Since the only pain we experience is our own pain, and since our own pain is often not the most hideous pain, particularly if we live far from history’s savageries and inside a middle-class existence that was designed to insulate us from all the pain that can be separated from the decay of the body and its death--since all this is the case, morality follows the imagination. This association may offend prudes and dandies, but the only way to be moved by misery with which one has no personal acquaintance is to imagine it. Sympathy, which is responsible for more decency than all the maxims in the world, is almost always my picture of your pain. If suffering had to be shared to be acted upon, there would be even less rescue and less relief then there is. That is why the sudden induction into a hardship, the exchange of external knowledge for internal knowledge, can be transfiguring. A provincialism of consciousness is crossed. The other night I made such a crossing. It was late and I was studying. The house was still. Across the road vermilion leaves on half-denuded branches glowed in the loud light of the streetlamp. I was twisted in a large chair with my book, wrapped in an old Afghan shawl. It appears that my treasonous knees did not like the demands I was making of them, because when I rose from the chair they gave way beneath me. They were not weak, they were dead. I fell to the floor. I started to crawl. When I tried to raise myself back up on my seat, I was legless once more, and fell back the other way. Again I was a heap. I have never experienced powerlessness so purely. Soon my strength returned--the simulation was not complete, because it was not final; but I was shocked by my collapse, and fascinated. I have helped disabled people in and out of chairs, and old people up and down stairs. I thought I understood their infirmity, but I did not understand it at all. So happy is the man who can get by solely on the moral imagination. And even happier the temporary cripple, the man of a helpless hour, who will not soon forget.
What I was reading, before this visitation of finitude, was the most graphic depiction of sex that I have ever encountered in rabbinical literature. It was composed in Provence in the thirteenth century by a rabbi named Isaac ben Yedaiah, and it survives in a unique manuscript at the Jewish Theological Seminary, portions of which a friend published many years ago. “All that an uncircumcised man wants is to lie with a beautiful woman who speaks seductively to him. He can think of nothing except being with her day and night, and grows weary in his attempt to fulfill his desire by making love to her. And she will court the uncircumcised man and lie in his bosom passionately, because he thrusts inside her a long time owing to his foreskin, which impedes ejaculation, and so she is pleasured and reaches an orgasm first. When he decides to go home, she brazenly grabs him and seizes his genitals and says, ‘Again, lay!’” This Rubirosa the medieval rabbi contrasts with the circumcised man, “who will find himself performing his task efficiently, emitting his seed as soon as he inserts the crown.” As for his woman, “it would have been better for her if he had not known her,” since “she does not have an orgasm even once a year, except on rare occasions.” (Happy birthday, honey!) Isaac is writing in praise of the lousy lover. Only he, with no foreskin to lead him to hedonistic madness, may find God. This defense of circumcision is as old as Philo, and was canonically formulated by Maimonides, who is cited by Christopher Hitchens, who may have meant Simonides or Eumenides, in a denunciation of circumcision in God Is Not Great, his thoughtful study of religion. The same point was recently made by the voluptuary Andrew Sullivan, for whom “forcing boys to have most of their sexual pleasure zones destroyed without their express permission is a form of child abuse.” Hitchens idiotically compares it to female genital mutilation, as if circumcision is castration. Sullivan sees the difference, though I was not aware--how could I be?--that the foreskin comprises “most of [the] sexual pleasure zones.” Sullivan is once again possessed of another absolute certainty about another Jewish horror for which he has another atrocity photograph. But wait--tap tap tap--link link post post--he has discovered that “new studies showing that it can be very effective against the transmission of HIV may well tip the balance of the argument.” Well, yes. The outrage may have to move on.
I swear that the prepuce is not a requirement of pleasure. I cannot speak for Maimonides, I can speak only for myself. My evidence is entirely anecdotal--but what anecdotes! If the objective of the knife was, in Maimonides’s words, that “violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed [for procreation] are diminished,” then the knife failed. We, the sculpted, are immune neither to temptation nor to ecstasy. Our Yom Kippur is not for nothing. And if the Provencal sage was correct--I read him in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature and see Richard Gere, the dream sheygets, standing naked in American Gigolo and explaining that “nobody else would have taken the time”--and we gain our pleasure at the expense of our lovers’ pleasure, well, we must atone for that, too. The mohel did not quite mutilate us, in our spirits or in our senses. (Anyway, it was not our religion that made a holy day out of a certain circumcision or a cult out of its blood or a relic out of its foreskin.) There are other reasons, beyond the exploits of erotica judaica, to support this ancient practice, as Hanna Rosin showed in a wise piece in New York. But the overwhelming consideration is, if you will pardon the expression, membership. I am a Jew and so my son is a Jew. Since I believe that it is an honor to be a Jew, I will not exempt my son from this honor. If I do not make him a Jew, he cannot later choose to be a Jew, or he cannot later choose not to be a Jew, because he will not know what it is he is choosing for or against. My child is free, but not yet. And this is not the only mark that I will leave upon him. Perhaps he will see the love, and the pride, in the mark. But he is not only his father’s son, as I was not only my father’s son. We are the sons of a people. This should not be so hard to understand. Or is it only this people that is so hard to understand? This is not my customary complaint, but I have had my fill of bracing challenges to the legitimacy of my patrimony, of false thinking masquerading as free thinking, of ignorance and contempt. Go find the holes in your own fabric.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.