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«by Julia Turner B.A. in History of Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1965 M.A. in English, Portland State University, 1990 Submitted to the Graduate ...»

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Julia Turner

B.A. in History of Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1965

M.A. in English, Portland State University, 1990

Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of

Arts and Sciences in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of Pittsburgh




This dissertation was presented by Julia Turner It was defended on December 10, 2004 and approved by Lucy Fischer, Professor Gregory F. Goekjian, Professor Mariolina Salvatori, Associate Professor Philip E. Smith II, Associate Professor Dissertation Director ii Copyright © by Julia Turner, PhD 2004 iii



Julia Turner, PhD University of Pittsburgh, 2004 This dissertation presents readings across a series of disparate texts in which circumcision--as initiating Jewish rite or descendant metaphor--functions as an interpretive key.

The mark of circumcision has served as the rhetorical ground upon which much negative stereotyping--especially anti-Judaic and/or anti-Semitic sentiment--has been fostered. The metaphor of circumcision, in seeming contrast, has designated an elect in both religious and secular modes of exegesis. Additionally, issues pertaining to sexuality and gender attend or subtend the representation of circumcision in any number of cultural or critical venues. Among the texts which serve to anchor discussion around these issues are portions of Genesis; anti- circumcision literature and documentary; George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda; Joan Micklin Silver’s Crossing Delancey; Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa; Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers; and the opening chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. The polysemous character of this diacritical rite become sign determines in part the theoretical and critical writings called upon to illuminate the manner in which circumcision is and has been read. The primary informing bases are critical writings by Jewish historians and Hebrew scholars and psychoanalytic theory.

The legacy of the rite of circumcision within the so-called Judeo-Christian history of Western art and literature speaks both to the tenacity of Judaism’s particular embodied tradition and to the influence of Christianity’s universal and disembodying rhetoric. This inmix of iv rhetoric, rite, and religion clusters at the interpretive edge of circumcision and informs as well its variant tropes. Metaphorically speaking, this means the best reading position is one at or near the wound. Textually speaking, this means tending to those sites where literal ruptures, or reading wounds appear.

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I wish to thank the members of my dissertation committee for their extreme generosity of time and of spirit. To Philip Smith, committee chair, I owe far more than language allows. A premier example of the academy at its finest, his grace and constancy over a rough course have proven to be gifts beyond measure. To Mariolina Salvatori, the passionate voice always at ear with hard questions, my immense gratitude for inviting me to share the burden imposed by thinking foremost about the responsibility of reading. To Lucy Fischer, whose lively exchange and engagement foreground for me the joy to be found at the core of critical work, my ongoing and heartfelt appreciation. To my outside reader, Gregory Goekjian, I am indebted in ways too legion to list, save his unrelenting standard of excellence, ever the benchmark towards which I strive.

My eternal gratitude to two friends who know me better than I know myself, whose care and love are indeed boundless. To David Robinson, whose practical, down-to-earth advice gave me courage when it had fled furthest, my thanks for being so astute. To Stephen Sutherland, whose claim upon my heart, mind and ear is as no other, my thanks for being the dearest friend, mentor, and colleague anyone could ever hope to have.

I dedicate this writing with love and gratitude to my children, Gillian, Alexander, and Nicole Glass, in memory of their grandfather, Dr. George B. Jerzy Glass.

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Chapter 1. Reading Scars

1.1. First Cuts

1.2. Reading Around the Scar

1.3. (Re)Reading a Kristevan Scar

1.4. The Reading Scar of Roland Barthes

1.5. Auerbach’s Ansatzpunkt

Chapter 2. “Unsettled Tonalities”: (Un)circumcision Crusades

Chapter 3. Facets of Circumcision in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

3.1. Reading For The Cut

3.2. The Temporal Cut

3.3. Family Jewels: Memorial Necklace and Memorable Ring

3.4. The Disposable Father

3.5. Lapidoth as Mohel

3.6. Coda: Eliot and Cross

Chapter 4. The Passing Cut: Crossing Delancey; Europa, Europa; Drowning By Numbers 74

4.1. Crossing Delancey: Limning New York

4.2. Europa, Europa: Beschneidung, Obrzezanie

4.3. Drowning By Numbers: Circumcision as Barb(e)rous Desire

Chapter 5. Circumcision as the Cut of the Ear



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In the epigraphs above, taken from commentary on a midrash and a history of medieval custom, Jewish ritual practice enfolds an occasion for textual interpretation. While keenly pressing upon the metaphorical, the acts described in these passages do not abandon but, rather, embrace the body as they envision engagement with the divine word. As initiatory rites, each seems to foreshadow an intermediary or bridging space wherein the participant will be made ready for performance as receptive reader. While textual images such as these provide impetus for the readings undertaken here, they inform but one half of the hermeneutical hinge to which I am heir. The other half is tempered by readings more closely associated with the exegetical tradition dependent upon more disembodying allegorizations identified with Pauline interpretation.

In this writing, circumcision, both as rite and as metaphor, serves as the pintle joining the hinge. The pin loosely fastens together two Western religious and textual traditions--Judaism and

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And, borrowing from an American Heritage Dictionary definition of “hinge,” this pin is to function precisely as “A point or circumstance on which subsequent events depend” (“Hinge,” def.3). In its role as hinge-pin, circumcision at once fixes the site of the readings and locates their point of departure. As act and as trope, the wound and scar of circumcision provide the frame through or from which one reads. There is a sense, then, in which circumcision may be seen to encompass its own hermenuetic. That is to say, at the very moment the incision releases the sign, the act of reading and the discovery of meaning begin.

Years ago, I was scarred by reading a scene in a popular novel. The incisive moment was that in which a young Jewish athlete, living in second century B.C.E. Judea, was bludgeoned to death by his father for having reversed the sign of his circumcision.2 Incomprehensible was the idea that the presence or absence of a foreskin could be so fraught with meaning that it would provoke infanticide. Making sense of an act so foreign and antipathetic to all I knew, has turned into a rather long project of reading. The reading of this scar has involved risking other textual wounds and upsetting, or at least turning sideways, ideas about what it means to read in the first place.

The practice of Islamic circumcision lies beyond the limits of this particular study. Similarly, 1 issues pertaining to female genital cutting are not addressed here.

The scene occurs in “In the Gymnasium,”a chapter of James Michener’s The Source: “The 2 Jew’s eyes rested with astonishment upon the visible proof of the boy’s disgrace, and he was so appalled at what Menelaus had done that he pressed his hands over his face, and as the crowd called the boy’s name Jehubabel heard the words of YHWH himself saying as of old: ‘And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his forskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant...’ and it seemd to him a commandment and he leaped from his seat, grabbing the walking stick of a crippled Jew and with this knotted club he struck his son with such force that the boy fell to the ground. With four crushing blows he beat his son about the head, shattering his skull” (349).

–  –  –

dismantled, in order to read beyond one’s ken? How does one textually cross into, over, through areas of expertise without the requisite certification or training? How does one read or write about circumcision without, in effect, being or becoming circumcised? The argument here is that once begun, the reading of scars means that entitlements are in flux, that expertise is respected but not restricting, and that, sooner or later, the metaphor of circumcision has an uncanny way of turning the reader into a circumciser if not a circumcisee.

During the long course of puzzling through the reasons for the ritual cut, the merit in heeding the textual site of the reader’s wounding became evident. This particular form of heeding or listening proved necessary because, as Gregory Whitehead observes, “... no wound ever speaks for itself” (135). And, conversely, this particular form of listening proved necessary because so many others had already spoken. Some of the others who have heeded and written on behalf of the wound and or circumcision are represented in this writing by epigraphs that head each chapter. Situated as foretext, acknowledged as aide-mémoire, these textual fragments are records, not of “intercourse with the Divine,” but of textual contact, of this reader’s passing through. There is a reciprocity of wounding in play here, for texts are often snipped from the very site the reader received the wound. Thus, the epigraph from Amanda Cross heading Chapter 3 devoted to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda evinces the exact moment when, while reading a mystery, circumcision as a vexing critical issue was irreversibly coupled with the canonical novel.

Although the act of circumcision is a wound that may be understood as a mnemonic device written upon the body, not all wounds whose scars urge recollection work in the same way. At the close of his history devoted to The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick issues

–  –  –

Novick reiterates: “Whether the memory is of slavery, the Holocaust, or any of the other terrible events of human history whose scars do the work of the wound, the root of that memory in group consciousness has to be carefully considered” (281). I find the work Novick has done with respect to the institutionalization of the Holocaust in American culture to be elucidating and helpful in scholarly and highly personal ways, yet I am unable to endorse fully his and Wieseltier’s perception of the scar or even the wound as immanent oppressor.

Nonetheless, there is in Novick’s appeal a gesture nearer the position I hold, and that is the conviction that memories and narratives attending a wound deserve careful consideration. I appreciate the potential for repeated returns to the site of a scar to encourage a form of selfreplenishing victimhood.3 However, I contend that “carefully considered” scars and wounds--in this case the semantic richness of circumcision--may encourage revisioning rather than reductive forms of narrative or critique. One might imagine the site of the scar as a place where the work of the wound, as figured by Novick and Wieseltier, is to be respectfully retired and set aside, mercifully excised from memory. The readings presented here are not quite so ameliorative.

The practice of Jewish circumcision elicits a tangle of questions concerning issues of difference relative to ethnicity, religion, and gender, to name but a few. As such, Jewish ritual circumcision has proven to be a space where I, neither Jew nor male, have been able to engage For example, the return to victim status, as it pertains to this study, is frequently discernible as 3 the drive urging arguments against circumcision.

–  –  –

Judeo-Christian. Often universally coded and unthinkingly accepted, this adjective emerges from the side of the hinge housing the more recent narrative, its interpreters having reread and built upon earlier texts. Judeo-Christian is a tricky term at best, one that, not unlike circumcision itself, speaks simultaneously to remembering and forgetting.

Because it is a diacritical rite, circumcision marks as well as makes difference.4 When transmuted into metaphor, the cut as word continues to perform diacritically. This function is seen in Biblical writings where circumcised ears or circumcised hearts designate those spiritually attuned to the word of God as opposed to those who are not.5 At times the sign of circumcision appears to bear a nearly impossible burden, for it cannot sustain indefinitely its meaning as but one side of an always fixed binary. Sometimes it means “inside,” sometimes it means “outside,” and sometimes it appears not to mean at all.

My wish would be to have the readings that follow readily in touch with one another, but the restrictions imposed by writing demand they be presented sequentially. A reading of the story concerning Abraham, his family, and the contract sealed by circumcision appears in the opening position. It serves as a remembering of the inception of covenantal circumcision and calls attention to those features of the narrative which have influenced my understanding of the rite.

The second section of the opening chapter presents theoretical underpinnings for the way in which I visualize one metaphor of circumcision to embody a necessary juncture in the process of reading. The pertinent image derives from the work of Julia Kristeva and her concept concerning I appropriate this term from James Boon: “a diacritical rite offensive to many 4 ‘Westerners’...”(46).

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