(C3) Initiation – Circumcision – Identity

In the communal life of members of various religions, rituals were developed as procedures for creating and representing relationships between people and their religion. They integrate or exclude, mark and celebrate the transgression of borderlines and point to differences within and without. An outstanding example is circumcision in Judaism. The rejection of circumcision from the external perspective of ancient Roman authors as well as in polemical discourses with Christianity – which recalls the original function of this practice as an important element in the formation of identity – is indicative of the great significance of this institution. Besides additional ritual elements of conversion, developed in antiquity, circumcision also represents the difference between the sexes. Proceeding from a comparison to rituals of initiation and of group identity formation in antiquity, this study shall go on to describe the forms of the circumcision ritual in Judaism and its interpretation up to its integration into the religious service in synagogues in the Middle Ages.

In accordance with the horizon of questions of research area 3 (Integrative Procedures) circumcision (together with other ritual elements of the conversion of an adult) in Judaism is located at the liminal situation of birth or the transgression of a boundary between religions. It is a prerequisite for participation in rituals of maintaining identity (the celebration of Passover) and thus a clear sign of (and important precondition for) group membership. Pagan, Christian, and Jewish texts (and other forms of documentation) from antiquity shall be investigated for what they reveal about the form of the ritual and how it was understood both within and outside of the group. Once circumcision became a part of the synagogue’s religious services, liturgical works can also be included. The goal of the project is understanding circumcision (and the other ritual elements connected with it) as a method of identity formation and as a process of delimitation from other religions and thus in comparison to the rituals of those traditions (baptism, initiation). It remains to be asked what possibilities existed for people to locate themselves, in different historical situations, between the appearance of “Judaism” or “Christianity” from a later perspective (for example the “God-fearers” of late antiquity). The possibilities inherent in such undefined ways of life could be taken as an indicator of a society’s openness. In terms of working methods, the approaches of Jewish Studies shall play the leading role, in order to analyze rabbinical literature and liturgical evidence from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The theoretical approaches and methods of ritual studies and liturgical studies shall also be employed.