Purity and Circumcision

Purity – Parashat Tazria & Metzora (פרשת תזריע־מצרע)

by

Howard Adelman

When I explored the interpretations of Aaron’s response – silence – to the death of his two oldest sons at the hands of God because they had contaminated the holy of holies by not observing the precise instructions to be followed in performing a sacrifice, I did not explore the objective circumstances which ostensibly gave rise to those two deaths and the issue of ritual purity that dominates not only the Aaron story, but this whole section of Leviticus and, in particular, the parshah for this week. Those dictates governing purity entail not only the issue of sacrifice in the holy of holies, but also, for example, the ritual of purification when a woman immerses in a mikvah and when a male Jewish infant is circumcised on the eighth day of his life.

Purity is, and always has been, a health issue. This is clear in the discussions of tzaraat, usually translated, and for many, mistranslated, as leprosy, but which might be black mold, psoriasis, a terrible rash or Hansen’s disease. Purification using spring water, two birds (!), a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop is involved so that a contemporary reader may suspect that he or she is reading about voodoo medicine. However, I want to concentrate on brit milah, ritual circumcision of male infants, rather than treatment of tzaraat or immersion in a mikvah following a woman’s period of menstruation or as integral to a process of conversion.

In the mikvah ritual, purification is said to be necessary because the discharge of female blood into and through the vagina is viewed as impure. In the brit milah of an infant male, blood is spilled to bring about purification. Or is the process for the purpose of purification? After all, there is no suggestion that the foreskin is impure, only the possibility in modern science that retention of the foreskin may create a greater propensity for accumulating impurities.

Let me expand on this latter issue, if only to get it out of the way. (An article by Aaron E. Carroll in The New Health Care, 9 May 2016, explores these issues more deeply.) The judgement of the net benefits of circumcision to health has seesawed back and forth between an estimate that health benefits of circumcision are not significant enough to inflict pain on the infant to the 2012 conclusion of the American Academy of Pediatrics restoring an older determination that the health benefits outweighed any risks involved in the procedure, especially if the procedure follows strict purity rules. The implication was not that every male child should undergo circumcision, but that circumcision should be available to every male infant and be covered by health insurance for significant savings in health costs over the long run.

Why? Circumcised penises have lower levels of yeast and bacteria. Higher levels of the latter are correlated with greater risk for developing urinary tract infections. Thus, the chance of a boy contracting a urinary tract infection is ten times greater for a male with an uncircumcised penis than for a male with a circumcised penis. But the benefits are too small to make male circumcision mandatory since the incidence of urinary tract infection is so low that perhaps only 1 additional male in 100 would be prevented from contracting a urinary tract infection if the practice of male circumcision was made universal. This is particularly true because correlation does not entail causation; other factors may be more significant as causes –parents of circumcised male infants may culturally wash penises more regularly, as may adult males. No one knows.

However, other risks of disease are reduced – penile cancer (again, relatively rare), H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis or herpes. The only statistical benefit that emerges as very significant is the chance on contracting H.I.V. – a 1-2% reduction in the rate of the disease when males are circumcised. Male circumcision can be considered preventive, akin to getting a vaccination.

What is the downside? Medical complications from the procedure. Arguably, reduced sexual satisfaction, but little evidence to support such a belief. But the only issue of any significance is the pain inflicted on the male infant. Many would argue that the pain is minimal when local anaesthetics ae used and very short lived – in contrast when the procedure is performed on an adult male.

There is also the issue of social benefits to health and not just individual benefits. Perhaps an argument can be made in terms of society benefit resulting from lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases, especially H.I.V., which is why vaccines are almost mandatory. Again, the economic benefits to society as a whole are small compared to the claim that the rights of the child are infringed upon by the commission of intentional harm without significant benefit.  The pinprick of a vaccination needle does not change the body. Male circumcision does.

On balance, the case for male circumcision becoming a community wide standard practice is more positive than negative, but, unlike fluoridation of water, which also results in somatic changes – strengthening teeth and the resistance to dental caries – the health benefits of male circumcision are relatively marginal.

In other words, the issue of male circumcision of an infant at eight days of age is ultimately much more an issue of religious ritual purity rather than physical purity or health.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that, “Circumcision is the physical expression of the faith that lives in love.” Sanctification transforms the connection between sex and violence to a connection between sex and love. His argument boils down to infant circumcision defining the relationship of a man to his wife, turning biology into spirituality, converting the male propensity to want to reproduce to perpetuate his genes to a partnership of man and wife, a partnership of mutual affirmation. Sacks is clearly a feminist. Power is sacrificed in favour of love and relationship, not only between a male and his female partner, but between man and God, between God and the people of Israel, God’s wife. Purity entails staying monogamous; promiscuity is a betrayal of both God and one’s wife. Baal must be transformed by circumcising male power and transforming sex in the process from an act of biological drive to a choice of love, to a covenantal rather than a power relationship.

As much as I sympathize with the goal, I do not buy into this romanticizing of the ritual of circumcision. For it is a ritual between a father and son, between God and a male Jew. In actuality, the mother usually stays in another room because she is so fearful and appalled by the pain being inflicted upon her newborn infant. Since the event – barring exceptions because of the health of the newborn – takes place on the eighth day, and the world was created symbolically in seven days, Rabbi Sacks may be on the right track in suggesting that the brit is a first stage in transforming the laws of nature into cultural practices on route to creating a civilization. But what precisely is unnatural about the act of circumcision?

It may also have to do with the Jewish conception that practice precedes faith. Do it and you may come to understand. Hence, not only must the procedure shunt aside any “rights of the child,” but it cannot be left until the male is older or even an adult when it is much more painful as well as a greater risk. Further, it is an exercise in branding, in implanting in the flesh a spiritual message. But it is not like a tattoo on the arm. It is the foreskin of the penis that is cut, not because it is a lowly organ as some Jewish puritans contend, but because it is central to propagation – both to physical propagation and to Jewish continuity. The transformation of male/female relations could qualify, except that there is little indication that the circumcision has anything to do with sex.

What could it be about? The bris physically symbolizes the relationship between God and the Jewish people as indicated when Abraham, at the age of ninety-nine, circumcised himself as a brand upon his flesh signifying the covenant that he had made with God. There is no mention that God empathized with that pain and experienced suffering because of it. But Abraham not only suffered pain when he circumcised himself, but suffered a much greater pain when he was commanded to sacrifice his son. (Genesis 21:4) The circumcision commemorates Abraham’s pain much more than that of an infant eight-day-old male.

When a father, even if only through a surrogate, cuts the foreskin of his own son, the pain is direct and not just in the imagination as it is for the mother. When a father marks his son with a permanent alteration in his son’s flesh, in one of if not the most significant organs of the male as a male, then the issue is at its core about the willingness, against all one’s personal sympathies for the child, to inflict pain on one’s own son.

God does it to man. (Women suffer naturally in childbirth.) A father does it to his son. The ritual is akin to the one the priest performs when incense is brought daily before God. The latter must be done with exact precision. So too must the circumcision of the infant child be. Further, it must be an act carried out in great sobriety and with proper preparation. But with help from the community – the mohel who serves as the surrogate, the sandek who holds the child’s legs apart, the kvatters, the messengers who carry the infant on behalf of the grief-stricken mother. Though the brit milah is a celebration, that takes place afterwards. The ritual up to that point is about sacrifice and pain. The infant brought forth to have his foreskin sacrificed and to be made part o those blessed.

Why blessed? Cutting a penis and calling it a blessing, inflicting pain on an infant and calling it highly significant, that is the real dilemma of the ritual. The actual pain may be slight and the health benefits may be real even if not huge, but the ritual is clearly what the ceremony is about. It is an irreversible act entailing the sacrifice of a symbolic token of flesh taken from an organ of male reproduction to point to the need, not to just reproduce children, but to reproduce male children with a mark cut into them, a mark indicating a covenant.

That is the crunch point. What is the covenant about? Some take it to be about strict obedience to God’s commands. But the Jewish people continually challenged God. The relationship was not a pacific one. There were thrusts and parries. But at all times, in your heart – God could even kill your two oldest sons – even if God’s act was disproportionate and wrong, it was not perceived to result from malice, but for one’s own good.

So too the action of the father. However a father fails his son, it is not out of malice. A father must not only teach his son that he loves him, but that the son must never absolutely trust his father. Even one’s own father can give one pain, and do it when one is most vulnerable. Rather than teaching absolute obedience and absolute perfection of a father-figure, even a father you love can betray your trust, can betray your faith.

A Jewish circumcised male is given a permanent reminder both that he cannot trust his penis, which seems to have a “mind” of its own, but cannot even absolutely trust his father. Distrust, not absolute faith, must be an integral part of the relationship between man and God, between a son and his father, and between humans and their relationship to authority figures.

Leviticus 10:10 reads, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” Circumcision is the first step in making a Jewish male infant into a holy being, not holy because he surrenders himself in total faith to another, but because he is branded in his flesh to always distrust another no matter how much he loves and respects that other. To be clean is not to be immaculate. Pure faith is restricted to the holy of holies. However, it is the wholly holy which is unclean in the analogy. To be clean is to engage in the right balance between trust and distrust, between total trust in one’s father and also guarded that even a loving father can betray you. Purity must be applied to the ordinary, to the common, to make sure the flesh is not contaminated. But purity of the spirit does not belong in the common, in the flesh, for in this world we need both trust and distrust.

To quote a blog I wrote a year ago: “If a father who so loves his long longed-for son, no one more so than Abraham, is capable of cutting his eight-day-old son, and cutting him in his sexual organ, inflicting pain, however minimal, where the son will carry the badge of a Jew, in his flesh and in his psyche, for his entire life, then the message tattooed in the flesh is that no one can be completely trusted – including God in Judaism in contrast to Christianity.”

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One comment on “Purity and Circumcision

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