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Correcting Men

In Why aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism (University of California Press, $39.95), Shaye Cohen offers an academic study of the historical debates around circumcision and the meaning of this ritual for the Jewish people. He offers a powerful argument for seeing the question of why women are not circumcised (it’s not because a female lacks a penis) as a part of the historical polemics between Christians and Jews.

Cohen presents the question as follows: If circumcision is the ritual that brings Jews into Jewish community, analogous to the sacrament of baptism, what does it mean that Jewish women are not included? Does this mean that women are not Jews? For most rabbis, the issue was obvious. As Cohen explains, “the absence of circumcision bespeaks their secondary, anomalous, problematic place in the rabbinic hierarchy. They are Jews of course, but they are Jews who are not obligated to study the Torah or to observe all the commandments.” Because this inequity was not a problem to the sages of antiquity, they felt no need to account for women’s exclusion. It was only in the high Middle Ages (ca. 1100-1400), according to Cohen, that Jews began to address Christian critics; and it is these responses that lie at the heart of Cohen’s study. He shows how these later sources made explicit the implicit judgment of earlier Talmudic sources that the Jewishness of women is of a lesser kind than that of Jewish men.

According to some of these sources, Jewish women are just fine the way they are, while Jewish men must be corrected. In this vein, Maimonides argued that the purpose of circumcision is “to teach men to moderate their lust so that they can devote themselves more fully to God. Another source maintained that circumcision is only one of the 613 commandments; and no individual Jew, male or female, observes, or is obligated to observe all 613, thus minimizing the commandment of circumcision altogether.

Cohen then brings readers into the modern period by addressing Reform Jewish debates about circumcision in the 19th century where, in the name of progress, reformers began to raise questions about circumcision not unlike those posed by Christian polemicists. As Cohen argues, these reformers seemed not to know that they were echoing amongst themselves the polemics originally directed against Jews.

Although framed by contemporary feminist concerns, this is really not a book about the status of Jewish women or about the contemporary meaning of circumcision. Cohen does not engage with recent Jewish feminist scholarship that has challenged the profound inequities the rabbis took for granted, nor does he fully address recent communal efforts to forge new rituals of initiation or efforts to debate the ongoing merits of circumcision. And although this book ends up being very much about male Jewish bodies, Cohen makes virtually no mention of the wealth of recent critical scholarship on this subject, nor does he discuss seriously those Jewish feminist scholars who have addressed the issue of women and a phallic covenant.

Those interested in the communal implications of these discussions and creative and critical efforts to either redress gender inequities in Jewish life will be disappointed. The book never really addresses the question posed by its provocative title, so it fails to deliver on its promise.

Laura Levitt, Director of Jewish Studies and associate professor of Religion at Temple University, is the author of Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home.