The Wound and the Covenant

HUMANIST, Vol. 56 No. 4 (July 1996)
Pages 28-30.


Melvin Seiden

We are tourists soldiering through Syria's monuments. Yesterday
it was the Temple of Baal in Palmyra, today potholes and operatic
merchants in Aleppo's covered souq.  Our guide Walid has
navigated its dark alleys many times and probably wishes that he
were having a nice nap at the hotel.  He stops at a shop perfumed
and painted with spices, buys a paper cone of nuts, hands them to
the nearest fellow traveler who happens to be me; I taste them
cautiously, pass the cone to the person next in line.

Aleppo, an eleventh edition of the Britannica says, "is the
centre of a large district growing cereals, pistachios, and
fruit" I can bring back the sights and smells of Aleppo with
those salty sweet pistachios.  My madeleine.

Set you down this, And say besides, that in Aleppo once Where a
malignant and turban'd Turk Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the
state, I took by the throat the circumcised dog, And smote
him-thus.  I cannot say that Othello's valedictory words rang in
my ears while I was eating pistachios in Aleppo.  Vivid, violent,
and hegemonic, a "malignant and turban'd Turk" did cross my mind.
I thought about the unanimously bad press the Turks have been
getting ever since the prophet's troops galloped into Christian
Europe.  As for the "circumcised dog,"the contempt and revulsion
packed into the image reveals Elizabethan "orientalism" in
precisely Edward Said's deprecatory sense of the word.

If we want to understand Othello as a play rather than as an
example of Elizabethan cultural imperialism, we need to inquire
into the relationship between the Moor and his Islamic
affiliations.  We know inferentially and from Othello's own words
that he is a Christian.  He is also a Moor, a designation and
status that strongly suggest the religion of Islam-more
precisely, the Muslims of north Africa, the likely place of
Othello's birth. (Desdemona's handkerchief, imbued with "magic in
the web of it/Did an Egyptian to my mother give," Othello
explains to his wife in act three, scene four.) Although Othello
is a mercenary and almost certainly a man of color, the Duke and
senators of Venice treat him with the utmost deference with the
respect he has earned as a kind of crusading soldier.  In the
closing scene, the wife murderer sees himself as no better than
the Muslims he has waged war against: he is a circumcised dog;
the Muslim in himself must be punished by the Christian.
Othello's suicide enacts on the battle field of his own body the
war he has waged professionally against Muslims-those "malignant
and turban'd Turks" In his agony, Othello cries: "I took by the
throat th' circumcised dog/And smote him-thus,' but he is
speaking metaphorically; only by analogy, it would seem, can
Othello be so designated.  Shakespeare has hinted at Othello's
social and ethnic status in such a way as to foreclose one
suggestive line of speculation; even so, we might ask
subversively, why wouldn't this brave soldier and unforgiving
moralist be literally circumcised?  He had probably been born a

The question is risibly unanswerable.  But we can imagine a
skilled actor who makes us see that Othello in his final moments
is discovering that he cannot be other than what he has always
been: a man pledged by inherited religion to Islam and not to the
Christianity of white Europeans.  Would it be so crude and vulgar
to have Othello on the stage aim the knife where it probably has
been before?  Possibly not.  Othello believes that his Christian
principles lead him to sentence himself to death.  But if this
self condemnation emerges out of a tradition repudiated and long
forgotten-if the imagery of circumcision suggests an apostate's
sense of buried guilt, and I think it does-then criticism need
not apologize for trying to peer behind Othello's fig leaf. (I
borrow courage for these speculations from Leo Steinberg's bold
analysis of the genitalia of Jesus in Renaissance painting in his
book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern
Oblivion; Pantheon, 1983.)

Othello dissociates himself from an Islam in which errant wives
may be murdered by tyrannical husbands-that is, the alien world
of the "circumcised dog" But an antithetical meaning can also be
seen: when the would-be priest who sacrificed his wife now
sacrifices himself, the Islam that has been mocked and spurned is
given the last heretical word.  We might say that circumcision
has been given a covert dignity ostensibly denied it.

In Jewish living rooms, the subject of circumcision-like that of
dietary lawsoften gets dealt with by smooth rationalizations:

the claim is made that removing the foreskin offers hygienic or
medical benefits; we are told that the statistics for cervical
cancer among women whose sexual partners have or lack the prepuce
indicate such and such . . . we can skip the details. I recall a
serio comic dining-room debate in which my old friend, an
exasperated anthropologist, taunted our old friend, the Jewish
doctor: "So that means you folks really are smarter than us
gentiles. Even way back then, long before the rest of the world
woke up, the Jews somehow knew . . . knew about things like
trichinosis and cervical cancer- After that rhetorical bomb,
amiable shouting and guffaws followed.  I distrust the alchemy
that transforms religious ritual into collective rationality and
uncovers instinctive wisdom in the totems and taboos of a tribal
people. I believe that circumcision, like Jewish dietary laws,
has to do with community bonding, with staking out symbolic
boundaries, with the virtually universal need of a people who
choose to live inside an ideologically delineated pale to
separate themselves from those who live outside its borders.
Jews, it would seem, view themselves as a people who are defined
by the rigor of the practices and prohibitions peculiar to them.
Solidarity is Judaism's bottom line.

Nowadays, however, at least in the United States, almost all
hospital-born male infants undergo circumcision regardless of the
religious affiliation of their parents.  And a dissident minority
has arisen to challenge the wisdom of medically prescribed
circumcision.  The critics remind us of the pain felt by the
infant; they describe babies who have been violated; and like
those who defend biblically mandated circumcision, the dissenters
are utilitarians.  Do the benefits claimed for surgical
circumcision outweigh the harm done to the nonconsenting patient?
The critics' answer is no.

One can only speculate about the assault on the infant's psyche;
it must be left to the experts to interpret the data that do or
do not justify circumcision as preventive medicine.  And since
adult men who have been circumcised (I generalize from my own
experience) do not have, nor are able to bring to consciousness,
a distinct memory of the trauma, they are likely to be
experientially neutral.  Whether they favor or oppose
circumcision will probably be determined by general philosophical
orientation-by values, if that canting word may be permitted.

I have tried to make myself imagine the pain of a wound wrought
in flesh physiologically designed for pleasure-a failed effort,
except that, in a spasm of revulsion, I found myself thinking
more tolerantly about the anti-abortion zealot who begins with
lofty principles and ends in violence and madness.  I recognize
an unwelcome affinity between those of us who believe that
circumcision is mutilation and the outrage of the men and women
who tell us that abortion is murder.

This much, though, cannot be disputed: Judaism and Islam will
persist in circumcising male children even if medicine were to
establish beyond scientific doubt that the practice offers no
health benefits to the child (and, let us also assume as beyond
question, that it does no significant physical harm).
Unequivocal scientific condemnation of the practice might provide
an interesting test of the ability of a fundamental religious
belief to survive a strong frontal attack; but one should make no
rash predictions about how Jewish or Muslim orthodoxy might react
to what in any case is a highly unlikely situation.

Rabbinical exegesis may tell us that the foreskin is a solemn
offering whereby the people of Israel seal the covenant between
Yahweh and themselves.  And we can assent to it, but only if we
bring to it a kind of Coleridgean "suspension of disbelief."
Sacralizing a communal ceremony whose origins are lost in
prehistory can be understood as myth-making, story telling, the
poeticizing of prosaic reality.  In the nineteenth century,
"advanced" writers described ritual circumcision as the enactment
of a kind of thinking they deemed primitive, pre-rational, indeed
superstitious.  It will be argued against such old-fashioned
positivism that it views the complexities of ritual through the
rose-tinted glasses of progress: enlightened ("civilized") folk
o not go in for ritual blood letting.  But blood there is, and an
uncircumcised Moses in Exodus must become "a bridegroom of blood"
in order to please an angry God.  My anthropology kit suggests an
interpretation of circumcision different from the rabbinical one:
might it be the fetishizing of the penis as the organ of
procreation? (I bypass the subject of female circumcision.)  This
hypothesis, rather than separating Jews from gentiles as the
covenant exegesis does, links them to the many other cultures in
which fertility is given a sacred status.

I turn now to what for me is an astonishing example of Judaic
ritual, which I discovered in a formidably learned book,

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?-The Search for the Secret of
Qumrum (Scribner, 1995). The author, Norman Golb, quotes from a
scroll called "Rule of the Community" or "Messianic Rule":

No man who is struck with any kind of human uncleanness shall
enter into the assembly of God, nor will any man smitten with it
be confirmed for office in the midst of the congregation; no man
smitten in his flesh, or crippled in his feet or hands; none
lame, blind, deaf, or mute; none smitten with a visible blemish
in his flesh; nor an old man who stumbles and cannot keep still
in the midst of the congregation.  None of these shall enter to
hold office in the midst of the congregation of the men of the
Name, for the Angels of Holiness are with their congregation.

Golb remarks blandly, "The passage . . . implies that these
angels are offended by any display of physical impairments."
More sensitive readers will not have this acquiescent response;
they will be appalled by the brutal fastidiousness expressed in
the document, for the dread of ritual contamination has made
these servants of God incapable of compassion.

Living as we do in the age of AIDS, we recognize in the brethren
of the "Messianic Rule" the instinctive and, indeed, primitive
reaction that urges us to shun the afflicted.  We have to reason
ourselves into suppressing the desire to incarcerate the leper,
turn our backs on the lame and halt, walk away from misery in all
its discomfiting infringements.  And surely we can claim to have
made real progress if a secular ethics allows us to see what Golb
chooses not to see: that, while invoking the lofty purpose of
spiritual perfection, the Qumrum purists are nevertheless bigots.
How sad to imagine that, in the quest for holiness, pious men
might indeed enact legislation as cruel as this.

The Qumrum document's obsession with "uncleanness" takes us back
to Othello's loathsome Turk, to the "circumcised dog" who does
not deserve to live-and to this insight: from the point of view
of Islam or Judaism, to be uncircumcised is to be unclean.  Were
these religion-proud Jews or Muslims to use the Greek term, they
might call Christians barbarians.  The jeering irony cannot have
escaped the dramatist who created Shylock.  But Othello, a
Christian probably by conversion, vents his wrath on a religion
and a culture whose inferiority is figured in the image of the
wounded penis.  It seems to me that Shakespeare's "circumcised
dog" invites skepticism and the kind of moral relativism that is
associated with the illuminations of modern anthropology.

In the witches of Macbeth, Shakespeare creates a supernatural
version of repugnant otherness.  Strangely, even as the obscene
hags cavort on a recognizably English heath, the dramatist
transports us to the Aleppo of Islam:

First Witch: A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap. And
mounch'd, and mounch'd, and mounch'd. . Her husband's to Aleppo

(Muslim and Jew also appear in the witches' incantation in the
fifth act; bubbling in their vile stew are "Nose of Turk" and
"liver of blaspheming Jew") Why Aleppo? Sinister associations
attach to it: the English sailor who voyages to that part of the
world encounters hostility; back home, in a scene of rustic
tranquility, the sailor's wife munches on what must be domestic
chestnuts.  The ruminant wife waxes fat; her sailor husband
(another Jack Sprat?) faces the dangerous "Mohammedans;' the
circumcised ones, in their native Aleppo.  We can't miss the
black comedy of juxtaposing homey English chestnuts with the
nameless, witch-tainted evil that lurks in the euphony of
AAHL-LEP-PO; but I, confusingly, find it difficult to divorce the
Aleppo of the "malignant and turban'd Turk" from its munchable

Author Affiliation: Melvin Seiden is an emeritus professor of
English at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

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