No, circumcision does not make a Jew. No, what ancient peoples called circumcision wouldn’t count as one for us. And, no, we do not have proof that circumcision was unquestioned or even highly valued by our ancestors.
History and mythology have a complicated relationship. The latter is not infrequently taken for the former and the former has pretensions about doing away with the latter.
The history of circumcision is a perfect case in point. We are told, among other things, that circumcision is a Jewish practice that dates back to 3,000 years (or, more modestly, 2,500 years). That’s a myth. First, Judaism as such did not exist until the Common Era. Second, our only evidence (and it’s not overwhelming) that circumcision was important to any ancient Israelite is in the TaNaKH, a notoriously unreliable record for reconstructing ancient history and, importantly, the work of a minority male elite. Just ask the archeologists who have repeatedly proven that ancient Israelites worshiped all sorts of deities and could only be called monotheists in a fairy tale.
Ancient circumcision, such as it was practiced, did not involve the complex surgery that is done on infant boys today. Any circumcision of, say, 200 BCE or even later did not require the same set of tools or involve the same procedures.
Circumcision seems to have become important in the second century to the rabbis, not necessarily to Jews at large. And it got that way mostly because of the emergence of Christianity (though the fact that some Greek Jews had discarded the ritual may also have played a role). Wannabee leaders get most insistent about the value of a practice when people aren’t doing it. The well-known historian Michael Stone once told me: “The thing that ancient prophets railed away against? That was ancient Israelite religion.”
The rabbis of the Mishnah (as historian Shaye Cohen and others have long noted) were concerned about the competition they were getting from early Christians. These “Pauline Christians” argued that since Genesis 15 gave us a “righteous” Abraham well before Genesis 17 insisted on Abraham’s circumcision, it was not necessary to perform the latter to become the former. The rabbis therefore extolled the virtue of circumcision at great length, and rabbinic tradition continued extolling through the centuries. So… we do something largely because outsiders told us it wasn’t important?
All of this, and much more about circumcision can be heard on Judaism Unbound’s recent series of podcasts on the subject (#303-306). Or you can read Shaye Cohen’s Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Or, perhaps, Lawrence Hoffman’s Covenant of Blood.
You will discover more mythology in the history you were taught than you might imagine. Why is this important?
Because for all the much-vaunted insistence that Judaism and Jews can question everything, there are subjects that are taken off the table. Circumcision is one of them. The repercussions for real Jews and their families are not inconsequential.
There is, of course, always hazards around unnecessary surgery on an infant. Then there are dangers for real Jewish children who are exposed for being uncircumcised. Those children have been denied their Jewish identity and any place in the synagogue. They have been ostracized. They have been expelled. I once knew of a community who, when they found out that a cisgender male child had not been circumcised, tuned into a veritable mob. The child’s body was mentally stripped. Obscene poetry was sent over email.
Circumcision is a gendered practice that marks the value of infants who are male assigned at birth as most valuable to the community even while they are simultaneously subjected to an invasive surgical procedure. Are Jewish parents wrong to ask about the implications, here?
We have inherited mythologies that are taken for history, even truth. By circumcising, we keep faith with our ancestors (who might have been more than a little surprised to find us putting this much value on circumcision and wouldn’t have recognized the way we practice it, either). By circumcising we prove that we know, as parents, we can’t control everything that will happen to our child (heaven help the parents of cisgender females for not having the opportunity to learn this lesson). By circumcising, we relive the value of sacrifice (except that it’s not our own sacrifice, but that which we insisted our child must make).
History and mythology. What happens if we do away with what we think of both and do what we claim is natural to Jews and Judaism and… ask questions?
For parents opting out of circumcision who are looking for help in locating welcoming Jewish spaces, go here, to Bruchim.