California Jewish Bulletin – May 31,1985

Letter to the Editor

Circumcision questions

By Alan Altmann

I am writing about the series of articles that have appeared in the Bulletin about the question of circumcision. I have followed these articles with avid interest, since I myself am an uncircumcised Jew.

I am the 32-year-old son of Holocaust survivors who were unaware of the American practice of circumcision, and who hoped that by not circumcising their son they could perhaps save his life someday.

Let me remind your readers that the Nazi used this as a means to confirm the Jewishness of men who attempted to hide their Jewish identities.

Although uncircumcised, I am a very proud Jew, with a very strong sense of Jewish identity, and never hesitate to affirm my Jewish identity, to Jew and non-Jew alike, but particularly to myself. I can assure you that having a foreskin has not made me less of a Jew than those without one, and in fact has given me additional reason to think about it. I would rather be an uncircumcised self-affirming Jew than a now too common circumcised self-deprecating Jew.

Let us not be afraid to ask a few questions: Is a circumcised man automatically more of a Jew than an uncircumcised man? If so, where does that leave the role of identity and ideology? Would that imply that circumcised Jewish males carry their Jewish identity at the end of their penis? And what of Jewish women? Are they less Jewish than Jewish males without a foreskin to circumcise?

If we examine the role of the first circumcision, we find that it was used as a flesh offering as a substitute for human sacrifice, a not uncommon practice at the time. The message is clear: Life is too precious a commodity to sacrifice, and if you must sacrifice human flesh, make one that will not destroy life but will still allow you to confirm your beliefs.

Today we do not need to sacrifice human flesh in any form to confirm our beliefs. In fact, can we really say that circumcising our sons makes us or them better Jews?

We are a people of ideas, and we must never lose sight of that. Ritual can be a powerful mechanism to remind us of our important life-affirming values if it is used in that way. But any ritual performed in anything less than its full context becomes an empty act devoid of meaning, and only hastens to rob us and alienate us from what is actually a heritage rich with ideology and meaning. The numbers of Jewish Moonies, krishnas, and Jews-for-Jesus are ample testimony to the far too common phenomenon of Jewish alienation.

I believe the question of routine of circumcision for Jews must be considered in this light. If it does not serve to tie us closer together as a people, then it only serves as an insult to the tradition it once represented. This is perhaps magnified in a society in which circumcision is routine for both Jew and non-Jew alike.