“Offering Incense to Heaven”
Jewish Circumcision in Medieval and Early Modern Europe
The traditional Jewish circumcision rite, created during the medieval period but preserved today by many Orthodox Jews, emphasizes bloodshed, sacrifice, and sexual purity. Medieval Jewish commentators on circumcision, as exemplified here by Maimonides and Isaac ben Yedaiah, recognized (and approved) of the damage to male sexuality caused by circumcision. Circumcision features prominently in Jewish mystical writings (kabbalah), which portray foreskin removal as an essential precondition for apprehension of ultimate spiritual mysteries. Spinoza commented on ritual circumcision in a statement that is often misinterpreted as support for the practice, when in fact it was precisely the opposite. Spanish and Portuguese conversos were obliged to undergo circumcision for admission into other Jewish communities; those who fled to the New World sometimes secretly circumcised themselves or their sons.
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