No to the Proposed Legal Ban on Circumcision

Because Tikkun has always sought to create a community in which issues that are taboo elsewhere can be explored with intellectual honesty and tolerance, particularly when those positions differ from our own or from the accepted worldviews of our readers, we are printing in this issue an article that fiercely critiques the Jewish practice of circumcision. I have invited others to write a response to it, which I hope to print in addition to your letters to the editor on this topic.

Circumcision does not have a higher status in Torah law than other commandments that have been ignored or transformed in the course of the evolution of Judaism. The entire system of animal sacrifice has been abandoned. The author of the article on circumcision in this Summer 2011 issue of Tikkun contends that it has been a key element in patriarchal practice. Perhaps. But even the most cursory look at other societies that did not practice circumcision, e.g., feudal Europe, Chinese dynasties, Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia, shows that they had no problem maintaining patriarchal practices without it.

In the last forty years of feminism within Jewish communities, there have been many articulations of an anti-sexist Judaism and efforts to challenge patriarchy that have not required the jettisoning of circumcision, which many still experience as a culturally and religiously meaningful tradition. Historically, violence against women has been officially shunned within the Jewish community, unlike in many other societies where it has been accepted and even legitimated by the dominant cultural ethos. Of course this has not prevented such violence from occurring, but our tradition’s official opposition to sexist violence has helped to buoy the work of Jewish men and women committed to creating a safer and more just society. When considering the arguments of those opposed to circumcision on feminist grounds, it’s important to realize that “intactivists” are just one voice within a strong and diverse Jewish feminist community.

Why did circumcision become so important? Why did it not get “reinterpreted” or simply abandoned over the centuries as so many other ancient rites disappeared from Jewish practice? Largely because the Greek and Roman conquerors of ancient Israel found the practice “barbaric” and banned it on penalty of death. Jews resisted the imperialists’ attempt to inscribe on Jewish bodies the imperialist designs, and so circumcision became an arena of resistance to the conquerors. Throughout the past two thousand years, and then even more dramatically during Nazi Germany’s short but wildly destructive period, circumcision became for the dominant oppressors the sign that could identify Jews and hence lead them to the tortures of the Inquisition or to death in the gas chambers and crematoria of Nazi-dominated Europe.

It was in response to this dynamic that Jews have clung to circumcision as our right and as a reminder of continuing resistance to those who seek to dictate to Jews how we should shape our bodies, much the same way as some African Americans refuse to allow dominant cultural norms to push them to appear “less black” by straightening curly hair or using skin-lightening products.

There is little evidence that circumcised men have less sexual pleasure than uncircumcised men, and some evidence that they are less likely to carry some diseases than the uncircumcised.

The debate on circumcision will likely intensify in coming years. But one thing should be clear: the American majority should not impose its will or cultural preference on members of the Jewish minority who are committed to continuing the practice. Those who have put circumcision on the ballot in San Francisco and elsewhere, or used other methods to ban circumcision, are undermining the First Amendment rights of Jews and creating a slippery slope toward the abolition of all religious practices. 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. Indeed, there are some who believe that all religions are so deeply patriarchal that they need to be replaced or banned, as they were for a time in the Soviet Union.

Freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion being imposed by the government, should be expanded, not contracted. So while we have printed a severe critique of circumcision, and encourage this debate within our own pages, we strongly oppose the use of state power to impose through coercion a ban on circumcision. Just as the state should never criminalize abortion, it should never criminalize circumcision.

(To return to the Summer 2011 Table of Contents, click here. For an attractively formatted, ready-to-print PDF of this article, click here.)

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13 thoughts on “No to the Proposed Legal Ban on Circumcision

  1. Legitimizing child molestation behind a religion is not honorable nor ethical. It’s a breach of trust. What if your son rejects Judaism?

  2. By all means let all informed adults do what they like with their own bodies. The problem with ritual circumcision is that it is imposed on infants without their consent. This is as immoral as branding inmates at Auschwitz with a number to identify them, a bodily change inflicted by others without the consent of the victim. No infant has yet voted to be circumcised; it is imposed on him – an act of violence. The law calls such behavior battery and mayhem and religion should not get a pass to promote what otherwise would be criminal behavior.

  3. I’m a Jewish man, and I’m angry about having been circumcised without my consent, against my will. Religious rights do not include the right to Harm a defenseless baby! All forms of genital cutting are illegal if performed against a girl, why should boys be subjected to this outrageous violation of our right to an intact body? Your religion ends where my body begins! Lerner writes, “There is little evidence that circumcised men have less sexual pleasure than uncircumcised men” — absolutely false, in fact medical research has conclusively demonstrated the opposite to be true.

  4. Firstly, one has to remember this: Judaism is a RELIGION. RELIGIONS are concerned with worshiping a deity / deities. In this case, G-D commanded circumcision as the proof of His covenant with His people. At the end of the day, all arguments against circumcision must be weighed against the command of G-d to induct all males into Israel in this manner. If you are going to be “secular Jews”, then the practice will hold no meaning for you beyond its historical and cultural references. But if you are going to PRACTICE your RELIGION, and not just “play” at it so you have a response to give when someone asks “what religion are you”, then you must follow the command of G-D and have the faith to do as He instructs us to do. Without Faith, you will see no need for this – as many Jews see no need for the other so-called “archaic” practices now laid aside. Faith gives us the eyes to see that some things – ancient though they may be – are still necessary to the keeping of our covenant with G-d in this modern, crazy world.

  5. A few Jews are even on record for supporting or even endorsing the San Francisco circumcision referendum.

    Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews? by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, The Forward, 5/20/11

    The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective by Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

    Questioning Circumcision: Op/Ed by Rebecca Wald, J.D.
    The Jewish Reporter, 6/2/11

    Jewish Journal: Circumcision critic has Board links

    Time to Ban Male Circumcision? (Op-Ed, Guardian Law, 14 June 2011)
    Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld

  6. “As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate.

    “The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired…there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment; the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning.

    “Our sages (Bereshit Rabba, c.80) say distinctly: It is hard for a woman, with whom an uncircumcised man had sexual intercourse, to separate from him. This is, as I believe, the best reason for the commandment concerning it.”

    – Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed)
    p.378 of the Dover edition 1956.

  7. A variety of Jewish and Israeli groups are also working to abolish circumcision.

    Gonnen: Protect the Child (in Hebrew)

    Kahal: Giving Up Brit Milah (in Hebrew and English)

    Beyond the Bris: A Jewish Intactivist Blog

    Jews Against Circumcision

    Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective

  8. As the author of the article, “Circumcision: Identity, Gender and Power”, published in the current issue of Tikkun, I would like to respond to several of the arguments put forward by Michael Lerner on this very problematic topic.

    Michael Lerner contends that there are many societies, perhaps even most societies, far more patriarchal than Judaism. Certainly, this is true. However, this does mean that structures of patriarchy and sexism are absent or benign in Judaism and, are, therefore, unworthy of our scrutiny. Circumcision is a quintessentially patriarchal rite as is demonstrated in my analysis of both the intent, as well as the multiple effects of this genital alteration. We are, after all, talking about what men do to a male on that infant’s male organ in order to bind this male to the men of his community, present, past and future, as well as to a male imaged G-d. Such genital cutting confers on this male religious status and privileges, which accrue neither to women, nor to the uncircumcised altering not only physiology, but relationships both public and intimate. How can this not be a highly gendered event?

    Michael Lerner contends that any negative sexual effects of circumcision have not been proven. Nearly 1000 years ago, Maimonides understood very well that the foreskin was not simply redundant tissue. We may choose to ignore his meaning when he praised the virtue of circumcision as an antidote to the perceived danger of an excessively passionate bond with one’s partner (Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed). However, thanks to pathologist John Taylor (J R Taylor, A P Lockwood, A J Taylor. “The Prepuce: Specialized Mucosa of the Penis and Its Loss to Circumcision.” British Journal of Urology 1996;77:291-5), the function of the foreskin is no longer a mystery. The complexity and uniqueness of the foreskin is incontrovertible. No longer do we have the luxury of pretending that the removal of more than 20,000 of the most touch sensitive nerve endings found in the foreskin can be an insignificant event. Parents need to know this scientific data and decide for themselves if such penile reduction is, indeed, a mitzvah.

    It is true that the repeated experiences of anti-Semitism have laminated circumcision to our construct of identity. Certainly, if the oppressor tells us that the way we define ourselves is “barbaric, ugly, inhumane”, our understandable response has been, “Talk about ‘barbaric’! You murderers have no moral authority to tell us how to define ourselves.” Of course we suspect their true motives . . . and the advent of Foreskin Man only confirmed our worst suspicions.

    Nonetheless, the spectrum of concern/outrage about circumcision expressed by Intactivists is not targeted simply at the Jewish community. Circumcision, whether practiced as a religious ritual by Jews and Muslims, or as an American medical habit, can no longer be touted as a harmless practice. In the face of mounting scientific evidence, we know that removing healthy sexual tissue from a non-consenting minor is neither humane, necessary for Jewish continuity, nor medically advisable (see further discussion in article). When new information appears, Jewish ethics require that we confront this reality. Holding on to circumcision because of the collective survival trauma embedded in our historical experience is a poor reason to continue the martyrdom of the Jewish penis.

  9. I am a Jewish man, and I resent having been circumcised, and I support a law making circumcision illegal. In 1998, an Israeli group petitioned the courts in Israel to recognize circumcision, even religious circumcision as “criminal assault”, which is illegal in Israel.

    There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the religious to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    These three articles document some of their thoughts and statements on the subject. The last link is a list of 50+ Rabbis who perform a bris and naming without circumcision. 50 Rabbis is a sign that the Jewish movement to bypass circumcision is real and growing.

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2

    * Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

  10. While I applaud Tikkun for addressing a taboo topic, it is not laudable that you choose to support a position that is fundamentally out of alignment with the mission of Tikkun:

    “Tikkun is a magazine dedicated to healing and transforming the world. We seek writing that gives us insight on how to make that utopian vision a reality. We build bridges between religious and secular progressives by delivering a forceful critique of all forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination while nurturing an interfaith vision of a caring society — one whose institutions are reconstructed on the basis of love, generosity, nonviolence, social justice, caring for nature, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.”

    Here are a few critiques:

    1) The interfaith vision of “caring society” must include fair treatment of all people, including children who are not able to consent to a cruel treatment that inflicts physical, psychological, and spiritual harm.

    2) “The healing and transformation of our world” involves taking a clear moral stance on injustice. The fact that you are embracing “separation of church and state” on a human rights issue is antithetical to the mission statement of your magazine.

    3) The comparison of African Americans “refusing to allow dominant cultural norms to push them to appear “less black” by straightening curly hair or using skin-lightening product” to a medical procedure that inflicts pain and suffering on an innocent, unconsenting baby is not an apt comparison.

    Here is a more apt Africa comparison:

    “Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”

    FGM is typically carried out on girls from a few days old to puberty. It may take place in a hospital, but is usually performed, without anaesthesia, by a traditional circumciser using a knife, razor, or scissors. According to the WHO, it is practiced in 28 countries in western, eastern, and north-eastern Africa, in parts of Asia and the Middle East, and within some immigrant communities in Europe, North America, and Australasia. The WHO estimates that 100–140 million women and girls around the world have experienced the procedure, including 92 million in Africa.”

    3) “We seek writing that gives us insight on how to make that utopian vision a reality.”

    In your vision of Tikkun, you desire to end oppressive practices in service of creating a more humane and just world (utopia). And yet, you support a practice that traumatizes many men, inflicts pain and generational trauma, and actually leads people to disidentify with Judaism because of its stance on an oppressive practice.

    I’d encourage you to consider how painful, outdates practices actually serve the vision of a sustainable, just world.

  11. I am very reluctant to make the circumcision of minors illegal. If it is made illegal, there should be a religious exemption.

    Intactivism is not about forbidding parents to have their sons circumcised. It is about furthering the sexual education of parents around the world, so that they lose all desire to have circumcise their sons. It is about giving Mother Nature the benefit of the doubt. It is about leaving the decision to alter the penis to the person connected to the penis.

    “There is little evidence that circumcised men have less sexual pleasure than uncircumcised men…”
    This is narrowly true, but only because the biomedical technology required to measure sexual pleasure does not yet exist. We do know that the tissues ablated by circumcision are very highly ennervated, in a way that is strongly consistent with those tissues being very erogenous. Given where the foreskin and frenulum are located, and given how those parts interact with the vagina, the burden of proof should rest on those arguing circumcision, not intact.

    “…and some evidence that they are less likely to carry some diseases than the uncircumcised.”
    Circumcision has nothing to do with the ability to “carry” an infectious disease. The claim is that circumcised men are less likely to acquire STIs from infected women. If one is to believe certain studies published this century, circumcision only changes the odds of catching something from a single act; it does not protect. The possibility that circumcision only delays the inevitable cannot be ruled out. Circumcision may even encourage unsophisticated men to dispense with condoms, leaving them far more vulnerable than intact men who are careful about condom use. I sympathise with the Kenyan who told a western journalist “if I still need to use a condom, what’s the point of circumcision?”

    Just how relevant are these public health concerns to the typical upper middle class Jewish young man, who is very likely to choose his sex partners carefully? And keep in mind that catching an STI nearly always requires engaging in sexual acts of a kind that Jewish moral theology condemns are irresponsible and putting fertility at risk.

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