OF CUTTING AND COVENANTS
Do You Have to Get Circumcised to Become Jewish?
From the story of Ruth to the Apostle Paul, the ancients hotly debated whether women and men could convert to Judaism without circumcision.
There was trouble in first-century Galatia. During his missionary journeys, the Apostle Paul had taught non-Jews in the area that in order to become a follower of Jesus, the Jewish messiah, they need only be baptized and they would be saved by faith. Circumcision, he argued, was not necessary for salvation.
His arguments elicited strong reactions from other Jewish followers of Jesus and from the new converts themselves and led Paul to write the sharpest of his letters, the biblical letter to the Galatians. For most of history we have assumed that Paul’s position was a radical and completely innovative suggestion, but now a new book suggests that Paul wasn’t the only Jew to open up Judaism to uncircumcised people.
It’s easy to see why Paul’s converts in Galatia thought that circumcision was important. After all, according to the Bible, circumcision is the sign of the covenant that Abraham forged with God. It’s an identity marker. If men wish to enter into this covenant then, surely, they have to sacrifice a piece of themselves too? It’s the reason that Jewish infants continue to be circumcised today and it’s a principle for which, according to the books of the Maccabees, Jews have been willing to sacrifice their lives.
Paul has his own answers to this question, but the problem is older than Paul, especially when it comes to the status of women. Not every human body has a foreskin. What are foreskin-deficient people (mostly women) to do? Are they semi-members like Ruth (the legendary grandmother of King David)? Are they non-members? Can women really be converts?
It was something of a problem. As Jill Hicks-Keeton, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, told The Daily Beast, “Women in antiquity were incorporated into the kinship group of their husbands, a move that included venerating that group's god or gods. Jewish circumcision was (as now) only available to male bodies and so was not available as a mechanism of incorporation available to women. Women, such as the biblical character of Ruth, were added or not depending on their usefulness for male Israelite identity. Women’s inclusion was not fully theorized until the rabbis developed the criterion of matrilineal descent for Jewishness.”
In the recently released Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s Living God in Jewish Antiquity, Hicks-Keeton argues that Judaism wasn’t the restrictive tradition that people sometimes assume it is. Her book discusses the story of Joseph and Aseneth, a turn-of-the-era Jewish romance novel that reimagines the story of the wife of the patriarch Joseph (he of technicolored dreamcoat fame). In Genesis 41, Asenath is a minor character: the daughter of an Egyptian priest Potiphera, she becomes Joseph’s wife and bears him two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. And this is pretty much all the Bible tells us about her. She doesn’t speak, she doesn’t act, she just bears sons. Written centuries after the book of Genesis, the anonymous Joseph and Aseneth fleshes out the details and, in the process, uses her story to work out how to incorporate foreign non-Jewish women into the covenant the Jews made with God.
In the story, Aseneth (now a beautiful virginal main character with an ‘e’ in her name) marries Joseph and abandons the Egyptian gods of her ancestors. Joseph initially rejects her because of her polytheism, but it all works out in the end: she locks herself in a tower, becomes a monotheistic devotee of Joseph’s God, and is visited by an angel who accepts her repentance and conversion. The way the story presents Aseneth is different from the way foreign women were presented in the Bible and offers a model for how gentiles might be fully accepted into the community. As Hicks-Keeton told me: “Joseph and Aseneth re-imagines a female character from Genesis as a mythic model and mediator of God’s covenant to future penitents. The tale writes into Israel's sacred story … a precedent for inclusion of non-Jews in the people of God by using a woman, whose body is ineligible for circumcision, to imagine a way in for gentiles as gentiles.”
This doesn’t mean that everyone in the Hellenistic period agreed with the author of Joseph and Aseneth. Hicks Keeton told me that while people did not argue with the book directly there were others, like the author of the book of Jubilees, who took a hard line on the inclusion of outsiders. And, of course, Paul encountered his own share of strong opposition.
What all of this means is that before Paul began to argue with the Galatians (and other leaders in the Jesus movement) about the value of circumcision, there were other Jews who were already navigating the difficult question of how to accept non-Jews into the community without demanding circumcision. “What Joseph and Aseneth shows us,” Hicks Keeton said, “is that the apostle Paul was not the most radical thinker in antiquity who wanted to incorporate non-Jews into the people of God. Paul was not special. Christians did not invent gentile inclusion in Israel.”
This, in turn, should have a knock-on effect for how we think about Judaism in general. Hicks-Keeton put it this way, “Many people stereotype Judaism as a particularistic tradition and see Christianity as the positive foil because they see it as open and universalistic. Joseph and Aseneth shows us that this caricature is unsustainable historically.”