Male Rituals

It is high time to consider circumcision from a feminist perspective, says Tessa Szyszkowitz.

It is July in the garden of my parents in the south of Vienna. We sit in the shade under the beech tree and I tell my son Adam, who has just turned eight, that his Brit Mila took place in this house on the eighth day of his life. "My circumcision? Ugh," he says. "Let's go on the swing!"

But this is what happened. Our garden had been transformed by Chaya Molcho and Joshua Elbaranes into Schlaraffenland ("land of plenty"). The chief rabbi sang Yiddish rap, the Jewish wedding band played along and the entire family clan with all our friends from here and there was dancing Hora like crazed dervishes on the lawn. Before all this, little Adam was circumcised among the bookshelves in the living room of my parents by Vienna's best mohel. In his secular life, he is the kosher butcher of the second district in Vienna.

"He is whaaat ?" I had asked three weeks before, at the first preparation meeting. The Chief Rabbi and the child's father looked at me carefully with their big, warm eyes. Without looking at each other, I knew they were thinking the same thing: "This is going to be difficult." I put my hands on my big belly and said, "We will do the circumcision in the hospital, away from the public, the butcher will not come into my house. That's final."

Three thousand years of tradition, however, weigh heavily. Adam's father rejected the hospital circumcision. Eight days after birth, I had agreed to use the assistant of the mohel / butcher, who is a trained pediatrician. I had also agreed to a private ceremony at home - but behind closed doors. However, when we finally started, all the guests who were invited to the party afterwards, were already there. "Do you really want the assistant to perform the circumcision, he is really inexperienced ?" the religious authorities asked me at the last minute.

There were so many prayer shawls that I could not see my baby. The Chief Rabbi, the mohel and his assistant, the child's father, his father, his friends and the godfather formed a wall around my little eight day old baby. They prayed and sang, everyone was excited. I was excluded from the circle. "It is better for you if you do not look," the rabbi said to me sympathetically, but firmly. My father-in-law held the baby, the circumcision was short and painful, the little boy cried briefly, the mohel bandaged the wound, lifted up the baby and handed it to me. The men had done their job and retreated into the garden.

As a feminist and an atheist, who grew up in Vienna in a formerly Catholic family I would have loved to prevent my baby and myself from this experience. However, I converted to Judaism out of historical politeness and love for an Israeli in 1995. My children are therefore Jews. I was always for celebrating family events with a religious background, we celebrate both Jewish and Christian holidays, and my children enjoy the benefits of their wide cultural hinterland. But at the circumcision, I reached my limits.

To avoid any misunderstanding: I am against a court ban on circumcision. Whether it is circumcision for religious or medical reasons, my feeling is that circumcision still belongs in that area that is better dealt with privately than by the state. For Jews and Muslims, circumcision is a central part of their religious-cultural context: neither faith will agree to drop it easily. In America (and formerly in Britain), circumcision for medical reasons is quite common, one in two Americans being circumcised. We could not even enforce a EU directive on circumcision within the (falsely called) Christian twilight zone of Europe.

The entire discussion about the pros and cons of circumcision, which we have seen in the last few months, is in my opinion an excuse. Of course, excuses are allowed if one wants to talk about sex. That can also be quite fun. But to briefly clarify before we turn to the serious side of the topic. First, the medical benefits of a circumcised penis? Controversial. Whoever believes in it may indeed go to a hospital to get a medical circumcision. One has to understand: It is a bigger operation than the piercing of the earlobe. But it does not limit the physical and mental abilities of a man later on. That is why God has asked Abraham to give him his foreskin: because it is physically not important. Second, are circumcised men better lovers? Only men can discuss this seriously. Whether a man is a good lover does not depend on a foreskin.

Most religious laws, however, have a pragmatic background. In the desert, as in Vienna's city centre, religious authorities have always cared about one thing: riot control. If men do not think about sex, then they deal with the traditional control of society and their position in the hierarchy in the community.

In the case of circumcision, men show each other who can pull down whose pants in public. Sigmund Freud pointed out that the father subjected his son through circumcision to the "father principle". The father also submits himself to God's control. The rabbi stands by and takes his place as a moderator in the hierarchy.

Historically, circumcision was a step forward - before the introduction of circumcision, men were often castrated after conquest. In that sense, men were lucky if only their foreskin was cut off.

Three thousand years later, however, one might wonder whether a little reform might not be appropriate.

On the day of the Cologne court ruling against circumcision, I listened to a Jewish mother in a BBC debate on Radio 4. "As a feminist and a mother, I must say that circumcision is unbearable, although I understand as a Jew, that it is part of our cultural tradition," she said. "We have to find a new solution." In London, you find a reform synagogue on every second corner, on the other corner is an Orthodox synagogue. Or a mosque. Or a pub. The Jews in England have it easier. Reform is not automatically understood as a disguised attempt at genocide.

In Berlin and Vienna, centuries of racial hatred and the Holocaust are always silent bystanders in every debate. Maybe the enlightened zeal of the Cologne judge is not driven by anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic resentment. But a glance at vox populi in postings on the subject confirms that in the former Holocaust nations, any debate which has to do with different customs has a terrible bitter aftertaste. This makes the circumcision debate today so difficult. A Jewish religious ceremony in Vienna today means that the Jews survived Hitler. This cannot be ignored.

But it also means that the modern middle class of Jews and Muslims in Germany and Austria should not leave the reform of their religions to racist bloggers. I would like to see a movement within the community which demands that the boys are at least protected from this archaic ritual of public humiliation at a circumcision ceremony. How many times I've heard in recent years that mothers suffer silently, while their young sons are being circumcised in the next room. At the beginning of the 21st century, we also find other religious traditions are not longer appropriate, so why is this male ritual still accepted?

After the Cologne court ruling a rabbi said: "If the court prohibits us from circumcising, Jewish life becomes impossible." Is that not that a bit narrow-minded, if 50 percent of Jews are not even affected? Surrender the power to the women! They would come up with a different solution to the "covenant with God" for sure. Something that involves all the community members. To welcome a child into the community, one can throw a party where people cry out of happiness and not from pain.

But the men will not give up power by themselves. I can judge from my own history how difficult it is to find a way between ancient traditions and modern achievements. But reforms are for sure easier achieved from within than introduced from outside. Austrian and German society itself is nowhere near as secular as I would like it. I would hope Christian women would finally organise themselves against male domination in the Catholic Church. And Jewish and Muslim women should use the circumcision debate to blow fresh air under prayer shawls, prayer rugs, headscarves and wigs!

We write 2012 after Christ, not before Christ. According to the Jewish calendar, we have reached the year 5772. 1390 summers came and went since the arrival of Mohammed in Medina. I think it is time for us all to finally reach the modern age.

My son Adam is back on the swing. The mohel/butcher did a very good job eight years ago. An important detail in the story was brought to my attention only due to the investigative qualities of former Profil journalist Erika Wantoch. "What happens to the foreskin after it is cut off ?" she wanted to know from me right after the circumcision. I looked at her blankly. I had no idea. She asked the religious authorities. In Judaism even the smallest parts of the body are buried. Not even a useless foreskin is thrown into the dustbin. On the contrary.

It was buried in the garden of my parents.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz