Open letter to Bent Lexner, Chief Rabbi of Denmark
By Leo Milgrom
(Milgroms translation of his original piece published in Danish daily Politiken ‘Kan du give mig min forhud tilbage?‘ 07/28/2012 and first covered by this blog here.)
March 1980: a man drives into a neighborhood south of Copenhagen. He stops in front of a terraced house, walks up the stairs to the first floor and into the bedroom where he proceeds to greet the people present. He recites a number of verses – and then he cuts of my foreskin and takes it with him.
32 years later I have grown up to write to you, Bent Lexner, because you are Chief Rabbi and in charge of Jewish circumcisions in Denmark. Questions have piled up and I would like to take this opportunity to ask some of them. I have chosen to address you in this open manner thinking that some of the more than 1000 boys you have circumcised over the years may benefit from this letter – and from hearing your answers.
However, before I ask questions on my own behalf an introduction is necessary. The reason for this is that to some people certain topics are perceived to be of such a character that they are not up for debate; absolutely no debate at all. Circumcision is such a topic. But I cannot be bothered with this, because I feel the importance of writing this text and asking these questions:
Deeply folded into the collective Jewish mindset lies the idea of circumcision. The practice draws its strength from the Jews envisioning Abraham who – at the dawn of time – was chosen to make an unbreakable pact with God. To this effect he was ordered to circumcise all male infants as a future mark of allegiance to their maker:
“And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17, 9-14 King James Version)
It is important to understand that for many Jews this pact, this covenant of blood, is so strongly rooted in their minds that it is perceived as being the central pillar of Judaism. For some, circumcision is practically equal to being human and certain interpretations of scripture actually state that a boy is a real human being only after circumcision has taken place, because boys are born imperfect and with uncontrollable sexual impulses. Thus, circumcision is considered a correction commanded by the Lord himself, a fleshly and symbolic ”opening toward God” undertaken with surgical instruments. In some Jewish circles the ritual is considered of such importance that dead men with intact foreskin are circumcised before burial. I’ll allow this to speak for itself.
I must stress that I hold nothing against Jews or Jewish traditions as such; I am myself born into a Jewish community. What I do mind are traditions or rituals that are not edifying – Jewish or not. The problem is that certain Jewish ideas are so deeply anchored in an apparently unimpeachable and locked root tone that even the meekest attempt at questioning these ideas causes dragons to rise from their lair. Some people feel that the act of questioning this tradition is an aggressive and unempathic way of challenging an important and crucial part of the very foundation of Judaism. For this reason it can be difficult to conduct a sober debate with Jews who have demonstrated in practice that they believe circumcision to be a good idea. Designations such as ”anti-Semite” have been used as a kind of argument (which it is not). To speak as I do here: straight and directly into Judaic assumptions, immediately prompts the inner Jewish gatekeeper to exclaim: ”Nothing is wrong with Judaism, how dare you!”. One could take this at face value and just walk away. However, there are people (myself for instance) who disagree with this claim. Now the question is: can we have a conversation during which objections to circumcision may be seriously considered without any of the fierce attacks usually triggered by the mere sound of the word on the person presenting them? Is it possible together to explore whether some aspects of Judaism could possibly be flawed? To an open, interested, exploring and truth seeking person there can hardly be any harm in that.
Today, the majority of Jews already practice different kinds of personal interpretations of Jewish scripture and traditions, if they practice any at all. Those who do, follow those aspects of Judaism which they find relevant to their own lives. Relatively few Jews follow all 613 commandments described in The Old Testament and I can easily understand why. Today, who would for example find meaning in following the commandment from Deuteronomy (22:11): ”You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.”? Or the idea from Leviticus (15:25-27) that a woman having her period is impure, defiles others and that all physical contact with her should be avoided? Or from Leviticus (2:13): ”With all your offerings you shall offer salt.”? And why should one follow these ancient rules, irrelevant for life today? Just try to imagine: the Jew upholding all 613 commandments who states: ”I never wear wool/linen mix, never fail to avoid menstruating woman (when they display manners proper enough as to inform me of their impurity) and I always remember to salt all my offerings”. My answer to this guy would be: Well okay then – have a nice day.
The fact is that in Judaism certain rules (not all) are obvious and blatant nonsense. This is not a call to be unserious or inappropriate in terms of living maxims and respect for religion – quite the opposite. Let us listen seriously to the statements of Judaism. Here is an example from Deuteronomy 20 (16-17): ”But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them.” Or simply put: kill those who live there. Simultaneously, the sixth commandment says: ”You shall not murder”. Here we have an obvious contradiction which even the most learned have trouble explaining away without appearing as dimwits who refuse to call a spade a spade. Unfortunately, there are people who do just that. Some Jews will defend obvious contradictions to the very end and will accuse people who question the dogmas of everything between heaven and earth. The explanation is to be found in ancient rituals repeated time and time again to eventually become an ingrown cultural spinal marrow which claims to constitute the very essence of Judaism – of life itself. But religion should be about God and what we can learn from seeking him, and not about maintaining mysterious practices no one really understands. This has been adeptly described by the Cohen brothers in ”A Serious Man”, a film about a Jewish man seeking answers to life among Jews, but being unable to get any.
However, let me ask my questions anyway. Let me ask you, Bent, as you are after all the leader of the Jewish community in Denmark. What must I do if I want my foreskin back? I never wanted a strange man to touch me in my private parts. I would NEVER ON MY LIFE allow anyone to cut off a piece of my penis. And how will you advise my parents who did not even consider that they had accepted a mutilating surgical procedure without clinical indication (and without anaesthesia) to be carried out on their own son? ”That´s just the way it was” their answer is when I ask them. As Chief Rabbi of Denmark you are the standard-bearer of the retainment of this practice – and as you personally cut off parts of small boys´ penises on a daily basis, your responsibility is enormous.
Certain interpretations of the meaning of circumcision claim that it is the father who, by circumcising his own male child (any man´s most important possession) proves loyalty to his kinsmen. So: you cut something off your son to avoid being an outsider. Unmistakably, it is The Old Testament idea of the sacrificial lamb which forms the undertone to this idea: At the very roots of Judaism, in the stories that form its essence, one has to be willing, literally, to sacrifice one’s own son if God commands it. In ´The Sacrifice of Isaac´ (1603) Caravaggio has depicted the situation from which this atmosphere originates: in the painting an angel intervenes in the instant before Abraham (on God´s command) manages to cut his son Isaacs’ throat; and by this relentless determination Abraham proves his absolute allegiance to God. But there is a central detail one may forget to notice: God stops the sacrifice! Myth or no myth, some people consider this story an important guidepost which points away from the practice of sacrifice of children which formed an integral part of contemporary religious cult. Through the centuries sacrifices within Judaism have continued, not featuring whole children, but parts of them, for instance their foreskin.
Bent, instead of championing the sacrifice of foreskin perhaps you should listen to the angels.
The case is this: if you are able to listen, dare listen, and you are willing to listen to what is clear and obvious: of course you do not need to cut your newborns to win Gods acceptance, a horrifying question emerges from the mists: does this mean that something is wrong in Judaism? The answer is, yes. Of course it is wrong to maintain a practice which involves that one – unnecessarily – cuts parts from small children’s small bodies. Imagine if our neighbors – for religious reasons – had the habit of cutting their earlobes, the outer joint of their little finger or the nipples of their babies. Just like that, off with them. We would never allow that to happen. Nevertheless we accept something even worse: the cutting into and cutting off parts of children’s private and intimate sexual organs.
The consequences are many and ramified but they may be difficult to see until the horror dawns on you. The foreskin tissue contains an enormous amount of receptors which makes it the most highly sensitive area of the entire male body. Several studies show how infants are highly sensitive, they feel pain, and research is constantly extended with more knowledge about how important the first months and years are for a baby’s healthy development. Reports from circumcisions relate of children lapsing into traumatic shock during the procedure – being unable to make a sound. By some this is interpreted to mean that the mutilation does not inflict pain – in reality the opposite is true. Jewish mothers and fathers who have regretted the procedure tell how the special intimacy and (until then) unbreakable bond between child and parents is ripped even more violently apart than the way in which the foreskin is torn from the glans before it is cut off. The child loses the most important part in its relation with its parents: the trust that mother and father will always act in its best interest and defend it – also against religious practice.
The very personal and intimate sexual contact and communication between circumcised men and their partners is branded in the exact point where they (physically) meet. The weight of the ancestral claim stands right there, between them saying: “You are not your own to decide over. First and foremost you belong to your ancestry”. If this atmosphere is obeyed and lived by circumcised men (and those people surrounding them) it undermines the circumcised person’s possibilities to rise to his full height and live as the person he really is: a sovereign and unique human being who does not need to be marked first in order to be welcome in this World. Instead he becomes a link in a chain, a maintainer, a keeper of a bloody status quo, someone who will also cut children, in his turn.
Back in my parents’ bedroom the most central figures were my father, my mother, myself, and the man who had come to take my foreskin in pledge. My parents watched passively while a part of me was being cut off – and did nothing. Later, my mother has described to me how she was crying, and my father tells me that he felt sick and dizzy. So my question is: why didn’t the circumciser stop to ask what was wrong? Why did he not wait for a moment to find out if something was bothering them? Did he at any moment ponder: I wonder what this little boy thinks about what I am doing to him? Aren’t considerations of this nature present in your mind?
From the innermost core of this Jewish rite, the answer is simple: as a practice, circumcision is a gigantic, almost self-perpetuating, centuries old machinery. And this is what was present in my parents’ bedroom on that day in March 1980 when I lost my foreskin against my wish. But machines do not run themselves. They are programmed and maintained. A part of this programming of this particular machine is the following piece of a prayer which may be pronounced after the child has been circumcised:
”And it is said: “I passed by you and saw you weltering in your blood, and I said to you: You shall live through your blood; and I said to you: ‘You shall live through your blood.'” And it is said: “He has remembered His Covenant forever, the word which He has commanded to a thousand generations.”
What remains is this scene:
My father, close to fainting; my mother, crying; myself, a small defenceless baby; the man – and you too Bent, ideally, as you are the one who leads the knife today.
My most hopeful regards,