what is bris milah and is it really about gender?

The following blog post is a brief explanation of the Jewish rite of ritual circumcision, and a challenge to the idea that it must be solely linked to the gender of "man" and/or the role of "manhood." This blog post has nothing to do with the intactivism debate, there are no inherent health benefits to circumsicison, and this is not a scientific piece. This is a religious op-ed onvoking Jewish legal texts and modern ideas in order to challenge traditional ideas and misconceptions. Also: trans rights.

The mitzvah of milah, or prescription to perform circumcision, is found as early as Genesis 17: "You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you...Thus shall my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting covenant." Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people (and an important prophet of the Christian and Muslim faiths) is the first to be circumcised, cutting his own flesh and that of every male in his household as a mark of the covenant he has accepted with God. In return for obeying God, he is promised to be the forebearer of a numerous and prosperous nation, and the everlasting covenant is kept symbolically by the circumcision of all of his male descendants. There is a clear visual distinction between a circumcised and uncircumcised penis, and thus not only does the circumcised penis signify the male sex to the average onlooker, but also exemplifies Jewish maleness like no other bodily sign or symbol. It cannot be taken off, unlike a kippah or tzitzis.

Circumcision of the penis is thus typically understood to be a gendered act, through and through. In Judaism, the bris milah, the infant circumcision ceremony, is also the celebration of bringing a newborn son into the Jewish people. Until recent times, with the adoption of similar rituals such as "baby-naming ceremonies" for newborns assigned female, there has been no female equivalent. The penis, and by extension, the mark of milah, is given the role of signifying the gender of "man." However, the reality of things is never that simple, and as a response to this reality, neither is the halakha (Jewish law) surrounding it. Some Talmudic writing on the subject seems to have been left open intentionally. Tractate Yevamot 46b of the Babylonian Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Jewish law, describes categories of people for whom it is "possible" and "impossible" to embody the sign of milah, mysteriously de-emphasizing gender despite occasionally using gendered language. There are not two, but approximately six gender-sex (a distinction is not made) categories in the Talmud. The purpose of these is chiefly to determine which aspects of Jewish law one is obligated to uphold, and the Rabbis of the Talmud were known to be thorough and exhaustive. The application of modern-day interpretations of these gender-sex categories is increasingly popular and these would warrant an analysis of their own, though more conservative scholars consider the majority of the categories outside of the male-female dichotomy to be variations on one of the "binary" sexes. However, of specific interest is the distinct gender category of "androgynos" which has many halakhic characteristics that neither males nor females are assigned. According to the Rambam, androgynous people must also be circumcised, meaning there is at least one gender-sex category in Jewish religious law besides "male" that is obligated to bear the mark of circumcision. This alone starts to degrade the idea of circumcision being this definitive mark of Jewish manhood.

Expanding a gendered understanding of religious circumcision can also be accompanied by queer and transgender explorations of the mitzvah of bris milah and its accompanying rituals. Again, milah occurs in two situations in Jewish law: the birth of a Jewish child, and the conversion of a gentile to the Jewish faith. The first category exclusively affects those who are assigned male at birth. Transfeminine people born into the Jewish faith will bear the mark of milah for as long as they possess that part of their body. To some, this can cause intense gender dysphoria, another mark of the male role that was assigned to them by their family and community. But to others, the fact that many transgender Jews grew up with this changed flesh is a sign that God welcomes intentional and embodied acts of change.

In recent years, those streams of Judaism that are open to gender-diverse individuals have had to grapple with what to do with converts to the faith, especially those with foreskins who may identify as transfeminine or as a transgender woman. According to most rabbinic sources on transgender people, one who has "completed" their gender transition (whatever that means) will be considered the gender they identify as in "all" matters of halakha. The Conservative movement, a major stream of Judaism characterized by its commitment to Jewish Law but differing from Orthodoxy in its egalitarianism, published a teshuvah in 2017 (click here to read it) regarding individuals who haven't had gender-affirming surgery and/or who do not plan to. The teshuvah concludes that "non-operative and pre-operative" transgender women who wish to convert to Judaism must still undergo circumcision, further untying the knot tying the ritual to the binary gender of male, and instead assigning it to a specific set of genitalia, as Maimonides did, and which even the rabbis of the Talmud before him began to unravel. As transgender issues permeate the political mainstream, especially in the global North, transfeminine bodies have become a point of debate in the world of Jewish law, where Jews attempt to reconcile gender, body, and religion in one of the foundational tenets of our faith in and covenant with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.