On Circumcision

Circumcision is one of the oldest traditions of the Jewish people. It is so old that it was attributed to God’s covenant with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Since its beginning as an organized denomination, Humanistic Judaism has been critical of the practice of circumcision, and many Humanistic Jewish congregations will not allow a bris to be performed in their buildings. Instead, they have opted for baby naming ceremonies for both boys and girls, and the boys are circumcised in the hospital by a doctor, if at all. The practice of circumcision is one that should not be put away so lightly. The arguments against circumcision are certainly strong, but the sheer weight of this tradition and its importance to the Jewish people through history should give us pause before throwing it out completely.

The argument against circumcision can be made from two directions. The strongest argument is that circumcision is an irreversible violation of a child’s body, and it is an unnecessary infliction of suffering on a baby through genital mutilation. As such, it is a violation of the child’s rights to bodily autonomy and a breach of ethics for the parents who have the surgery performed. The second argument, which is more of a supplement to the main argument than an argument in its own right, is that the bris by its nature excludes female children. There is no equivalent to the bris for girls, and their welcome into the community is therefore usually seen as being of less importance. Furthermore, female genital mutilation is highly unethical, and its counterpart for males should be seen in the same light. For the sake of gender equality, something Humanistic Jews affirm, the bris should be abandoned. Both of these arguments together make an excellent case against circumcision if it were only a matter of ethics. But as Humanistic Jews committed to the celebration and continuation of Jewish identity, Jewish history must be considered and given a voice.

A secular argument for circumcision relies on the history and suffering of the Jewish people. As I discussed in my post about the “additional covenant,” Jews are bound to the Jewish past and have a responsibility to carry it on into the future to vindicate the suffering of their people. Circumcision has traditionally been the first practice that the oppressors of the Jews have targeted, outlawing the practice and punishing the people who performed it. The Greeks, Russians, Germans, and others have all tried to outlaw circumcision in order to undermine Jewish identity. Despite this immense pressure, there were always Jews who were willing to suffer punishment and death in order to circumcise their sons.

Furthermore, there is an ethical argument, independent of Jewish tradition, to circumcise babies. There are frequently sanitary complications with uncircumcised penises later in life. Although these problems can be largely prevented through regular and proper cleaning of the foreskin, the possibility of infection still exists. Usually, doctors will recommend circumcision for patients who suffer from frequent infections, and the suffering this causes is arguably greater due to the level of cognition that adults have rather than children. When someone is circumcised as a child they have no memory of the surgery and do not suffer from a “decrease” in sexual pleasure as an adult. Ultimately, someone suffers less if they are circumcised as a child than as an adult, and most men who were circumcised as a child have no strong opinions about their own circumcision, whereas adult patients may look at it with regret and painful memories. Arguably then, circumcising children may be the most ethical thing to do.

When these reasons are combined, solidarity with historical Jewish suffering and the prevention of a greater suffering for the child, circumcision should be maintained as a Humanistic Jewish practice. However for the sake of gender equality, it may be necessary to downplay the bris, limiting it to a family affair, while having the same naming/welcoming ceremony and celebration for both boys and girls at a later date. On a related note, converts should not be required to undergo circumcision or a ritual reenactment of it. The suffering caused by an adult circumcision would be unnecessary and unethical, and if they are already circumcised, there is no rational reason to reenact it by drawing a drop of blood from the penis. While freedom of conscience should be respected in this matter, a bris should be encouraged for Jewish children as a continuation of Jewish tradition and for the prevention of greater future suffering.

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