Yisrael Rosenberg

A new cut on circumcision

Circumcision is in the news.

Last year, they tried to outlaw this ancient ritual in California. And recently, criminal charges were brought against a young Rabbi for performing circumcision in Germany.  Israeli Secretary of Interior Eli Yishai flew in specially to Munich to try to talk sense into the head of German Premier Angela Markel. And much to the chagrin of the German Jewish community, even the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel has put in his two shekels. Heck, the President of Israel himself has gotten involved.

A barbaric and primitive custom

Come on, people: such a barbaric, pain-intensive, bloody operation, performed with no anesthesia on an 8-day-old male Jewish child, is pretty hard to justify in the 58th century (Jewish time). Let’s look at what those who protest this gruesome act have to say:

Many famous child care experts and doctors recommend against circumcision.  Dr. Spock, in his most recent book, stated, “I feel that there’s no solid medical evidence at this time to support routine circumcision,” and recommends “leaving the foreskin the way Nature meant it to be.”

I think it’s only right that we say this out loud and deal with it: Opponents of the ‘kosher cut’ are onto something. Face it:  you’ve got to be either crazy, or Jewish, or both to want to do this to your kid.

Let’s ask a strange question: what is this thing, circumcision, and why on earth do otherwise sane people opt to do this to their infants?

The First Documented Circumcision

In order to find the answer, let’s go to the source. In the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Genesis, we read the story of our noble foreskin (errrr, forefather) Abraham.

The story of the first known circumcision is found in Genesis, Chapter 17. For our purposes, the story can be divided into three sections.

In the first section, God offers to make a deal, or covenant, with Abraham. God explains what his side of the covenant is, and what he will give to Abraham if he takes him up on the offer:

Abram was 90 years old, and God appeared to Abram, and said to him: “I am God, the Limiter. Walk before me, and be simple. And I will give my covenant between me and between you; and I will increase you a great, great deal. And I will establish my covenant between me and between you, and between your descendants after you, forever; as an eternal covenant; to be the Lord for you, and for your descendants after you. And I will give to you and your descendants after you the land where you are living, the entire land of Canaan, as an eternal possession; and I will be the Lord for them.”

The next section explains what  Abram and his descendants must do to keep the covenant:

And God said to Abram: “and you will keep my covenant – you and your descendants after you, forever. This my covenant that you will keep, between me and between you, and between your descendants after you: circumcise for yourselves all males. And you will circumcise the skin of their foreskins; and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and between you.”

The third section adds more details about how we must keep this covenant, and what the results are for if Abraham or his descendants end up breaking the covenant:

“Circumcise for yourselves all males at eight days of age: those [slaves] born into your household, and those bought with money, from other nations that are not your family. You must circumcise those of you who are born to your household, and those who are bought with your money; and my covenant will be in your skin, as an eternal covenant. And an uncircumcised male who has not circumcised the skin of his foreskin – that soul will be cut off from its people: He has broken my covenant.”

You read it here first:

Circumcision is a visual marking of an agreement between God and our forefather Abraham’s descendants, the nation of Israel. It is a flesh-based, permanent bodily reminder that God has made an everlasting covenant with us as a nation.

OK, it’s symbolic. But why this foreskin thing?

Why are we asked to cut the foreskin davka – that highly sensitive, nerve-rich piece of flesh located at the tip of the organ of procreation and sexual pleasure?

This is what circumcision’s opponents essentially say, explaining why it shouldn’t be done:

What they may not realize is that there are sexual advantages to remaining intact. Men, did circumcision ruin your sex life?

Back to Abraham. So what is God saying to him and to his descendants, us? He is saying, ‘I want you to sacrifice the most powerful physical experience of pleasure that you can have in order to serve me and me alone. I’m not asking that you be celibate, and not to enjoy sex; but I AM asking you to curb your pleasure, and in doing so – remember that we have an agreement!’

God tells Abraham, and by proxy, his physical and spiritual descendants, the Jewish nation, that in order to be his people, we must circumcise all of our males.

Ouch. Ouch at the moment, and ouch for the rest of our lives, because we have cut off forever a certain amount of the sublime pleasure associated with our bodies. But what is God’s side of the bargain? Or stated differently, what is in it for us if we do engage in this bloody act? The answer is: two things, as spelled out in one of the above verses:

“And I will give to you and your descendants after you the land where you are living, the entire land of Canaan, as an eternal possession – and I will be for you the Lord.”

But What’s In It For Us?

God’s side of the bargain is:

1. He gives us the Land of Canaan, the Land of Israel, as our homeland and patrimony, the place where we will live and thrive as a nation – a a permanent inheritance until the end of time.

2. He promises to be our Lord, through thick and thin, through good times and bad, through good governance and the Holy Temple in action, through the horror of exile and the Destruction of the great Temple in Jerusalem. Always. Never ending. And, on the surface, what we have to do is keep circumcising our kids.

With this in mind, it now becomes clear why for so many generations in so many lands, Jews have chosen death at the hands of gentiles rather than giving up this practice!


Making that cut — at all costs

There you have it, folks. Circumcision is nothing less than our side of a bargain made by the Creator of the Universe, our national Savior who took our people by the hand and led us out of the slavery of Egypt into the Promised Land, that one place on Earth that God promised as a special place set aside for us, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to keep on cutting, and teaching my sons to cut their sons, on towards the end of time. And yes, I would rather die than stop doing what God asked our forefather Abraham to do. And as John Lennon once wrote: “You may say that I’m a dreamer; but I’m not the only one …”

Some questions for extra ‘points’:

Who else besides the Jewish nation (i.e., which peoples and nations within humanity) should be doing this?

Where should it be done? In the Promised Land of Israel? Outside of It? Both?

About the Author
Yisrael Rosenberg is a former New Englander who made aliyah 30 years ago. He lives with his wife and four children in Jerusalem.