Male Circumcision. Ancient Controversies and Contemporary Debates
My research focuses on attitudes towards male circumcision, which is a debated issue in many countries today creating substantial social and political tension. Such tension has a long history: already in Antiquity, Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians clashed over male circumcision. These ancient controversies play a significant role in recent public discourse, where both advocates and opponents can build their arguments on particular interpretations of this religious past. My project studies these constructions of the past as they occur in contemporary circumcision discourse, and exa-mines recent newspapers, books and websites involved in this discussion.
Scholarly interest in circumcision has focused predominantly on medical and legal aspects leaving historical argumentation in circumcision discourse notably under-examined. This has resulted in a limited academic perspective on the circumcision debate missing important opportunities to ease social tensions. My research aims to remedy this by providing an in-depth analysis of the different and competing reconstructions of the past in recent public discourse on circumcision. It draws on the work of Jörn Rüsen on ‘historical sense-construction’, which is especially valuable since it takes into account the performative aspects of history and memory. Rüsen’s approach is unique in offering a classification of historical narration, which can be applied to expressions of historical sense-construction in contexts such as public discourse. Rüsen observes four ways in which the past can be presented, distinguishing ‘traditional’, ‘exemplary’, ‘genetic’ and ‘critical’ approaches to the past. By mapping the competing historical sense-constructions in their relation to standpoints on circumcision, we can identify common ground in the present debate. I will specifically examine the claims made in the discourse about ancient circumcision controversies, such as the circumcision bans under the Greek king Antiochus IV and the Roman emperor Hadrian, and subsequent Jewish opposition, as well as circumcision disputes in early Christianity. Answering the question of how participants in contemporary debates on male circumcision construct their arguments with reference to ancient circumcision controversies will not only increase scholarly understanding of attitudes towards circumcision, but will hopefully also have a positive impact on the contemporary cultural dialogue on this divisive issue.
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien Universität Erfurt Postfach 90 02 21 99105 Erfurt