Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism

Author: Lawrence A. Hoffman

Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism. By Lawrence A. Hoffman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. $16.95. (818) 225-9631. 262 pages. Review by J. Steven Svoboda

Rabbinical scholar Lawrence A. Hoffman has written that rarest of books: A learned, well-referenced, thoughtful academic work on a very focused topic that nevertheless manages to engage, even grip the reader. Circumcision, Hoffman notes, has long been the sine qua non of Jewish identity. Yet even that apparently 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, so troubled by his findings that it took him eight years following his completion of his research to actually publish Covenant of Blood, proves a thesis so sweeping and yet so simple that it is shocking that no one has breached the issue before him: Circumcision symbolizes a covenant between the males being circumcised and God. The practice thereby expresses the awkward (by today’s standards) truth that in traditional rabbinical thought, Judaism, despite its matrilineal passage of religious identity, equates “man” with “Jew,” allotting women an appendage-like 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. And how did a male Jew demonstrate that he belonged and was of the covenant? By going under the knife. “One eternal verity… endures in Jewish culture: a tenacious grasp on circumcision to the point where opposition to it was considered a taboo.”

It is important to realize that things were not this way from the inception of Judaism. Carefully sifting through reams of 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, 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. “By itself, the foreskin is useless, but covered with circumcision blood, it saves.” By contrast, menstrual blood was viewed as a pollutant, again demonstrating the exclusion and subordination of women. Interestingly, however, 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 terms them), and the prophets, circumcision emerged as a ritual of overriding importance. Hoffman pinpoints one particular ancient religious author, the creator of the so-called “P text,” as the original promoter of the equation of Jewish identity and circumcision. This writer, palpably obsessed by the need to ensure successful reproduction, which he metaphorically associated 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, with the potentially rebellious son’s loyalty made clear by his submission to the circumciser’s knife.

We get a “bonus”: 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 (sometimes unwitting) 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, Hoffman notes, it is men alone who 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 supposedly justifying their preferential entrustment with passing on religious doctrine.

Lawrence A. Hoffman closes his magnificent book with an afterword meditating on the brit milah in modern American culture. He discusses the positions of some modern Jewish commentators on ritual circumcision, and surveys its disparate forms in the present day US. I urge every reader to be sure not to miss one of the most fascinating, learned, and original books ever written about circumcision.