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Circumcision Makes No Sense (And That’s Okay)

November 12, 2012 10:08 pm 11 comments

A religious circumcision in a Synagogue. Photo:

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Circumcision is crazy.

We take a baby, 8 days after he left the womb, 8 days after the being born, and we have a person, not even a doctor, mumble some words, and then cut off part of the most sensitive limb of the baby’s body.

The problem, you see, is that we try and make it sound logical.

We tell each other, well, it’s healthy. Well, everyone does it now. Well, the baby will be better off for it.

We make these arguments because there is a screeching group of fanatics on the other side that are telling us how wrong what we’re doing is. How we’re horrible people. How it makes no sense!

And so we try to make it all sound smart and logical, and we put out articles about our logical arguments, and we get doctors to sign a petition in our favor, and we argue about it online.

This is a mistake.

Because the truth is, as I said, it doesn’t make sense to do this to a baby at that age. At least, it doesn’t make sense in the paradigm the secular world inhabits.

In secular life, the physical is what matters. Meaning: life, pain, money, comfort. These are the morals of our society, or, at least, they are becoming the morals. A secular society is focused on reducing the negative forms of physicality, and increasing the positive forms.

In many ways, the religious paradigm intersects this philosophy. We also care about reducing pain, increasing life expectancy, and all the rest.

But for different reasons. We want those things because they give us the ability to lead a more spiritual life.

To the secular society, those goals of reducing pain and increasing comfort, are ends to themselves.

Viewed from the paradigm of secular society, circumcision makes no sense.

And the problem is that, in the Jewish community, we are trying to make it fit into that paradigm. We make ridiculous arguments about how it’s better for the baby in the long term. While that may be true, it still doesn’t justify doing it. From a totally secular point of view, it makes sense to allow a person to wait until they are sexually active to decide if they want to go forward with such a procedure.

From a religious perspective, of course, circumcision makes complete sense. Because the goal of being religious isn’t necessarily to avoid pain or to increase comfort. No, the goal of a religious person is to come closer to G-d. To live a G-dly life. To bring spirituality into the physical world.

We have a different paradigm, and that’s totally fine. The important thing is to recognize the difference.

Otherwise, we’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It not only effects the way others look at us, but it effects the way we look at ourselves. The more we try to argue for circumcision in the paradigm of secular ideals, the more we define our own religion based on secular society.

Things get even worse when we accuse those who disagree with us of being antisemitic. It may be true for some, even many, but for many others it isn’t. They’re simply living out a different ideal than ours.

The same goes for so many other arguments Jews are beginning to lose in the modern world. Arguments for the existence of Israel and especially settlements, for example. People try to make logical, secular, arguments for these things. The majority of Jews that are pro-Israel try to somehow fit the existence of that bizarre country into a secular worldview.

But how can you justify the existence of Israel? A bunch of Jews decided to plop themselves down on a plot of land they hadn’t controlled in generations. It makes no sense. Not if you define the world based on a physical paradigm, only based on discomfort, on the fact that Arabs are pissed, that Jews have no right to the land. And then to try to argue for settlements as something positive is even more crazy from such a perspective.

No, the only way to be logical in such a situation is to accept that the paradigm for looking at these things is religious. Is G-dly. That the way of life we’ve chosen isn’t going to make sense to the people around us.

The more we do this, the more people won’t be able to mess with us. Imagine if we told world leaders that there’s no way they can convince us to give up a tract of land because… it’s ours. Or imagine if we told the world we do circumcision because… it’s the way we make the world G-dly.

It may not make sense at the time to the people around us, but it will force people to have to start examining our worldview.

Until then, we’ll continue to be thrown around by the world the way people like Barak in Israel are. We’ll continue to lose arguments to the people around us about circumcision and eventually every other religious act we practice.

But when we proudly stand up for our paradigm, for a worldview that is in a completely different sphere from the rest of the world, we’ll not only be respected (if not understood), we’ll respect ourselves.


  • “From a religious perspective, of course, circumcision makes complete sense. Because the goal of being religious isn’t necessarily to avoid pain or to increase comfort. No, the goal of a religious person is to come closer to G-d. To live a G-dly life. To bring spirituality into the physical world.”

    As any marathon runner will tell you, you don’t have to be religious to skip the desire “to avoid pain or to increase comfort” for a higher aim.

    But the fact that human beings, may they be religious or not, are capable of such a stance doesn’t give anyone the right to induce pain in *others* without their informed consent.

    My (God/evolution given) body – my choice!

    And why should we care, if you mind our attempts to ban circumcision for minors? It’s *our* “way we make the world G-dly”.

    In your own words:

    “It may not make sense at the time to the people around us, but it will force people to have to start examining our worldview.”

  • According to some scholars, it makes no religious sense either. Some scholars believe that the passages in the Torah/OT concerning circumcision were added in the 2nd century CE by Jewish priests as yet another way to fill their purses. After the Jewish Revolt abandonment of the bris was discussed but was rejected. It was also seriously discussed during the Reform period in the mid-19th century. Circumcision is unheard of in South American Jews, and there are intact Jewish communities in Israel. So the covenant might not be as sacrosanct as it seems at first glance. An excellent book on this is from Leonard Glick, Jewish physician and anthropologist, “Marked in Your Flesh,” Oxford, 2005.

  • No. Religious arguments should have no value in a modern civilized society when they conflict with basic human rights and the very values civilization has achieved. The importance of avoidance of pain, physical integrity etc. cannot be ignored just because of religious people’s claims that it is necessary in order for them to be “closer to their god” or some other irrational fairy-tale belief. If a civilized society would allow for this, anything could be justified by religious belief: stoning, child marriage, suppression of women, slavery, suicide-bombings, war, anything really.
    A civilized society must not allow that the religious card trumps every achievement of civilization.

  • Dr. Christopher Guest

    Perhaps this disgraceful and irrational practice would stop if circumcising cultures were less ignorant of the sexual and mechanical function of the human prepuce. The prepuce is richly innervated, erogenous tissue containing thousands of fine touch neuroreceptors such as Meissner’s corpuscles. The prepuce also provides a unique linear gliding mechanism during sexual intercourse, making sex easier and more pleasurable for both parties. Genital integrity should be a basic human right of all children, irregardless of the religious beliefs of the parents.

  • Excellent article, excellent arguments. Watch out for orthodox jews trying to get you. 😉

    PS: Greetings from Germany where we are busy to convince the government that any kind of genital mutilation on childtren should be banned.

  • I (christian-muslim marriage with children) never thougt that jewish or muslim parents are barbaric!
    But I think that every child has the right to grow up in physical, genital integrity.
    And I find it rather contradictory to connect such a physical thing like circumcision with deep spirituality!

  • (1) To circumcise a person that does not give informed consent is obviously a criminal act. If anyone were to circumcise a grown man, or a boy (or girl) not their own, against their will they would be charged with genital mutilation and sexual assault.
    (2) The freedom of religion is a *individual* right and it does NOT allow you to subject another person to an otherwise criminal action no matter how important it is in your own faith, because that would violate the other persons individual rights.

    So it doesn’t matter what religion the parent have, if a guardian subject his or her child to a criminal act (and circumcising a person without their informed consent is a criminal act) they should be charged according to the criminal code. In this case it would be “sexual assault of a minor” and “genital mutilation”. and they should lose the custody of their child. (isn’t that true if the child is a girl…)

  • This line of thinking would be fine if you were talking about informedly consenting men circumcising themselves – or getting an expert to do it. In that case, nobody else cares why you do it – hell, cut the whole thing off, why don’t you? (Historically, some have, but their line has died out for some reason.)

    It doesn’t work so well when you talk about doing it to a baby who can’t resist, and hasn’t yet decided what religion he wants to follow. He may grow up to resent that you have imposed your self-confessed irrationality on his body, forever, and he has every right to do so. He had not volunteered to join the “we” of whom you speak, and he may never do so. (He may prefer to join the many Jews who embrace the culture, but rationally, picking and choosing which, if any, of the religous aspects they take on.)

    The trouble with embracing irrationality is that anyone can do it about anything. When some modern Abraham tells you that G-d has told him to kill his firstborn, how can you, by your paradigm, gainsay his right to do so?

    I suppose you’ll dismiss the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (forged in the cauldron of 1933-45) and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child, both of which, correctly interpreted, would outlaw infant genital cutting, as “the secular paradigm”, but as Ban Ki-moon said:
    “It is not called the ‘Partial Declaration of Human Rights’. It is not the ‘Sometimes Declaration of Human Rights’. It is the Universal Declaration, guaranteeing all human beings their basic human rights – without exception.”

    Is that screetching? Fanatical?

  • Why does it make me a “screeching fanatic” to think it’s wrong to cut parts off baby genitals? Should female circumcision also be tolerated because some people think it’s their religious right or obligation?

    It’s illegal to cut off a girl’s prepuce, or to make any incision on a girl’s genitals, even if no tissue is removed. Even a pinprick is banned. Why don’t boys get the same protection? Everyone should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want parts of their genitals cut off. It’s *their* body.

  • Nehorai’s piece is beautifully argued. A great justification for the illogical necessities of a religious way of life. The only problem is his conclusion. Whether we “stand up for our paradigm” or move towards a more secular worldview, respect and understanding will not necessarily follow.

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