Last updated on March 21, 2022
So circumcision. Or, circumcision and Russian Jews, specifically. I’ve been neglecting this blog lately (vacations, dead computers, more vacations…), and why not jump back in with something that’s sure to upset someone, somewhere.
In a post titled “Taking On The Difficult Obligation of Brit Milah,” on The Forward‘s Sisterhood blog, Debra Nussbaum Cohen defends the practice, characterizing it as an obligation to our children to not cut them off from their heritage. I was particularly intrigued by her argument—a refreshingly honest one—that ultimately, circumcision is an irrational act, and that that’s ok.
True, it’s easy for those of us who are educated, rational thinkers to understand why vaccines and blood tests are important, and a brit milah isn’t really possible to understand intellectually. It’s not rational. It’s a statement of belief and sense of purpose that this child is a member of the Jewish people. It’s not an easy statement to make when we’re so often ambivalent or unsure ourselves of what we believe, but it’s also important to remember that many important things in life aren’t rational, like love and acting with compassion.
Arguments against religious circumcision (the brit milah, in Judaism) have been burbling up on my radar over the last few years. Partly because the internet is so partial to anti-establishment ideas, and partly through conversations with Jewish friends who debated doing it for their own sons. I was really startled when I first encountered the debate—this, to me, has always been a uncompromising given, the bare minimum of peoplehood for Jewish men. I still remember the scene in Europa, Europa, where a young Jewish boy tries desperately to restore his foreskin, using a string, and thus avoid detection as a Jew. It’s as disturbing as you’d expect, a reminder that for so long, the snipped penis was always just a moment away from revealing its secrets and certain death. But North American Jewry is changing rapidly. As the community becomes more comfortable here, there is less desire, or need, for rituals that differentiate and mark out tribal, ethnic, or religious differences.
As I’ve been exploring Soviet Jewry more and more, the lines between Soviet/Russian and North American Jewry, especially the more assimilated and liberal circles I’m most familiar with, become easier to articulate. Such as the brit milah. For many of the Soviet Jews I know, circumcision remains the defining characteristic of Jewishness. Without it, you’re not quite whole (yes, yes, the bad jokes await). Europe’s anti-Semitic legacy still looms large in the lives of newer immigrants, and so rites of passage like the brit milah have a different significance, or weight.
So the question of snipping really drives home how great the gulf between North American Jewry and its Soviet-Russian counterparts can be. This is not just language or eating habits or degree of observance. Circumcision, as it was intended to, forever marks the body. It may not be visible for all the world, like a tattoo would be, but in those most private moments of life, it’s always there. The call to circumcise, and all it stands for, can be so powerful that men who arrived here from the Soviet Union at a much older age have chosen to undergo the procedure. I know several people who immigrated as teens and chose to be circumcised as a symbol of their new life, in which they could finally be free to practice their religion. And doing it as a teenager, well, you’ll need more than a few drops of Manischewitz to get over that one; it was more along the lines of a week in bed in some cases.
Sure, you can argue that as teens and adults, these men are free to make a decision that a baby must rely on its parents for. But, I think to focus on a human rights argument misses the point. Which is that, despite a squeamishness that tends to be strongest among more liberal, educated and privileged North American Jews, this is a practice that is deeply rooted and powerful for many. In other words, as people who are most comfortable in their Judaism turn away from it, other Jews who’ve struggled to maintain and reclaim that same Judaism, embrace it as a marker of their freedom. A totally irrational, and a totally liberating, moment.
Will the children and grandchildren of Soviet Jews turn more towards their North American counterparts as they become established in North America? I don’t know. Maybe these differences will fizzle out. Unlike Sephardi Jews, Soviet Jews are of Ashkenazi descent, and so, perhaps easier to assimilate into the mainstream of Jewish life. Maybe the traumas of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives will maintain their hold and come out in practices like the brit milah.
For the moment, different backgrounds are leading to very different conclusions.