Review of Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), XVII + 317 Pp

By Krondorfer, Bjorn | Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Review of Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), XVII + 317 Pp


Krondorfer, Bjorn, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality


At the site of the human body, conflicting religious, cultural and theological values can clash. This is all the more true when questions of belonging and communal identity are permanently incised into the body, as in the case of circumcision. Performed on a Jewish boy on the eighth day after birth, circumcision is a sign for the covenant between the people of Israel and God and has become almost synonymous with Jewish identity. To be a Jewish man--or so it seems--means to be circumcised.

But what about Jewish women? Does their non-circumcision imply that they are not part of the covenant? Or, if they are part of the covenantal relationship, is circumcision theologically overrated as a bodily signifier? Does circumcision signify a privileged position of men or, to the contrary, does it indicate that men are lacking a quality that women already possess?

Shaye Cohen presents an in-depth analysis of the rabbinic discussion of such questions from post-biblical Judaism to the era of Jewish Enlightenment. While the bulk of the textual material covers late antiquity and the medieval era, Cohen keeps in mind the diversity of opinions as they span Jewish history from biblical times to modernity. In an introductory chapter, he summarizes the canonical views as expressed in Torah, Mishna and Talmud, and, toward the end of the book, occasionally refers to the contemporary (American) debate. By asking the question of why Jewish women are not circumcised, he foregrounds the issue of "gender" within a ritual activity that seems exclusively male. "This book is not a history of women in Judaism," he states early on, but "is at best a small contribution to the history of women in men's Judaism" (p. xiii).

The book is divided into two parts. In Part One, consisting of four chapters, Cohen contrasts the canonical views on circumcision in Jewish classical texts with the writings of early Christian detractors. Those writers dismissed circumcision within a larger framework of the adversus Judaeos tradition (Christian anti-Jewish writings).

In Chapter 1, Cohen does not only review the biblical take on circumcision (a sign of the covenant or the covenant itself; a tribal marker; an act of purification and sacrifice), but also describes pertinent questions raised by early Talmudic debates, including the issues of intentional versus involuntary circumcision, of conversion, and of the surgical procedures. The rabbis of the early medieval period, up until the eleventh century, expanded the range of meanings attached to circumcision: the biblical rationale of "purity" widened to one of "sanctity," "protection" widened to "salvation," and "covenant" to "sacrament." No longer was the foreskin the exclusive center of attention; instead, the "blood" of circumcision gained prominence. Such blood was interpreted as "powerful and salvific" because it "atones for sin, moves God to mercy, and protects against death" (p. 53).

Chapter 2 briefly asks whether Jewish women have ever been circumcised. The answer is a resounding "no" (with the exception, perhaps, of an Ethiopian custom in the first century BCE). Chapter 3 delineates the basic arguments of the Christian polemics against circumcision starting with Paul, for whom it was "unnecessary, even dangerous," because it "divides humanity," whereas "the blood of Christ unites it" (pp. 68, 71). Among the Greek church fathers, Cohen singles out Justin Martyr, for it is he who lays the ground for the tenacious Christian argument that the non-circumcision of women proves that "God does not demand the circumcision of men" (p. 76). Many medieval Christian writers relied on Justin's argument. Among the Latin church fathers, another crucial anti-circumcision argument developed, namely that with the coming of Jesus Christ, circumcision in the flesh was replaced by spiritual circumcision. The blood of circumcision was exchanged with the waters of baptism, just as Christianity had superseded Judaism. …

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