17 November 2010

Brit Milah

Brit milah serves as the entrance of the male child into the Jewish community. It literally marks the covenant in the flesh of the male child. The practice has its opponents in our contemporary world: they say the procedure is cruel, akin to cliteroidectomy and other barbaric mutilating practices engaged in by native tribes and roundly criticized by the civilized world. Apparently about forty or fifty years ago, almost 90% of all boys received circumcision, many, of course, in hospital because they weren’t Jewish. It was for whatever reason considered stylish and proper. Today it is no longer believed to be so, and I read that fewer than 60% of males receive circumcision.  It is no longer held to be fashionable.
            But of late I find this argument against circumcision unconvincing. I think that we cut our flesh and that of our children all of the time. For example, many of our young people these days, and not just the females, have pierced their ears, and often have done so several times. Many infants wear earrings. Ear cartilages have been punctured through. My own two children have marked a path up their ear lobes; my dearest friend’s daughter pierced her navel interrupting, my friend moans (with rings dangling from her own ears), an important chakra path. Indeed, the bodies of so many have been pierced in so many places, some of which I prefer not to consider: the penises of some males, and the navels, nipples and clitiroses of some women being popular sites. Hamlet asks, who would such fardels bear when one could her quietus make with a bare bodkin? But I look about and people are pricking themselves with these bodkins with some frequency and I do not hear some public outcry condemning such practice.
Tattoos are visible, and even, I suspect, invisible on many citizens who might once have eschewed company with anyone sporting such bodily attire. Personally, I experience these tattoos as a form of violence: they remind me at times of the t-shirts I hate to stare at but which demand that I do so—like the ones which have blazoned across the chest “Do not stare at my chest.” These tattoos demand to be seen, and though I need not look, why else are they so obviously visible? Many of the designs are somewhat simple, and some, I think, even inconspicuously placed; some, I am certain I never see at all, though I suspect they serve some purpose about which I would prefer not to know. However, the ones I do see—and they are ubiquitous today, even people of my generation carry them as marks upon the flesh--are very much in view on arms, legs, on chests, and on the smalls and larges of backs, on shoulders left and right, and on heads and necks. And then there are the tattoos that are elaborate designs that cover entire body parts and are inked in strong, bold patterns and colors, leaving no skin unmarked, and I feel assaulted by the broadcast volume and the demand to view. Just yesterday I saw a tattoo done circling the left ankle—almost like an ankle bracelet, but this appeared not at all delicate and off-setting, but was inked in black and appeared to me in drawn in the image of barbed wire. As a society we are tolerant of these practices and intolerant of circumcision. I suspect some anti-Semitism behind the attitudes.
I know that it might be argued that these piercings and tattooings are voluntary. That is subject to some question: cultural practice has much to do with choice. In the plethora of brit milahs I observe on YouTube, the child experiences pain briefly, and within ten to fifteen seconds has returned to some peacefulness and quiet. I do not remember my brit, and have no recollection of experiencing any early pain though there is no doubt it was present.
I’ve gotten older, and I’ve grown if not more comfortable to the idea of the brit milah, at least more prepared to respond to the accusation that circumcision is a barbaric rite. For me the brit milah contains and celebrates thousands of years of history, struggle and survival in the face of insurmountable odds and unconscionable violence. It is a minor pin- prick in the entire life of the child, but it joins him viscerally and irrevocably to the community and to a history that can be dismissed only with some cost. Inherently, there is implicit in the ceremony a sexism, and I read that feminists propose several practices that might serve as a female counterpart to the brit milah: washing the soles of the eight day old girl child’s feet, or the breaking of the hymen. I do not know what I think of these ideas, but for me, the practice of brit milah retains yet the cultish aspects of a Judaism that preached care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst but that rose out of an almost universal barbarism. It is important to recognize the history undergirding our actions and sometimes to align our actions to honor and to sustain that history into the present.


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