Thanks so much for your question. Circumcision is a very difficult decision for a lot of parents, and when new parents make a decision to break with a tradition that dates back several thousand years it can be painful for many people in the family unit.
When new parents have approached me who are conflicted about circumcision, their concern generally falls into three areas:
They are atheists. Because of that, they are not inclined to support a ritual that is being done out of obedience to a God they do not believe exists.
They have moral objections to causing pain to an infant and they think that altering a baby's body for a non-medical reason is inappropriate.
They believe that circumcision is genital mutilation and is barbaric.
Circumcision is a sacred rite. It has sustained and supported the Jewish community through thousands of years, and I believe it continues to hold meaning for us today. While I disagree strongly with parents who choose to not circumcise their children, I acknowledge the pain that this decision process causes for families and often for new parents who are struggling to figure out what it means to be responsible for another human being.
Circumcision is not a barbaric ritual. It is not inappropriate to alter the body in this way - in fact many ancient cultures have rituals that include body alteration. Milah is not about God, or about the pain, or about the grandparents (much as they might disagree). To dismiss the ritual of brit milah on these grounds misses the point altogether. Circumcision is about establishing another link in the chain of shared memory. It is about sharing a tradition that, although difficult, binds Jews from around the world together. It is about taking the long journey to Mount Sinai, holding up your child, and offering him as the guarantee demanded in the midrash in exchange for Jewish tradition.
According to the Torah, “on the eighth day, he [=the father, or his agent] is [required] to cut the [baby male’s] foreskin.” [Leviticus 12:3] According to Orthodox Judaism, the Judaism of the Written and Oral Torah, this rule, like all other commandments sanctifies, or makes one holy. [Maimonides, Laws of Circumcision, 1:7-8].
The Conservative approach to this issue correctly dismisses reservations regarding circumcision as inconsequential. After all, rites like circumcision has been performed in the past, with no significant bad results. But this line of argument, while absolutely correct, does not always resonate ethically to its hearers. Having done an act in the past does not make that act obliging to me in the present. Because my father or mother did something, am I obliged to do that act? Lamentations 5:7 says “no.” And Conservative Judaism’s preservation of past rites, folkways, and sancta has to date been selective. So why for Conservative Judaism circumcision is commanded as well as commended but the priestly blessings is not, is not entirely, or hermeneutically clear.
The Reform approach to this issue regards “tradition” as a usually benign good idea and encourages circumcision. But Reform Judaism respects autonomy so much that its most honored value is the autonomy of the individual to determine if s/he will conform to the command of the Covenant. If autonomy is the first religious value, then a moral or religious consensus is a matter of taste, not mandate. According to the Biblical book called Judges, “one did what was right in one’s own eyes.” [Judges 17:6 and 21:25] Hebrew Scripture’s Narrator did not view unrestrained personal “autonomy” in a positive light.
For Orthodox Judaism, mitsvot are commands of the Commander, who just happens to be God. How God commanded the commandments may be debated; that God did so may not. Since neither Reform or Conservative Judaisms regard God to be the Commander in and of the Torah, the mitsvot in general and circumcision in particular are “traditions,” which are folkways, sancta, good deeds [how we know what or that is good is unclear], and identity markers. This “god” is Oedipus’ father, Laius, the man who sired us, who is fearful and jealous of us, and to whom we relate with profound ambivalence, wanting to be the father on one hand while rebelling against the father on the other. It is no accident that the Greeks [and the Biblical Philistines, who were ethnic Greeks], were not circumcised. Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro, “is it good because the gods will it or do the gods will it because it is good” is answered by the Torah without ambiguity, if God wills and commands a specific act, then that act is good. Instead of allowing pagan Gnostics to intuitively “know” what God wants, the Judaism of the Torah tells everyone what God wants, and the Gnostics, like those who “know” that circumcision is immoral, are open to challenge.
Those who oppose circumcision on “moral” grounds are really making a culture and not an ethical statement. These people do not as a group seem to be more charitable to others, more faithful to their spouses, and less given to narcissism or egotism. Their opposition is to Judaism. Following the example of Ishmael, Islam circumcises at the 13th year, the age of maturity; it is for Islam a rite of sexual passage. In Israel, circumcision takes place at the 8th day of neonatal life. This is the age when a sacrificial animal is eligible to be offered on the altar. The Jewish circumcision initiates the neonate to a community that sees sexuality as subject to sacred as well as communal restraints, which are localized in marriage with purity, sanctity, and fidelity. Sex in Judaism is not for diversion and pleasure, it is for wife and husband to grow, bond, and build together.
It is ironic that those who believe in pluralism in theory tolerate intolerance toward others. Orthodox Jews do not insist that non-Jews be circumcised. Yet some, in the name of “morality” want to outlaw circumcision. Let them outlaw marital infidelity first! The criticism of Jewish circumcision, but not the much more traumatic teenage Islamic circumcision, is like much of the criticism of Israel; it is anti-Jewish sentiment that parades as high moral outrage. God’s covenant is not only written on in a public book, it is to be engraved upon the most private place of human flesh, constantly reminding the Jew to see sanctity as pleasure rather pleasure as sanctity. This is a Judaism that makes demands of and challenges to its adherents, keeping them as adherents. A religion of personal autonomy will argue “that God wills what I want.” The God of the former is revealed in the Torah; the god of the latter may be found in the mirror. Judaism has its rules, and has a right to be itself. Other more “tolerant” ideologies are offended by Orthodox Judaism’s ethical statement. And because Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders are addressing a client population that is secular, a religious apologia will not resonate, so Judaism must be reconstructed into an “ethical nationalism” that will not be rejected by a nostalgic, but non-believing audience. The problem is that two generations have passed since there was a thick non-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in America.
Since nostalgia no longer nourishes, only those religions that stand for something will attract seekers who seek something. It is time to cut to the chase.
I don’t get squeamish watching a bris take place. And I’ve seen my fair share. However, I have been getting squeamish lately over the many news items concerning the legality and morality of ritual circumcision, a required Jewish life-cycle event for thousands of years.
When discussing brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision), I believe it is important to be open and honest. I firmly believe that this mitzvah (commandment) is of paramount importance to the Jewish people and that we must ensure that it is done safely throughout the world to ensure that it continues for generations to come.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a report revealing that a total of 11 newborn males were infected by the herpes simplex virus in New York City between November 2000 and December 2011. Of these 11 cases, the parents of 6 of the newborns acknowledged that the mohel (ritual circumcisor) had performed metzitza b’peh during the bris. Metzitza b’peh is when the mohel places his mouth directly on the newly circumcised penis and sucks blood away from the wound. The vast majority of physicians have ruled that this aspect of the brit milah ritual must be forbidden for the obvious health risks involved.
Many people presume that only the most ultra-Orthodox communities still include metzitza b’peh in the bris ceremony. However, this month I heard of a bris that took place at Keter Torah Synagogue, a local Sephardic congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan in which the mohel in fact performed metzitza b’peh. It is imperative that Jewish physicians and other Jewish professionals in the health care industry as well as rabbis insist that metzitza b’peh is no longer practiced. The health risks are evident and with Jewish ritual circumcision under attack, it is unwise to allow an unhealthy and dangerous aspect of the ritual to persist.
Just one year ago, there was a ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco. That measure would have outlawed circumcision on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity. No religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure. While that measure was shot down, a German court this week banned the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. This ban on ritual circumcision applies to the Cologne region of Germany. According to MSNBC:
The court in the western city of Cologne handed down the decision on Tuesday in the case of a doctor who was prosecuted for circumcising a four-year-old Muslim boy. The doctor circumcised the boy in November 2010 and gave him four stitches, the Guardian reported. When the boy started bleeding two days later, his parents took him to Cologne’s University hospital, where officials called police. The doctor was ultimately acquitted on the grounds that he had not broken a law. The court ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people who had not consented to it. The ruling said boys who consciously decided to be circumcised could have the operation. No age restriction was given, or any more specific details.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” of the right to religious freedom and an “outrageous and insensitive” act.
Several Conservative Jewish groups including Masorti Olami, Masorti Europe and the Rabbinical Assembly of Europe have joined with the Central Council of Jews in Germany in condemning the decision of the district Court in Cologne. In a joint statement, they explained:
The circumcision of 8 day old male babies remains an important and meaningful rite in the lives of Jews all over the world. No other country has outlawed circumcision and this new legal decision impinges upon the religious freedom of Germany’s citizens be they Jewish or Muslim and the rights of other parents who wish to circumcise their sons.
A brit milah, as the circumcision ceremony is called in Hebrew, is one of the first mitzvot (or commandments) that God asks of Abraham. Just as Abraham observed the commandment, so too have his Jewish descendants over 1000s of years. While the Masorti movement consistently balances the needs of modernity against the needs of halacha or Jewish Law, there is no overwhelming proof that the circumcision of newborn boys causes any “irreversible damage against the body” as stated in the German court’s decision. On the contrary, medical research has shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection, penile cancer and other urinary tract diseases.
The over 1.7 Million people in the 900 congregations and organizations in 45 countries represented by the Masorti (Conservative) Worldwide Movement call upon the Government of Germany to quickly work to reverse this grievous course of curtailing religious freedoms and dictating fundamental actions of faith communities.
It is my belief that a war is being waged on ritual circumcision. In order for it to be preserved for future generations there must be compromise. We must be honest that it is an odd religious ritual in the 21st century, but it is a core part of both the Jewish and Muslim religions. In order to try to curtail some of the controversy surrounding brit milah, I propose the following:
1) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must have a signed certificate that they went through a course of training in which health and safety guidelines were learned.
2) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must sign an agreement that metzitza b’peh will not be performed under any circumstances as it endangers the livelihood of the infant boy.
It must also be acknowledged that ritual circumcision is a medical procedure and it is unique in that it is most often performed in a living room or synagogue. I would love it if there were some certification program in which mohalim had to be re-certified every ten years to ensure compliance. Brit milah is often learned through an apprenticeship and there’s nothing to ensure that an elderly mohel is still physically able to perform the ritual adequately.
Finally, we must acknowledge that the idea of friends and family gathered in a living room watching a newborn baby undergo a medical procedure is not for everyone. Conceding that brit milah should be performed in a hospital would only encourage parents to have the circumcision performed before the required eighth day and that is not advisable. Rather, mohalim should give the option of performing the brit milah in a more private setting and then the religious ceremony can take place for the larger assembly. While this would alter the traditional nature of the brit milah ceremony, it would also guarantee that there’s an understanding that the ritual is also a medical procedure that deserves both privacy and a safe and sanitary environment.
By continuing to pretend that there’s nothing odd about a newborn baby boy having a surgical procedure in a living room in front of dozens who eagerly wait for the bagel and lox spread to open is a mistake. We must acknowledge that this is a unique religious ritual in the 21st century. We must admit that there is some pain for the infant, but that it is not long lasting (an anesthetic should be encouraged but not required). We must ensure that there is some uniform compliance on the part of the practitioner (mohel) for the sake of the health and safety of the baby. And we must insist on a complete ban on metzitza b’peh with no exceptions.
With these guidelines in place, we will be better positioned to counter any legislation — whether in San Francisco or in Germany — that could put Jewish ritual circumcision in jeopardy. Answered by: Rabbi Jason Miller
Thank you for your inquiry. I admit that this is an awkward question to answer because it asks me to explain someone else's motivation. As one who supports circumcision for both religious and medical reasons, I find their position difficult. Here are some of the points as I understand them.
The Doctors Opposing Circumcision site speaks of genital integrity. They promote a film titled: “Whose Body, Whose Rights.” I understand their intent to be that only the person whose body it is has the right to make such a decision; and, conversely, that the parents do not have that right. Parents, however, make a myriad of decision on behalf of their children – ranging from whether to protect them from disease by use of vaccines, to whether they should go to a public or private school, to whether they should be raised in a particular religious tradition. All of these decision have long-lasting implications and most parents believe it is their obligation to act for what they understand to be the best interests of their children. I am hard-pressed to see this as a qualitatively different case.
This group cites various reasons for their opposition to medical circumcision. There has been an ongoing debate over the efficacy of circumcision for nearly a century. At times the medical establishment has advocated for, at other times against. In 2012, after a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics found the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, but the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision. The decision should remain in the hands of parents. Doctors Opposing Circumcision has a paper explaining their dissent.
But none of this addresses the religious reasons for supporting circumcision. It is wonderful to have medical support endorsing this procedure, but the main reason Jews circumcise their sons is because it is considered a mitzvah, a religious obligation. The reasons behind this act are not about health benefits (those are an added benefit), but because it is a sign of the covenant. The bris, the ritual act of circumcision, affirms that this young boy is now a member of our ancient people, not because of choice but from birth. When a male convert chooses to become Jewish he also undergoes the rite, affirming his membership in the Divine covenant as if from birth.
There are feminists who object to the rite of circumcision because they feel that it implies that only males are part of the covenant. To address this objection a number of new rituals have been created over the past 40 years to welcome our daughters into the covenant in ways that parallel the bris.
There is also a group called Mothers Against Circumcision. On their web site they suggest that “Christianity split off from Judaism because its followers did not see any value in the Old Testament requirement.” This is a gross misunderstanding of the complex forces that led to the separation of Christianity from Judaism; one that does a disservice to both traditions.
They also suggest that if one does not observe all of Jewish tradition in detail, then there is a hypocrisy in choosing to observe the mitzvah of circumcision. This, however, misunderstands the development of liberal Jewish traditions over the past 200+ years. Each of the denominations of Jewish life understand their obligation to observe the Torah in different ways. A comprehensive response from the Reform movement concerning the question of rejecting circumcision is found at http://ccarnet.org/responsa/nyp-no-5769-4/
I hope this addresses your question. Questions of personal autonomy and integrity, such as this, ultimately reside with the family. As much as any rabbi or religious institution wishes to enforce their point of view, as much as any person suggests benefits or consequences, the family decision will prevail. As I suggested at the outset, my position is that this ritual act continues to serve as a defining rite welcoming a son (and I also encourage families to observe similar rituals for their daughters) into the covenant of Israel.
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