Tikkun Magazine

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.)

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi C. Marx, the author of Disability in Jewish Law (2002), was ordained at Yeshiva University and received his Ph.D. at the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht. He was director of education at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and director of the Folkertsma Institute of Talmud in Holland. He currently teaches Judaism in Holland.
tags: Gender & Sexuality, Health, Judaism