Jewish Opposition to Circumcision: A Brief History
While Jewish critics have arisen in modern times, brit milah is still widely practiced.
This brief article sets the stage for more in-depth exploration of debates about brit milah (circumcision) in the Jewish world. Among the questions contemporary critics raise about circumcision are whether it is traumatic, whether it is necessary, whether it would be better chosen in adulthood than imposed in infanthood, and whether it perpetuates sexism. Responses include a focus on the commanded nature and power of the ritual, medical defenses of the practice, and the creation of parallel rituals for girls. But first, the briefest of summaries.
Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.
In the early days of the Reform movement, some of the Reformers advocated the abolition of circumcision, protesting that the rite was too particularistic and too cruel to be retained, since the Reformers did not believe that it had divine sanction. The [19th-century German] Reform leader Abraham Geiger notoriously described circumcision in a private reference as "a barbaric, bloody act, which fills the father with fear."
But today [virtually] all faithful Jews--Reform, Conservative, Orthodox [and others]--do have their sons circumcised, among other reasons because contemporary Reform Jews are less suspicious of particularism than were their 19th-century predecessors at a time when the call of the age was so strongly universalistic. Some Reform and Conservative congregations have devised ceremonies for a daughter to correspond to the circumcision ceremony of the son. (One of the reasons for early Reform opposition was that there was no equivalent for a Jewish girl.)
Although in more recent years a few voices have been raised in opposition to circumcision because of the alleged harmful psychological effect it may have on the infant, very few Jews take this objection sufficiently seriously even to think of abolishing a rite of such importance to Judaism.