I’m driving in Galilee on my way to Nazareth. The radio is tuned to a weekly Family Therapy talk show. A man calls in. He’s all choked up. The woman therapist calms him. The man says: “My daughter gave birth to a boy. I’m a grandfather. She refuses to circumcise my grandson. What should I do?!”
The woman therapists who’s very attentive and supportive can’t help but be professional, too. ”Ultimately, it will be your daughter’s decision. But you must put your foot down. Tell her your thoughts, your feelings. You must. This is no time to be a liberal, to experiment.”
Circumcision of Jewish boys is a rite that’s been going on for thousands of years. It’s as natural as drawing air into the lungs. In fact, 98% of all Jewish males in Israel are circumcised, no matter the political spectrum or religious affiliation, orthodox or secular.
Yet not all is calm in Israel today. Young couples question the ritual. They’re fed up with the Rabbinical tight noose around their necks, telling them how and whom they can marry, and how to rear their infants.
The objecting parents regard the practice as primitive. Once the foreskin has been cut away from the penis, it’s irreversible. Almost. Secondly, no one asked the eight-day old boy for his consent. The baby has no voice, no “rights.”
A little history: God commands the Hebrew Patriarch Abraham to tie up his son Isaac and slaughter him as an offering. Abraham obeys. God calls it off. Isaac is spared. Through a covenant, God promises Abraham his “seed” will be plentiful; he will become a vast nation. He commands him to circumcise his son to seal the deal. Imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind — I’m commanded to kill my son. Then God has second thoughts. He then tells me to cut off my son’s foreskin, and mine, instead. Lucky me!
God is very specific about a lot of things. In the Book of Genesis, God tells Noah precisely how to build the Ark for the coming flood, which animals to bring on board. In the Book of Leviticus, God tells the People of Israel precisely how animals should be slaughtered, how the land should be planted and harvested, issues regarding incest, orphans, sacrifices, the duties of the priests.
However, God’s command to circumcise comes without an Owner’s Manual. God is silent on how to cut. Maybe it wasn’t the foreskin (ערלה) after all. Plucking a few pubic hairs off the balls would have been just fine.
We will never know.
Objection to circumcision goes back centuries. Roman Emperor Hadrian in the year 131 AD ruled over Israel. The Jewish Temple lay in ruins. He was greatly influenced by Greek culture that worshiped the human body. To him, circumcision mutilated the perfect body. He persecuted the Jews over it. A revolt broke out. Hadrian had to recruit generals and troops from as far away as Britain(!) and the Danube to put down the revolt. That’s how strongly the Jews believed in their God-given right.
But why do it?
Covenant with God, I get that. Any other reason? To make the Jews different from all other nations? That’s one explanation. But Jews didn’t invent the practice. Pagans and Ancient Egyptians circumcised their boys too.
“Cut off your penis in the morning, build a pyramid in the afternoon.”
And no bonus and no overtime. No wonder the pyramids resembled erections.
The “Rambam,” also known as Moses Maimonides, was a much-loved and revered medieval scholar, Jewish Rabbi, philosopher and physician in 12th century Egypt. He wrote commentary on the bible. Here’s his belief on the merits of circumcision from his book “The Guide of the Perplexed”:
“One of the reasons for circumcision is the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible…. and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished.”
Quick! Does someone have the phone number for a good plastic surgeon?
Rambam explains why the ritual is performed eight days after birth:
“The first is that if the child were let alone until he grew up, he would sometimes not perform it. The second is that a child does not suffer as much pain as a grown-up man because his membrane is still soft and his imagination weak;”
He concludes his reasoning that the parents’ attachment to the child is not as strong days after birth. If the circumcision were to be performed after three or four years, for example, the parents might refuse inflicting pain.
England. 1966. I’m an elven year-old Israeli in a London school. As part of physical education, my classmates and I board a school bus on a half-hour ride to an indoor swimming pool. In the locker room I remove my underwear to put on my swim trunks. I’m shocked to find that my Little Sausage is different from the English boys. That day, I didn’t swim well. I sank. When I got home, I asked my dad: “What’s wrong with me?”
And that’s just it. As a boy, as a man, you don’t want to stand out from the crowd. Definitely not in the Israeli military.
“You’re in the Army now!”
And this is what the family therapist was alluding to during the radio call. Young men are vulnerable about their sexuality. The last thing they need is to be ridiculed, to be sidelined, to be ostracized. Men in the army should all be G.I – General Issue – they wear the same uniform, the same boots, carry the same gun, and carry a standard-looking penis….
The Israeli army is the ultimate ”melting pot.”
Some secular Israelis rail against the orthodox, yet when it comes to circumcision, it’s a different story. They swallow their pride, their views, and go on with the business at hand — kicking and screaming. As the father of daughters I didn’t have to decide. But if I had a son, I would follow generations before me.
It’s something innate: You can’t mess with a 4000 year tradition.
What do you think? For? Against?
Even Russian male adults who’d immigrated to Israel in the 1990s; they were mostly uncircumcised because of communism’s banning of religion — they had to be circumcised as part of becoming Jewish.
“Welcome to Israel, Comrade. Now drop your pants.”
This blog is getting a little long. I think I should “cut” here.
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com