Circumcision is seen as the central mitzvah (or commandment) of Judaism. Even for nonreligious Jews, circumcision continues to be perceived as the sine qua non of Jewish identity. And yet, unlike any other controversial topic that we Jews address, the subject of circumcision is not to be challenged. We can calmly discuss whether there is a G-d or no G-d, if G-d is masculine, feminine, or neuter, or whether homosexuals should become rabbis. Yet, questioning circumcision has been out of bounds. This taboo, in and of itself, is indicative of how strong the feelings are that surround this ancient rite, and how much lies below the surface, in the dark silence, where powerful forces have coalesced for thousands of years.

In order to attempt to understand the role of circumcision in Judaism, we need to explore not simply the biblical injunction found in Genesis 17:10–12....

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