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Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?

Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism

Shaye J. D. Cohen
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 334
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppgr1
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  • Book Info
    Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?
    Book Description:

    Why aren't Jewish women circumcised? This improbable question, first advanced by anti-Jewish Christian polemicists, is the point of departure for this wide-ranging exploration of gender and Jewishness in Jewish thought. With a lively command of a wide range of Jewish sources—from the Bible and the Talmud to the legal and philosophical writings of the Middle Ages to Enlightenment thinkers and modern scholars—Shaye J. D. Cohen considers the varied responses to this provocative question and in the process provides the fullest cultural history of Jewish circumcision available.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92049-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. PART ONE Jewish Circumcision and Christian Polemics

    • CHAPTER 1 A Canonical History of Jewish Circumcision
      (pp. 3-54)

      What happens at a Jewish circumcision? A detailed account is provided by the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), who, after witnessing a circumcision in Rome on January 30, 1581, wrote the following in hisTravel Journal:

      (1) On the 30 th, he [Montaigne] went to see the most ancient religious ceremony there is among men, and watched it very attentively and with great profit: that is, the circumcision of the Jews.

      (2) [A paragraph on the Sabbath services at the synagogue.]

      (3a) But as for the circumcision, it is done in private houses, in the most convenient and...

    • CHAPTER 2 Were Jewish Women Ever Circumcised?
      (pp. 55-66)

      Having treated male circumcision in the previous chapter, I turn now to female circumcision. Lest I be misunderstood, I would like to repeat a sentiment that I first expressed in the preface. Not for a moment in this book am I suggesting or implying that Jewish womenshouldbe circumcised. The subject of this book is not female circumcision but the absence of circumcision, or any equivalent covenantal mark, from the bodies of Jewish women. What does the absence of circumcision from Jewish women tell us about the meaning of circumcision and the meaning of Jewishness? These are the questions...

    • CHAPTER 3 Christian Questions, Christian Responses
      (pp. 67-92)

      At the end of the previous chapter, I discussed the evidence of Philo, which shows that the Jews did not practice female circumcision, that the Egyptians did, and that some Jews were opposed to the Jewish circumcision of males. One of the arguments advanced by these opponents may have been based on the non-circumcision of women: why did God command the circumcision of males but not of females? Exactly how these opponents of circumcision developed this line of thought, we do not know. Christian opponents of Jewish circumcision also hit upon this argument, perhaps having learned it from their Jewish...

    • CHAPTER 4 From Reticence to Polemic
      (pp. 93-108)

      In chapter 3 I surveyed the three anti-Jewish arguments that Christians derived from the non-circumcision of Jewish women. First, God does not require circumcision from his devotees, since women too can be righteous before God even though they are not circumcised. Second, Judaism is inferior to Christianity, since Jews circumcise only men, whereas Christians baptize men and women alike. Third, women are anomalous within Judaism, since circumcision is essential to Jewishness, but Jewish women are not circumcised. As we shall see in the following chapters, Jewish thinkers of the high Middle Ages advanced at least four different explanations for the...

  6. PART TWO Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?: Four Responses

    • CHAPTER 5 The Celebration of Manhood
      (pp. 111-142)

      Why do Jewish men bear a covenantal mark on their bodies but not Jewish women? The fundamental answer to be developed in this chapter is that the Jewishness of women is different from the Jewishness of men, or, to be more blunt, the Jewishness of women is of a lesser kind than the Jewishness of men. The absence of circumcision bespeaks their second-tier status. This is the answer that I have been calling the implicit answer of rabbinic Judaism, the answer that the rabbis of the Talmud would have given had they bothered to answer this question. What was implicit...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Reduction of Lust and the Unmanning of Men
      (pp. 143-173)

      In chapter 5 I discussed the question “what does the absence of circumcision from Jewish women tell us about Jewish women?” In this chapter I discuss the question “what does the absence of circumcision from Jewish women tell us about Jewish men?” In chapter 5 I argued that circumcision celebrates manhood and masculinity. It marks Jews as men and men as Jews; its absence from Jewish women implies that they are Jews of a lesser sort. Their Jewishness derives from, or is subordinate to, the Jewishness of their menfolk. Men are the norm, women are Other. In this chapter I...

    • CHAPTER 7 True Faith and the Exemption of Women
      (pp. 174-190)

      In the previous chapter I discussed answers that Maimonides might have given to our question. Men need circumcision, Maimonides says, because circumcision reduces lust and sexual passion, thereby allowing Jewish men to devote themselves more fully to God and Torah than they otherwise would be able. And why do women not need circumcision? Apparently because they, unlike men, do not suffer from a surfeit of lust. Maimonides does not actually say this, of course, but it is a conclusion that logically follows from his position. Some modern Jewish thinkers have taken this Maimonidean idea and developed it in ways that...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Celebration of Womanhood
      (pp. 191-206)

      The previous two chapters were devoted to unfolding and unpacking Maimonides’ views of circumcision. Maimonides argues that circumcision reduces male lust and is a sign of membership for those who belong to the league of the believers in the unity of God. Nothing in a woman’s experience corresponds to circumcision because nothing in a woman’s experience needs to correspond to circumcision. Only men are circumcised because only men need circumcision. Circumcision is a commandment like any other commandment; it is not covenantal and does not affect an individual’s relationship with God any more than any other commandment. In this chapter...

    • CONCLUSION: Challenges to the Circumcision of Jewish Men
      (pp. 207-224)

      This chapter is a brief foray into the nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, Christian writers had used the non-circumcision of Jewish women as an argument against the circumcision of Jewish men. This argument returned in the middle of the nineteenth century, this time in the hands of Jewish reformers, who zealously campaigned against the necessity for circumcision. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many contemporary Jews are disturbed by the lack of parity in the treatment Jewish newborns. For them, the absence of any ceremony or ritual marking the birth of a baby...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 225-272)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-292)
  9. General Index
    (pp. 293-310)
  10. Index of Premodern Sources
    (pp. 311-317)