Banning Circumcision: When Religious Rights and Children’s Rights Collide

Though I’m well aware that the practice of circumcision has been facing growing resistance over the past several years, I was fairly bowled over by the news that San Francisco is putting a proposal before voters that would make it a misdemeanor to perform circumcision on a male under the age of 18. (My own hometown of Santa Monica also flirted with a similar ballot measure, but has since withdrawn it from consideration.)

As a rabbi and the father of two (circumsized) sons, I’ve been following the press commentary on this one with some interest. Some thoughts:

It’s certainly true that some of the anti-circ activists (aka “intactavists”) behind this measure are kooks. (Exhibit A: Matthew Hess, who publishes a comic book about a handsome, blond superhero named “Foreskin Man,” who battles “Monster Mohel” – a bearded, black-hatted villain who wields bloody scissors.) Having said this, I think it’s unfair and wrong to tar all supporters of this initiative as anti-Semites or zealous nutcases.

Witness, for instance, the opinion of blogger Freddie deBoer, who makes what I find to be a reasonable and well-articulated argument against male infant circumcision in a democratic society:

People can practice their religion all they want, as long as they are not trampling the rights of others in doing so. That is a settled question in this democracy. Your religion does not permit you to force your daughter to wear a headscarf – and a headscarf, at least, can be removed. Few things are odder to me than the spectacle of atheist liberals arguing to continue a strange religious ceremony that is forced upon people who are completely unable to resist or understand it, and which has permanently altering consequences…

Belief in individual sovereignty over the body is incompatible with infant circumcision. If you want your child to be circumcised, wait until he is old enough to understand the procedure and the choice, present the evidence, and let him choose. If he says no, he can always change his mind. Making the decision to circumcise in his infancy ensures that he will never have a choice at all.

Whether or not you’re convinced by his argument, there are many important issues to consider in this complex debate (the collision of religious rights vs. children’s rights, the medical pros and cons of male infant circumcision, to name but two.) I’m also well aware that the essential Jewish rationale for brit milah (i.e. that the Jewish people has practiced it from time immemorial to mark its covenant with God  and that being uncircumcised sets boys/men apart from the rest of the Jewish community) is becoming less and less compelling for increasing numbers of Jewish parents.

Actually, deBoer’s point about “atheist liberals” might well be broadened to include religious liberals like us Reconstructionists.  Indeed, I’ve certainly been asked by more than one congregant why, if we believe in reconstructing Jewish ritual in accordance with changing attitudes and mores, do so many of us consider circumcision off limits?

It’s a fair question. As I rabbi, I’ve come to fully respect Jewish parents’ good faith decisions on this issue. I’ve already done several covenant ceremonies for uncircumcised male babies – and fully suspect that I’ll be officiating at increasing numbers of such rituals in the future.

Here’s an interesting collection of pro and con articles on the subject from New York Magazine. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on this one…

18 thoughts on “Banning Circumcision: When Religious Rights and Children’s Rights Collide

  1. It is totally unneccessary and should not be done to infants,period. Let males decide at 18 years old. Bigger committment if that’s what it is about. Let it be done by a consenting adult. So glad to read a Rabbi is not insisting on this unneccessary procedure.

  2. Here’s my viewpoint as the daughter of a Christian Scientist: it’s not circumcision per se I have a problem with, it’s making medical decisions for religious reasons. Arguing the health benefits is beside the point: if my pediatrician and the preponderance of medical literature tell me that circumcision is best for the health of my child fine, but I’m not going to perform a permanent, somewhat painful (even if brief) physical operation on my baby for religious or cultural reasons.

    As for the religious arguments, this is not a tradition I find compelling. The idea of a covenant “in the flesh” sounds like something from the old temple sacrifice days, and it has connections with some pretty blood curdling Bible stories (Zipporah and the “baptism of blood”, Dina and The Shechemites, David collecting his 200 foreskins) .

    Then there’s the unavoidable sexism in marking the covenant in such a significant way for boys only. I’ve heard otherwise perfectly egalitarian families base plans for visiting a new baby on gender: if it’s a boy they have to come right away for the bris, but if it’s a girl…well, why not wait a few weeks. The bris gives the birth of a boy greater weight than that of a girl; a “brit bat” is just not seen as equally significant.

  3. Totalitarian Progressivism on the march! Today, brit milah, tomorrow we must ban Kosher Shechita (slaughter) of animals….”not humane” they tell us! Don’t worry, liberal New Zealand is working on banning that. But of course, there are precedents…Nazi Germany and Fascist Poland of the interwar period also banned it….because of their concern for the animals. After that, we must ban tefillin (phylacteries), they are made out of leather, after all.
    The ulimate Progressive society of them all, the USSR also banned brit milah, and kosher shechita. Add to that they banned ritual baths (mikvaot) on health and santitaton grouns. They even set up an organization of Progressive Jewish volunteers, called the Yevsektsia (The Jewish Section of the Commmunist Party) to go around and see if anyone were violating these Progressive regulations and if they found them, they saw to it that they were sent to the GULAG camps in Siberia where they could be re-educated to be good Progressives.
    I am glad to see the Progressives are constantly on the lookout for our welfare, even if we don’t want it or need it.

  4. How does a municipality have the interest, or the authority, to intervene in what should be a private family matter? I also have two sons; both of them were circumcised according to Jewish ritual, and I’ve never heard a complaint from either one. Their father and I felt that the ritual circumcision was a first step toward leading a Jewish life. Interestingly, published medical opinion has changed its direction several times in my life time as to whether this is a “good” procedure.

  5. Although I struggled with this question personally prior to the birth of my son a few years ago, my wife and I ultimately decided (for a number of reasons) to have him circumcised. However, we felt strongly about having it performed by a mohel who is also a pediatrician, as we felt more comfortable with her using a topical anesthetic cream, infant pain reliever and sugar solution rather than a rag with some wine (not sure if this is common or uncommon these days for non-MD mohels, but it sure worked well for us). And while I can see the views of folks on different sides of this issue (since I’m pretty much all over the place myself), once we decided to do it, we felt that having a pediatrician mohel gave our son the best shot to experience the least amount of pain and discomfort.

  6. There’s so much I could say about this, but I don’t have the time or energy to offer the dissertation-length comment (or post 🙂 that this subject deserves! Let me say for now that I can understand having complicated feelings about milah, and that I have some complicated feelings of my own — and we did opt for traditional brit milah for our son. All ALEPH musmachim are required to write a teshuvah before we receive smicha; mine was on the question of what to do for/with a family who tells me that they’re having a boy and that they plan a hospital circumcision on the second day of life, rather than a brit milah on the 8th day. Someday, God willing, I hope to have the time and energy to write up a lengthy post about that project and what I learned through working on it — but I’m traveling to visit family right now, and today is, alas, not that day…

  7. Interesting post – admirably circumspect. Here’s a useful submission on the human rights implications of circumcision: http://www.historyofcircumcision.net/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=94

    The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute in Australia has also recently concluded that ‘non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors violates agreed principles of human rights and medical ethics and could even be illegal because there was no informed consent from the subject of the operation, and surrogate (parental) consent could not be valid unless there was a genuine need for such a radical intervention.’

  8. Let’s keep telling the Jews what they can’t or shouldn’t do.
    Jews shouldn’t have Brit Milot.
    Jews shouldn’t be allowed to have Kosher Meat.
    Jews shouldn’t eat Koshet food.
    Jews shouldn’t be allowed to live in Israel.
    Jews can’t be allowed to live in Judea and Samaria.
    Jews shouldn’t observe Halacha.
    Jews shouldn’t take the Torah seriously because it is an archaic document.
    Jews shouldn’t marry Jews and have Jewish children.
    Jews shouldn’t live Jewish lives.
    Jews shouldn’t celebrate Israel’s independence day.
    Jew shouldn’t care about Jews.
    To those who think they know whats best for the Jews kiss my tuchus.

  9. Oh for crying out loud.

    Go to

    http://www.mohelusa.com/California.htm

    In the entire 415 area code (that’s SF city itself, not surrounding area) there’s a grand total of ONE mohel!

    ONE. Only ONE. And he’s probably starving.

    This is a big fuss over nothing.

    We’re talking about San Francisco. San Franciscans, including Jews don’t produce many babies (du-uh).

    So what’s the fuss?

    • Dave,

      It’s not San Francisco per se that is the issue. I suspect that the anti-circ movement chose San Francisco as the first place to test a ballot measure because they believe it has a good chance of passing there – or at least getting a strong showing.

  10. The decision to circumcise my son was one of the hardest parenting decisions I’ve ever had to make. Our mohel was a pediatric surgeon who charged nothing and accepted my son as a Medicaid patient before the procedure (and continued until we left Santa Cruz) even though his practice was not accepting any more Medicaid patients. He was the first to notice that my son was failing to thrive and to spot the technical difficulties I was having with breastfeeding. He would never have come into contact with my son (and he probably saved my kid’s life) if he wasn’t also our mohel.

    I don’t believe that there are health benefits to circumcision as long as boys keep their penises clean. What finally convinced me was the story my mother told about being alone in Texas, living at the Y, giving birth to my older brother and finding a way for him to be ritually circumcised. More than a covenant with G-d, for me it was the connection from generation to generation.

    I don’t know if I made the right decision. I hope so. I am concerned about legislation that forbids male circumcision.

  11. I am very disturbed by the fact that circumcision is performed on male infants by default in the United States because as far as I can tell it is more for “cosmetic” than any other purpose – you know, so he will “look like Dad”, or not be different from the other boys. Seems like a self-perpetuating bit of infant abuse to me. The way it is done is both unnecessary and cruel, not to mention that the infants on whom it is performed have no ability to give informed, or any other kind of consent.

    I am more on the fence about circumcision as a religious or cultural matter, and I really do not know how much this is about my background, and how much is about deference toward religious/cultural views. I do know that I have vocally objected to having the male infant sons of relatives and close friends “medically” circumcised before leaving the hospital, and kept my mouth shut about ritual circumcisions for religious/cultural purposes.

  12. .. .. Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision – A Film by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
    http://www.cutthefilm.com
    Jews for the Rights of the Child
    http://www.jewsfortherightsofthechild.org/
    Circumcision and the Brain
    http://circumcision.org/brain.htm
    Alternative Jewish Rituals
    http://www.jewishcircumcision.org/ritual.htm
    Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny: How Judaic is the Circumcision?
    http://vadimcherny.org/judaism/how_judaic_circumcision.htm
    . . . .

  13. Rabbi Rosen,

    You write: “It’s a fair question. As I rabbi, I’ve come to fully respect Jewish parents’ good faith decisions on this issue. I’ve already done several covenant ceremonies for uncircumcised male babies – and fully suspect that I’ll be officiating at increasing numbers of such rituals in the future.”

    Can you tell us more about this? Perhaps it would be a good subject for a blog entry. Do you use a specific text? A Bris Shalom, Brit B’lee Milah, or Brit Hyiam?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s