God further said to Abraham, you, you and your offspring to come through the ages shall keep my covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. And if any male shall fail to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant.
—Genesis 17:9-10, 13-14
Perhaps no commandment in the Torah is more difficult, more divisive, more perplexing, and more exclusive to me than circumcision. Is it possible for feminism to inject into this male covenantal ceremony some sense of meaning for women? Only if we allow ourselves the power of modern midrash and expand our understanding of symbolism and metaphor in the ceremony.
Scholars believe that circumcision is one of the most ancient tribal practices ever recorded. We know that the Egyptians, Ammonites, Edomites, and Moabites all practiced it. In most cultures, circumcision took place at puberty or at marriage as a form of sacrifice, to insure fertility. The Talmud calls both a groom and a baby ready for the circumcision by the same word, chatan1. As we saw in Part 1, the ancient link between removing the foreskin and marriage is further established in the biblical account of Tzipporah and Moses. In Exodus 4:25, after circumcising their son to ward off supernatural danger, Tzipporah flings the foreskin and cries,"You are a bridegroom of blood–chatan damim–to me."
What is significant in the Hebrew manifestation of this ancient rite is the move from adult circumcision (Abraham) to infant circumcision (Isaac), so that the connotations of sexuality and fertility are now transported into a spiritual realm. What once was a tribal rite to ensure fruitfulness now becomes a Divine command, incumbent even upon those who may not live past childhood into marriage, even upon those who may prove to be infertile. The foreskin is considered fruitless and non-useful. Like the "uncircumcised" fruit of certain trees which cannot be eaten for the first three years (called orlah, the same word for foreskin), the foreskin is unripe.
The biblical focus of brit milah, the covenant of circumcision, is the removal of that foreskin and the subsequent releasing of blood. Since, in general, blood atones, we may assume the blood of the brit milah also atones. It is an offering. Perhaps this is the meaning of the verse in Genesis 9:5, "But for your own lifeblood will I require a reckoning." We know that blood belongs to God alone, as does the firstborn of human, beast, and fruit. The blood of the brit milah is in exchange for the child's very life. The Torah teaches that an animal cannot be sacrificed before the eighth day after its birth, so male Israelites must be circumcised precisely on the eighth day, when their blood will be reckoned as a sacrifice.
Brit Milah is often pictured as atonement for the general state of humanity. Aryeh Kaplan writes:
The covenant of circumcision was one of the things that elevated Abraham and his children from the fallen state resulting from the expulsion from Eden. As a result of this covenant, the sexual act of the Jew enters the realm of the holy, and partakes of man's optimum state before his expulsion.2
Some have suggested that brit milah atones for being born through female blood. For seven days a mother is made ritually "unclean" by the blood discharge, and on the eighth day she brings this baby to be circumcised – a vicarious blood offering, a sacrifice to save her from death. Circumcision then makes this baby clean, and her as well. His blood of life saves him from his mother's blood of death. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has noted:
Circumcision coincides with the end of a boy's impurity caused by the mother's blood at birth. The entrance of a male into the covenant thus occurs with his transition from female blood to male blood. The contrast between circumcision and the blood of birthing not only reflects differences between genders but it interprets them. Women's blood is contaminating; men's blood has the power to create covenant.3
The Torah requires no parallel sacrifice to cleanse a baby girl from her mother's female blood.
Sacrifices and their attendant blood must be given in only specified places, at specified times, and eaten by specified people (Leviticus 10:16-18 and 17:1-9). The same is true of the brit milah: it must be done on the eighth day, the foreskin must be removed; the one who ignores this command is, ironically, "cut off" from his people. (The same root in Hebrew, k-r-t is used for cutting a covenant or for cutting off as in excommunication.) Circumcision, life sacrifice, is not only the sealing of covenant and atonement, it is also a symbol of control. To cut, whether the sexual organ or the animal's throat, is to be in command and to limit. The blood of circumcision limits; it sets bounds on who is a "member of the tribe," while setting real, physical limits on that member's sexual organ.
God said to Abraham: As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be called Sarah. I will bless her, indeed I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of people shall issue from her.
Sarah is commanded neither to circumcise nor to be circumcised. If the cutting of the genitals was meant to ensure fertility, then surely women, for whom fertility is the guarantor of status, should have to undergo some similar rite of passage. The Torah, in limiting circumcision to men, may be purposely demeaning the cultural link of circumcision with fertility.
And if this mark signified restrained or limited sexuality, then it is even more striking that the ultimate assurance of female sexual restraint – clitoridectomy – is neither commanded, nor sanctioned, nor even mentioned. Sarah shares in the blessing, but does not have to physically sacrifice for it. As Abraham's circumcision signals new fertility, Sarah's name change signals the end of her barrenness. As he will be the progenitor of multitudes, so too will she.
The change from Sarai to Sarah entails dropping one letter, the yud, and replacing it with another, the hey. This change was not seen as arbitrary by the commentators. The Hebrew letter hey with the accent of "ah" underneath is a symbol of the feminine ending, as in, for example, yaldah (Girl) or na'arah (young woman). On this name change, the seventeenth-century Polish commentator Kli Yakar suggests, "Before this episode Sarai was barren, not able to give birth, like a man. The masculine yud was exchanged for the feminine hey." Here the Torah hints of a brit, the notion of being covenanted, through the womb.
In Genesis 17:15-21, God reiterates just how crucial it is that the Jewish covenant be founded through the offspring of Sarah."My covenant I will establish through Isaac, whom Sarah will bear." This is directly juxtaposed with Abraham's circumcision, a few verses before. Brit milah serves as one-half of the covenantal picture: lineage through Sarah is the other.
Gary Shapiro notes that, in a metaphoric or spiritual sense, women are already circumcised, through our blood, and through our womb. On a physical level, our genitals are already open, exposed and uncovered, as the penis is after the foreskin is removed4. Thus circumcision actually makes men more like women. Male circumcision removes the foreskin and "opens up" or reveals the genital.
We can also see brit milah as a male birthing experience. Women already know the incredible bonding that occurs through the act of giving birth. From our own bodies comes forth new life, born in water and blood, a primordial encounter with creation itself. No matter how sensitive, how involved, how sympathetic, a man can never physically participate in that mystical encounter. Or can he? Myriel Crowley Eykamp, in an article entitled "Born and Born Again: Ritual Rebirth by Males," suggests that nearly every religious culture in the world has some sort of initiation ceremony in which there is "a reappropriation or taking-over of the birthing act by the male priest. One must not only be born again, but born again of the male."5
Ritual rebirth by males is almost a universal religious phenomenon. On one level, that means only that religious misogyny is universal. But on another level, it offers proof of men's deep longing to be able to give birth themselves. Some religions may do this through water. Judaism does it through blood, like the blood of the actual birth.
While that reappropriation can be seen as threatening to women, we can also reexamine it from a spiritual viewpoint. To be "born again of the male" is to allow the father to re-create the mystical bond in Genesis that is truly partnership with God. There ought to be a moment when the birthing experience is shared, when men birth through blood, when they connect as physically as women do. If a father "gives birth" at least symbolically to his child, he takes equal responsibility as a giver of life. Clearly, we need a rebirthing moment for the father of a girl as well.
In her book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas comments on Bettelheim's view that
... psychoanalysts have overemphasized girls' envy of the male sex and overlooked the importance of boys' envy of the female sex ... rituals which are explicitly designed to produce genital bleeding in males are intended to express male envy of female reproductive processes... This is merely a description of a public act. On a deeper level, what is being carved in the flesh is an image of society.6
In brit milah there is a carving of an image of what being Jewish means into the male flesh and the male mind. We must design that image into one of a righteous, caring, and fruitful society.
Circumcision is purposely imposed upon the organ that gave the baby life, which may one day perpetuate more life. It is a cut upon the sexual organ and not the earlobe or the finger, as a symbol of cut, curtailed, disciplined sexuality. This interpretation is not wholly new. As early as the twelfth century, Maimonides saw the rite as reducing sexuality to a manageable level.7 Today we need this idea rearticulated. Jewish views of sexuality include the notion that sexual pleasure is mutual, that force is violence and not love, and that human sexual encounters must be based on sanctity and not on strength.
Circumcision functions not only as ritual initiation but also as the communal ritual setting of boundaries to male sexuality. At the brit milah male blood is the metaphor for discipline and control over the ultimate male lack of control: unbounded and dangerous sexuality. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi writes:
Something destructive and "macho" gets refined by a bris, directing a man away from pure instinct and toward prudent judgment. Maybe Freud was right about the dominating power of the libido: if so, it makes sense to take that absolute power away from the penis. So much of what happens in sex is covenantal. Perhaps this is why Covenant has to be imposed on this organ from the very start.8
We cut the organ that can symbolize love or terror, endearment or violence. Here is a ceremony in which we metaphorically pronounce the limitation imposed on the male organ to all gathered. We say to this child, "We who are gathered here charge you: as your father used his organ in love to produce you, so you, too, are expected to sanctify yourself, to restrain the power of your maleness." Our community, at least in theory, rejects an unbridled masculinity. We publicly acknowledge that male sexuality is moved from the realm of the casual, hurtful, or noncommittal to the sphere of the holy, the whole, the good.
Do women need a brit of blood cut into their flesh to move them to the same awareness? In our society, male violence is still the norm, based on phallic authority and the fear that phallus can instill. Since we have seen how blood offers expiation throughout the Torah, can those few drops of covenantal blood be seen as atonement for male control? As cleansing of violence in a patriarchal world? Let men teach men, father to son, of vulnerability. Let our boys be entered into a circumscribed world of men whose spiritual sensitivities are increased as their phallic-centered power is decreased.
I speak from personal experience. I have three sons who were physically one with me. I kept their lives inside me for nine months, nurtured and fed them through my own veins and arteries. I had to let go and allow my sons to enter the world of men, but that world often frightens and confuses me.
I wanted their brit milah ceremony to reflect a new understanding of disciplined masculinity, and I shared these ideas with those present. I watched how guests offered the babies blessings of wholeness, nurturing, and respect for women. The Jewish world has the potential to be a safe world for me and for them, if it becomes a world of male sexuality defined by holiness, commitment, and responsibility. Each of my sons' ceremonies included an acknowledgment of this new symbolism. Each baby was blessed by all the women present, holding my tallit high over him.
The common notion in our sexist world is that men are created "whole" and perfect. Circumcision negates that aggrandizement. In "sacrificing" a piece of the penis, in uncovering and revealing themselves in their most vulnerable part, in making themselves more like women, men can be made more whole.
Yet, with all this, it would be interesting to speculate on how women might have expressed covenantal relationship in the days of the Torah, had they been consulted. From the most traditional midrashim to the most radically new idea, these notions remain "revisions." The ceremony is still one of male bonding through some form of violence. Tender male children are taken from the safety of their mothers, the female world they have known for eight days, and given into the hands of men, who then cut them.
While the mostly male medical establishment still debates the physical usefulness of circumcision, the Jewish people hold to its spiritual usefulness. Feminists have yet to enter that discussion in full power, and on those occasions when they do, they are often accused of being traitors for merely questioning the centrality of circumcision. But it is no accident that male lawgivers chose these very ceremonies and these very symbols of control over sexuality. We need feminist midrashim, and serious feminist discussion, to lift both the ceremony and the participants above the masculinist suppositions, male exclusivity, and simple pain, that it contains.
Excerpted from ReVisions: Seeing Torah Through a Feminist Lens. 1998 by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). $19.95 + $3.50 x/h. Order by mail, by calling 800-962-4544 or on-line. Permission granted by Jewish Lights.