This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Mitzvah Worth Fighting For *

A campaign to outlaw infant circumcision in California and other parts of the United States (it has also been filling the letters pages of our local newspaper) is acquiring a momentum that is understandably quite alarming to most Jews--and the most militant advocates of the proposed law seem to bear Jewish names. The practice of circumcision continues to be one of the most widely observed rites even among Jews who in other respects are very removed from traditional religious practice. The current debate involves complex issues of religious freedom, individual rights and conflicting medical claims.

Anyone who is familiar with Jewish history will surely be overcome by a powerful sense of déjà vu. Similar confrontations between secular outlooks and the covenant of Abraham have been recurring for more than two millennia.

Attempts to abolish circumcision were a key factor in the religious persecutions that triggered the Hasmonean revolt in the second century BCE. As recounted in the Book of Maccabees, it was a faction within the Jewish community that first saught to remove the physiological differences that distinguished Jews from their heathen neighbours in the dominant global culture of Hellenism. Later, when the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV occupied Jerusalem, he ordered his Jewish subjects "to leave their sons uncircumcised" on pain of death. "Yet many in Israel preferred death to profaning the sacred covenant, and so they died."

As noted, the Hellenistic opposition to circumcision (at least as it was portrayed by the author of Maccabees) was inspired principally by a desire to obscure the differentiation between Jews and gentiles. It was likely also motivated by the Greek idealization of the human body in its natural state.

Circumcision was also a central issue in the Bar-Kokhba revolt of 132-136 CE. There is an animated debate among historians as to whether a Roman ban on circumcision should be regarded as the immediate cause of the uprising, or as a punitive measure that was introduced in response to it. Advocates of the former thesis point to a report by a later Roman historian to the effect that the Jews took up arms after the emperor Hadrian had enacted legislation against genital mutilation that included a ban on circumcision. This would have been consistent with a previous decree by Domitian prohibiting forced castration and sterilization; and it helps explain why Antoninus Pius subsequently needed to exempt the Jews from that prohibition. Talmudic tradition also speaks of Jews who underwent surgical procedures (epispasm) to undo their circumcisions during the era of the Bar-Kokhba uprising.

For various reasons, recent scholarship has become more skeptical about the credibility of those Roman documents, and historians are now inclined to question the theory that the ban on circumcision preceded the revolt. The Jewish sources that speak of epispasms might well refer to elective procedures performed on Jewish hellenizers--as had been the case in the era of the Hasmoneans--and not necessarily to anti-Jewish edicts that were imposed on them by a hostile government. Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, who lived in the aftermath of the Bar-Kohba revolt, stated that "all commandments for which Israel were prepared to risk their lives in the face of government decrees, such as idolatry or circumcision, are still upheld by them."

Jewish opposition to circumcision resurfaced in nineteenth century, though it was limited to a small and very extreme fringe of the Reform movement in Germany. The "Jewish Friends of Reform" [Verein der Reformfreunde] was an elite association of Jewish intellectuals that operated in Frankfurt am Main from 1842 to 1845. While their official membership peaked at about forty-five, their ideological struggles probably reflected more widespread grappling with the dissonances between traditional Judaism and contemporary European values.

The initial draft of the group's proposed statement of principles included a repudiation of all archaic rituals, and singled out circumcision as a practice that is no longer binding as a religious act or symbol. For strategic reasons, they decided to omit that clause from their published manifesto, fearing that it would unnecessarily alienate potential sympathizers. They were also worried lest by calling into question the validity of a well-known biblical institution, they would be undermining their claims to legitimacy in the eyes of the Christian majority, as well as opening themselves up to charges of establishing a new sect.

When the association tried to recruit Gabriel Riesser, the respected champion of Jewish civil rights, he took them to task for being too timid in their condemnation of circumcision. "This repugnant ceremony," he insisted, "insofar as it is to be regarded as religious, must thoroughly disgust every cultured sensibility, as much as Talmud and messiah put together." He was concerned, among other things, that many parents were so unnerved by the prospect of circumcising their infants that they chose instead to convert to Christianity.

Some of the more extreme opponents went so far as to lobby actively for the abolition of the practice and recommend its replacement by a more "spiritual" and egalitarian ceremony to celebrate births. They were instrumental in calling for legislation that required governmental supervision of the mohels. And yet it is remarkable to note that most Reform leaders of the time, though they were quite willing to embrace far-reaching innovations in other areas of theology and liturgy, upheld the rite and recognized its importance as a fundamental expression of Jewish identity.

A curious sidelight to today's controversy is the recruitment of Moses Maimonides as an ostensible opponent of circumcision (it is even possible to purchase t-shirts inscribed with the relevant quote from the Guide of the Perplexed). Of course, Maimonides himself was offering a justification for the biblical command that he accepted enthusiastically, but his unconventional medical rationale for the mitzvah can be turned into an argument for the opposing side. Negating a favourite theme of rabbinic expositions, Maimonides insisted that circumcision should not be perceived as an improvement on nature. In reality, he wrote, it may well weaken the body by decreasing sexual functionality and pleasure. For the Torah, however, this should be seen as a legitimate price to pay in order to achieve the moral advantage of of subduing the temptations that would otherwise lure us away from our proper spiritual and moral vocations. As far as I know, more recent medical research has not provided clear corroboration for Maimonides' claims. At any rate, the notion that moral values must sometimes override nature, or even physical gratification, is a hard one to sell in our culture.

As so often happens when we compare contemporary situations with those that confronted earlier Jewish generations, we are amazed at the uncanny correspondences between past and present. Then as now, attempts to ban circumcision were inspired by a variety of motives. While sometimes it appears to boil down to an irrational antipathy to Jews or Judaism--attitudes from which Jews themselves are by no means immune--the controversy has touched on substantive questions about the authority and nature of religion, the integrity of the body, or the particularity of the Jewish nation.

Even more than the obsessive zeal and self-hatred that have often typified opponents of circumcision, history teaches us about the stubborn commitment with which Jews have consistently rallied to fight and sacrifice for its sake. This observation gives us good reasons to hope that that the Jewish spirit will again prove capable of overcoming this threat.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 24, 2011, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Abusch, Ra‘anan. “Negotiating Difference: Genital Mutilation in Roman Slave Law and the History of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.” In The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome, edited by Peter Schäfer, 71-91. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 100. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
    • Alon, Gedaliah. The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age (70-640 C.E.). Translated by Gershon Levi. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989.
    • Bickerman, E. J. The God of the Maccabees: Studies on the Meaning and Origin of the Maccabean Revolt. Studies in Judaism in late antiquity v. 32. Leiden: Brill, 1979.
    • Bleich, J. David. “Circumcision : The Current Controversy.” Tradition 33, no. 4 (1999): 45-69.
    • Bleich, Judith. “The Circumcision Controversy in Classical Reform in Historical Context.” In Turim: Studies in Jewish History and Literature Presented to Dr. Bernard Lander, edited by Michael A. Shmidman, 1:1-28. New York: Touro College Press, 2007.
    • Cohen, Shaye J. D. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Hellenistic Culture and Society 31. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
    • Lieberman, Saul. “Religious Persecution of the Jews.” In Salo Wittemayer Baron Jubilee Volume on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday, 213-245. Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1974.
    • Meyer, Michael A. “Alienated intellectuals in the camp of religious reform: the Frankfort Reformfreunde, 1842-1845.” AJS Review 6 (1981): 61-86.
    • Oppenheimer, Aharon. “The Ban on Circumcision as a Cause of the Revolt: A Reconsideration.” In The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome, edited by Peter Schäfer, 55-69. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 100. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
    • Philipson, David. The Reform Movement in Judaism. New York: KTAV, 1967.
    • Rabello, Alfredo M. “The Edict on Circumcision as a Factor in the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.” In The Bar-Kokhba Revolt: New Aproaches, edited by Aharon Oppenheimer and U. Rappaport, 37-41. Jerusalem: JerusalemYad Itzhak Ben-Zvi, 1984.
    • Schäfer, Peter. Der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand: Studien Zum Zweiten Jüdischen Krieg Gegen Rom. Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum 1. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1981.
    • Smallwood, E. Mary. “The Legislation of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius against Circumcision.” Latomus 18 (1959): 334-347.