Jewish Body Part 1: The Circs

Melvin Konner is the author of The Jewish Body: An Anatomical History of the Jewish People (Shocken, January 2009). He will be guest blogging on Jewcy all week. Jewish Bod 1: The Circs Have you seen the picture bouncing around … Read More

By / February 23, 2009

Melvin Konner is the author of The Jewish Body: An Anatomical History of the Jewish People (Shocken, January 2009). He will be guest blogging on Jewcy all week.

Jewish Bod 1: The Circs

Have you seen the picture bouncing around the net? One oft hose signs with movable letters on a lawn outside a synagogue: "MADOFF BRIS TODAY. NOT JUST THE FORESKIN. THE WHOLE SCHMCK. NO ANESTHESIA. FUN FOR ALL." They may have wanted to castrate Bernie, but they delicately circumcised the word "schmuck" for some reason, which after all just means jewel – as in, family jewel.

In most of the old circ jokes, castration was an accident, not payback for the cad who palmed billions. But to Freud and friends, successful circumcision was a ritual mini-castration, some sort of racial memory of what fathers wanted to do to sons, a stand-in for the real thing. Odd for a practice the Jews always saw as perfecting the family jewel, not destroying it.

It goes back to B’reishit, the book of Genesis, and you could say it’s an emblem of genesis itself. Bris doesn’t mean foreskin snipping, it means "covenant," a deep and subtle bargain. God promises Abraham as many descendants as the stars, but… There’s this little thing he has to do to seal the deal, and do the same to his sons, his servants, and every male child from here to the stars.

And any male who doesn’t have this done "that soul will be cut off from his people, for he has broken My covenant." So it’s either the one cut or the other.

There’s a midrash, a rabbinical back-story, attached to this passage. Abraham doesn’t just pick up his blade and start slicing…he wants to know what he did to deserve the honor. Answer: You were the first to be worthy of it. After a couple of more "but-but"s from Abe (he is 99 after all), God says, look, just do it, or I’ll un-create the world.

Wow. Not just destroy it, like God did back in Noah’s time. Un-create it. Run the tape backwards, as if it never existed. All the way back to "without form and void."

It’s almost as if the whole point of Creation was to get to that moment, that bargain. And of course, at that moment, the Jews as a people are born. If you were male, you had to have it; if female, it was the only family jewel you could play with, and all your sons had to have it too, often while you watched. (I can hear Tevye saying, "Can’t You choose somebody else for a change?") This may have been God’s idea of perfection, but there was definitely pain involved.

The, um, point was the opposite of what Freud thought. It wasn’t, symbolically, to cut the whole thing off, it was to make it perfect, to complete the work of Creation–the first tikkun olam. And the result was opposite too. Castration cuts your reproduction short; circumcision makes you massively fertile, numerous as the stars.

The fertility link is common toother cultures that circumcise sons–often at puberty, like the Australian aborigines and a number of African groups. You make a boy a man and you make him fertile in one swipe of the knife.

Is there anything to that? Well, we now know circumcised men and their partners have fewer STDs, which can block fertility, and the women have less cervical cancer. It’s been proven in Africa to reduce the spread of AIDS. But for the Jews throughout the centuries, it wasn’t mainly the hygiene, it was the covenant.

And the identity. Cut off from his people was no joke, and neither was the fact that doing it cut you off from everyone else. Ancient Greek Olympians, gorgeous as gods, competed nude to show their splendor, and they ridiculed the Jews who tried to measure up. However good they were, they were maimed. Pathetically, some tried to reverse their circumcisions to better their circumstances, but this left a lot to be desired.

And of course, many of us who grew up in the wake of the Shoah had nightmares about the "drop-your-pants" moment when the SS man would expose us for who we were. So, now that almost every man in America has one, what does the circ really say about who we are?

It still says what it always said: Jewish boy. Jewish man. Not cut off from his people, past, present, or future. And not cut off from the God his people believe in, whether or not he believes in God himself. So don’t do it in passing in the hospital, just to reduce infections, or to make him look like Dad. Do it on day eight, ceremoniously, and honor the countless generations who risked their lives and those of their sons to keep this precious tradition, to keep this people whole, and to keep the bargain with whatever force or spirit brought them from ancienttimes till now, through untold challenge and unspeakable adversity, to a time of tremendous achievement and triumph.

Jewish Body cover

Jewish Body coverMelvin Konner’s new book is The Jewish Body, in the "Jewish Encounters"series. 

You can see the trailer for it here: and learn more at his website,




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