Ask the Rabbi: What’s With Cutting Men’s Penises?

Rabbi Joseph Edelheit

This is part of an occasional series in which I pose a question to my rabbi, Joseph Edelheit. I don’t set it up, and I don’t give him a warning. I just turn on the recorder and ask the question.

I asked him this question last night, as we drove home from co-teaching a class at St. Cloud State University on anti-Judaism in the New Testament, particularly in the book of Hebrews.

This has been a question that’s been haunting me about Judaism for a while now. We’ve all got wacky practices in our religions — heck, I drink blood and eat flesh each week. But the severing of the penile foreskin seems to me wackier than most. In fact, I find it shocking that it’s still so prevalent — almost unanimous — among Jews.

Joseph didn’t skirt my question at all. In fact, I found his answer fascinating:

Edelheit Audio (4 minutes)

  • http://pa5t0rd.com Don Schiewer Jr

    I’ve come to read it as a way of passing your child (seed) through the blood covenant so that our offspring will be born into/through this covenant. I love this imagery (though I try not to picture it).

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones Tony Jones

    I actually witnessed the circumcisions of both of my sons. It wasn’t pleasant. And the last thing I thought was of the ancient, Jewish ritual. I wish I’d heard the rabbi’s answer before I experienced that — although, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d have them circumcised today.

    • http://pa5t0rd.com Don Schiewer Jr

      I did not watch my son’s circumcision…but then again I can’t watch them give him a shot either! :)

  • http://scottpaeth.typepad.com Scott Paeth

    Fascinating indeed, Tony. Though I’m a bit skeptical of the gendered aspect of this reading to some degree. I think it’s a simpler explanation to simply say that blood, in all of it’s forms, has power in ancient societies, and the drawing of blood as a sign of covenant is a way of utilizing the power derived from the blood to enact the covenant.

    But the other aspect of that is the question of why the foreskin. This is what gave the Greeks such a hard time in Paul’s era. And perhaps in that regard the male-female analysis makes more sense. But I think it serves the same function as any form of ritual scarification — to make an unmistakable external mark identifying someone with their tribe. Of course, it’s a strange kind of mark that would only be observable when you’re naked.

    So, I guess I don’t have an answer that’s any better than the Rabbi’s, but his answer is certainly interesting.

  • Kenton

    (Sung to a Von Trapp song)

    Edelheit
    Edelheit
    Through Tony’s blog you teach me
    Small and nice
    Why you slice
    Off the end of the wee-wee.

    • chuck

      The hills shall resound
      with the sound of screaming…

  • Phil Miller

    This post reminded me of Frederick Buechner’s book, The Son of Laughter. The book is essentially a novelized retelling of the story of Jacob from Genesis. He makes the point that circumcision acted as a reminder of the covenant whenever a Jewish man partook in any potential reproductive act. So in that sense, circumcision was meant less as a sign for outsiders, and more as something for those inside.

  • Nathan

    “So in that sense, circumcision was meant less as a sign for outsiders, and more as something for those inside.”

    No pun intended….right?


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