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The circumcised with regrets, and Christians without vaginas

May 1, 2012

Rachel Held Evans has written another book, this one entitled, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master.

It’s a play, of sorts, on The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs. And both books, hers and his, are serious plays at living literally by the Bible.

Both have humor. Just the titles are humorous.

And Jacobs, for example, recalls funny anatomical situations that the literal biblical rules caused him to discuss, such as his encounter with a circumcision support group and his thoughts around that whole topic (page 318):

They called themselves RECAP, short for Recover A Penis (a rival group was called BUFF–Brothers United for Future Foreskins).

The meeting was held in the basement of a church–either an extremely liberal church or a church that didn’t know to whom it was renting space. A dozen men sat in folding chairs arranged in a circle. Some were ponytailed hippies, some resembled the Leather Dude in the Village People, a few were just plain vanilla guys who looked like they could have worked in the loan department at Citibank.

“I don’t feel whole,” said one. “I want to feel whole again.”

Another asked: “Can you imagine what it’s like to have sex with a foreskin? It must be like watching color TV.” (I never was able to confirm this, but the claim is that circumcision blunts the sensation.)

Most of the time was spent discussing homespun methods that would allow the men to regrow their foreskins. I’ll spare you the details. I’m sure the internet has plenty more information for those who are interested.

Sexual sensitivity aside, the medical aspect of circumcision remains a matter of debate. The American Academy of Pediatrics makes no recommendation either way. Circumcision may reduce penile cancer, and there’s now compelling evidence it lowers men’s susceptibility to AIDS. (After my biblical year ended, the World Heath Organization recommended medical circumcision be practiced in high-risk locales.)

So when our first son, Jasper, was born, I had mixed feelings about circumcising him. I didn’t think he’d end up in a San Francisco basement venting his anger, but why put him through the pain? There’s no rational reason for it.

It seems that Held Evans is necessarily doing things differently in her book, since she’s having to follow not only the Jewish laws, but also the Christian ones, for a year, and for a year as a Jewish and also as a Christian woman.

Blogging today she tells blog readers how she in her book wanted to “use the anatomically correct term to describe the female anatomy” in some literally biblically appropriate context.  But her publisher told her “to take the word ‘vagina’ out of [her] manuscript for A Year of Biblical Womanhood in deference to the general preferences of Christian bookstores.”  She then tells of the revolt and now of the reversal (her bold font and italics, for emphases):

Well, good news— last week my editor informed me that “vagina” was a go. The word is back in the book! I’m not sure how this will affect purchases from Christian bookstores, but it doesn’t really matter to me anymore. You guys have reminded me that we have more power than we think, that writers in this industry need not accept the status quo, especially when their readers really care about their work.

If you keep reading the blog post, you’ll see there’s still some questions, about sales, about Christian publishers and readers and words and biblical literality and such. The book will be out for purchase and reading soon. The blog post “A small, strange victory for vaginas everywhere…is here.

(Oh, I just made up the phrase biblical literality; sometimes you have to get creative around taboo topics and terms.)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2012 2:21 pm

    Really, there can be no more ridiculous thing than protesting circumcision. And I find it very hard to believe that there is any scientific study on the relative sensitivity of circumcision. Since virtually all circumcised males are circumcised before they become sexually active, there is no way for an individual to compare. (Circumcision as an adult is serious surgery, and I would imagine would take a long time to heal — that alone could account for any circumstantial claims about sexual sensitivity.)

    Anti-circumcision activists tend to be virulently anti-semitic. (Example)

    Female genital mutilation, which generally involves clitoridectomy, for obvious reasons cannot be validly compared with circumcision.

  2. May 1, 2012 2:51 pm

    Theophrastus: Excellent points! Racism and anti-religionism and sexism need not motivate and cannot inform traditions and practices and beliefs. Circumcision is neither mutilation nor something inhumane; but female genital mutilation is absolutely dehumanizing.

    Have you read Jacobs’ book? With it, he’s at once very serious (outlining the biblical institution of circumcision and going along with it wholeheartedly in his own research and writings and in his family) and very funny (choosing these words to describe himself, at his twin sons’ bris — “I’m not in the mood for jokes; I’m too anxious. My forehead is damp. I mutter something about how the Bible doesn’t mandate that the father perform the ceremony.”) The excerpt I quote in the post here is actually how he recalls the anti-circumcision groups he encounters when conducting research as a magazine writer when he was younger; that he shares how these groups meet in a church in a basement is a bit of religious humor, I think.)

  3. May 1, 2012 3:39 pm

    I did read Jacobs’ book. It is meant to be humorous, obviously, and was not a serious work. Still, there are interesting religious differences between those who follow the Rabbinic interpretation of Torah law (whom we usually call “Jews”) and those who strictly read the law from the written Torah (whom we usually call “Karaites”). There is a Karaite community near me, and from interacting with them, I am under the impression that while they claim great philosophical differences from mainstream Judaism, they are closer to being a different set of practices under the broad umbrella of Jewish culture — (one famous rabbi described them as “just Egyptian Jews.”)

  4. May 1, 2012 5:02 pm

    I see that the wikipedia entry for Karaites cites Jacobs’ book, noting their demographic trends:

    In his book, Jacobs actually stops eating eggs, he says, because of what he learns in his interview with the Karaite guy who coincidentally ran the Karaite web site; and Jacobs prints the names of both that individual and the community website.

  5. May 11, 2012 5:07 am

    There is nothing ridiculous about objecting to cutting normal, healthy, functional (erogenous), non-renewable tissue from a non-consenting person. It would be against the law to cut any other such tissue from a baby boy, and the most nearly corresponding tissue (can I say clitoral hood?) of a baby girl gets Federal protection. It would be a battery to circumcise a non-consenting man, and every baby boy grows up to be a man who didn’t consent. Thanks to the Internet, they can now make themselves heard, and the movement is growing.

    You can’t judge a whole movement on the basis of a few panels from one comic book in a series by one writer and one artist. The Intactivist movement has plenty of Jews in it,

    A California study found the foreskin to be the most sensitive part of the penis. A Danish study found more sexual problems among circumcised men. No good studies have been done of these aspects, but informal polls suggest that a much higher proportion of intact men (~95%) is happy about their condition than circumcised men (~50%), and that about 60% of intact men can reach orgasm using their foreskins alone.


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