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.
In my family of Soviet Jews, nobody has been circumcised for over 100 years. This didn’t save us from anti-semitism, persecution, and hatred. It didn’t make us any less Jewish.
Thanks for this post, Richard. I agree with you entirely (no surprise there).
Clarissa, that’s a very good point.
I can understand those that advocate against brit milah.
I can neither respect nor understand those that would ban it. You want to remove children from (excluding what you think is the abuse of brit milah) otherwise loving and safe families? And put them where? Imprison the parents or just destroy the family? That helps how?
I can see only two possibilities. One, the people who want to ban it think banning means stopping, and have put no thought into enforcement. Two, they have thought about enforcement and the impulse to punish, to hurt, to imprison, to crush those that disagree is what is behind the ban.
A free people can argue and protest each other’s actions. They can leaflet, inform, dispute, and fume. But it is a people who have embraced the police state who want to ban.
Missing from this navel-gazing is the notion of covenantal obligation. I understand the secular approach to Jewish identity does not assume that God exists – or commanded Abraham or gave the rest of the Torah.
But once you’re there, once you’re talking about Judaism as an ethnicity, you are already very far along “the slippery slope” – already on your way out of the Jewish fold. That’s really the “step too far” – because without a sense of being in a binding covenant with God, without a sense of Judaism as a spiritual path, the only question is the pace at which the inevitable assimilation will take place.
The saddest – and most telling – part of all this, to me, is that Judaism is described entirely as a burden, a tragic legacy. From the covenantal point of view, being Jewish and Jewish practices like circumcision really are joyous.
@ BenDavid … I addressed that in another comment on the other thread. I agree that Jewish practice is something that is often and should be undertaken joyfully. I don’t think it’s only secular Jews who sometimes feel our history as a burden, and many religious Jews feel particular mitzvot are difficult or challenging.
I’m not going to argue with the rest of your comment because, while I do not believe it any longer (or at least not in the strong version you have articulated), I did believe it once, and I continue to have respect for it. But in response to this:
I would merely point out that brit milah is hardly a joyous occasion for the child being circumcised. If he comes to feel joy in his circumcision, is a retrospective experience, something he projects back onto something he cannot possibly remember. I do not mean by this to suggest that his joy is any less meaningful for that; only to point out that the joy taken in the moment, when the ritual is performed, is the joy of the adults who are present, not the child who is the focus of the ritual. (And I am using the pronoun “he” here because I don’t know if it even makes sense to talk about trans women in the context of an orthodox perspective on the covenant with Abraham; I’d be very curious to know.)
So which is it – a horrific trauma or something that the baby “cannot possibly remember”?
I have far more respect for those arguing the legal angle of the child’s autonomy than I have for this – and I stomach it even less since moving to Israel, where there is no need to invent trauma.
Childhood is unavoidably full of far worse things – more consciously experienced – than circumcision. This overwrought argument immediately calls to mind the stories from my stateside friends about coddling, helicopter parents insisting that everybody in the sports league gets a trophy, whether they won anything or not. That’s not how the real world works.
It is said that right-wingers demand equality of opportunity, while left-wingers demand equality of outcome – I have a lot of difficulty respecting this extreme case of demanding an unrealistically perfect, painless outcome.
And again, the notion of partaking in a covenant – that the pain of circumcision is more than balanced by the great boon and privilege of being part of the Jewish people, and its teachings – makes such argument seem even more soft and self-indulgent.
2) You write:
What is the “it” you no longer believe in?
God? The divine origin of the Torah?
The covenantal definition of the Jewish people?
Their unique role in human history?
The value of respecting these old notions, even if you don’t hold by them?
Of course it can be, and–in my opinion–is, both.
I am not pity-mongering, though it does not surprise me that you would read what I have said that way.
Depends on what you mean by this. There have been many nations who have had a unique role in human history.
I stated quite explicitly that I continue to respect people who hold “those old notions.” I’m not sure if you just didn’t read that part of what I wrote or if you are suggesting that I was not telling the truth.
ETA: And, really, Ben David, I am not interested in arguing with you. Clearly we have very different, and I think ultimately irreconcilable, perspectives on this. If you are interested in where mine comes from, I wrote a little bit about it in a post called The Rectification of Names. It’s not specifically about circumcision, but it is about my relationship to the orthodox Judaism I once thought would be the spiritual, etc. center of my life.
Thanks – that’s from before I starting reading your blog.
I always wondered where the Orthodox characters came from in your comic.
Ben David, you’re mixing up Richard and myself. Richard is an educator, I’m the cartoonist.
To echo Richard’s response here, Mandolin wrote a very good comment a few years ago explaining how an experience can have a lasting impact on someone even if they don’t specifically remember it.
Jews who insist that other Jews aren’t really Jews because they don’t espouse Orthodox beliefs piss me off just as much as anti-circ commenters who can’t imagine that the bris has a positive value to the child and derisively dismiss religious objections to the proposed ban.
I’m still thinking through my relationship to infant circ. Though at this point I don’t think I’ll have a bris for my son (if I have a son – my only child is a girl), I would have if the first had been a boy, and I certainly respect the role of circumcision in Jewish tradition and am annoyed to see so many people who oppose circumcision be so dismissive of the religious and cultural meaning and value behind the practice.
Ben David, you’re mixing up Richard and myself. Richard is an educator, I’m the cartoonist.
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OK – so where do the orthodox characters come from? :)
Judaism is not infinitely extendible (bad image for a circumcision thread, I know…).
Judaism is not like homeopathy – it cannot be infinitely diluted and still retain potency.
Judaism has pre-existing, obligating content, which the mainstream of Jews in each generation engage/embrace/connect/defend/relate to in various ways.
Not everything Jews do can be fit into this framework – even if they claim to be doing it from their understanding of Judaism. Yet many on the outer limits of Jewish practice and/or community – who are by the nature of things often the least knowledgeable – petulantly insist that the majority accept their innovations.
That pisses me off.
Their call for “plurality” is tone-deaf directed to a covenantal faith community, and demonstrates that they are already coming at Judaism “from outside” – from another value system.
It’s 2011/5771. The experiments in updating Judaism have been run: the non-covenantal sects have failed to preserve even minimal identification, and Orthodoxy has not only survived, but is at the core of a Jewish renaissance. This is no longer subject to debate – it is the landscape in which debates about “pluralism” take place.
We can compare the pull of Judaism upon diaspora Jews to satellites drawn by gravity around their planet. When Jews no longer believe in a divine covenant, that force is significantly weakened. When Jews are ignorant, uninvolved, or drawn to other belief systems, they drift further away.
Eventually assimilating Jews achieve “escape velocity” – the pull of other value systems and the push of other forces take them out of Judaism’s orbit. Intermarriage and no longer circumcising one’s children are pretty much it – we know from statistics that the future Jewish identity of the children is largely a toss-up beyond that point. There is too little content to sustain the identity any further.
This may be painful, or even shameful, for an individual Jew to admit. (The whole process of assimilation is often fueled by shame and other painful emotions.) It’s quite natural to justify one’s opinions as reasonable and one’s immediate community as mainstream – and disconcerting to find you are actually an outlier about to lose a longstanding connection.
It’s also human to cast these feelings out and (acting on ingrained habits of left-wing rhetoric) accuse The Rest of Us of being judgmental – when all we’re doing is practicing Judaism…
I am not “insisting” that anyone is Jewish or not – I am simply drawing the obvious conclusions – after two centuries of experimentation and “reform” – about what minimal beliefs and practices bind one to Judaism’s sphere of influence.
Hmm, I guess that Protestants aren’t Christian.
@Jake Squid: I don’t understand your comment. Is it directed at what I said on the other thread?
No, Simple Truth. It was directed at
Which I find to be absurd. The numbers that I’ve found show that, of American Jews (who are about 39% of the world population of Jews), 10% are Orthodox, 35% are Reform and 26% are Conservative. So we have 1/10 telling the rest that they aren’t Jewish. Hogwash.
Hey Ben David.
So what’s up, dude? Did someone invite you back?
RJN is totally welcome to have his own policy for his posts, and I don’t want to step on his toes. If he asked you back, you’re certainly welcome.
Is that what happened?
1) Centuries after the Protestant Reformation there are still tens of millions of Protestants. No non-covenantal Jewish movement has ever survived beyond 4-5 generations.
2) The Protestant movement did not replace religious commitment with ethnic identity or attempt to recast it in terms of modern political movements. Saying “I am Protestant” is still a religious statement – which is no longer what many assimilated Jews mean when they say “I am a Jew”.
And when you write:
… the vast majority of those “Reform” Jews are actually completely unaffiliated. When surveyed by telephone, they stammer that they are “Reform” instead of saying “I do nothing about being Jewish.” As Elliot Abrams notes in his book Faith or Fear:
When we look at Jews who actually bother to affiliate, North American Jewry splits almost evenly between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox – with only the Orthodox growing in absolute numbers. Counting the Conservative movement (if not all its laity) as still covenantal, that means most Jews doing something about being Jewish are still framing their Jewishness in the religious terms of the covenant, not just ethnic terms.
Here in Israel – closing in on half the world’s Jewish population – the “ultra-secular” are only 20 percent of the population. Most Israelis still understand their Jewish identity in relation to the covenant at Sinai, however they choose to express that in practice.
Did you see where Richard most kindly provided a link to an earlier personal post – which I read in a sincere attempt to understand where he’s coming from. That’s why I’m here – to understand, and be understood.
I’m sure he’ll tell me if my posts are bothering him – without a PC enforcer wiggling a rhetorical billy-club in my face.
You have to pay monetary dues to be considered a Jew? That’s a sad, sad way to define a religion. Well, I guess Scientology does the same thing.
Oh my gosh! Most Jews found not paying dues or membership fees to any random Jewish organization fully satisfactory!!!111!!! Oh noes! They are so deluded, these faux Jews. Any real Jew knows you must pay dues or membership fees to fulfill the covenant!!1!!111!!!11!
I will guarantee you that both of my grandfathers were as religious as you, Ben David. Neither of them paid membership fees or dues to any Jewish organization in the last 3 to 4 decades of their lives. I guess they stopped being Jewish in their 50’s or 60’s. They would have been surprised to hear that and they would have dismissed these claims for the blitherings that they are.
I guess some people just need to be exclusive to feel good about themselves.
Ben David, you need to answer Myca in your next comment.
I am thinking that this has become a derail and I should not respond any more to BD, especially given the previous banning. But I have to say, if BD gets to decide who’s a Jew, I’m perfectly happy to be left outside that sphere. I’ve never actually met a Jew who didn’t consider me to be Jewish before. In my experience even, or especially, very religious Jews accept secular Jews (which is not actually how I would self-identify but wev; I don’t pay dues) with Jewish female lineage as Jews. My former roommate who was not raised Jewish at all and does not identify as Jewish has been told by certain religiously observant sects of Jews that she’s Jewish because her mother’s mother is.
Ben David, I’m afraid your time at Alas has come to like a 10,000th close. Go away.
I have emailed you about Ben David. I did not know that he’d been asked to leave Alas permanently when I started approving his comments on this thread, and I thought, till his recent response to Myca anyway, that those comments were interesting and made a real contribution to this discussion–having been educated within the perspective he holds, I respect it and think it’s necessary even though I don’t come anywhere near agreeing with it. I had, actually, emailed him about his response to Myca, hoping he would respond by retracting the snark, but I’m guessing he has not had time to do that yet–since I have not received anything from him. Anyway, if he needs to be permanently banned, he needs to be permanently banned. I just wanted you to know this.
For the record, though you will also have received my email: Your comment in response to Myca did bother me. There was absolutely no need for it. In light of the fact that you have been asked to leave Alas before, I have to agree with Mandolin. You need to go. If you want to continue talking about the post I linked to, you know where to find me on my own blog.