Jewish Circumcision

An Enigma in Historical Perspective
  • Leonard B. Glick
Chapter

Abstract

Male infant circumcision as a Jewish ethnic marker began not with the mythical Abraham but as a rite introduced by priests sometime around 500 BCE, when they created the circumcision story that became Chapter 17 of Genesis. Circumcised male genitals became the “sign” of the covenant (bris or brit) between the Lord and the Israelite nation. But why has this practice become entrenched in Jewish culture when so much else has changed? I argue that circumcision achieved singular status because it was specifically targeted for rejection by Christians. Christian theologians identified circumcision as exemplary evidence that Judaism was an anachronistic religion preoccupied with physical concerns. In response, rabbis extolled circumcision as God’s supreme gift to the Jewish people, confirmation of his eternal covenant. Over the centuries, as Christians portrayed circumcision with scorn and ridicule, the rite became a tradition not to be questioned, for that meant capitulation to the age-old assault from Christianity. A new challenge emerged with nineteenthcentury modernity, when a few German-Jewish laymen questioned the practice; but nearly all rabbis, even those in the new Reform movement, passionately rejected their arguments. In the United States, Reform Judaism has become more conservative, and there is now a board-supervised training of physicians to function as Reform circumcisers. Recently, two Jewish scholars published illuminating critical studies of circumcision; but most Jews still defend this harmful custom, justifying it with vague references to biblical commands or ostensible medical benefits, and often expressing surprise or annoyance when it is questioned.

Keywords

Jewish Community Reform Movement Jewish Culture Infant Male Circumcision Jewish Physician 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leonard B. Glick
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Social ScienceHampshire CollegeAmherstUSA

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