Is Brit Milah Cruel and Unnecessary?

A debate about whether the time has come to reconsider the practice of circumcision

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from the Jerusalem Report (November 22, 1999).

Pain & Violence

Dear Dorothy Greenbaum, 

Of all the ancient customs still practiced, circumcision is the one we should be least proud of. I say this as a father who succumbed to communal pressure and had my son circumcised. He suffered not just a little, and despite the involvement of a doctor who applied topical anaesthetic. I then investigated the scientific record and was amazed to learn that a preponderance of experts worldwide consider circumcision medically unjustified, a painful, risky amputation of a functional body part.

Every year many infants are seriously injured in the course of ritual circumcisions. Babies' genitals have been permanently, severely damaged in the procedures performed by mohalim and doctors. Uncontrolled bleeding and infection are common; occasionally there are deaths. Is this a price worth paying for a badge of identity hidden under men's pants, a badge shared with Muslims and Aboriginals?  Few Jews would wish to resume animal sacrifices or polygamy, yet circumcision shares with these practices a tribal origin outside of Judaism, and fealty to it is distinctly in the realm of the irrational.

Thus the need for the emotional blackmail so many parents are subjected to; the myths of no pain and no risk; the hugely exaggerated claims of potential health benefits. Throughout Europe, health services abjure routine circumcisions because of the doctors' commitment to upholding the Hippocratic Oath not to do harm. Jewish parents should embrace that simple principle and take up welcoming ceremonies for our babies that are violence-free and egalitarian.

Victor Schonfeld

A Safe Practice

Dear Mr. Schonfeld:

It is with joy, pride, and honor that I perform brit milah. Your horror stories of serious complication and even death, although sad, are also freakish. In the U.S., where approximately 1.5 million newborns are circumcised annually, the rate of complications is 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent, most of them minor. The recent policy statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics clearly presents the evidence on the benefits of circumcision: protection against urinary tract infections, a much lower incidence of penile cancer, a decreased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The AAP statement also asserts the safety and efficacy of anesthesia. If your baby screamed and cried at his brit, blame the mohel, not the mitzvah!

Clearly, many young families have ambivalent feelings about this ritual, and they have a right to understand its meaning. Our covenant mandates us to work to repair the faults of an imperfect world--tikkun olam. This little piece of skin is symbolic of imperfection. It is a barrier between the baby and his faith, people, and future. We--the adults--at the brit are being tested to see if we will remove that obstacle. We are the ones being tested. But he is only a week old, he is not being tested.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Dorothy Greenbaum

Dr. Dorothy Greenbaum is a Board certified Pediatrician, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a certified Mohel.