THE CIRCUMCISION REFERENCE LIBRARY
[CIRP Note: Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), also known as the "Rambam", was a medieval Jewish rabbi, physician and philosopher. CIRP presents Maimonides' teachings on non-therapeutic ritual circumcision.]
To the totality of purposes of the perfect Law there belong the abandonment, depreciation, and restraint of desires in so far as possible. You know already that most of the lusts and licentiousness of the multitude consist in an appetite for eating, drinking and sexual intercourse.
To the totality of intentions of the Law there belong gentleness and docility; man should not be hard and rough, but responsive, obedient, acquiescent, and docile. You know already His commandment... "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. Be silent, and hearken, O Israel. If ye be willing and obedient."
Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible. It has been thought that circumcision perfects what is defective congenitally. This gave the possibility to everyone to raise an objection and to say: How can natural things be defective so that they need to be perfected from outside, all the more because we know how useful the foreskin is for that member? In fact this commandment has not been prescribed with a view to perfecting what is defective congenitally, but to perfecting what is defective morally. The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him. In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision.
According to me circumcision has another very important meaning, namely, that all people professing this opinion-that is, those who believe in the unity of God-should have a bodily sign uniting them so that one who does not belong to them should not be able to claim that he was one of them, while being a stranger. For he would do this in order to profit by them or to deceive the people who profess this religion. Now a man does not perform this act upon himself or upon a son of his unless it be in consequence of a genuine belief. For it is not like an incision in the leg or a burn in the arm, but is a very, very hard thing.
It is also well known what degree of mutual love and mutual help exists between people who all bear the same sign, which forms for them a sort of covenant and alliance. Circumcision is a covenant made by Abraham our Father with a view to the belief in the unity of God. Thus everyone who is circumcised joins Abraham's covenant. This covenant imposes the obligation to believe in the unity of God: To be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. This also is a strong reason, as strong as the first, which may be adduced to account for circumcision; perhaps it is even stronger than the first.
The perfection and perpetuation of this Law can only be achieved if circumcision is performed in childhood. For this there are three wise reasons. The first is that if the child were let alone until he grew up, he would sometimes not perform it. The second is that a child does not suffer as much pain as a grown-up man because his membrane is still soft and his imagination weak; for a grown-up man would regard the thing, which he would imagine before it occurred, as terrible and hard. The third is that the parents of a child that is just born take lightly matters concerning it, for up to that time the imaginative form that compels the parents to love it is not yet consolidated. For this imaginative form increases through habitual contact and grows with the growth of the child. Then it begins to decrease and to disappear, I refer to this imaginative form. For the love of the father and of the mother for the child when it has just been born is not like their love for it when it is one year old, and their love for it when it is one year old is not like their love when it is six years old. Consequently if it were left uncircumcised for two or three years, this would necessitate the abandonment of circumcision because of the father's love and affection for it. At the time of its birth, on the other hand, this imaginative form is very weak, especially as far as concerns the father upon whom this commandment is imposed.
The fact that circumcision is performed on the eighth day is due to the circumstance that all living beings are very weak and exceedingly tender when they are born, as if they were still in the womb. This is so until seven days are past. It is only then that they are counted among those who have contact with the air. Do you not see that this point is also taken into account with regard to beasts ?—Seven days shall it be with its dam, and so on. It is as if before that period it were an abortion. Similarly with regard to man; he is circumcised after seven days have passed. In this way the matter is fixed: You do not make out of it something that varies.
This class of commandments also includes the prohibition against mutilating the sexual organs of all the males of animals, which is based on the principle of righteous statutes and judgments, I mean the principle of keeping the mean in all matters; sexual intercourse should neither be excessively indulged, as we have mentioned, nor wholly abolished. Did He not command and say: Be fruitful and multiply? Accordingly this organ is weakened by means of circumcision, but not extirpated through excision. What is natural is left according to nature, but measures are taken against excess. He that is wounded in the stones or hath his privy member cut off is forbidden to marry a woman of Israel, for such cohabitation would be perverted and aimless. Such a marriage would likewise be a stumbling block for the woman and for him who seeks her out. This is very clear.
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