“Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism” by Laurence A. Hoffman— A Defining Rite?

Hoffman, Laurence A. “Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism”, (Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism), University of Chicago Press, 1996.

A Defining Rite?

Amos Lassen

Circumcision is central to both biblical narrative and rabbinic commentary and it is a defining rite of Jewish identity; it is such a powerful symbol that to challenge it is considered to be taboo. In “Covenant of Blood”, Lawrence Hoffman looks at why circumcision holds such an important place in the Jewish psyche. He explores the symbolism of circumcision through Jewish history and examines its evolution as a symbol of the covenant in the post-exilic period of the Bible and its subsequent meaning in the formative era of Mishnah and Talmud.

I first heard about this book in a course on gender and sexuality in Judaism and realized how little I understood its importance as a symbol and as a rite.

Hoffman argues that in the rabbinic tradition and system, circumcision was not a birth ritual and neither was it the beginning of the human life cycle. It was a rite of covenantal initiation into a male “life line.” Even though the evolution circumcision was shaped by rabbinic debates with early Christianity, the Rabbis shared with the church the idea that blood provides salvation.

Hoffman examines the particular significance of circumcision blood, which, in addition to its role regarding salvation is contrasted with menstrual blood to symbolize the gender dichotomy within the rabbinic system. Analyzing the Rabbis’ views of circumcision and menstrual blood shows something about the marginalization of women in rabbinic law. Differentiating official mores about gender from actual practice, Hoffman gives us a survey of women’s spirituality within rabbinic society and examines the roles mothers played in their sons’ circumcisions until the medieval period when they were excluded from taking part.

By combining a close reading of rabbinic texts with an interdisciplinary method drawn from the human sciences, Hoffman makes an important contribution to Jewish studies and gender studies.

In “Covenant of Blood”, Hoffman shows his mastery of the subject and his fluency with traditional sources and scholars, and also has a solid grasp on related material from the whole non-Jewish and non-Judaist spectrum. Circumcision is an explosive topic and has been since Abraham and Hoffman really handles it well. He gives us what we  need to know about the key Biblical sacrament and how an inspired scholarly mind operates and explains.

I am fascinated by learning that circumcision became a part of Jewish history during and after the Babylonian Captivity (597-538 BCE) and only after the Persians allowed Cohanim to return to Palestine, where they imposed the ritual on their people. It was also during the Captivity that the entire story about the life of Abraham was inserted into the Biblical narrative. These facts make it possible to question the validity of every Biblical story as well as the entire historical basis for Judaism, as it now appears.

Hoffman begins by telling us: “If the physical act of circumcision is the cultural sign of Jewish existence, the cultural construction that it signifies is a covenant between the men being circumcised and God.” However, the cultural “sign” of Jewish existence is not the circumcision of men, but of infant boys— non-consenting boys, who are forced to endure the rite. This implies that the cultural sign of Jewish existence is the ritual mutilation by men of the genitals of someone who is too young to object in any way except by screaming, etc.

The claim is that circumcision was mandated by God, yet we learn here that is was the deliberate work of a few Jewish Priests and Scribes living in Babylon. Circumcision, Hoffman writes, has long been the sine qua non of Jewish identity. However, this simple statement is more complicated than it appears, both because obviously it does not speak to women’s Judaic status, and also because the state of one’s penis is technically irrelevant to one’s membership in the religion.

Hoffman, became so troubled by his findings that it took him eight years following his completion of his research to actually publish “Covenant of Blood”. His thesis is so profound and yet so simple that it is shocking that no one has spoken about it before he did: Circumcision symbolizes a covenant between the males being circumcised and God. The practice thereby expresses the truth that in traditional rabbinical thought, Judaism, despite its matrilineal passage of religious identity, equates “man” with “Jew,” allotting women in a second-thought role. Circumcision made possible and even embodied an analogy that Hoffman shows was implicit in Judaism: man was to woman as Jew was to non-Jew. A male Jew demonstrated that he belonged to Judaism and was part of the covenant by going under the knife.

There has been such a strong grasp on circumcision that opposition to it was considered heretical or a taboo. What is important is to realize that things were not this way from the beginning of Judaism. After examining confusing and sometimes conflicting ancient religious texts, Hoffman shows that circumcision has not always been considered an essential Jewish covenant, but rather was constructed as such a few centuries before the birth of Christ. This was at a time when animal sacrifice was on its way out as part of Judaism. The blood spilled during circumcision is essential to brit milah because it harks back to the brit’s ritual predecessor, animal sacrifice. At the same time, the blood represents the aspect of sacrifice that offers salvation. The penal foreskin is useless unless covered with circumcision blood causing to be redemptive. Menstrual blood, on the other hand, was considered a pollutant, demonstrating the exclusion and subordination of women. As part of this historical transition, women had to be displaced from the brit milah. In its original form, the ritual placed father, mother, and child at center stage. Later, the brit was reconceptualized to exclude all females including the mother and to emphasize its nature as “a male-only ritual, almost sacramental in both public and official meaning.”

In a fascinating three-way power struggle between the monarchy, the Jewish “priests” (as Hoffman names them), and the prophets, circumcision became a ritual of total importance. Hoffman shows that the redactor of the so-called “P text,” is the original promoter of the equation of Jewish identity and circumcision. This writer, it seems was obsessed by the need to ensure successful reproduction. He metaphorically associated this with images of horticulture, associated the need for circumcision as “pruning” to promote fertility. Circumcision came to be conceptualized as a ritual form of castration in which the elders’ power was publicly demonstrated and the son’s loyalty  was made clear by his submission to the circumciser’s knife.

Hoffman deconstructs the entire brit milah ritual in great detail, delving into the historical origins of each step, showing us how it developed through a combination of rabbinic authority and  popular interventions. The author convincingly demonstrates that the rite is “a ceremonial celebration of the obligation that binds men to each other in rabbinic culture.” Except for the mother, men alone are featured in all rabbinic stories about circumcision. Blood symbolizes the opposition between men and women; women are seen as dirty and as lacking control of their (menstrual) blood and thus of themselves, while men are portrayed as clean and as in control of their (circumcision) blood, thereby justifying their preferential entrustment with passing on religious doctrine.

The power of tradition, I understand,  almost stopped Hoffman from publishing his exploration of the role of circumcision in Judaism. He eventually, ten years later, felt that “it is better to come to terms with the crawly creatures in the basement than to pretend that they are not there.”

In tracing the rite of circumcision from its original textual origins in the story of Abraham, Hoffman combines close analysis of Jewish texts with anthropological theory (particularly the seminal and insightful writings of Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss) to demonstrate how circumcision evolved into a binary system that served to reinforce Jewish patriarchy while simultaneously marginalizing women. Hoffman demonstrates how the rabbinic system evolved in a manner that effectively excluded women from the religious culture of Judaism (while recognizing that the preserved rabbinic texts do not always reflect the reality of cultural practice). Hoffman summarizes why Jewish women were excluded from compliance with positive commandments dependent on time:

“[W]ith regard to gender, the rabbinic system presents a cultural diad of in control/out of control. Men are controlled, they learn the system of controls, and they exercise control to transform the environment; women are the opposite: they are out of control; they are nature; they are wild, loose, unable (by temperament) to master the application of those commandments that must be done precisely on time.' Therefore, the system necessarily exempts them from those commandments. In a word, men are nature transformed by culture; women are nature, dependent on culture, that is, on men. They enter men's domain at times like marriage (thus requiring one-sixth of the Mishnah to tell their men how to deal with them), but they are never fullyculturated.’ They do not learn Torah and are not obliged to affect Torah’s transformation of nature. Using Levi-Strauss’s celebrated categorization scheme loosely, we can say that men, as culture, are the cooked while women, as nature, are the raw.”

For those who see Judaism as revealed religion, and Torah and its Talmudic elaborations as revealed texts, “Covenant of Blood” will appear as heresy. Similarly, for those who unquestioningly accept Judaic tradition and practice without regard to its origins and effects, there will continue to be a cultural, if not religious, imperative for circumcision, “the sine qua non of Jewish identity throughout time.” But for those willing to examine the religious ritual of circumcision in the light of reason, Hoffman has written a text that should be carefully considered.

We are given an understanding of the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism from a temple/priest centered religion and  the gradual exclusion of women from the practice of religion in the synagogue which is linked to changes in the circumcision ritual. While the book is of great depth, it is easy to read. I do not know if I agree with all that is here but we cannot ignore what Hoffman has to say.



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