The Primal Spirituality of Circumcision vs. the Cultural Steamroller of Scientism

Should a society based on the principles of democracy and Western thinking permit people to circumcise children? The answer to that question may well be no. I suggest, however, that this is the wrong question through which to understand the issue of circumcision.

Whether or not a society should ban circumcision may be the wrong question through which to understand this issue, the author writes. Credit:Creative Commons/NbenA

It is logical to assert that people should not be allowed to act violently toward others just because they think God told them to do so. A case was reported in Australia in which four men broke into the home of a Muslim man and allegedly whipped him with an electrical cord to punish him for having violated sharia law by drinking alcohol. The perpetrators were rightly condemned by other Muslims. This example illustrates the logical principle that violence cannot be allowed on the basis of claims of divine sanction.

Similarly, in approaching the issue of circumcision, if the question is whether scriptural mandates justify violence, the logical answer should be no. However, I suggest that this is the wrong question. Instead the question should be about how assertive we should be about our Western ways and logic when they clash with other ways of being and thinking. I think some humility is in order.

Yes, we have put a man on the moon, and made some progress on racism and sexism. But the Western way has also been horribly destructive to some social structures, traditions, and many lives. In Understanding the Present, Bryan Appleyard argues that “scientism”—the approach that privileges the scientific way of knowing over all others—often obliterates much of the spiritual and mystical.

I reflect on the time when I was let in on the secret initiation rites of the Pitjantjatjara people of the Central Australian desert. My reaction was that these were unreasonably harsh. And yet, the initiated man I spoke to was dignified and clear about who he is, while many of his people who have been cut off from their traditional ways are destroying themselves and each other.

Don Palmer, an exceptional man working with indigenous Australians, wrote: “It is matters of the spirit -- the Kurrunpa, as those in the Centre [of Australia] would say, that are fundamental to there being any future at all. Without the spirit being valued, nourished, and cared for, then no amount of clever western medicine will serve any purpose of consequence.”

For me and, I suspect, for many Jews, the ritual of circumcision, like those of tribal and first peoples, transcends logic and is a primal and deeply important spiritual ritual. It is important not only because some of us believe God wants it. It is also important because it identifies us and binds us and our children to a nonnegotiable bond with our concept of God and our past, all the way to Abraham.

Credit: Creative Commons/Chesdovi.

Reflecting on my own family’s experience, I remember how a pasty white tinge was noticed on my face while I was enduring the circumcision of my third son. The thought of the cutting and the newborn’s cries get me every time. Still none of this caused me to hesitate to go through it all again with our fourth and fifth sons. The idea that my son would not enter into the covenant in the traditional way is, for me, unthinkable.

When appearing before the Local Government Council of Canterbury in Sydney, Australia, I was asked if religious priorities should ever be overshadowed by other community considerations. They were considering restrictions on the operating hours of new religious buildings, and this was of concern to Muslim groups. I answered that in some cases it must. We must weigh up the benefits to one group against the compromises asked of others.

Those who consider legal bans on circumcision—bans such as the San Francisco measure that was struck from the city’s November 2011 ballot after a judge ruled that local jurisdictions may not regulate the work of health care professionals—should bear in mind the devastation caused by Western cultural imperialism to other peoples. With that awareness, they should consider the deep importance of circumcision in Jewish and Muslim heritages and weigh that up against the violation of their conscience caused by the circumcision of children.

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


13 thoughts on “The Primal Spirituality of Circumcision vs. the Cultural Steamroller of Scientism

  1. “I was asked if religious priorities should ever be overshadowed by other community considerations. … I answered that in some cases it must. We must weigh up the benefits to one group against the compromises asked of others.” And the sacrifices asked of other individuals. Circumcision is uniquely intimate, uniquely personal. It is hard to imagine something more invasive of the individual. (Even rape need leave no physical trace, and with drugs, no memory.)

    The trouble with claiming that “other ways of thinking and being” “transcend logic” is that then any opinion is as good as another. We are in the New Age world of “my reality and your reality” or the post-modern world in which all is just “discourse”.

    If cutting boys is acceptable, how can we gainsay those who want to cut girls (minimally, surgically, nothing like the horrors of sub-Saharan Africa) following their “other ways of being” which “transcend logic”?

  2. The non-therapeutic amputation of healthy genital tissue from non-consenting children is medically unethical, it is a violation of human rights, it is irrational and unscientific and, as physicians, we have a moral obligation to oppose this cruel practice and properly educate the public. The foreskin is richly innervated erogenous tissue and should not be amputated without medical urgency or unless the benefit significantly outweighs the potential for harm. Virtually all medical associations in the world agree there is no reasonable benefit to non-therapeutic circumcision, yet some physicians continue to encourage this practice by inciting absurd concerns over cleanliness and soliciting spurious medical benefits, ALL of which have been either debunked or shown to be disproportionate to the risk associated with the actual procedure. Circumcision was only medicalized during the Victorian era as a misguided attempt to curb masturbation, which was thought to be harmful. It was used as a means of decreasing sexual pleasure and disrupting the normal gliding mechanism of the penis. Circumcision is a disgrace to our profession. It is steeped in superstition and ignorance and cultural transference. Physicians should refuse to participate in this unnecessary and immoral practice. Bronze age religious blood rituals should never trump rational scientific judgment, contemporary medical ethics and the universal right to bodily integrity. Our ethical obligation is to the boy, not to conspire with the cultural or religious traditions of the parents – the boy is the patient, not the parents. Put down the scalpels. His body, his decision.

    • I offer a new theory which I urge deserves consideration in the name of reason, even if not yet scientifically proven: Circumcision increases intelligence by integrating penile glans sensations, as if erected, with early associations of sight, sound, touch, sense of self, thinking, that would otherwise be largely delayed until adolescence.

      The central core of the infant’s neural networking is thus more complex leading to outward branching of the network that is more complex. Hence the developing mind is more complex rather than relatively simple-minded. The purpose of the foreskin seems to be to create a separate state of mind beginning in adolescence when the penis is often erected involving an urgency to intercourse. Evolution valued making more babies over intellect. Circumcision can be seen as Abraham’s having improved upon Nature.
      Parents have the right to improve their sons’ neural development. Waiting until adulthood is not an option to achieving this benefit.

  3. Savior State saves me from myself yet again. Mercy! After making debt slaves out of my children’s children’s children, most merciful Savior State proclaims marginally better orgasms in return.

  4. My parents were an Interfaith couple. When my children were born, I didn’t identify as a Jew, and I chose not to have them circumcised. Later, I became very interested in Judaism and learned about the symbolism of circumcision. My decision not to have my children circumcised was based on not wanting to cause them any harm. I didn’t want to permanently alter their bodies without their consent, particularly if there was no valid medical reason for doing so. That said, I don’t feel it is for me to decide what choice other parents should make. I understand that circumcision is a powerful and meaningful ritual that can be a significant vehicle for the transmission of Jewish identity from one generation to the next. I don’t feel any less Jewish for not having been born a male, so I am not certain that it is a necessity for engagement with Jewish spirituality.

  5. One explanation I’ve heard is that the father is symbolically dominating his son pscholically .personally I didn’t have my boys done , but my father who was not religious had me done, and wanted us to have my two boys done as well. He also was a controlling person.

  6. With all due respect, circumcision is–in my opinion–a sexual perversion. There is a reason why Nature gave the man a foreskin, and it wasn’t for “convenant” purposes. There is no difference between the barbarism of circumcision or the genital mutilation of young women that is practiced among certain muslim, christian and animist African sects. It is painful, dangerous and simply uncivilized. If a young man, at an age of conscious consent, wishes to ritually or medically remove his foreskin, then fine. But enforced circumcision on an infant male child is not only abuse, it is sexual abuse. No religion should EVER have the right to circumcize an innocent male infant or child, regardless of their so-called “deeply-held spiritual beliefs”. Again, circumcision is a sexual perversion and child abuse.

    • It was not creation who gave man foreskin but the creator, He also commanded that it be removed. If you search the Torah and the Old Testament you will see why.

  7. I’ve also heard it’s about dominance, reducing sexual pleasure, or putting God above sexual impulses. I can appreciate the perspective that it is sexual abuse, despite being the daughter of a Jewish woman, deeply interested in Jewish philosophy and spirituality, and mindful of the fact that for traditionalists, ways that seem strange to outsiders may have a very different meaning when viewed from the inside of that culture.

    To an infant, of course, none of the beliefs emotions, or attitudes about it, whether for or against, makes any difference. A baby doesn’t remember, and from what I have heard, adult circumcision by a competent doctor can be difficult to obtain, expensive, and take a long time to heal. If it is going to be done at all, I suspect infancy is the best time.

    Many traditions throughout the world have included some form of body modification and even torture rituals – tattooing, piercing, scarification, elongating the neck or earlobes, etc. – often as rights of passage, perhaps as markers of status. There is something empowering about surviving an ordeal, whether pain, fasting, wandering in the wilderness, or making a permanent change to the body. I can appreciate the significance of such a ritual on a psychological level.

    Here in the U.S., women get cosmetic surgery to meet aesthetic ideals despite the medical risks. Tattoos came into fashion perhaps driven by a desire to belong or to prove one’s strength or to make a statement about personal identity. Should we pursue the banning of tattoos, which use inks no one seems to know the ingredients of? We don’t know the long-term health implications, and we do know there is risk of blood-borne disease. Do we ban piercing (including genital piercing) because it is “barbaric”? Should we make cigarettes and alcohol illegal because people abuse them? Where are the boundaries of “civilized” behavior?

    Do anti-circumcision activists oppose harming the body per se, or is the objection ONLY to the infant’s lack of consent? It’s important to make this distinction because if opponents don’t, they run the risk of appearing to be condemning for cultural reasons, AKA anti-Jewish bigots. It is not OK, in other words, to protest circumcision simply because you find it personally distasteful, upsetting, primitive, or invasive.

    Circumcision has been so widespread in the last hundred years that the majority of American males born before 1980 are likely circumcised. So common has circumcision been, apparently, that my spouse thought he was born that way.

    It’s important for those who oppose circumcision to understand that there is a sector of the Jewish population that truly believes the Torah was given by God to Moses at Sinai, that the world is truly about six thousand years old, and every ritual commandment comes from the sovereign of the universe. To such traditionalists, to fail to circumcise a son is to go against God. They believe in moral absolutes – truth is truth, there is a right way and a wrong way, and we don’t question what defines a way of life. Liberal Jews who do not believe the Torah comes from God, but is rather “divinely inspired,” and may be less ritually observant, may tend to view circumcision as simply a traditional marker of belonging and identity. I was never part of a Jewish community (as the child of an interfaith marriage in which neither family was particularly supportive of differences) so I view these things from the perspective of an outsider.

    One person’s moral absolutes are another’s violations. How can we all be expected to view the world through the same lens (as clearly we don’t), and who gets to decide which perspective is valid?

  8. Circumcision is a thorny issue between my husband and myself (we have not had children yet). He feels as a Jewish man, that he has a religious duty to have his sons circumcised. I feel that it is a barbaric and cruel practice which has no justification for progressive Jews. Yes, the Torah is clear. But we’re meant to engage with it, it is not a straightjacket. It’s clear about a whole host of other things that we reject in modern society, either on principle (stoning) or convenience (mixeing the materials in our clothes). I can’t fathom the thought of giving my tiny baby, removed from my body for just over a week, to a man with a knife, who intends to cut of a piece of flesh. I can’t help but see circumcision as a deeply anti-maternal ritual, in which the mother’s views are silenced. My mother-in-law told me that when my husband was circumcised, she had to leave the room, she couldn’t watch, she felt almost like she had been cut herself. I’m not suggesting circumcision should be banned, but I do think that Jewish women who say “No” or “Over my dead body are you laying so much as a finger on my baby boy” or “You want to do WHAT?! Hello, 21st century calling!” should be listened to. And any man who says over the protestations of the mother of his child “it’s what we do” should take a long hard look at whether it should continue to be so. You might be wondering what we decided, my husband and I? The baby’s penis is not going under the knife… but I’m the one who will have to break the news to the proud grandfather. Who knows, maybe we’ll have all girls…

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