12 June 2012

Religion and Circumcision

Circumcision by David Gollaher, 2000, Excerpts

Ultimately, the enigma of circumcision is less how it came to be in the first place than how, having been invented, it has survived so long. In Judaism and Islam, the answer is that circumcision is the symbol of belonging to God’s chosen people. Although the trappings of the ritual and many of the lesser meanings of circumcision vary from group to group, it reflects a powerful historical continuity back to a common patriarch, Abraham; its enduring power exemplifies faith and religious community.

Islam and Circumcision

In recent times, Muslim leaders have staunchly reaffirmed the religious significance of male circumcision. Some clerics insist that the foreskin traps impurities in the body, causing Allah to turn a deaf ear to the prayers of the unclean. Others point out that if person is found dead among corpses on a battlefield, only if he is circumcised will be prayed for and properly buried in a Muslim cemetery.

Circumcision is so ingrained in Islamic life that opposition has been almost inconceivable. For those tempted to raise doubts, the theocratic impulse – most aggressive in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, but present in most Muslim communities – has struck swiftly to quash dissent on matters of sunnah. In recent years, questioning circumcision in any respect has been assailed by militant Islamists as blasphemy.

Jewish Circumcision Ritual

For the better part of two thousand years, Jewish circumcision followed a three-step pattern. First was chituch, the cutting of the stretched foreskin. Then came periah, the complete exposure of the glans [head] of the penis affected by cutting or tearing away all the inner foreskin tissue back to the frenulum. Finally, with the operation finished, came mezuzah, a practice in which the mohel sucked the blood from the wounded penis until the bleeding stopped. Ethnographer Felix Bryk captured the classic technique of the mohel at work in the following passage.

“He takes the member by the thumb and forefinger of his left hand and rubs it several times gently to evoke an erection; he then takes hold of the outer and inner lamellae of the foreskin on both sides and draws them down over the glans, pressing them smooth, by lifting his hand upward at the same time and thus giving the member a vertical position. The mohel now takes a pair of small pincers in the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and inserts the foreskin into the crack in such a manner that the glans comes to be behind it and the foreskin that is to be cut away in front of it. Then he takes hold of the knife with the first three fingers of his right hand in such a manner that it rests on the middle finger, with the index finger on the back of the knife and the thumb on the handle. With one vertical motion downwards he cuts off close to the plate the part of the foreskin that is before it, which is being held with the left hand. If this had been done according to prescription the foreskin itself is clipped at the tip, resulting in an opening about the size of a pea.”

“The surgery was not finished. To accomplish periah and complete the denudation of the glans, the mohel set aside his instruments and used only his thumbnail, long, lancet-shaped, filed to the sharpest possible edge. Directly after the cut has been made, the mohel puts the tip of his thumb nail into the opening of the inner lamella of the foreskin, grasps the foreskin by its tip with the help of both index fingers, splits it on the back of the glans by means of slitting up the crown of the latter, and shoves the slit foreskin up over the crown of the glans. The incision completed, the mohel pinched the foreskin between his thumb and index finger and tore it away from the penis.”

Abraham the patriarch with the circumcision knife by Filipino Lippi.
1502 Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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