Thursday, April 23, 2009

The birth of a child sets into motion a series of religious observances. Following the model of Abraham’s covenant through circumcision, all males are circumcised. The preferred age for circumcision is 8 days old. However, if the baby is not entirely healthy, the ceremony would be postponed as long as necessary. This is determined by a doctor, not necessarily by a rabbi. The idea of preservation of life is a medical issue to be determined by those who are capable of making the decision.

An adult Jew could had been not been circumcised as a child. This can happen in many contexts. One relatively recent would be the case of many Jews who were born and grew up in the former Soviet Union, were circumcision at times was not only not practiced but could actually be dangerous.

A grown-up Jew would be required to have himself circumcised. It is the preeminent right of entering Jewish life. As a result, converts are required to circumcise themselves.

All sorts of rationalizations for this ritual have been put forth. From claims of hygienic nature to the moderation of sexual desire. There is even a story in the Talmud that has a Roman official asking Rabbi Akiba “if your God really prefers men not to have a foreskin, why did he not create them without a foreskin?”. Rabbi Akiba answered that is exactly the purpose. Man was created imperfectly, and it is he that is required to strive towards perfection.

Nevertheless, Rabbinic Judaism usually kept a distance from this type of rationalization. The Torah requires circumcision and we follow its requirements.

In the early stages of reform Judaism, particularly in the 19th century, opposition was expressed to circumcision in Germany. The main reason was a general distaste for particularistic behavior by Jews. It set Jews apart.

The fact that the practice distinguished also between the sexes contributed to some of this opposition. Today, however, circumcision is almost universally practiced by all branches of Judaism.

Circumcision was historically considered the ultimate physical mark of a male Jew. Various persecutions often involved identifying Jewish males through this sign.