Commenting in the thread about the circumcision ban that has been proposed in San Francisco, Chingona wrote the following:
Secondly … and here I’m trying to put into words something that I think is felt on a subconscious and instinctual level (with additional caveats that I cannot speak for every Jew everywhere) … with all the blood that has been spilt to maintain Judaism over the centuries, there is a feeling that one, as an individual, does not actually have the right to just dispense with something so fundamental as this. For more secular Jews, to not circumcise is to say that not only do you not care if your kids aren’t Jewish, but to actually push them away from it. You might be a scofflaw in a hundred different ways, but to not circumcise would be to renounce your citizenship. It’s the step too far. And to take that step is to spit on the memory of every Jew who died for being Jewish.
Even as I write this, I imagine you laughing at how ridiculous it sounds. Do other Jewish people on this thread think I’m exaggerating? Like I said, I’m trying to put something into words that is more felt than thought, and it’s entirely possible that I’m overstating the matter. But in my experience, it’s something in the neighborhood of what I wrote above.
It reminded me of something I wrote in my first Fragments of Evolving Manhood post, called A Full-Throated Protest Against Existence and the World. (I should add I have not edited this excerpt to take into account Grace Annam’s gentle admonition to remember that “there are women who have the experience of having had a penis.”)
Even now, having rejected circumcision in my own family, it’s hard to dismiss the ritual merely as the patriarchal marking that, at its roots, it is. Because whatever else that ritual might be, the history of the oppression of the Jews has made it also a sign of defiance, a bodily affirmation of Jewish (male) identity and Jewish (male) worth in the face of enormous persecution.
I put the word male in parentheses in the last sentence because, while circumcision marks only men and is therefore problematic from the point of view of gender equality within the Jewish tradition, I do not want to deny the courage that it took for Jewish mothers to continue to allow their sons to be circumcised, or for Jewish women to continue to value circumcision as a religious ritual, a physical mark and as a metaphor for the relationship between the Jews and their god at times when forcing a man to pull down his pants was one way that anti-semites would identify appropriate targets for their hatred and violence. In Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, for example, Yaffa Eliach tells a story that, whether it is completely true or only an embellished version of the truth, illustrates precisely what I mean. In the midst of a “children’s Aktion,” a massacre of Jewish children, the tale goes, a Jewish woman demanded of a Nazi soldier, “Give me [your] pocket knife!”
She bent down and picked up something…a bundle of rags on the ground near the sawdust. She unwrapped the bundle. Amidst the rags on a snow-white pillow was a newborn babe, asleep. With a steady hand she opened the pocket knife and circumcised the baby. In a clear, intense voice she recited the blessing of the circumcision. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by thy commandments and hast commanded us to perform the circumcision.”
She straightened her back, looked up to the heavens, and said, “God of the Universe, you have given me a healthy child. I am returning to you a wholesome, kosher Jew.” She walked over to the German, gave him back his blood-stained knife, and handed him her baby on his snow-white pillow. (152)
I am that boy; that boy was me. Had I been alive during the time of the Nazis, they would have tried to kill me precisely for being “wholesome and kosher.” Yet while the violence that mother did to her son absolutely pales in comparison to the violence the Nazi intended to do to him, the story nonetheless omits the boy’s pain, glosses over the blood that must have stained the pillow, the mother’s hands and the German’s knife. It is that blood which haunts me, for my circumcision is my connection to that mother’s courage, to the courage of the men who circumcised and were circumcised at a time when a cut penis could have gotten them killed.
It was not an easy thing for me to arrive at the point where, as a Jewish man, I could choose not to have my son circumcised and also not feel like I was betraying my community at a much, much deeper level than any rejection of circumcision’s religious significance might represent for me. This is something I might choose to write more about at a later time, but for now I will say that it had to do with letting go of a certain kind of culturally inculcated anger and fear, with deciding that doing violence to my son’s body–to the body of any Jewish infant born with a penis–in order to mark that body over and against the violence that has been done to Jews throughout our history was, in some sense, only a continuation of that violence.
Nonetheless, I have tremendous respect for the feelings of people who continue to see brit milah–we might as well call the ceremony by its proper name–as a way of saying not only to the circumcised child, but to the historically hostile world in which that child will grow up, “You are here, in this world, as a Jew; we are here in this world, as Jews, and we are not going anywhere.”
Cross posted on It’s All Connected.