Is circumcision a physical mark of ethnic or religious belonging? Yes, it is because certain religions enforce it. However, bearing a scar on private parts is a quite ineffective method of self-identification. Secret physical signs are pointless in distinguishing infidels except in some public baths. Far more obvious but harmless and painless wounds could be inflicted. Although circumcision indeed serves for group identification its main goal must be somewhere deeper. Yet religions must be acquainted with it.
Bible, Romans 2:28
In any case, a physical mark that affects emotion and mind is actually a spiritual mark. As far as foreskin is sensitive it is an organ of thinking. As far as it is an organ of pleasure it is a spiritual organ. The fact that foreskin is an important erogenous zone means that paedocircumcision leaves not merely a scar on the skin but more importantly it marks the soul. Therefore, circumcision is not only a physical external symbol of religious or ethnic identity but a mental distinctiveness at work.
Is circumcision painful? Yes, undoubtedly, it is.[i] Only those who have never witnessed a circumcision or those who have been circumcised as infants may assume it is painless.[ii] The testimony of the latter, however, is unreliable as they have no memory of the dramatic event. Perhaps their bias towards circumcision betrays some deeper effects of the practice.
The immediate pain of circumcision was used to market it where pain was required. Thus, many African tribes have been easily persuaded to include circumcision in their rites of passage into adulthood by religious missionaries. These tribes use circumcision mainly as an inflictor of pain because they perceive maturity and responsibility as the ability to endure pain which eventually spread the bloody ritual over the fair sex too. The pain endurance test, however, is senseless and unacceptable to the western societies. Causing physical pain is an outdated educational approach for the democratic world. Nowadays it is recognized that both pain and sensorial deprivation has a lifelong psychological impact.
Common naturals, many physicians and even Torah scholars do not doubt the obvious fact that circumcision is sore. In “The Guide to the Perplexed”, for instance, Maimonides reconfirms the obvious truth that circumcision is painful. He explains that an important reason for performing circumcision on infants is to prevent avoidance of the painful operation by adults. The emotional connection that parents have developed with their child may deter them from inflicting such pain to it, he clarifies. And, of course, if the boy is left to decide for himself when he grows up he will naturally circumvent circumcision. In other words, the scholar makes clear that circumcision must be enforced on helpless new-borns because to adults it is so painful that its practice would not survive. So even though circumcision is a painful hard thing the pain accompanying the operation is undesirable and is not its main intent. The post-mortem circumcisions such as those performed by the graveside on stillborn babies or adult Jews who were banned from circumcision also attest that pain is not an immediate priority of the practice.
But is the pain that comes afterwards the aim of religious circumcision? There is a great variety of opinions on this issue too due to the different understanding of the objective and the effects of the practice, of the definition of pain and due to the different probity of the parts. Religious sources point out that the main goal of circumcision is to foster spirituality which it achieves by frustrating sexuality. And this is reasonable to the common sense too. Circumcision causes dysfunction of genitalia and difficulties in sexual life. By reducing the pleasure of sex it redirects cravings toward loftier activities. The key objective of circumcision is to facilitate religiousness by causing a lifelong uneasiness, discomfort or mild pain in sexual matters. It is the spiritual effects of the sexual frustration what circumcision aims at. The hindrance in the sexual sphere is the principal instrument of the ultimate goal of the practice. The pain that circumcision intends is of psychological nature and concerns sexuality.
Maimonides points out that causing pain to the member and restricting sexual pleasure is the main goal of circumcision. The famous Jewish philosopher states that circumcision aims at weakening the member and sexual desire. It serves to normalize men’s excessive sexuality so without hindering procreation room is left to develop more elevated attitudes such as moderation, piety, obedience and docility. Obviously, speaking of the pain caused to the member he means suppression of sexuality. Essentially, he pays attention to the primal importance of the long-term psychological effects of circumcision. Actually, he articulated the induction of the Circumcision complex about a millennium prior the establishment of psychology as a science.