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As any collective unconscious, this ritual affects us in mysterious ways we don't always understand
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Debbie Cooper
Dr. Yair Eldan
Photo: Debbie Cooper

The fear behind circumcision

Op-ed: How is it possible that even bleeding hearts, pacifists and anarchists, who support a radical theory of personal autonomy, perform this barbaric ceremony?

I find the thought that circumcision can be justified through rational, legal or health-related means ridiculous. It doesn't matter how much we philosophize about the restrictions imposed on the child's rights, on his parents being his natural guardians, on the claim that there is no such thing as "natural" rights and that they are mainly fictitious, or on some kind of balance between the child's personal right and the nation's collective right.



If we'll be honest with ourselves, we'll always reach the conclusion that we're harming an innocent child. The effort to prove that circumcision prevents diseases or increases sexual pleasure is a futile effort as well, and the research isn’t unequivocal either.


Circumcision is in no way the wisest or healthiest, most justified or most moral thing to do. It's important to reiterate this especially in light of the recent demand to force a mother to circumcise her son. It clarifies that both morally and legally, circumcising a child – an irrational, offensive and intrusive act – is not an insignificant matter even when both parents agree about it, and all the more so when one of them objects.


Religion, and more extensively – culture, is a way of life, and in life the theories and philosophies are not always in line with the acts. What can be done is to investigate the sources of the irrational. That powerful source which motivates most Jews in Israel to circumcise their sons. And it is powerful. According to a Guttman Center survey from 2000, 70% of Jews in Israel believe it is important to perform a circumcision in a religious ceremony (!). A larger percentage, of course, removes its sons' foreskin.


This is one of the most popular rituals among Jews in Israel, alongside fasting on Yom Kippur and holding the Passover Seder. This means that even some of the biggest bleeding hearts, pacifists, nihilists and anarchists, who support a radical theory of personal autonomy, perform this barbaric ceremony. The members of these groups don’t usually take into consideration what everyone else will have to say, but just do what they think right. So the argument that they want to spare their sons the embarrassment is a weak argument, and if they use it – it must be serving as a cover for something else.


Fearing for baby's life

The circumcision reflects, therefore, something deep within the Jewish collective unconscious. But what is it? In my opinion, the circumcision is a ritual which seeks to deal with the initial, serious fear for the baby's life, especially the firstborn. The circumcision is a return, although a controlled one, to the place of fearing for the newborn's life, who is the fulfillment of all expectations and dreams.


In the same breath, this return, because it is under control, strengthens the feeling that this baby is strong, that he will survive, that he is sustainable. The circumcision's guarding and protecting element is very clear in the known biblical story about Zipporah, Moses' wife, and her son: She must cut off her son's foreskin, otherwise the angel of God will put him to death. Removing the foreskin is what saves her son.


The circumcision command in the Bible binds it with Abraham's fear that he would not be able to have a child with his beloved wife Sarah, and with his anguish over the fate of Ishmael, his firstborn. Even in the 21st century, in which infant mortality has dropped immensely, there is a great amount of fear for the fate of the child, especially the firstborn. As long as I live, I will remember the anxiety which took over me in the middle of my eldest son's birth, the fear for his life, for his ability to come out of the uterus, to deal with the germs and the diseases in the air of the world outside.


It's no wonder that this ritual is still popular. As any collective unconscious, it affects us in mysterious ways we don't always understand.


This first instance of coping with the fear for the life of the baby is a sort of post-traumatic mechanism, which makes the parents face their biggest fear, and reflects it in practice, by physically harming the baby. As opposed to pregnancy or childbirth, this ritual is done under control, with clear rules, so that it allows the parents to come back to life, despite the fact that only a short while ago they stood helpless in light of the great fear that something would happen to their son. This coping is definitely not moral, or necessarily wise or in fact healthy, but it appears to be successful.


The attempt to justify circumcision while distorting the concept of the child's rights or the concept of physical injury is a mistake. It's better to look circumcision in the eye rather than undermine key values which are at the core of the Israeli society's existence.


Dr. Yair Eldan is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law of the Ono Academic College


פרסום ראשון: 03.14.14, 23:28
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