual beliefs that are probably closest to Taoist. My wife is a half Syrian, half European mutt, and her spiritual beliefs are her own, goddammit, #feminism. Something about witches, Gaia, and the divine feminine, I think. We are the parents of two beautiful girls, whose birth, in our society, didn’t demand answers to questions about their circumcision. When we found out we were having a son, we knew there would be a new, difficult question to answer:
Should we make the decision to have him circumcised?
The question is not will he be circumcised. That’s too passive. It would be our active decision, made on his behalf. My family, and the greater Jewish community, rarely even considers the possibility of not performing the ritual — it’s taken for granted. The only question is which mohel (the professional ritual performer of circumcision) to choose. As I thought about this, I became more confused. A large number of Jews are secular, with many more not particularly practicing their faith in a way that adheres terribly strictly to the Torah. Why then the continued tradition of circumcision, while Jews freely ignore many other ancient commands?
My goal is not to claim that I am right in my decisions, or that you or anyone should make the same decision as I did. I want to lay out a template for a path, and help myself and others understand the reasons why. Jews have a rich history of debate — may this continue.
In our case, I, the Jew, was the primary driving force behind our (spoiler alert) decision to not circumcise. I approached this question with as open of a mind as I could — so much so that I called out to God, without a terrible amount of understanding about who that is, to provide me with a sign regarding my son’s circumcision. If I received a sign, I would circumcise — if not, I would choose to not make a permanent mark on someone else. In the absence of a sign, I would make the best decision I felt I could. Perhaps a giant circumcised penis painted in the stars was in my future, pointing my way to the removal of foreskin.
The cultural pressure to circumcise is powerful. It was initially difficult for me to even wrap my head around the concept of not circumcising — to not circumcise felt viscerally wrong. As I explored the conceptual space around not circumcising, that feeling quickly faded. Still, I’m filled with a deep dread over the thought of discussing it with my family — even more so than writing this article. Perhaps I’ll chicken out and just send this to them. Strong emotions and cultural identities are at play.
I have been raised understanding it as the thing to do, so much so that I had had never even heard a debate as to if it could not be done within that community. Yet, if I project myself outside the culture that requires circumcision and explore other perspectives, I find other cultures that are as much filled with disgust at the idea of circumcision as I was by the idea of not-circumcising. This suggests that there is a powerful cultural indoctrination at work — not to suggest this is in any way nefarious. All groups have in-and-out group symbols. Circumcision is a very permanent symbol for such a thing, especially considering the lack of mandatory penis inspections.
To come to an answer as to if we should circumcise Uriel, I felt the need to go back to the fundamental why of circumcision — back to Genesis. True or not, literal or metaphorical, it contains the command.
3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.
6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner — those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
It’s a commandment. A ritual. A mark of a people and their covenant with their God — and it comes with grave penalty if not performed. Males who are not circumcised will be cut off from their people. Jews have always circumcised their boys on the eighth day as a marker of the eternal covenant they share with Yaweh. We also need to circumcise any males bought with money from a foreigner…wait, is this scripture accidentally flashing its ancient cultural norms regarding slavery? Could there be other ancient cultural norms that are no longer relevant at play?
What do these writings mean when my family does not believe the literal truth of this exchange happening between God and Abraham? What if God does not exist? What if God is not as people think — God exists, but the character of Yahweh is an ancient peoples’ way of understanding the Universe? What if this ritual is used to bind a people group together around a unifying mark rather than being an issue that God truly cares about?
If God does not exist, or if this is a man-made mechanism, the spiritual and religious arguments for circumcision simply fade away. The arguments for a mechanism to hold a people group together remain — Jews have existed for a very long time, and have often face persecution requiring them to pull together as a united group to stand together against oppression and remember their heritage.
But still — why circumcision as that symbol?
There are two aspects I want to briefly explore regarding this covenant which do not directly influence my decision, but think are interesting thought experiments.
The first — what is the meaning of the penalty for violating the covenant — what does being cut off mean? Who is it who is to perform the cutting off? Jewish society? God himself? Does it mean to be disowned, or simply to not share in the covenant — does that mean Yahweh will not be his God? Among Jews, there is no consensus — the consensus is only affirmative on the action of circumcision to be taken. As there is not mandatory penis inspection, who will even know?
The second — this covenant of circumcision is directly tied to the ownership of Jews to the land of Canaan. I have never before considered the link to the land of Israel and its connection to circumcision. It seems that inextricably connecting these two things is relevant to current events, though this is not the time to explore them.
The preamble to the arguments can fill pages. I found the arguments I examined to be fairly simple.
Circumcision as a Religious Obligation
If Yahweh is truly real, and the One True God, and entered into a covenant with Abraham, then the answer is clear — circumcision should be performed on Jewish males on the eighth day.
However,the problem of establishing this as true is intractable. I’m not going to get into a defense of God being real or an attack on God as being not-real, or not true in the sense that most people understand. Suffice it to say that no one has been able to sufficiently, from the perspective of the other side, prove or disprove any God(s)/god(s) or lack thereof.
Another issue comes to mind — that of choice. Do we have a choice? Is God interested in his Chosen People having a choice, or has God made all the choices and dictated the terms? Furthermore, if I have the choice, how does me extending my choice regarding circumcision for my son allow him any choice? Why does God’s covenant with Abraham remove the choice of Jewish boys to find their own identity — choosing to circumcise if they are called, and not to circumcise if they choose a different life and spiritual path? Why do women not have an equivalent choice?
Ultimately, as someone who does not believe in this God found in Genesis, I unsurprisingly don’t have to grapple with this argument.
Circumcision As a Matter of Identity
Circumcision was to be a mark of the ancient covenant — a marker of being part of the Jewish in-group. Ancient barbaric customs should remain in ancient times…but as a circumcised man, I do not really feel male circumcision is barbaric. I have no issues with penis, nor does my wife (well…I hope!). The ability to identify strongly with a group is important and valuable, as is continuing on cultural traditions that bring beauty and diversity to the world. My penis and circumcision have caused me no problems.
Unfortunately for this argument, I have never considered my circumcised penis an integral part of my identity. It has not really been part of my connection to Judaism in any way other than vaguely intellectually, nor as a link to any covenant or spiritual power. Furthermore, I do not think we need this symbol or ritual to create this identity, proven by all the other groups maintaining a strong cultural identity without such a permanent, physical mark.
Circumcision as a Matter of Health
This aspect comes in only recently, as modern medicine has examined the medical benefits of circumcisions. For the vast majority of time that circumcision existed, we had no knowledge of such things.
There are, honestly and truly, arguments for health. Most specifically, prevention of STDs and decrease in cases of urinary tract infections, especially in infants. For fear of creating a movement of WebMD warriors, I am not going to dig into this too deeply. My son can learn and practice safe sex habits, and if we encounter infections, we will treat them — even if it means resorting to using $15 worth of antibiotics. Suffice it to say that, while seemingly legitimate, I did not find the health arguments anywhere near compelling enough to cause me to permanently alter my son’s penis.
It’s been several weeks since I started writing this. I began the day after he was born. On the eight day, he was not circumcised. If he chooses in the future to become circumcised, I will proudly support his decision. If he never does, I will proudly support his decision. The closing of writing this may feel like an undramatic letdown, as did the lack of ritual circumcision. Nothing happened. Life continued on.
It’s been difficult to write this, and as I expected, things did not go well with my family. I can’t say I was blameless and kept my cool, rationally explaining my arguments — but it certainly established that this is a tough subject. I do not regret my decision, and I encourage others, both Jews and otherwise, to examine cultural traditions that may not have a place in the world we live in now and the world which is to come.