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April 8, 2016 2:54 am

Why Circumcision Is an Essential Part of Jewish identity

avatar by Pini Dunner

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A circumcision. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A circumcision. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Tucked away at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion is the mitzvah of Brit Milah — the obligation to circumcise every male Jew, ideally on the eighth day of his life, or as soon as possible thereafter.

I vividly recall, during my stint as an assistant rabbi in Moscow in the early 1990s, the long lines of adult men and boys who waited for hours to have their Brit Milah done by the mohels who would periodically visit from overseas. For the most part, these Russian Jews could not read Hebrew and had experienced very little Judaism in their lives, and yet they were willing — and eager — to go through the discomfort of a circumcision so that they could meaningfully demonstrate their inclusion in the Jewish nation.

Circumcision is widely understood by Jews of all shades and persuasions to be a vital Jewish identity ritual, and is consequently a highly emotive issue for Jews who want to distance themselves from tradition. In 1995, Victor Schonfeld, a militantly secular Jewish TV producer, whose grandfather (of the same name) was the first rabbi of the strictly orthodox German-origin community in London, and whose uncle, Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, was the fearless savior of thousands of Jews before and during the Holocaust, produced a TV documentary called “It’s a Boy!” The documentary claimed that the circumcision of boys at such an early stage in their lives carried unbearable risks, and was in any event an infringement on their freedom of choice. The controversial program included interviews with parents, both Jewish and Muslim, who expressed their regret for having forced circumcision on their children.

The United States is not immune to this phenomenon. Just this week, Jeffrey Falick, a former vice president of the Humanistic Rabbis Association, wrote an article for Jewish Business News in which he said that within Humanistic Judaism — a fairly new Jewish denomination that claims 30,000 adherents — “There is a growing tendency to oppose circumcision altogether in favor of the new peaceful [my italics] welcoming ceremonies.”

The ceremonies he is referring to are known as “Brit Shalom” — essentially initiation events for newly-born Jewish babies that include vestiges of the traditional Brit Milah ceremony, minus the circumcision by a mohel. The official stance of Humanistic Judaism on circumcision was formalized in a statement at the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews in April 2002 as follows: “Our commitment to the autonomy and dignity of every human being raises questions about a non-consensual, painful, and practically irreversible surgery, removing a male infant’s foreskin.”

People like Schonfeld and the leaders of Humanistic Judaism undoubtedly think that they are at the cutting edge of modernizing and updating Jewish identity. In reality they join a long line of Jews throughout history who were eager to dispense with a mark of Judaism that accompanies every Jew from the youngest age.

The Hellenizing Jews of ancient Judea, in cahoots with Antiochus IV Epiphanes (of the Chanukah story), sought to abolish circumcision from Jewish life, many of them even opting to undergo a painful procedure known as epispasm, which reverses the results of foreskin removal. At the dawn of Christianity, Paul and Barnabas, who were both born Jews and certainly circumcised as babies, proclaimed at a conference of Christian leaders in Jerusalem that the only thing that counts is what is in people’s hearts, and that uncircumcised gentiles should therefore be allowed to join the new religion without having to be circumcised — as long they were true believers. It is evident from these two examples, and the prevalence of their modern day counterparts, that there is a visceral abhorrence of circumcision that unites all those who wish to redefine their identity as Jews, or leave Judaism altogether. This fact is puzzling, and demands explanation.

I believe the solution is clear if one looks at the location of this mitzvah in the Torah. The pasuk states: “When a woman gives birth to a boy, she is ritually impure for seven days, and on the eighth day he should be circumcised.” The positioning of Brit Milah in the context of a discussion regarding the laws of ritual impurity seems bizarre; and, indeed, the whole concept of ritual impurity affecting a birthing mother seems inexplicable. If there is one common theme running through the rules of ritual impurity it is its association with death and the repulsive. But surely nothing is more beautiful, more hopeful, more positive, than a new life. In which case the imposition of ritual impurity on a birthing mother seems utterly counterintuitive.

The answer is in the fact that Brit Milah is very much part of the equation. The Midrash records a heated debate between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman procurator, Turnus Rufus, who questioned why children were not born circumcised if God wants them circumcised. Rabbi Akiva responded that God gave mitzvot to enable Jewish people to refine themselves, and to develop themselves into something greater than the sum of their parts.

Jewish tradition teaches us that a birth is only wonderful if the life that it initiates is lived as God intended. Otherwise it is just the beginning of a decline that will inevitably result in death — and a life lived that way is a “death-life.” The Brit Milah is the first act of every Jewish male, inducting him into a life that acknowledges the imperfections and limitations of a physical body and of human ability if left to run its own course. For women, it is the birth of a child that encapsulates the tension between what will inevitably be and what could potentially be, while a man requires the circumcision as his permanent reminder. That is why circumcision is such an essential component of Jewish identity. And that is why those who seek to abandon Judaism can’t wait to discard it.

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  • Sarah Rouse Cooney

    The “visceral abhorrence of circumcision” mentioned by the author is not the mark of people who want to redefine being Jewish or leave Judaism, rather it is the mark of people from all walks of life, culture and religion who can see genital cutting of children for what it is. Child abuse. This is the 21st century. In the absence of disease, the amputation of a healthy, functional part of someone else’s body, without their consent, is a human rights abuse. If you cannot kill in the name of God, why should you be allowed to maim a child’s genitals in the name of God?

  • M. G.

    The Jewish law that temporarily put a woman’s body “off limits” to her husband in the wake of childbirth or menstruation protects her torn-up and bloodied interior while it is healing. This measure is eminently humane, and no more morally objectionable than is putting a dressing over a wound.

    As for circumcision: the foreskin serves a certain role in the development of a male fetus in utero. That role no longer applies by the time the child is born — and in fact from birth onwards, presence of the foreskin is detrimental rather than beneficial, as it increases the odds of contracting various diseases (cancer of the penis, for example).

    • Tal

      What diseases are you referring to? And what does the foreskin do in the womb to protect the penis that the foreskin does not do outside of the womb to protect the internal penis?

      You do realize there are many countries on Earth that do not amputate the foreskin from defenseless infant boys right? You do realize that your statement is stating that these countries have a higher incidence of penile infections as a result of not amputating the foreskin from infants.

      We have real world data about intact males and the infection rates. We have STI rates of the USA, that has the highest male circ population of an industrialized nation on Earth. And those STI rates are 1 in 2.75 has an STI in the USA.

      But anyways… What ‘infections/diseases’ are you referring to that the foreskin causes on our reproductive organs that hasn’t stopped humans from multiplying like rabbits? Almost seems like a birth defect that would prevent males from procreating seeing as how infections/disease on our reproductive organ could very well prevent infected males from impregnating a woman.

      But I’m sure you’ve thought of all these things critically and logically.

      Just a bit more info; Anywhere from 70-80% of the worlds male population are intact. Why have we not heard of all these penile infections from nations that do not routinely amputate the foreskin from defenseless male infants?

  • I am as proud a Jewish man as you can become. I am circumcised. I will NEVER allow my son to be sexuàlly tortured and mutilated like I was. Some of the greatest Jews in history didn’t circumcise their sons. The founder of Zionism Theodore H. did not circumcise his son. Circumcision is a disgusting practice, like stoning naughty kids that belong to the bronze Age, not a modern Jewish Family.

  • “The Brit Milah is the first act of every Jewish male”

    Being held while a part of your genitals is cut off is not an act.

    “For women, it is the birth of a child that encapsulates the tension between what will inevitably be and what could potentially be” This implies that childbirth, like genital cutting on every male, should be forced on every woman. Are you saying single/childless women are not real Jews?

  • Deren Lego

    If having an identity based on whether your genitals have been mutilated or not, I think it is time for a new faith.
    It is no big deal, find something you can relate to. Maybe not even religion. Do not be imprisoned by some obligation your parents gave you…

  • AMB

    Dear Mr. Dunner,

    Ironically, circumcision is the exact and total opposite of being refined. The very definition of refined is: “not course or vulgar”. The brutality of forced circumcision on a fragile new being is the epitome of course and vulgar behavior. Refined also means “polite”. If I’m not mistaken, it’s Polite to get consent from a person before you cut off part of HIS body. Not proxy consent, ACTUAL consent. HIS body. HIS choice. I would say that circumcision is a supremely impolite act to do to another human being.

    I found your last line: “And that is why those who seek to abandon Judaism (sans circumcision) can’t wait to discard it.” to be highly offensive and bully-like in its tone. One does not “abandon” Judaism because one wishes to protect their child from a brutal and archaic blood ritual sacrifice. Your comment is designed to be threatening and punitive in order to get compassionate and thoughtful Jewish parents to comply with your ancient hazing ritual.

    Today’s Jewish parents are welcoming their sons into the Jewish faith while still honoring their sons human rights to genital integrity and wholeness. Your efforts to intimidate and isolate them are failing, thankfully.

  • A. Miller

    If someone said that god told them to cut off the right earlobe of every person in their home, we would rightly conclude that the person is insane.

    “A god that requires its followers to mutilate their genitals of their children is unworthy of worship.”

  • All children, regardless of gender, culture or parental religion, have a fundamental right to keep all their healthy, functional genitalia. Since an infant is incapable of religious beliefs, imposing an irreversible body alteration on him violates the freedom to choose his own religion as an adult. It differs from religious education, which can be changed. My body belongs to me!

  • Pamelamoores

    Any religion that states women are unpure after giving birth, the gift of life… Or that require genital mutilation of vulnerable babies or converted children/adults to be deemed Jewish enough, really needs to take a closer look to see if that is really the God and ‘policies’ they want to follow.

  • Brian

    Brit Pariah is the type of circumcision that is practiced widely now NOT Milah. Pariah removes
    At least half if the skin if the penis rendering the male to not be able to
    Pull any skin forward over the glans. The removes almost all of the most erogenous tissue
    The inner foreskin. It severs nerves – the remaining slowly atrophying because of lack of feedback. The glans now permanently exposed dries and thickens cut her eroding
    Sensitivity and leaving pain sensing neurons. ( which is why so many cut men think they
    Couldn’t stand more sensation- they aren’t feeling the fine touch recpetors
    That produce erogenous sensation but pain) Brit Miah is a much less invasive cut that doesn’t rip the skin off the glans of the babies penis. It involves slicing a much smaller part of the foreskin
    – the part that over hangs the glans. It preserves much more of the erogenous tissue.
    Either way it subject the baby to immense pain that affect brain development and mottling
    Likely forever. Once the nerves are severed and erogenous tissue removed
    The pleasure sensing part of the brain no longer recives that input. You haven’t mentioned
    Mohels who suck the penis after the cutting – the remove blood. Putting a babies penis in their mouths and sucking on it. In any other case it would be considered sexual abuse and rape ( as should circumcision ) but because of religion the mohel gets away with it. And sometimes gives the baby herpes. It’s time for all Jews to adopt Brit shalom. Those humanistic Jews are on the frontier are the new jewish identity.

  • Jeffrey L. Falick

    This article states:

    “Just this week, Jeffrey Falick, a former vice president of the Humanistic Rabbis Association, wrote an article for Jewish Business News….”

    I am not the author of that article nor do I have any familiarity with that journal.

    Please correct your post.

  • The expressed reason for Jewish circumcision hides the underlying reason. Circumcision is traumatic. See the book Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. Research shows that trauma involves a compulsion to repeat the trauma on others, to pass on the pain.

    People require beliefs to satisfy their need to explain and defend their behavior to themselves and others. Jews have created such beliefs about circumcision. For the welfare of future Jewish males, have the courage to question circumcision and educate those who may have children in the future.

  • Mark L

    Not all Jewish people believe in infant circumcision. Brit Shalom is an alternative naming ceremony to celebrate the birth of baby boys (and girls) to Jewish families. These are just some of the sites run by Jewish people opposed to infant circumcision:

    See also (footage of a bris with commentary from the subject)

    The same passages that say to circumcise your children also say to circumcise your male slaves and their male children btw, but no-one defends slavery any more.