Becoming a Jew Is Dangerous — Circumcision Is the Least of It

In “My Body, My Choice: Ban Non-Consensual Circumcision,” Matthew Taylor initiates his sharp critique of brit milah (the covenant of circumcision) with anger over what was taken from him, describing his own “ruminating in grief” and the “deep depressions” of other similarly grieving men.

In a pastoral situation, as a rabbi, I would of course be very engaged by such a confession and would want to know more. But as an introduction to a learned discussion over a ritual practice that is so central to the Jewish narrative, this expression of anger is not exactly conducive to a rational exchange. It is, however, honest and deserves a sober response.

A mother holds her infant during the brit milah celebration. Credit: Creative Commons/Joe King

Taylor argues that individuals should have a right to choose whether to be circumcised and describes circumcision as diminishing sexual pleasure. He also dismisses its reported health benefits as a myth, describes the feminist claim about circumcision diminishing “phallic-centered power” as a fallacy, presents circumcision as an idol to be smashed in accordance with foundational Jewish myths against idolatry, argues that Jewish identity is not dependent on circumcision, and describes concerns about the banning of circumcision as a gateway to the curtailment of religious freedom as a slippery slope fallacy. Let me take some of these arguments up — I will begin with the foundational myth.

The centrality of brit milah in the Jewish narrative begins with the founding patriarch Abraham (Gen. 17:10 ff). The practice is presumably observed throughout the period of the Egyptian slavery, but it is suspended during the forty years of wandering in the desert due to health risks. It is only reestablished after the national re-entry into the land of Israel (Josh. 5:7). So central is this precept that the other key marker of Jewish practice — the eating of the pascal lamb at the solemn Passover meal in commemoration of the liberation of the Jewish nation — is dependent on it: “No uncircumcised person may eat of it” (Exodus 12:47). And so, according to the Book of Joshua, for forty years after that first Passover meal in Egypt on the night of liberation, the eating of the lamb was suspended until the Jews conquered and settled in the land of Israel.

Taylor makes much of “the traumatizing event that takes place in early infancy” when the baby is “most vulnerable and sensitive to pain.” Granted there is pain, and granted that the baby does not like that feeling, as would no one, but how does Taylor know that infancy is the moment when humans are “the most” vulnerable and sensitive to pain? How would one measure this? Anyone who has attended such events (I have been to at least one hundred) will testify to the baby’s almost immediate pacification when some sweet wine is dipped on his lips after the brit. A good mohel (traditional circumciser) is very efficient, so the period of discomfort — judging from when the infant’s crying, which usually begins with the discomfort of his having his legs held firmly apart by the sandek (godfather) — is very short.

Rabbi Boruch Mozes, a certified mohel, writes on his website that “Jewish Mohelim take 10 seconds, with 1 second for excision, and 60 seconds on average for crying.”

For an observer, it is not easy to decide that the baby has intolerable “traumatizing” pain at the moment of the actual procedure. If one is nevertheless deeply concerned about this pain, one might even investigate the current halachic (Jewish law) discussion on the use of local anesthetics. More information on this is also available on Mozes’s website.

Consistent with his initial confession of personal trauma, Taylor uses emotive language to arouse the revulsion of the reader: “Circumcision leaves a man disfigured for life.” Indeed, so does the removal of a molar. “Disfigured” is a rather exaggerated term for such a minor surgery. In the Jewish myth, the circumcised man is seen as supremely “figured” or “whole” (tamim): “Go before me” Abraham is instructed, “and become whole. I will establish My covenant between Me and you” (Gen. 17:1-2). Circumcision is seen as the external sign of this covenant. It is the foreskin that is seen as a defect, the removal of which is an cosmetic and spiritual improvement (Midrash Rabba 46:4, on the Genesis text). Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, no?

Taylor invites us “to look to the foundational myths of Judaism for guidance” in his argument to abolish circumcision, calling circumcision a “false idol” that should be smashed as Abraham iconoclastically smashed the idols of his day, which, by the way, is not reported in the Bible but only in the rabbinic tradition (e.g., Midrash Rabba Genesis 38:13). Well, let’s look at these foundational myths as well to strengthen rather than debunk this practice. The word brit—”covenant”—appears thirteen times in the verses of Genesis 17 in reference to Abraham’s being given the precept of circumcision. On this basis, the rabbinic imagination homiletically infers that in establishing the brit milah or covenant of circumcision, not one but thirteen covenants were made with that iconoclastic Abraham (Talmud, Nedarim 31b). This “covenant,” then, is valorized as the greatest of the divine precepts so far that it is considered the equivalent of all of the precepts combined. Adorned with such a venerable pedigree, one might, if not blinded by a traumatized past, understand and even support the Jewish commitment to this important marker of Jewish identity.

Taylor categorically rejects the argument that circumcision prevents disease when he writes, “even if circumcision prevented STDs — which it does not…” (my emphasis). Were he less personally angry over his having been circumcised, he would have to admit the existence of arguments by responsible health authorities in support of circumcision, as well. For example, a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine on the effects of adult male circumcision on “sexual function and sexual satisfaction” in Kisumu, Kenya, concluded that circumcision can actually improve sexual function.

An article published by Edgar J. Schoen, MD, in the Canadian Family Physician concludes that “in the hands of an experienced physician, the complication rate is lower than 0.5%, and complications are usually minor,” and suggests that the ideal time for circumcision is infancy since “newborns are extremely resilient and are programmed for stress, having just experienced the trauma of birth.” Schoen goes on to write that “the many advantages of circumcision far outweigh the surgical risks.”

International health organizations have embraced circumcision as one measure for limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS. Credit: Creative Commons/DRosenbach.

Major bodies such as the World Health Organization, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that circumcision should by no means replace the use of condoms and other interventions to prevent the transmission of HIV, but they have all also embraced studies indicating that male circumcision significantly reduces the risk of HIV acquisition by men during penile-vaginal sex. So a responsible parent interested in protecting his son from risk, even slight risk, could reasonably choose to follow the dictates of the Jewish tradition, even without serious religious commitment.

Taylor asks a very good question in his tirade against circumcision: “Which part of your daughter’s genitals would you cut off to prevent a disease?” If I had a daughter (I have a granddaughter) and I were told that she was at risk without a medical intervention on her genitals, I am sure that I would take this option very seriously. Fortunately, that is not the case.

I respect Taylor’s views but wish to offer these alternative perspectives, seeking to invite his reciprocal respect instead of the tone of his ad hominem response to Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, whose feminist argument he characterized as “hate speech” masquerading as feminism.

Taylor expresses the deepest objection at the heart of his vehement tirade against infant brit milah when he writes that “when freely chosen” he has “no objection to circumcision,” even if it were to entail substantively the issues that he rejected. The central problem for him is the imposition upon a completely dependent infant (or for that matter a relatively dependent teenage Muslim boy) of a permanent and irreversible mark. This he rejects as “a human rights violation.”

Were I to agree to his reasoning, I would have to conclude that not only should circumcision not be imposed upon a helpless infant, but even circumcision-free, his very Jewish identity, as subscribed to by Jewish law should not be imposed upon him. In the current world, being Jewish is a very dangerous state of being. We have only to take note of Jewish institutions worldwide that have had to implement special security measures to protect the lives of Jewish men and women. Jews are a target of hatred for a variety of reasons (no reason to go into this well-trodden arena) by millions of people who would dance with glee if even a “harmless” Jewish place of worship were blown up, or if a bomb were to go off in a shopping center filled with Jews. A reasonable person following Taylor’s concern might ask: Why not let children wait until they have grown into adults to decide whether or not to take on this identity? Why impose it upon them by providing a Jewish home with Jewish practices, “forcing” them to attend an expensive Jewish day school or summer camp, or even participate in a trip to Israel. Becoming a Jew is very dangerous and has been for thousands of years.

It seems to me that even were one to concede every point made by Taylor — as to the pain, the purported loss of maximal sexual pleasure, or the “permanent trauma” in the realization that this is an irreversible action imposed upon a helpless infant — one could still argue that for Jews the total commitment of the family to the continuity of this way of living weighs more heavily than the disadvantages listed by Taylor. To claim otherwise, one would have to argue very generally that parents should not be empowered to bring their children into any kind of danger zone to which their values and identity expose them. This should be put on hold and only for the child to choose when adult. Which parent can imagine doing so?

Language, culture, religion, ideology, philosophy, literature, customs, and traditional diet are all irreversibly imposed upon children before they are capable of choosing. We do this out of love and commitment to our children in the firm belief that — though there may be a price to pay, sometimes even of a little temporary pain — it is for the best for our children and for the society of which they will become active participants. By brit milah we dedicate the male infant by bringing him into the heritage of Abraham, elected for a great mission “that he may command his children … to do righteousness and justice.” (Gen. 18:19). In a free society, freedom of choice includes the freedom of parents to choose how to raise their children.

Naturally, the meaning of circumcision as a sign of the covenant with Abraham can only be fully meaningful in a religious sense to someone who subscribes to this tradition and has some knowledge of the role that this practice has played and continues to play in mindful Jewish life. How could one make this significantly intelligible even to Jews without this background, not to speak of non-Jews? In Holland where I live, there are many Christians who are fascinated by Jews — they are impressed by our spiritual perseverance, energy, and motivation. How would one address the significance of this “piercing” into the flesh of a babe without recourse to history or to halachic (Jewish legal) practice? Let met try to explain with an anecdote.

In Vught, the city where I live in the Netherlands, there was in 1943-1944 a work-oriented concentration camp, which today serves as a documentation and education center National Monument Kamp Vught. In 1944 there was a notorious child transport of all children up to the age of sixteen to the death camps: around 1,400 children. A memoriam is held every year to commemorate this infamy. On one occasion, I met a survivor of this transport who was able very shortly before departure to convince the SS officer in charge that he was mistakenly taken into that group because he was not even Jewish. He was asked to let his pants fall to check his alleged Jewish “passport.” To the dismay of the SS, he was indeed uncircumcised, his foreskin visible, and was allowed to return to the main barrack. He survived the camp, the war, and today has grandchildren.

So central is the precept of circumcision that the other key marker of Jewish practice -- the eating of the pascal lamb at Passover -- is dependent on it: “No uncircumcised person may eat of it” (Exodus 12:47). Nevertheless the Hebrew Bible says the practice was suspended during the forty years of wandering in the desert due to health risks. Credit: Creative Commons/Dauster.

I must confess that upon hearing this tale of fate and fortune, I was struck with a double feeling: happy for this Jew who survived the slaughter to thrive, and angry that he had gotten away by his parents copping out. His parents, communist devotees, disowned their Jewish heritage so radically that they gave up even the most fundamental Jewish tribal observance of belonging to this people.

Some symbols in a culture can have a weighty meaning even when the physical matter of the symbol is trivial. Take for example the American flag, as depicted in that famous photograph at the battle of Okinawa. The flag held stoutly aloft by the soldier must never be allowed to fall to the ground. He raises it high, in reverence, making himself a better target for the enemy. But he is coolly indifferent to the danger. He is an American making a statement of American values, even in the middle of a battle. Perhaps just then when what the flag stands for is threatened. It is but a piece of cloth. Why should a soldier risk his life for such a shmatte (rag)? Is not life more important than a putative symbol of high significance? Isn’t burning the flag even protected under the Constitution as an expression of freedom of speech? And yet the eyes of many water in pride as it flutters nobly in the wind at the opening of any U.S. sports event, accompanied by the sounds of the Stars Spangled Banner.

It is that kind of feeling that is aroused by being part of the covenant ceremony of circumcision. Of course one could bring a child up as a Jew, even if the child is uncircumcised. This would not be the only precept that many Jews do not observe. There are, after all, 613 precepts from which to choose. Jews who only observe some precepts are Jews nevertheless. Some choose to emphasize the ethical precepts, some the moral, the social, the national (Israel), the liturgical (synagogue), or the family occasions. Some emphasize the intellectual while others the mystical (kabbalah). All are Jews.

But there are some symbols that have become tokens (not unconditional prerequisites) of basic belonging. Circumcision is one of them. By this we go public, so to speak. Our child is “openly” (even though his zipper is zipped) Jewish. Just as parents pierce their young children’s ears before they are of the age of consent, so do Jewish parents proudly pierce their male children with the covenant of Abraham to be signed in as bearers of this legacy, a monotheistic heritage that taught the world that all human beings without exception are created equal, having been “created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27; 9:6).

(To read more opposing views on circumcision, click here.)


21 thoughts on “Becoming a Jew Is Dangerous — Circumcision Is the Least of It

  1. >>Religion, ideology, philosophy… are all >>irreversibly imposed upon children before >>they are capable of choosing. We do this out >>of love and commitment to our children

    It’s done out of brainwashing, nothing more. Most people only believe the religion imposed on them by parents because they were brainwashed into it, just as their parents were. So many people are sheeple, who can’t think for themselves, so they go with the herd and do what the herd does. This is why it’s so easy for religious leaders to manipulate people.

    Matthew is right. It is unconscionable that parents would damage their child’s penis for the sake of the myths with which they were brainwashed. If you think cutting off your daughter’s clitoris is abhorrent, why are you cutting off your son’s equivalent?

    The Rabbis article is filled with excuses, justifying mutilating a boy’s penis. But the bottom line is, it’s NOT YOUR BODY. It’s HIS, leave him alone.

    Just as I don’t want a religion or government telling me that I can only have one child and forcing me to get an abortion, or telling me I can’t have an abortion, it’s my body and my decision. No one else has the right to govern my body but me.

  2. I think the real question to ask is ““Would you cut off your daughter’s genitals if someone told you that God had commanded it?”

  3. Tzvi Marx,

    You should be ashamed of yourself for advocating such a disgusting form of child abuse. You have taken a stand on the wrong side of human rights.

  4. Tzvi Marx’s rebuttal to my critique of non-consensual infant circumcision is problematic. Following are 12 problems with his piece:

    1. Dismisses men’s feelings of violation. Marx uses the fact that I’m angry about circumcision to imply that my logic is flawed. In so doing, he sidesteps the significance of my feelings, as well as the feelings of thousands of men like me. See:

    2. Ignores a man’s right to make choices over his own body. Marx writes, “In a free society, freedom of choice includes the freedom of parents to choose how to raise their children.” Nowhere does Marx respond to my claim that I should have had the right to make this choice for myself, and that thousands of men like me say they should have had the choice, too:
    Apparently, my right to choose – and the right of other men to choose — is irrelevant to Marx, just like it’s irrelevant to Rabbi Lerner.

    3. Ignores those who have been disfigured and killed by circumcision. In my article, I referenced the fact that over 100 babies die every year in the U.S. in both religious and non-religious circumcisions. I also referred to David Reimer, who committed suicide as a result of a botched circumcision. Marx neither acknowledges nor responds to these inconvenient truths.

    4. Dismisses circumcision as a “minor surgery” and the foreskin as a “defect.” To call a normal, healthy part of the male body a defect seems rather odd. In case you want to learn what a foreskin is and what its purpose is, please watch:

    5. Ignores the impact of circumcision on a grown man’s sexual pleasure. My article referenced the fact that circumcision removes the most sexually sensitive parts of the male genitalia. I added that men who were circumcised as adults report substantial decreases in their capacity for sexual pleasure. Marx does not acknowledge the significance of these facts:

    6. Conflates circumcision with other parental choices that do not involve irreparable amputation of a healthy body part. Marx argues, “Language, culture, religion, ideology, philosophy, literature, customs, and traditional diet are all irreversibly imposed upon children before they are capable of choosing.” Yes parents make these choices, but Marx is wrong about them being irreversible. Grown-up adults can leave behind their childhood diets, ideologies, religious dogmas, and so on, and make new choices. However, circumcision is different from all of these, as it involves the irreversible amputation of a healthy body part in a demonstrably harmful act.

    7. Implies that if circumcision is relatively less traumatic for some babies, that makes it okay for all babies. Marx talks about the Mohels who use wine to pacify the victims of circumcision. How helpful is the wine for the over 100 babies who die every year as a result of circumcision? Marx is silent about these deaths. Furthermore, anyone who watches a video of a typical circumcision can see how traumatic it can be — check out:
    Even if circumcision could be performed without the risk of death or trauma to the baby, which I don’t think it can, there still remains the ethical question of amputating a healthy body part that contributes to the grown man’s sexual fulfillment.

    8. Selectively cites medical sources in favor of circumcision while ignoring all the Western medical organizations that actively oppose circumcision or do not recommend it. In my article, I wrote, “Most Western medical associations recommend against circumcision. 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.’” Marx’s response is to dig up one Canadian doctor (whose last name is Schoen) who claims that circumcision’s advantages outweigh the surgical risks. If this were true, why is it that no Western medical association in the world recommends the procedure?

    9. Ignores the question of whether educated adults should make decisions about STD prevention for themselves, as opposed to their parents amputating a healthy body part at birth without the consent of the amputee. In my article, I wrote, “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.” Marx offers no response.

    10. Claims I ignored studies showing a health benefit of circumcision, when in fact I both acknowledged and rebutted those studies. Marx wrote: “Were [Taylor] less personally angry over his having been circumcised, he would have to admit the existence of arguments by responsible health authorities in support of circumcision, as well.” But in fact I both acknowledged those studies and rebutted them in my piece: “Reputable members of the medical community have argued that the studies that show any such benefit [of circumcision] 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.”

    11. Claims that circumcision both is and is not a requirement to be Jewish. On one hand, Marx says: “[Circumcision is] the most fundamental Jewish tribal observance of belonging to this people.” But then Marx contradicts himself and admits, “Of course one could bring a child up as a Jew, even if the child is uncircumcised. This would not be the only precept that many Jews do not observe. There are, after all, 613 precepts from which to choose. Jews who only observe some precepts are Jews nevertheless.” So which is it? Really what Marx is saying here is, “Circumcision is not a requirement to be Jewish, however, I strongly recommend it.” My rebuttal to Marx: Instead, parents can choose Brit Shalom, a Jewish baby-welcoming ceremony without the irreversible body part amputation and ritualized child abuse:
    As I mentioned in my article, over 50% of Swedish Jewish parents leave their baby boys intact –– and they’re still Jews!

    12. Uses a Nazi Holocaust story as a justification to harm baby boys. Why should Marx’s anecdote be a rationalization to continue to harm infants, put them at risk of death, and permanently diminish the sexual functioning of grown men? The lesson to be learned from the Nazi Holocaust in this context is: protect the innocent and defenseless!

  5. Rabbi Marx, like so many other professional Jews, you fail to see that the issue is about banning circumcision altogether, but about making it an informed adult choice. Hence we intactivists advocate delaying brit milah until after the 18th (better yet, the 21st) birthday.

    We further believe that to alter permanently the most sexual part of the male body, without the informed adult consent of the owner of that body, cannot be an admissible, or religiously meaningful act. It cannot be a sign of ethnic loyalty or of respect for one’s forbears. Brit milah is a holdover from a time when parents and religious authorities were deemed to have complete power over minors. This degree of authority is simply no longer morally acceptable. Judaism should be a loving choice, not a prison from which one cannot escape.

    “But there are some symbols that have become tokens (not unconditional prerequisites) of basic belonging.”
    ME. It is unethical to impose a token/symbol on an individual without his adult consent.

    “Our child is “openly” (even though his zipper is zipped) Jewish.”
    ME. When Islam adopted circumcision 15 centuries ago, the equation circumcised = Jewish ceased to hold. American/Filipino/South Korean practice only reenforced this fact.

    “Just as parents pierce their young children’s ears before they are of the age of consent…”
    ME. This too is unethical, for the same reason that circumcising an infant boy is unethical.

    “…so do Jewish parents proudly pierce their male children with the covenant of Abraham to be signed in as bearers of this legacy…”
    ME. This pride is misplaced. And pride goeth before the fall…

    “…a monotheistic heritage that taught the world that all human beings without exception are created equal, having been “created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27; 9:6).
    ME. If humans are created equal, why alter the genitalia of infant boys but not those of girls? If humans are created in the image of God, why deviate from God’s plan for the genitalia?

    The “danger of becoming a Jew” should be a subject of sorrowful reflection, not a fact defiantly embraced. Pride goeth before the fall.

  6. I am not Jewish, but I dated a Jewish man in college. I am very aware of the significance of circumcision for Jews. However, in the U.S. nearly all male children are circumcised at birth. My father developed an infection as an adult and was circumcised. My husband is circumcised. The only non-circumcised males I’ve ever known were not born in the U.S. In the U.S., being circumcised is not a marker of the Jewish faith. Aside from the religious ceremony, what is the significance of circumcision in a culture where everyone is circumcised?

  7. The question my year of 2011 started with is: “What/who’s yet unborn child am I willing to feed to my dead ancestors?”

    The depths of this question are surfacing throughout the year leading me to the review of my traditions and those of my family and culture. During this exploration it appears we have significantly reversed the order of priorities where dead ancestors are more important than children of tomorrow.

    I believe it is our role as living older adults to find how our lives and those of our dead ancestors might feed tomorrow’s children in ways that they might have a chance of living in peace with each other.

    Mutilation of any age or group does not seem to fit in that plan.

  8. Actually Margie not all men are cut in the U.S. In certain geographic areas the circumcision rate varies between 25 and 75%. Just google it. Reasons also include bullying/teasing which happen when a child is the only one in his school or class that is uncut. There is also research that indicates a correlation of lower HIV transmission with circumcision. So men who practice a lot of risky sex may consider this an advantage.

    Joss I am curious to know your thoughts about other non-consensual acts like vaccines. In all likelihood a child will no get polio but parents give children many series of shots without the child’s consent. That child may develop secondary symptoms or complications as a result of vaccines.

    It’s also interesting to me that you think people are brainwashed into believing in Judaism. What about converts who study for years? They are not brainwashed. What about secular Jews who do not observe the other 612 rules?

    Did you know that the court usually sides with the parents except for cases of neglect? When children have terminal illnesses or choose to live with the non-custodial parent the court first sides with the parents decision and then if necessary the child’s. In these cases what the child wants is important but the parents have legal responsibility over the child until age 18 (or earlier if determined by the court).

  9. The author also fails to address the fact that circumcision has changed over the millennium. It went from a tribal nick where the vast majority of the foreskin was retained to now, which includes the p’riah- the complete removal of the foreskin. This change was done by man and not dictated by G-d.
    Thanks to the original author and over Jews who have come forward and educated people like me, my 19 month old baby boy is intact and will remain so and still be a Jew!!!

  10. Margie Parko – While in the 1970s (when I was born) the circumcision rate was over 80% for all Americans, as of 2009 the rate is only 33%. That means *two-thirds* of all baby boys grow up with intact genitals. Just because circumcision was a widespread practice in this country in the past is no reason it should continue, especially considering the permanent harm it inflicts onto a defenseless baby.


  11. Couldn’t help commenting on a semi-risque issue of body parts! Circumcising is part of the Jewish (and Muslim?) religious tradition so we shouldn’t mess with it for them, but there’s no reason why Christians and others are still getting em, because St.Paul specifically states that circusming is NOT required to be a Christian believer, what’s important is what’s in or not in the soul, not on the body. (it’s somewhere in the letter to the Galatians). But Chistians never listen to their own Bible, so it continues! Also, some things could get accidentally chopped off—oops! yuk yuk!

  12. The second sentence of Matthew’s original article beautifully states that one of the holes of Rabbi Michael Lerner’s pro-circumcision arguments is the hole in his heart. Here a man bravely has offered as evidence his own experience, his personal truth. To have done this is not without risks, given the social stigma against men showing emotions, the fierce cultural pressure not to question b’rit milah, and the deplorable tendency in our society to snicker at the mere mention of anything penile (which, combined with the profound discomfort surrounding the topic, sophomorically impedes constructive discourse about circumcision). And yet, Rabbi Marx says that Matthew is too emotional about this subject for his commentary to be useful or valid. To say that the intensity and pain of Matthew’s experience renders his contribution unreliable is to miss the point entirely. Matthew’s experience is the heart of the case against ritual mutilation: it is because many circumcised men feel similarly to Matthew (and, because of the stigma and ridicule described above, one may be certain that there are many more such men than those who have come forward) that the practice must be abandoned. There are other reasons as well, such as the inherent misogyny of inscribing the covenant in a body part unique to males, but the pain inflicted by circumcision, both of the cutting itself and of its lasting impact, is the primary reason.

    Rabbi Marx’s statement that he would be concerned by Matthew’s pain in “a pastoral situation” sadly rings hollow, and from the perspective of one being told that his feelings are irrational and insignificant may even have a ring of condescension. By implying that Matthew’s essay belongs in a therapeutic session and not in serious and “learned” discourse, Rabbi Marx insidiously dismisses the legitimacy of the voices of all circumcised men who wish to be intact. Clearly, he is uncomfortable with the admirable candor with which Matthew articulates his feelings. His words at least suggest greater sensitivity than those of the ghoulish Edgar Schoen, the putative medical authority whom he cites, who has stated that stories like Matthew’s are balanced out by stories of positive experiences relating to circumcision in some sort of zero-sum game. This calls to mind Merrell Markoe’s recent observation that there are “so many socially acceptable ways to exhibit a pathological lack of empathy.” Alas, the only way for circumcision advocates to maintain their position in light of testimony such as Matthew’s is to minimize or dismiss as unimportant that which it is impossible to refute or deny. Compassion and respect for the individual’s subjectivity must be sacrificed: how ironic for a Jew to be adopting this line of reasoning, which is the philosophy the anti-Dreyfusards and their fellow authoritarians. In his excellent Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective, Dr. Ronald Goldman eloquently writes that the sacrifice made in circumcision is not just to the baby who is being harmed, but to the humanity of the Jewish community.

    Rabbi Marx demonstrates the concede-and-minimize tactic of the pro-circumcision advocates when he admits that circumcision constitutes disfigurement, but so is the removal a child’s molar. Does Rabbi Marx really believe that it is remotely acceptable to remove a healthy molar from a child’s mouth!? Such are the lengths to which one must go to justify circumcision. (A more common analogy is having babies’ ears pierced, which is fair enough: that too is an unethical encroachment upon a child’s bodily integrity.) The rabbinical justification he cites is intellectually tortured: the only way for these scholars to reconcile the circumcision covenant with Jewish laws against bodily modification was to declare that the foreskin is not part of the body, and that the male body must be perfected through subtraction. This absurd statement is echoed today by those who consider the foreskin “extra skin” or compare circumcision to cutting the umbilical cord (a dreadful analogy given that the umbilical cord is not a part of the body and the foreskin is). No one can expect that the risible and observably false claim that the foreskin is not a part of the body will allay the concerns of any man experiencing dysphoria about his circumcision. As the intactivist bumper sticker reads, “The foreskin is not a birth defect,” and this the Midrash cannot change.

    How Rabbi Marx considers the Abrahamic covenant a declaration of human equality is a mystery to me given the unequivocal misogyny (as noted above, only males are inducted into the covenant) and egregious tribalism of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 15:18–21 (a mere two chapters before the circumcision covenant, which again involves promising land to the People of Israel), God promises to give Abraham the land presently inhabited by ten different tribes, which is only equality in the sense of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I highly value my Jewish heritage in many ways, especially the intellectual tradition, but even if I did not believe that the Abrahamic covenant is entirely fictive, still I would reject it. It unfairly confers privilege upon one tribe of people, and this is not an idea I want anywhere on my body. Certainly I agree with teaching children about their Jewish heritage, but to mark it upon their bodies goes too far. What about the child’s religious freedom? Ultimately, when children of Jewish heritage grow up it is their prerogative to decide what to do with their Jewish identities, and this is a matter over which their parents have no control. A culture only has validity if its members are all willing participants.

    I have heard the bizarre claim that circumcision is essential to the survival of Judaism, as though one will forget one’s identity without its being branded onto one’s body. Miriam Pollack has astutely observed the cruel irony, which is attested by the story Rabbi Marx includes in his article, that circumcision has made it far easier for Jewish men to be identified by their persecutors. To say that circumcision is a unique marker of Judaism is astoundingly false, given its prevalence, in various forms, in a large number of other cultures (including among American gentiles!). To assume that circumcising a man will make him take his Jewish heritage seriously is fatuous (especially as those of us who abhor the practice may feel alienated from Jewish culture as a result). Could this irrationality be a sign that this custom is being perpetuated, even as more and more Jews eat shrimp and cheeseburgers and ignore the Sabbath, as a cycle of abuse? Whatever the reason, it is an insult to Judaism to say that it can only survive through a barbaric, misogynist Bronze Age ritual: the survival of Jewish culture through so many centuries of persecution is a testament to the strength of our people, not the mutilation of our penises. As we go forward, the only way for Judaism to maintain its relevance is to recognize the dignity, autonomy, and inherent rights of the individual. This involves actually listening to what the Matthew Taylors have to say, and acknowledging that the bodies of children belong only to themselves, not to their parents, their communities, or anyone’s holy book.

  13. I was disappointed in many of the examples the author gave. I also find it in poor taste to pick someone’s experience of pain and suffering apart, that alone is his forfeiting of dignity ( and discredits the backdrop for those Jews who paradoxically perform the Milah with the whole person of their child in mind) As a woman who has undergone many painful genital procedures ( is not the clitoris like a small penis?) with my dignity taken away during most of the surgeries which were done virtually WITHOUT anesthetic , I can at least in the physical sense, offer up the sentiment that ‘I know how you feel”. I do not know what it is like to have a penis, let alone the feeling of something missing from it. And as a Jew, I know what it feels like to stand at the cross roads of choice, devotion, betrayal, and lovingkindness. Ha Kadosh Baruchu didn’t draw the lines so extremely clear. The Torah is a boundless ocean, and with it the messages endless. I hope and pray that we can tell the difference between our face and the mirror.

  14. Also…. May I offer up a view Of the middle path: when we look back at our history, when were the times we held ourselves back from action, when we weren’t sure what was right, we stood back and waited to be commanded. What if this is such a case? Therefore, parents should be urged to leave the rite of Brit Milah up to the grown men who, being so immersed and bound with the covenant of their forebears, will take the Milah  upon themselves! One of Avraham’s tests was the Milah ( not just himself but his son as well). We are at a point in history—WORLD HISTORY, where we can’t just look back to the actions of our ancestors ( over 2,000 years ago) and know exactly what HaShem expects of us. Look in the  Tenach— look at what our fathers had to do to serve HaShem: trample their honor, betray bloodlines and steal birthrights, put the lives of their wives and children at risk. Stunningly, what resulted from those actions was Compassion and Justice from the Creator—somehow, good ended up sprouting from the ‘evil’. Did we honestly think that when we ate of that heavy and burdened tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that we would just crap seeds of self righteousness that would later blossom into the Euphoric perfection of the cosmos? Did we think we could at once suckle at the breast and penetrate our mother? I realize I am expressing very deep and personal sentiments here….but its time to WAKE UP! Ok…end rant…

  15. I know this is a few months old, but, really good article, while I’m not, technically, a religious Jew (and religion had no part in my growing up), I’m also not circumcised (I’m from Britain), but, these foreskin worshipers do really annoy me, as there’s no debating them at all, it’s like trying to debate with pro-lifers, you’ll never convince them to see the other side of the argument.

    I know that the Foreskin Cult members will probably bring up lots of sites (as though internet sites count as academic sources) and may even quote Doctors who are opposed to male circumcision, the fact is that doesn’t prove a thing, as I can find many Doctors who’ll argue why abortion is murder, and they use lots of medical “facts”, very much like the Foreskin Cult.

    The fact is, and, sorry to disappoint any of the whiny men here, but, male circumcision is not similar to FGM at all, the fact is circumcised men can, and do, still enjoy sex, women who have been mutilated can’t enjoy sex , it’s that simple. Also, don’t give me any BS about “but, circumcised men just don’t know how good a foreskin feels”, as circumcised men seem to have a pretty good sex life, from what I’ve seen (I’m gay BTW). If you’re uncut and you love it, good for you, just like someone into BDSM will think that’s the best thing ever, and will no doubt say that anyone who isn’t just doesn’t know the pleasures of BDSM.

    There’s also another thing, even the Doctors who don’t think male circumcision should be done to babies, they will tell you there are medically valid grounds for male circumcision, there are no medically valid grounds for FGM, so, even if you’re a paid up member of the Foreskin Cult, you must admit that they are not the same, be against it, if you want, but, at least, be educated.

    After learning about the proposed ban on male circumcision in California, and reading various things online (time spent that I’ll never get back, unfortunately), I just have to wonder why the focus is on Jewish male circumcision, it’s funny that Native Americans, Aborigine men, Muslims, and many others, all circumcise their boys, but, Jews are the ones singled out to be “child abusers”, but, then, I think we all know the biases of the Foreskin Cult leaders, afterall, their “Foreskin Man” (although, Smegma Man beats Foreskin man anyday!) already shows the the motives. Interesting how their comic book features a nice tall, blonde blue eyed guy who rescues the cute innocent baby from the evil dark haired Jew!, I’m surprised “Foreskin Man” didn’t do battle with the “evil Elders of Zion” who are, as we speak, carrying out their wicked plans to dominate the world, by circumcising all men, destroying all Gentile cultures, and stealing everyone’s money as well!!.

    Personally, being in my early 20s, I feel like getting circumcised myself now, just out of protest, if nothing else.

    Also, if Jews did chuck out male circumcision, I wonder what else they should jettison, just to please their non-Jewish neighbours, perhaps Kosher food?, maybe Hebrew?, or, hell, acknowledging 13 year old boys as adults is a bit too out there, why the Bar Mitzvahs should just be held at 21.

    BTW, another thing that annoys me about the Foreskin Cult is, they compare male circumcision to FGM, yet, they rarely, if ever, say anything at all about FGM. I’m sure they denounce it, they might say it’s barbaric, but, that’s about it, but, then they’ll go back to their lives, and forget about it (like most things that happen in Africa, it’s pushed to the side), I wonder, if the Foreskin Cult will devote their resources to tackling FGM at all?. They remind me of some of the pro-Palestinian activists who will say they are fighting against Israeli imperialism, but, when it comes to any other type of imperialism, they will fall quite quiet (afterall, sailing to Tibet in a Flotilla isn’t the same thing is it). BTW, if you think I’m some ultra-Zionist from reading this, then, you really don’t know me at all.

    Anyway, sorry for making this a long post, but, seriously, this Foreskin Cult just annoys the hell out of me. Seriously, if you think uncut dicks are the best, and circumcised look “disgusting”, then, I’ve got news for you, you’re missing out (I personally don’t discriminate between cut or uncut).

    BTW, if a member of the Foreskin Cult replies to me and says I’m making fun of the “grievances of poor innocent mutilated men”, well, I guess, I am making fun, but, not of mutilated men (seriously, go lose an arm or a both legs, then, talk about mutilation), I’m making fun of men who have nothing better to do than find something to whine about. Seriously, the people who are part of the Foreskin Cult remind me of the people who are part of the Misandry Cult (if you don’t know what that is, essentially, a group of men who think women are getting all the attention and men are being “attacked”, and that “men can’t be men”, whatever that means), they go on and on about how the “poor grievances” of men are being ignored in favour of women.

    Personally, not being American, I don’t know much about the politics and Judiciary, but, hopefully, the American people and those in charge of making laws will not be taken in by the idiocy of the Foreskin Cult (and, if they are, well, next thing we know, America will be banning abortions, because it “kills” kids).

    Now, if you’re gay and part of the Foreskin Cult, leave that brainwashing Cult, and go find a nice hot circumcised guy, and, well, use your mouth, and stop spreading the false BS that circumcised men are somehow “in denial” about their “pain”, and then have sex with whoever you want, however you want. For non-gay members of the Cult, then, go and speak to circumcised men (and not your circumcised brethren in the Cult), and, realise, that you’re actually insulting them (I mean, would you like it if someone started saying you were stupid and ugly, which is, essentially, what the Foreskin Cult says when it talks about how circumcised men “must be in torture, they just don’t know it”, as if you know their own minds better than they do, or how circumcised men have “disgusting” dicks, so, therefore, are no longer attractive (isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder, though?)).

    Now, if you love foreskin, go for it, have sex with uncut guys, enjoy your life, if you love circumcised guys, go for it, have sex with many cut guys, and, if you’re into BDSM, having sex in weird places, whatever, enjoy your life, but, seriously, stop with the ridiculous arguments, the ridiculous name-calling, the stupid conspiracy theories (i.e. Foreskin man, and his crusade against the “evil” Jewish plot to “destroy/ruin” men), etc. Just get off the internet, and stop going to websites with agendas (seriously, I’m sure there must be quite a few people who went to University, and, unless Unis over here are really different, you should have learnt internet sites are not reliable sources, as anyone can put information up).

    Seriously, I didn’t even know circumcision was such a big deal to people, perhaps it’s just a U.S. thing, but, over here, I never gave male circumcision a second thought, and I still don’t, I don’t see a Jewish male and go “OMG, poor him, he’s been mutilated and he just don’t know it, he must be in so much pain”, I don’t go “ah, that poor Muslim guy, his dick is no longer normal”.

  16. Perhaps David might step back from his ad hominem arguments for a moment and look at the issue of abstract human rights. Adults hold a child down and cut off a normal, integral, healthy, functional (erogenous), irreplacable part of their body. The child grows up and says their human rights were violated. What, exactly, is David’s answer? Is it equally applicable to a man and a woman?

    And “I just have to wonder why the focus is on Jewish male circumcision”? It isn’t. It was Intactivists who led the charge in 2010 when the AAP proposed allowing a token ritual nick to girls “much less extensive than neonatal male genital cutting” and made them withdraw the proposal within a month.

  17. David-your argument isn’t well thought-out or logical. There is virtually no medical benefit to male circumcision either. It is also anti sexual, just like female circumcision. The only difference is that male circumcision has many more ardent promoters and is propagated by more influential cultures. They have actually done an HIV study that shows a benefit to FGM. It was done in Tanzania. Look it up. Where does that leave your argument? FGM is more sexually damaging? How much do you have to reduce an infant’s sexuality before it’s illegal? 20%? 50%? 60? I doubt you are really uncircumcised. No man who had that part would diminish its importance to his sexuality. I’d say it’s responsible for at least 70% of mine (conservative estimate). I can’t speak for all, but I truly don’t want to make circumcised men feel bad for no reason or impinge on someone’s religious beliefs. 100% of my concern is protecting children who are too small and weak to protect themselves. In 30 years, all infant genital cutting will be illegal in all the civilized world. The only way to stop the ‘Foreskin Cult’ is to stop cutting babies. We’ll never give up. Ever.

  18. David: As a man who is genitally intact [who can still make a choice in the matter] you obviously have no idea what it’s like to have your genitals altered without your consent, and your insensitivity to men who know themselves to be harmed is appalling.

    Take a moment to review the Global Survey of Circumcision Harm ( where, in the Results section, you can see the responses of over 900 circumcised men who’ve completed the online questionnaire. Some have even uploaded photos of their damage to the Gallery section, while others have uploaded videos about their harm to the Testimonies section.

  19. this is incredible.

    “If I had a daughter (I have a granddaughter) and I were told that she was at risk without a medical intervention on her genitals, I am sure that I would take this option very seriously. Fortunately, that is not the case.”

    funny thing, turn out it’s not the case with an anatomically correct infant male, either. Rate of UTIs: 1%. rate of penile cancer: 1 in 100,000. lifetime risk of Heterosexual HIV infection: 0.02%. males are not at risk either. yet this rabbi promotes irreversible amputation anyway.

    “A reasonable person following Taylor’s concern might ask: Why not let children wait until they have grown into adults to decide whether or not to take on this identity? Why impose it upon them by providing a Jewish home with Jewish practices, “forcing” them to attend an expensive Jewish day school or summer camp, or even participate in a trip to Israel. Becoming a Jew is very dangerous and has been for thousands of years.”

    yet any child of jewish parent can indeed reject this identity. people change religions all the time, including children born to Jewish parents. but circumcision is irreversible and unnecessary, something no parent has any right to force on a child.

  20. Thank g-d for all the thoughtful comments!

    Let’s drop the rationalizations. It’s well past time to end ALL infant genital cutting.