From Abraham to America: A History of Jewish Circumcision

By Barth, Lewis M. | Shofar, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

From Abraham to America: A History of Jewish Circumcision


Barth, Lewis M., Shofar


From Abraham to America: A History of Jewish Circumcision, by Eric Kline Silverman. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006. 302 pp. $88.00 (c); $37.95 (p).

From Abraham to America is a remarkable, stimulating and wide-ranging study of Jewish circumcision. Its subtitle, "A History of Jewish Circumcision," may mislead the reader in that this book is oriented far more to anthropology, folklore, post-modernism, and feminist thought than to the "history" of a ceremonial act narrowly conceived. Using perspectives from these fields as well as psychoanalysis, the author mines classical Jewish texts (TaNaKh, rabbinic literature, Jewish mystical literature and biblical commentary) and more for references and citations that are subsumed under a largely structuralist anthropological perspective. His bibliography (pp. 247-288) not only represents an enormous range of reading and intellectual curiosity, but is also a compendium of the most recent and significant of studies in all the theoretical areas he has brought to bear on the topic of circumcision.

Eric Kline Silverman states that the goals of this book are "to offer some insight into this ritual through a comprehensive analysis that extensively draws on a wide range of scholarly and popular sources ... to offer novel, provocative interpretations that will complement, not replace, other perspectives ... to unsettle all perspectives." Titles of various chapters reflect these goals (examples: Ch. 1, Circumcision, Creation, and the Cosmic Phallus; Ch. 6, Lilith, Yarmulkes, and the Eye of Circumcision; Ch. 8, Circumcision, Anti-Semitism, and Christ's Foreskin). From the perspectives of content and creativity, my sense is that Silverman has achieved his objectives.

The reader needs to look closely at the arguments Silverman brings and his citation of texts to support these arguments. As indicated, a structuralist hermeneutic is reflected throughout the book. For example, Silverman states that his goal in Chapter 1 is [1] "to show that circumcision, as the separation of the foreskin from the penis, inscribes on the male body an image of the cosmos, humanity and society." He continues, [2] "I also argue that the binary pattern underlying the covenantal rite and the Genesis cosmogony points to a central problem in biblical monotheism: masculine creation and male envy of female birth. [3] My final task in this chapter is to introduce the erotic and mystical dimensions of circumcision whereby the uncovering of the foreskin admits men into an intimate union with God, and represents the unveiling of hidden secrets in the Torah" (p. 2). To support his second point, he uses as evidence various pairs found in Genesis 1, "heaven and earth,""tohu and bohu" and from rabbinic culture the fact that "bet," the first letter of the Torah, in gematria signifies the number 2, and that Jews treat Torah "like female royalty, typically, God's daughter or bride, but also a pious man's spiritual wife" (p. 3). To support the last point, Silverman refers to Exodus Rabba 30:5. The text does contain an exegesis of Ex. 21:7 in which Torah is likened to God's daughter. The content and force of the passage, however, state that God sold the Torah to Israel as a man who sells his daughter "as a slave" [JPS TaNaKh translation], that she is to be confined in an ark, and that she is to be treated respectfully because the Israelites stole her from heaven (citing Ps. …

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