Circumcision: The Controversial Ritual from a Feminist Perspective

Profil, July 30, 2012

3,000 years of tradition do have profound weight. Nevertheless it is high time to investigate circumcision from a feminist perspective, argues Tessa Szyskowitz.

July, in my parents’ garden, south of Vienna. We are sitting in the shade of the common beech and I am telling my son Adam, who just turned eight years old that in this house his Brit Mila took place about eight years ago. “My circumcision? Iiih!” he said. “Let’s go to the swing instead!”

But that is what happened. Our garden was transformed into a land of milk and honey by the organizers  Chaja Molcho and Joshua Elbaranes. The Chief Rabbi sang jiddish rap, the band, which we organized through the community in the Seitenstettengasse played the music, and the entire clan with all our friends was there and danced Hora on the lawn. And right before that little Adam was circumcised by Vienna’s best Mohel in front of my parents’ bookshelves. In his civilian profession, the Mohel is the kosher butcher from Vienna’s second district.

“He is whaaat?”, I asked three weeks ago during the first meeting. The Chief Rabbi and the father of my child carefully looked at me with their big, warm eyes. I know that look. Without those two looking at each other, I still knew they were thinking the same thing: “this is going to be difficult.” I put my hands on my round belly and said: “We will do the circumcision right there in the hospital, away from the public. The butcher will not come close to my baby. And that’s that.”

3,000 years of tradition have their weight. Adams’s father rejected the medical circumcision in the hospital, eight days after giving birth they had me persuaded to accept the Mohel’s/butcher’s assistant; he is a pediatrician. I had also agreed to the private ceremony at home – as a closed session. But when we finally got started, all the guests invited to the party afterwards were already here. “Do you really want to risk the circumcision to be handled by the assistant, he is inexperienced!”, the religious authorities were increasing the pressure at the last minute.

All the prayer shawls were blocking my sight of the baby. The Chief Rabbi, the Mohel, and his assistant, the child’s father, his father, friends and the godfather formed a wall around my small, eight day-old baby. There was prayer and singing, everybody was excited. I was excluded from the circle. “It is better for you not to watch”, the Rabbi told me sympathetically, yet firmly. My father in law held the baby, the circumcision was brief and painful, the boy briefly carked, the Mohel bandaged the wound, lifted the baby up, and handed it to me. The men had done their job and buckled away into the garden.

As a feminist and atheist, originally grown up in a Catholic family, I would like to have saved my baby and myself this Brit Mila. But out of politeness and out of love to an Israeli I converted to Judaism in 1995. Therefore, my children are Jews. I always found it to be o.k. to celebrate family parties with a religious background; we celebrate both Jewish and Christian holidays anyway, and my children enjoy the advantages of their wide cultural Hinterland. But with circumcision, my tolerance for family tradition reaches its limits.

To prevent misunderstandings: I oppose a court of law forbidding circumcision. It doesn’t matter if it is performed for medical or religious reasons, in my opinion circumcision is still within a sphere that is better controlled privately, not by the state. Circumcision is a central part of the religious and cultural context of Jews and Muslims, neither one nor the other will have it banned. In America and the UK, circumcision for medial reasons is quite common, every second American is circumcised. Not even within the (erroneously labeled) Christian occident an EU law on circumcision could be passed.

In my opinion, the entire discussion regarding advantages and disadvantages of circumcision are a smoke screen. Of course excuses are permitted when talking about sex. That can be quite funny as well. Just briefly, for the sake of clarification before we move on  to the serious part of the issue: First: medical advantages of a circumcised penis? Controversial. Whoever believes in it can have a circumsition performed in a hospital.

But one has to know: this is more of a medical intervention than piercing your ears. But it does not limit the physical and psychological ability of a man later on. God only demanded the foreskin from Abraham because it is dispensable. Second: are circumcised men better lovers? This is something that only men can discuss sincerely – but it definitely does not depend on the foreskin.

The meaning of circumcision, however, is interesting from an ideological standpoint. In the center of Vienna and the middle of the dessert alike, the religious authorities have only one thing in mind: riot control. If men don’t think about sex, they traditionally busy themselves with control of society and their hierarchical standing in the community.

Circumcision means men showing each other who may pull down whose pants. Sigmund Freud pointed out that through circumcision the father subdues the son to the principle of fatherhood. Thereby, the father also subordinates to his god. The Rabbi, too, introduces himself into the hierarchy through is function as a moderator.

Historically, circumcision was a step forward; it replaced human sacrifice, used to calm down angry gods.  Before circumcision, men were castrated after conquest, having the foreskin cut was lucky in comparison.
But 3,000 years later, one could ask if a little reform would be in order.

On the day of the ruling of the court in Cologne, a Jewish mother in London was taking part in a BBC debate on Radio 4 (Oxford-English version of ORF 1). “As a feminist and mother I have to say that circumcision is unbearable for me, even as I understand its part of our cultural tradition as a Jew. We just have to find a new solution.” In London, there is a reform synagogue on every other corner, one for each orthodox synagogue. Or a mosque. Or a pub. Jews in England have it easier. Reform is not automatically interpreted as attempted genocide in disguise.

In Berlin and Vienna, on the other hand, centuries of racial hatred and the Shoa always hang in the air. Even if anti-islamic or antisemitic sentiments don’t inform the enlightening diligence of the judge in Cologne. One glance at the vox populi postings on the issue in the former Holocaust countries shows that every debate that deals with foreign customs has a bitter aftertaste. This is what makes the debate on circumcision so difficult today. A Jewish, religious ceremony in Vienna after all does also mean that the Jews survived Hitler. We cannot ignore that, even with the best intentions of enlightenment at heart.

Specifically because of this situation, the modern Jewish and Muslim middle class in Germany and Austria should not cede the discussion on religious reform to racist bloggers. I personally would welcome a movement within the communities that demands at least the protection of boys from the public abasement ceremony. How often have I heard that mothers have to fight a blackout while their little sons are circumcised in the next room? As 21st century women, there are other religious traditions that we don’t support anymore, why is this male ritual accepted unchallenged?

After the Cologne verdict, one Rabbi feared that “if the court prohibits circumcision, Jewish life becomes impossible.” Isn’t that a bit close-minded as only 50 percent of Jews are actually affected? How about handing over the power in the communities to women? They would come up with an answer to the question “union with god” that also includes themselves. To welcome a child into a family or to the community, one could throw a party where people cry out of joy, not pain.

But men will not give up their power-assuring rituals by themselves. I can see from my own history how difficult it is to find a way between old traditions and accomplishments of modernism. At least reforms are usually better if they come from inside. After all, Austrian and German societies are not as secular as I want them to be. I would also like to see Christian women rebel against male rule in the Catholic Church. Jewish and Muslim women could take the opportunity to blow a fresh wind under the prayer shawls, the prayer rugs, the head scarves and wigs!

The year is 2012 after Christ, not before. According to Jewish calculations, we have already arrived in the year 5772. 1433 Islamic years have passed since Mohammed came to Medina. Time for all to finally arrive in modernity.

My son Adam is back on his swing. The Mohel did a great job eight years ago. One important detail of history was unearthed towards the end of our party thanks to the investigative qualities of former Profil – journalist Erika Wantoch. “What happens to the cut off foreskin?” she wanted to know right after the circumcision. I looked at her flabbergasted, and the religious authorities told her. Jews bury also single body parts; a foreskin therefore is not simply tossed in the trash. To the contrary.

It was buried in my parent’s garden.