IMAGES OF CIRCUMCISION
The ancient Jewish rite of circumcision (brith milah, or bris), when an eight-dayold boy is “brought into the covenant of Abraham,” is nowadays (in western Orthodox Jewish communities anyway) regarded mainly as a family celebration and an individual rite of passage. Taking place in the home rather than the synagogue, and arranged by the boy's parents rather than by any community institution, it is essentially a private ceremony, not part of what is generally considered to be public life or communal affairs.
It was not always so. The clear separation of private life and public life became entrenched only in the nineteenth century, and we need to avoid reinscribing and replicating it when studying the cultural meanings of brith milah in medieval Jewish communities. It is salutary to note how some scholars fail to avoid that trap, at least in the visual arts (a particular rich site of cultural meanings, after all). Consider the classic study La vie juive au Moyen Âge by Thérèse and Mendel Metzger, a standard resource for anyone wishing to survey medieval Jewish visual culture and the iconography of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts.1 Here the images of circumcision are found in the chapter called “Family Life,” grouped together with other “family ceremonies” such as marriages and funerals. So circumcision is a family ritual apparently, then as now; it contributes almost nothing to the self-definition of the community; and it even seems to conform to modern norms of strictly Orthodox Judaism. Such an idealizing view of medieval Judaism is surely restrictive.
Encouraged by several recent works from cultural and religious historians, and helped by some gender-studies insights, I offer in this essay a reframing and new reading of representations of circumcision in Hebrew illuminated
1 T. and M. Metzger, La vie juive au Moyen Âge : illustrée par les manuscrits hébraïques enluminés du XIIIe au XVIe siècle (Fribourg: Office du livre, 1982), 230–31.