Saturday, April 2, 2011


I threw away a medical booklet a few years ago that belittled Jewish culture for its invention of circumcision, calling it “mutilation” and castigating that American population who thinks snipping their newborn sons’ wieners is as normal as snipping their umbilical cords. Certainly, the practice of circumcision amongst religiously devoted, American subscribers is probably more medically motivated with an aura of Biblical authority than the earthy, cultural rite it is amongst our Jewish relatives. My wife and I contacted a traveling rabbi from Chicago to do our first-born son’s circumcision (I found out later that we were part of a “co-op” of families who were to have the same procedure done). We called it off before he came.

“What are we doing?” I asked my wife. “Are we becoming Jewish or what? What is he going to do? Why must he pray? Why must there be a special “blessing” or whatever? What will it all mean? How is ‘it’ going to hurt less without an anesthetic and how is it going to heal?”

Needless to say, our ill-informed aspirations for an authentic circumcision experience fell apart. After my second son’s circumcision, where I almost passed out, I would have much preferred the rabbi. When the pediatrician rolled out his “tools”, I was uncomfortably reminded of the disemboweling of William Wallace in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Had I been watching someone water-boarded, I probably would have been less inclined to swoon like I did. At that moment the absurdity of the procedure caused anxiety about my common sense as a parent as well as my Christian moorings which cannot be divorced from its Jewishness.

Body modifications of various sorts are becoming increasingly common these days, especially amongst the American post-mods. I don’t mean boob-jobs, nose-jobs, facelifts, plastic surgery, liposuction, and other cosmetic alterations motivated by sex appeal (though they are truly modifications of the body). I’m also not talking about plastic surgery or other surgery intended to correct congenital disorders or malformations caused by disease or accident. I’m talking about “transcendent” modifications largely intended to associate the “marked” with a particular value system.

The traditional ear piercing (which dates back over five thousand years), is probably the most common of body mod art with the acceptable multiple piercings of the ears in a close second. There are piercings of the lips, the eyebrows, the nose, and the belly button as well as other disclosed areas. If the piercing is not enough, then enter the "gauge" to expand the piercing to whatever size is desired (a "gauge", I have been told, is actually a form of measurement). Piercings are described as the creation of “openings” in the body, aka, invasive, alternative openings. I once spoke to a cashier who had what appeared to be “sagging” ears. He showed me his ears up close. At one point he had sizeable gauges, as he described, before he "grew up." Now that the gauges were out, his ears looked grotesque. I suppose he can get his ears surgically fixed.

The tattoo is another common body mod. People who sport permanent tattoos usually think through the customized message they etch into their skins, picking the image they believe will best describe the essence of who they are or what they are about. The total message is a combination of supernatural belief, spiritual awareness, and aesthetic detail all communicated through a very personal part of themselves. I could talk about scarification, Braille mods, implants, and extreme mods, but those are, for my purposes, exceptions to what is considered a normal body mod.

Let’s just say that circumcision is mutilation. How is it chiefly similar to body modification? Chief of all, it describes a calling, a purpose, or a destiny that transcends genetic inheritance. How does it chiefly differ from body modification? That answer surrounds the choice of the individual being circumcised, namely, that there is no choice. What I find fascinating about groups who hold to volitional baptism (aka, believer’s baptism) is that in the area of choice they have more in common with body mod culture than with Jewish culture. Body mod culture believes body modification is only legitimate if it is consensual. After all, body mods are personal expressions, and no one can determine what your personal expression should or should not be except you.

Other religious groups who baptize or otherwise “mark” their children have more in common with Jewish culture than they do with body mod culture and other choice-oriented groups, because the personal choice of the “initiated” is less a vital feature of the rite. That would include Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc. Most importantly, I think, the particular mark of circumcision of the male was closely linked to the idea of offspring. It is interesting to me that little debate exists as to the general “area” of where the circumcision should take place. It is also interesting to me that the circumcision is more or less a “private” mark. Two very different differences between Jewish and post-mod circumcision culture. Circumcision said the same thing each time it was performed. 

Oh, yes, don’t mistake the body mod culture for being flaky or trendy. It is very much its own version of circumcision. All the elements are there. These are people who choose to identify with a reorganization of who their family is or their “people” are, and they choose to do it by visibly marking themselves in a way that genetic inheritance cannot express. 

I am always intrigued with the tattoos of my friends or students or strangers I meet. What I especially love to hear is the story behind the mark. There always is one. Maybe that is what the religious, American population who circumcises their boys is missing. A story.


  1. I think it is tribal. The problem is that in America we don't usually belong to the same tribe for very long. We change identities as we grow and go through various seasons of our lives. Permanent marks make it difficult to change tribes and so they limit us.

  2. You are correct: it is tribal. Just as the Hebrews were tribal, church is tribal, and body mods is tribal. Just as the Hebrews "marked" themselves to distinguish themselves, so do churches through baptism and POMOS through body mods. You are correct about the changes from one stage of life to another. That is one reason post-mods add on "signs" in stages.

  3. Just to help you be a bit more informed, "gauges" are a form of measurement. The correct term for what you are referring to is "stretched ear lobes". Yes, "gauge" is commonly misused referring both to stretched lobes and jewelry often put into those piercings, but the majority of knowledgeable modified persons cringe when this word is misused. It is often also considered disrespectful as those using the term often do not feel it is necessary to do the research to learn correct terminology.


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