David J. Fine
David J. Fine

Not for the Faint of Heart

On October 4th, the New Yorker published an article on “a botched circumcision,” an autobiographical piece by my old childhood friend Gary Shteyngart. (The article appears in the Oct. 11, 2021, edition of the magazine.)

Gary Shteyngart is a brilliant author of fictional satire and essays. His new book, his sixth, “Our Country Friends,” was released on November 2, 2021, to high critical acclaim. In the circumcision article he mentions me a couple of times, and I have been asked and continue to be asked by people I know who read the New Yorker if I am the same rabbi named David J. Fine mentioned in the article. Yes, I am.

Gary Shteyngart and I attended the Solomon Schechter School of Queens for elementary school. He actually refers to me as well in his autobiographical volume “Little Failure,” but not by name.

If you have read the article or are thinking of doing so, here is my commentary.

Shteyngart’s latest essay is not for the faint of heart. He writes about the various medical problems he continues to suffer from a poorly performed circumcision that he had as an adolescent, although at the time he did not share this with his schoolmates. The article is part humor, part horror, and part essay on the history and meaning of the famous Jewish rite for males.

Shteyngart’s piece in the New Yorker has sparked a wide discussion on circumcision, with the anti-bris crowd finding new ammunition while the traditionalists turn again to circling the wagons. My old friend reached out to me as he was working on this piece, and as he implies in the essay, he was a bit disappointed that although I am progressive on other issues, I remained an advocate for brit milah.

Shteyngart’s personal travails are truly terrible. He uses his story as an avenue to illuminate the intersections between sectional identity (Jewishness), personal identity, and trying to find your own self amidst the closed-down society of COVID-19. His is a very powerful and emotive voice.

My job, when we talked, was to articulate and confirm the traditional Jewish view. Maimonides, one of the most significant Jewish voices of our heritage and also a physician, famously is cited for arguing that the purpose of circumcision was to reduce (read: control) sexual drive. That idea did not begin with Maimonides; it goes back to Philo of Alexandria in the first century BCE.

Of course, that is one of a number of traditional explanations, and Shteyngart managed to quote a quip of mine, that Maimonides worked late hours so he did not have much time for intimate relations. He did work late hours. During what we would call business hours he served as palace physician for the sultan, and then he would receive visitors at his home all evening, for either medical or rabbinic advice, and then he would study or write into the early hours.

What I really said to my friend about this traditional apologetic argument (which would argue against circumcision) is that clearly the Jewish people through history have managed to procreate and not disappear from history. But the quote is funny. “It is not easy to find funny clergy,” my friend said to me. Coming from a professional satiric author, that is great!

The other appearance I make in the article is my own defense of brit milah as serving the symbolic function of establishing our covenant with God as partners in creation. The question that always was most interesting to me is why circumcision is seen more than any other mitzvah as an essential covenant ritual for (half of) our people. (Shteyngart quotes from the excellent study by Shaye Cohen, “Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?,” that explores the problematic of a covenant ritual that can be performed only on half of the members of the covenant.) The best explanation, in my opinion, is that circumcision, while not uncommon in ancient times (or today), had special meaning in the Jewish context because it invokes a statement of covenant/commitment at the generative organ.

Through the covenant of circumcision, we make promises not only for ourselves but for the generations that follow us. By doing so, we become God’s partners in creation, because that is how we create and creation becomes purposeful and good.

Well, that all went behind my second citation in Shteyngart’s piece, but not elaborated there. His purposes in writing were not primarily historical or theological.

At the end of the day, Shteyngart is not advocating for or against a procedure. He tells a personal story, a story where Soviet communism and Chabad Lubavitch both play cameo roles. He was not circumcised when he was an infant in the USSR, and it was the Chabadnicks in Queens who approached his father and convinced him to permit his adolescent son to be circumcised post haste.

The physical traumas that my friend has had to endure are awful. His ability to tell that story along with the weight of tradition, and in an entertaining albeit satiric mode, make his article a worthy read.

But again, not for the faint of heart.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.
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