Limmud 2: Circumcision - Livre d'Or

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Limmud 2: Circumcision
Wednesday, 06 July 2016 at 01:15 pm

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To continue my write-ups after a bit of a gap:

  1. Lena Salamayeh: Circumcising membership: Jewish and Islamic rituals

    So when I was teaching about conversion over Shavuot, someone asked me about the importance of circumcision in conversion to Islam, and I didn't really know, so it seemed fortuitous that someone was teaching at Limmud on just that topic, by a historian of religious law. ghoti attended the talk with me, and her write-up is more concise and probably more informative than mine.

    So Salamayeh seemed to be pretty sound on the history of Islamic law, and she answered what I wanted to know. Her thesis was that circumcision in Islam is not a direct borrowing from Jewish circ, but a mostly independent practice whose origin is primarily in pre-Muslim Arab and African customs, though of course influenced by contact with Jews. So specifically, in Judaism the act of circumcision is directly connected to entering into the Covenant, and is associated with specific rituals called brit milah, the covenant of circumcision. And adult male converts to Judaism usually have to undergo circumcision; there is controversy as to whether a symbolic cut is required for converts who happen to be already circumcised. Indeed, the Geonim, who lived in the time and place of early Islam, did make this symbolic spilling of blood a necessary part of conversion for a man who is already circumcised, eg a former Muslim who becomes Jewish, even though the Talmudic opinion as usual follows the School of Hillel to rule that this is not necessary. Whereas in Islam, circumcision is encouraged and customary (nearly all modern Muslim men worldwide are circumcised, except those originating from the former Soviet Union), though not really mandated in the Quran or early sources, but it is primarily associated with cleanliness. There is apparently no corresponding debate in Islam about whether a Jewish or otherwise already circumcised convert to Islam should undergo symbolic blood spilling; if he's already circumcised, he's already ritually clean and this particular rite of passage is not needed.

    Salamayeh's view was that the Prophet did not ban circumcision because he had little interest in suppressing general tribal practices as long as they did not directly contradict monotheism. But he may not have attached any particular positive value to the practice either. It is only by the tenth century that the Quran's injunction to follow the example of Ibrahim (Abraham) is interpreted as referring to circumcision, particularly when Muslims were preaching to non-Arab Christians. In this sort of period, stories emerge about the Prophet requiring circumcision as well as ritual ablutions from a convert. Conversely, there are stories of the Caliph's officers in the early Mediaeval period trying to check whether converts were sincere or just trying to avoid their jizya taxes, but religious authorities said it was not permitted to look whether a particular convert was circumcised; circ is explicitly not a requirement for Muslim identity or status.

    In Judaism, circumcision has to be carried out by a religiously qualified mohel, and ideally should be performed when a baby boy is 8 days old, unless there is some (usually medical) reason to delay. It's considered an obligation on the parents of male-assigned children, not just the individual. There are no such requirements in Islam, any time before puberty is ok, and anyone with the appropriate skill can carry it out. Salamayeh gave an example from what she called the Muslim responsa tradition, though I don't know its technical name, where people asked about a region where they only competent circumciser was a Jewish mohel, and this person was circumcising Muslim babies at 8 days old, and they question was posed as to whether this really counts as Muslim rather than Jewish circumcision. The conclusion was that it's valid and doesn't somehow accidentally make the child Jewish, but it's interesting that this was debated. And in modern times apparently it's most common for Muslim circumcision to be carried out in medical environments, with no associated ritual though there is often a celebratory party afterwards. Judaism would generally not consider circumcision carried out by a Muslim, or by a non-Jewish doctor, to be valid; a born Jewish person who had had that operation carried out would be obligated in symbolic blood spilling with appropriate ritual to be accepted as Jewishly circumcised.

    There was a bit of side-track about the role of blood in halachic attitudes to circumcision. Salamayeh kept referring to 'covenant blood', which, yes, is a literal translation of the Hebrew phrase used in these sorts of discussions, but in English it sounds really Christian. She mentioned a device being promoted in Africa, I think called a Prepex but I'm not sure of the spelling and don't dare Quack it. Anyway, this can be attached to a person's penis and gradually, over the course of a few weeks, dissolves the foreskin, with no blood involved and apparently painless. It's being used in Africa for health reasons, in order to give people the option to carry out their traditional circumcision without the risks attached to surgery in poorly sterile conditions, but there was some speculation about whether this would count as valid circumcision halachically. On the face of it it seems like it shouldn't be, because there is no blood and no moment at which the foreskin is removed when the appropriate ritual of brit milah can be carried out. But based on the reasoning that a convert who is already circumcised does not need to carry out symbolic blood spilling, maybe it could be used as a less painful method for adult converts to Judaism.

    So that was really interesting, but unfortunately Salamayeh was a lot less clear on the modern context of the debate about circumcision. And frankly confused about (the absence of) circumcision in Christianity. She was sort of making an aside about how early Islam was unlike early Christianity because the Prophet accepted the existing circumcision practices by some (though definitely not all) Arab tribes around Medina and by Jews, whereas Paul explicitly rejected the Jewish practice of circumcision. Except lots of people had questions about the history of Christian non-circumcision and she floundered a lot because she wanted to talk about Islam, not Christianity. I think her conclusion, that circumcision became a clear delineator of identity for Jews living in Christian contexts, is probably valid, but her explanation of what was going on when Paul decided that circumcision is not a requirement for gentiles who want to become Christian was quite a way off course.

    I was especially glad to have ghoti with me, because although I could tell Salamayeh was a bit confused about Christian history, it was definitely helpful to have someone on hand who could explain. Like, Salamayeh kept talking about baptism as symbolic circumcision or a replacement for circumcision, which didn't entirely hold together since Jewish conversion already includes immersion in the mikveh, which is the direct ancestor of Christian baptism, so how can this be a replacement for circumcision? So what I learned from ghoti is that Paul's rejection of circumcision was more about Christians not being required to keep the Torah mitzvot, one example of which is the obligation to have one's sons circumcized. And this is part of the broader debate in very early Christianity about whether Jesus' message was for everybody or only for former Jews, which of course was resolved in the direction of Christianity being a universal doctrine. In the evening we had a look at the relevant discussion in Acts, which was really interesting though a bit rushed since it was sort of in the middle of dinner. (Salamayeh had also alluded to a passage in Galatians but we couldn't find anything quite relevant in that book.) Also Judith wanted to join in when we were looking at the Bible, and she is just getting to the stage where she can more or less read that kind of complex language, with a bit of help, so I was extremely touched at her reading her Bible to me. (I admit I did not proactively explain the word fornication, just told her how to pronounce it and was somewhat relieved when she didn't ask.)

    So obviously in modern times there is some controversy about the practice of infant circumcision. Salamayeh started out by noting that it's fairly widely accepted in America; she put this down to the influence of the Evangelical Christians there, who though they don't circumcize themselves, generally respect the practice because they see it as Biblical. That was not my understanding of why circumcision is common among non-Jews in the US (though apparently the rates are falling rapidly in secular society); rather I thought it was to do with partially discredited ideas about hygiene and medical benefit, and historically an ineffectual anti-masturbation measure. So basically American circumcision is about cleanliness, AIUI, even though it's couched in medical rather than ritual language, whereas Salamayeh wanted to connect it to Christianity even though Christians don't generally practise circ as a religious thing.

    She had the beginnings of something interesting about the "intactivist" (anti-circ) movement over there. Like, there are some prominent Jewish voices condemning infant circumcision, even though this is a very long-standing and distinctive and unarguably Torah-based Jewish practice. I think it's probably facile to dismiss every Jewish person who criticizes mainstream Jewish thought as "self-hating"; certainly that can be a reason for someone's views, but it's not the only possible reason why a Jewish person would question circ. But these vocal Jews have some really strange bedfellows in the intactivist movement, right up to the horrible "Foreskin Man" guy, who distributes comics that are some kind of awful cross between superhero style comics and Nazi propaganda (oh wait, apparently this is mainstream superhero verse now, thanks a million, Marvel). So anyway, the discussion got a bit derailed by everybody being kind of horrified at the sheer awfulness of a couple of example panels from this comic.

    It then got further derailed because Salamayeh claimed that there is no logically consistent legal distinction between male and "female circumcision". So the main reason why male circumcision is accepted is because, via Judaism and the kinds of Christianity that look to Jewish origins, it's a relatively mainstream Western practice, whereas FGM is taboo because it's almost exclusively an African practice. I think she had possibly the kernel of an argument there, particularly the concept that "harm" is culturally mediated and that the Western medical community is also a culture, and that racism plays into what practices are considered harmful. But if you say massively taboo-breaking things like in any way equating male and female genital cutting, you upset the audience too much to have a usefully rational discussion.

    There was also a bit of discussion about the legal issues in Europe where several countries have tried to bring in legal bans on infant circumcision. Again, interesting but a bit unsubstantiated. The German situation is interesting: apparently a doctor was prosecuted in Cologne after a 4-year-old Muslim boy suffered complications following this doctor circumcising him. Clearly, if a doctor can be found criminally liable for circumcision, that amounts to criminalizing the practice. Anyway was taken to higher courts and Germany ended up with a law which permits circumcision without a medical reason only during the first six months of a baby's life, and bans it after that. The idea is that this essentially gives an exemption for Jews who circumcise preferably 8-day-old and failing that still very young babies. But it bans the usual circumcision practice in, say, the majority Muslim Turkish community, where typically families wait until all their intended children are born and they have saved up enough money for a big celebration, before circumcising all the boys together. Salamayeh presented the argument (which I don't think was her belief, just an explanation of the ethical and legal reasoning), that since Muslims may, if they want to, circumcise infants and follow the Jewish practice, because there's no particular religious requirement to perform the rite at a defined age, this wasn't necessarily discriminatory. But it seems pretty clear that the reason the law ended up that way is that Germany is understandably squeamish about being racist towards Jews, but less bothered about being racist towards Turks and other immigrant groups.

So yes, that was partly informative but I felt like the XKCD citation needed guy quite a lot of the time. I'm not particularly interested in debating the ethics and legality of infant circumcision in the comments; I know a lot of people have strong views on the topic but I don't really care to rehash that debate. As it is I've made this way longer than I intended so I shall just post it and add the last couple of talks to another post.

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cartesiandaemon: default
Date:July 7th, 2016 10:41 am (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry
That's really interesting. The longer summary does tell me a lot more about the history of the Islamic practice, which obv is what she knows about.

It is surprising she seemed to know so little about circumcision in the States (was she Britihs or American or Israeli or something else originally?). I'm sorry, I did find that hard to believe at first, but the summary makes it clearer, she just didn't know that much, but got pressured to speculate, which often leads to saying unfortunate things.

The FGM thing was interesting/worrying too. It certainly could be that the prevalence of FGM is a small minority of female circumcision practices, emphasised because racism. That's almost certainly true to an extent. Emma talked about many of the ways it was more complicated than that. But I don't know how anyone expects to ever convince anyone of that if they don't start by saying "I'm not condoning FGM".
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