Rabbis Without Borders
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To snip or not to snip? That, apparently, is becoming a major question for some 21st-century American Jews.
I have to confess that of all the issues confronting Jews today, I never thought circumcision would be controversial. But it has become so, as a growing number of “intactivists” have raised the profile of being vocally anti-circumcision. I write today not to challenge the Jewish bona fides of those who are not circumcised, nor to condemn those who, after careful reflection, ultimately choose not to circumcise their boys. I write merely to respond to some of the primary claims made by the “intactivists” and to urge parents to make individual, informed decisions about circumcision that take into account circumcision’s deep, resonant connection with Jewish identity and peoplehood.
The biblical origins of the Jewish ritual of circumcision come from Genesis 17:
Then God said to Abraham, “You must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17:9-14)
While Jews today vary in our levels of observance of the myriad mitzvot found in the Torah, the obligation to circumcise our male children has retained near-universal observance for thousands of years. Circumcision has become one of the most—if not the most—physical and cultural markers of Jewish identity. The ceremony that has been created around the process of brit milah “covenant via circumcision” ushers the young boy, and welcomes his family, into a powerful sense of community and tradition. I can attest to this personally as the father of two young boys (as well as a fantastic girl). When our sons were born, the question my wife and I had was not whether to circumcise them but how to find the “best” mohel and what kind of ceremony we wanted to construct around the act of circumcision. For us, the question of whether or not to circumcise them was a no-brainer.
So why are Alicia Silverstone and other young Jewish parents opposed to circumcision? Based on my review of many testimonials on the website beyondthebris.com, there seem to be a few recurring objections:
Informed Consent: Some anti-circumcision folks are opposed to the practice because of the lack of informed consent. According to this position, since a baby cannot consent to circumcision, we should refrain from doing so until the child comes of age and can make his own decision. My response to this is simple: part of being a parent is making decisions for one’s children based on what you think are the best interests of the child, whether or not the child consents. For example, we give babies vaccinations, which clearly hurt them, because we believe that the benefits of the vaccinations outweigh the harm. Based on the health benefits of circumcision (below), I see the consent issue of circumcision as pretty comparable.
Pain and Suffering: Many anti-circumcision advocates argue that we should stop circumcising because of the physical and psychological pain circumcision produces. Though they admit that circumcision reduces the risk of males acquiring HIV from infected female partners, they claim that this should only matter in areas of the world where HIV outbreaks remain severe. In America, they argue, the pain and suffering caused by circumcision mandates that we not circumcise. Putting aside my anecdotal experience (neither I nor my sons can recall, let alone feel traumatized by, our circumcisions), in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their policy to state that circumcision’s positive health benefits outweigh the risks.
Since the last policy was published, scientific research shows clearer health benefits to the procedure than had previously been demonstrated. According to a systematic and critical review of the scientific literature, the health benefits of circumcision include lower risks of acquiring HIV, genital herpes, human papilloma virus and syphilis. Circumcision also lowers the risk of penile cancer over a lifetime; reduces the risk of cervical cancer in sexual partners, and lowers the risk of urinary tract infections in the first year of life.
When it comes to making medical decisions about my children, I trust the AAP.
Many bloggers also claim that circumcision should be rejected because it reduces sexual pleasure for men. This, too, recently was debunked in a landmark study.
“[M]y thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”
My response is an unequivocal: “yes!” To assume that God made us physically and mentally perfect at birth not only belies reality, it also belies theology. If we already were perfect, what would be the point of our existence? The task of living, as I see it, it to try to improve our selves and the world around us, to partner with God rather than to expect God to take care of everything for us. Circumcision thus serves as an early reminder of our need to inject ourselves as parents into the crucial, if arduous, work of raising our children, of combining nurture with nature to guide our 8 day old boys into becoming the best men they can be.
As with all aspects of Jewish law, there are no absolutes when it comes to circumcision. In certain instances, such as where the health of the baby is at issue, circumcision should not be performed. Moreover, it is critical for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to explain the distinction between brit milah and Jewish status: a Jew is a Jew based on whether one’s mother (or, in Reform Judaism, mother or father) is a Jew, not based on whether or not one has been circumcised. The absence of circumcision should never be used to impede one’s access to Judaism.
Brit milah has been a sacred act—both of Jewish peoplehood and of the intimate connection between God and parents in raising a child—for millennia, and, God willing, will continue to be for many millennia to come.
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Pronounced: breet mee-LAH, Origin: Hebrew, literally “covenant of circumcision,” the Jewish circumcision ceremony for an 8-day-old boy, marking the covenant between God and the Jews. Also known as a bris.