My Body, My Choice: Ban Non-Consensual Circumcision
Rabbi Lerner’s defense of infant circumcision (“No to the Proposed Legal Ban on Circumcision”) is filled with holes. One of the holes is in my heart and inscribed on my body.
Like countless men who have been circumcised, I’m angry about what was taken from me. If I could go back in time to the moment before this was done to me, I would use any means necessary to stop it. I wish there’d been a law against it. I’ve spent many nights ruminating in grief. I know other men like me who have sunk into deep depression while wrestling with the pain of this violation.
“Circumcision is a matter of individual choice,” Lerner told the Jewish Week newspaper.
What about my choice? Shouldn’t my right to an intact body matter? Lerner doesn’t address the possibility that a man should have the right to make the choice for himself. Advocates of circumcision evidently believe the feelings of the human who is being cut are irrelevant. Anyone with an open heart who listens to the screams of a baby being circumcised cannot honestly believe that babies want to be circumcised.
While parents have to make tough decisions about many things concerning the health of their children, this is the only routinely made choice that involves an irreversible amputation that is not medically necessary. Why is this one body part of newborns of this one gender OK to forcibly amputate?
Not only is circumcision’s harm permanent, the traumatizing event takes place in early infancy, when the baby is most vulnerable and sensitive to pain. With enough therapy and personal growth work, most forms of verbal, physical, and even sexual abuse can be overcome. But circumcision leaves a man disfigured for life.
Lerner claims, “there is little evidence that circumcised men have less sexual pleasure than uncircumcised men.” In fact, circumcision throughout history has been motivated by a drive to reduce men’s sexual pleasure. In the twelfth century of the Common Era, revered scholar and sage Rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote, “One of the reasons for circumcision is to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible.”
Christian puritans such as Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (co-inventor of the corn flake) promoted circumcision in the nineteenth century as a means to curb masturbation and reduce male sex drive, which led to its widespread adoption among non-Jews in the United States. Female circumcision was widely practiced in institutional settings in this country until the mid-twentieth century for the same reasons, and is still performed on a limited basis today, despite being illegal.
While circumcision may not reduce a man’s desire to make love to himself, it irrevocably reduces his capacity to experience sexual pleasure. The foreskin is a natural and integral part of a man’s penis, containing tens of thousands of nerve receptors found nowhere else in a man’s genitalia. The foreskin glides up and down on the penis, providing pleasure to both a man and his partner, and keeps the head of the penis moist and sensitive. Many men who have been circumcised as adults report a significant decrease in sexual pleasure.
A recent British Journal of Urology study offered this report:
The glans of the circumcised penis is less sensitive to fine touch than the glans of the uncircumcised penis. The transitional region from the external to the internal prepuce (foreskin) is the most sensitive region of the uncircumcised penis and more sensitive than the most sensitive region of the circumcised penis. Circumcision ablates the most sensitive parts of the penis.
But we don’t need studies and medical research to know how much sexual pleasure a foreskin provides. Ask European men. Most of the intact men I’ve spoken to say they enjoy having a foreskin, and they feel lucky to have escaped the circumcision lottery with penis intact.
Imagine there was a surgery performed on babies that removed their capacity to see in color. An entire life spent viewing the world in black-and-white would still be beautiful, but shouldn’t human beings have the right to see in color? Why should anyone have the right to take that away?
Most men who experience sex in shades of gray don’t know what they’re missing. And when the topic is brought up, a lot of men get defensive because it’s difficult in this culture to admit that one’s penis—the center of many men’s definition of manhood—is somehow less than it should be. It’s also hard for men to admit that their loving parents made a poor decision that caused irreparable harm.
Rabbi Lerner repeats many of the myths about circumcision, such as the claim that there’s “some evidence that [men who are circumcised] are less likely to carry some diseases than the uncircumcised.”
In fact, reputable members of the medical community have argued that the studies that show any such benefit are flawed and suffer from selection bias. According to Doctors Opposing Circumcision, all claims that circumcision provides any protective benefit against sexually transmitted diseases, male and female cancers, and urinary tract infection have been disproved. They add that history shows that medical professionals have for decades invented theorized benefits as a rationale to justify the procedure––a solution in search of a problem.
George Denniston, M.D.—a graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health associated with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Washington—writes:
The United States has high rates of HIV and the highest rate of circumcision in the West. The “experiment” of using circumcision to stem HIV infection has been running here for decades. It has failed miserably. Why do countries such as New Zealand, where they abandoned infant circumcision 50 years ago, or European countries, where circumcision is rare, have such low rates of HIV?
Even if circumcision really did lower the rates of STD transmission, shouldn’t educated adults make their own decisions about their sex lives? Condoms and responsible sexual relationships prevent STDs, not circumcision.
No medical organization in the world recommends routine circumcision, and in fact, most Western medical associations recommend against the procedure. For example, the Royal Dutch Medical Association released the world’s most up-to-date national policy statement on circumcision in 2010. Their well-footnoted policy recommended that doctors aggressively counsel families against circumcising due to the “absence of medical benefits and danger of complications.”
Lerner extols the virtues of the Jewish community’s traditional abhorrence of violence against women. But why is violence against men OK? Mainstream Judaism practices a form of patriarchy that holds women and girls as sensitive and vulnerable, while men and boys are emotionless warriors against whom violence is not only permissible, but also necessary.
Lerner refers to allegedly feminist arguments in favor of circumcision, lines of thought that strike me as misandry masquerading as feminism. For example, feminist-identified Rabbi Elyse Goldstein argues that men’s “phallic-centered power” must be decreased in order to teach men to respect and become more like women. “In ‘sacrificing’ a piece of the penis, in uncovering and revealing themselves in their most vulnerable part, in making themselves more like women, men can be made more whole,” Goldstein claims.
From where I sit, arguments like Goldstein’s sound like hate speech. If a man said he needed to cut off part of a woman’s genitals in order to make her “more like a man,” he’d rightly be ostracized. Why do we, as a progressive community, let this kind of dehumanization of men go unchallenged? Yes, male violence against women is a huge social problem and must be addressed. Inflicting irreversible harm onto our innocent sons’ genitals is not the answer.
Which part of your daughter’s body would you cut off to prevent a disease? Which part of her genitals would you cut off because you believe that God commanded you to do so? Well if you wouldn’t cut your daughter, why is it OK to cut your son?
Abolishing infant circumcision would benefit the Jewish people. Rabbi Lerner rightly mentions that we’ve left behind numerous Torah commandments in the dustbin of history, such as stoning people to death and taking slaves from neighboring nations. Did giving up those divine dictates harm the Jews or make us more righteous and compassionate?
We can look to the foundational myths of Judaism for guidance toward the abolition of infant circumcision. Abraham’s smashing of the idols represents the Jewish commitment to iconoclasm, which, according to media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, is one of the three pillars of the Jewish experience, along with social justice and abstract monotheism. Circumcision is a false idol, and must be discarded.
Similarly, in the story of the binding of Isaac, the angels tell Abraham that even though he is willing to sacrifice his son, doing so is not a path to the divine. In the story, Abraham’s alternative sacrifice of a lamb is his idea, not requested by the angels. Eventually, Jews left behind animal sacrifice as well, as we recognized that killing defenseless creatures does not bring us closer to the Creator. Someday, we will see the same truth about circumcision that we came to see about human and animal sacrifice. After all, circumcision is nothing more than a different flavor of those ancient practices. It’s sacrificial violence passed from generation to generation, with holy intentions and unholy consequences.
When we finally liberate ourselves from the mental and spiritual prison of this tradition, we will clear space to engage in more loving, compassionate practices, such as Brit Shalom (covenant of peace), a contemporary Jewish baby-welcoming ceremony that preserves the positive intentions of a standard Bris but without the cutting.
Such a change would be a blessing not only for the babies condemned to lose part of their bodies, but also for those who lose their lives. Over one hundred babies die every year in the United States due to circumcisions in medical and religious settings, and many others end up with other complications, including severe disfigurement. As many may recall, a young man named David Reimer committed suicide in 2004 because he couldn’t live with the debilitating consequences to his love life of having his penis amputated during a circumcision.
When I was in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall during a human rights research fellowship a few years ago, an Orthodox woman told me: “Baby boys are born without a soul. When we cut off the foreskin, a hole is created in the body for God’s soul to enter into them. This is why circumcision is a divine mandate.”
This woman is as mistaken as Abraham was when he believed that God required the sacrifice of Isaac. Someday, we will see that our baby boys are born perfectly whole and complete, with their souls as intact as their genitals.
Lerner argues that banning circumcision against nonconsenting minors undermines “the First Amendment rights of Jews” and creates “a slippery slope toward the abolition of all religious practices.” Such claims are unfounded. The First Amendment’s protections of speech and expression do not apply to harming other people. The First Amendment does not give you the right to sacrifice a virgin, punch someone in the face, or even cut off a tip of someone else’s finger because it’s part of a religion. Simply put, the First Amendment ends where someone else’s body begins.
As for the supposed slippery slope, if circumcision is banned, will that lead to the outlawing of Passover Seders? Not in a million years. Not in this country. Let’s give the United States the credit it deserves for being a relatively free, open society.
As a corollary to his slippery slope argument, Lerner claims, “It’s not hard to imagine some who were sexually abused by Catholic priests as children attempting to ban Catholic educational institutions or even the Church itself, attacking the entire institution as sexually perverted or violently patriarchic.” This is as misguided as saying those of us who wish to abolish the U.S. imperial war machine seek to abolish the entire country, and yet another tactic to silence the voices of the abused. And what an eyebrow-raising Freudian slip! Doesn’t Lerner’s comparison point out that when we strip away the emotional tug of religious tradition, infant circumcision lands in the same ethical boat as institutionally shielded sexual molestation?
Speaking of the slippery slope, what if—God forbid—the Supreme Court one day were to rule that the First Amendment permits nonconsensual circumcision as a form of protected religious expression? Wouldn’t that create a slippery slope in which even more extreme forms of religious violence against defenseless children become legalized? Federal law prohibits all forms of genital cutting performed on nonconsenting minor girls. This includes female circumcision variants that are far less harmful than the typical male circumcision, for example, a small ceremonial nick of the clitoral hood (the female analogue of a foreskin). The U.S. Constitution provides for equal protection, and it’s hard to imagine a law that protects only girls from genital cutting withstanding a legal challenge that sought to extend such protection to boys.
To be clear, I have no objection to circumcision or any other form of body modification when it’s freely chosen by a consenting adult. Sensibly, the proposed San Francisco ban only applies to circumcision of nonconsenting minors.
Many Jews today oppose circumcision. For more perspectives, see jewishcircumcision.org, jewsagainstcircumcision.org, and beyondthebris.com. Circumcision is not a requirement to be Jewish; this is determined solely by parental heritage or conversion. Circumcision is on the decline among world Jewry, for example, less than half of newborn boys in Swedish Jewish families are cut.
Routine circumcision of nonconsenting minors is a human rights violation, whether it’s practiced on boys or girls, and it must be outlawed. Anyone who stands in the way of this reform—including Rabbi Lerner—stands in the way of human rights and genital-integrity equality. I hope my words, as painful as they may be to read, will contribute to an Abraham-like transformation of his perspective.
During the weeks since Rabbi Lerner wrote his original critique of the proposed legal ban, a judge struck the ballot measure from the San Francisco election, and the California legislature passed a law that prohibits local municipalities from restricting circumcision. I believe both actions were wrongheaded and inconsistent with existing federal law that protects female minors from nonconsensual genital cutting. One day, I believe justice will prevail and that the law will be expanded to accommodate equal protection for male minors.