Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism

Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism

Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism

Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism

Synopsis

Why aren't Jewish women circumcised? This improbable question, first advanced by anti-Jewish Christian polemicists, is the point of departure for this wide-ranging exploration of gender and Jewishness in Jewish thought. With a lively command of a wide range of Jewish sources--from the Bible and the Talmud to the legal and philosophical writings of the Middle Ages to Enlightenment thinkers and modern scholars--Shaye J. D. Cohen considers the varied responses to this provocative question and in the process provides the fullest cultural history of Jewish circumcision available.

Excerpt

Why aren’t Jewish women circumcised? At first glance, the question seems silly: circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin from the penis, and a woman does not have a penis. But the question is not silly and the answers it elicits are neither obvious nor trivial, and this for several reasons. First, many other cultures do (or did) circumcise women. Second, classical Judaism has invested the circumcision of males with so much meaning and importance that its failure to promote a parallel ritual for women is a striking fact that requires analysis. Third, Jewish circumcision has long played an important role in the debate between Judaism and Christianity, and the inability of one half of the Jews to be circumcised would seem to call into question the Jewish position that circumcision is an essential sign of the covenant between God and Israel. So, I repeat, why aren’t Jewish women circumcised? The question is well posed by Debra Orenstein:

Brit Milah [Jewish ritual circumcision] is the ultimate case-study for
women’s perspectives on the Jewish lifecycle because it raises questions
that are supremely challenging and rich with potential: What is the pur
pose of this most ancient and basic—some would say primitive—mark of
the covenant? What does it mean that women can never have it?… How
shall we understand the fact that God made a covenant with Abraham
and not Sarah, that the covenant is “cut” on males and not females, that
Moses addressed men, and not women in preparing the people to receive
Torah and covenant at Sinai (Exodus 19:15)? Given the scriptural and
biological impediments, is it now possible for women to be full partners
in the covenant, and, if so, how?

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