Howard Jacobson: I mean no disrespect to the uncircumcised, but who'd want to look like that?

Philip Roth gives the hero of ‘The Counterlife’ provocative thoughts on what circumcision denotes
  • @Independent

Among the acts of consideration I have to thank my parents for, circumcision ranks very high. I mean no disrespect to the uncircumcised, but who the hell would want to look like that? I take the point that beauty doesn't trump all other considerations – a German court recently ruled that circumcision was criminal bodily harm – but when did anyone look at a foreskin and say, "Now that's what I call a thing of beauty"? And when did anybody who didn't have that unsightly otiosity wish he did? I know there are some out there in who rage against what was done to them, but that's zealotry talking – parent hatred, Jew and Muslim hatred, sentimentality about the rights of boy babies and their putzes – not aesthetics.

"So if foreskins are so ugly, why did God liberally distribute them?" It's surprising how often that line of unreasoning is pursued by people who in other circumstances deny God's existence. Ditto those who argue on the side of Nature. "If Nature didn't want a foreskin, there wouldn't be a foreskin," they proclaim with triumphant logic, though on another day they will support abortion, tooth implants, and the right of women to make their breasts any size or shape they choose. (I accept that an eight-day-old boy is in no position to make an informed choice about anything, but we'll address that shortly.)

Only fanatics are able to remain consistent when it comes to invoking God or Nature – those who oppose blood transfusions in all cases or insist on riding their bicycles naked through the streets of London in all weathers. Allow that for a thousand reasons, some frivolous, some not, the rest of us interfere with the bodies we are born with, and we cannot say of circumcision that we should leave well enough alone. The bodily harm charge is another thing entirely. Where we are talking female circumcision there is no defence a responsible person can offer. The trauma is provable, the damage terrible and long-lasting. At least one of the Somali women appearing on Newsnight's discussion of the subject this week was in palpable shock, years after her mutilation.

That I or any of the circumcised men I know are in palpable shock years after ours I vehemently deny, no matter that critics of the procedure will seize on that vehemence as proof that what I deny I feel – "Methinks the circumcised one protests too much", and all that.

But Newsnight would have difficulty finding circumcised men to speak with the passion of those women, and that's because they don't accept that "mutilation" describes what they underwent, or that their lives have been ruined emotionally or physically as a consequence. It's a long-standing joke among Jewish men that if there's more pleasure to be had with a foreskin than they are having without one, then their parents chose wisely for them. More pleasure than this would be insupportable.

Describing these two very different forms of circumcision as "related barbarities" is, therefore, irresponsible, inaccurate, hysterical and deeply insulting to those women who have suffered a genuine, life‑ruining mutilation.

As for the right of a child to decide such things for himself, I am of the party that believes if it were done when 'tis done, then t'were well it were done quickly. That begs the question of whether it is well to do it at all, I accept, but if it is, then it's humane not barbaric to do it when the physical pain is more quickly soothed. Behind the concerns of those who offer to speak for the child's freedom to choose lurks what the sociologist Frank Furedi has called an "arrogant paternalism", an assumption of enlightenment that places itself beyond parental authority – than which it always knows better – and beyond religious practice too. Nothing beats the image of the "vulnerable child" when it comes to finding a pretext for putting your own certainties above those of others.

Here is not the place for tracing the religious significance of circumcision for Jews and Muslims – different, as I understand it, in that for Muslims it doesn't symbolise God's covenant with man or reference the near death of Isaac which was itself a symbolic goodbye to human sacrifice. But for both peoples it is a mark of religious submission and belonging. That won't, of course, persuade an atheist, but a ritual which has a serious evolution is worth considering seriously.

No sucker for the certainties of religious practice himself, Philip Roth nonetheless gives Nathan Zuckerman, the hero of his great novel The Counterlife, some provocative thoughts on what circumcision denotes – an incontrovertible signal to the Jew that he is here and not there, "that you are out and not in — also that you're mine and not theirs ...". And further: "Circumcision gives the lie to the womb-dream of life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory, the appealing idyll of living 'naturally', unencumbered by man-made ritual. To be born is to lose all that. The heavy hand of human values falls upon you right at the start."

That will sound Calvinistical to some, and Roth's explanation is nothing if not equivocal – how can one not be equivocal about a loss that confers a gain? – but seriousness bears a burden, and better that, any day, than the various trivialising idylls of living "naturally" and "unencumbered" and "freely" that infantilise the debates we have about religion: its beliefs, its practices and its mysteries.

Aleppo being in the news, I think of Othello, before he does away with himself, describing how, in Aleppo once, where a malignant Turk traduced the state, he "took by the throat the circumcised dog and smote him, thus". Seeing circumcision as a mark of Jewish or Muslim evil has a long history. I like to think Shakespeare felt sympathy for the Turk, as elsewhere he felt sympathy for the Jew, because he was circumcised himself.