Answering "Intactivists:" Why We Circumcise

Thank you to all who graciously commented on last week’s “Letter to my Grandson.”  Thank G-d, Noam ben Reuven Yigdal v’Yehudit Tovah (aka Evan) and his mother are doing fine. 

This morning in our home, Noam entered into the covenant of Abraham.  In fulfillment of the Torah commandment, this occurred on the eighth day -- “b’yom haSh’mini” of his life.  “Sh’mini” (“Eighth”) is the name of this week’s Torah portion.  The reference is actually to the eighth day of the priestly ordination ceremony, not to circumcision.  Nevertheless, in light of this special day in my and my grandson’s life, and the “coincidence” of “Sh’mini” being this week’s Torah portion, I’ll take the opportunity to share some thoughts on the circumcision controversy.

“Intactivist” critics of circumcision decry it as a primitive, brutal/barbarous act of mutilation and assault involuntarily imposed upon an infant.  And, I must admit that absent context, holding an infant down and slicing off the end of his penis seems reprehensible or criminal.  It even raises, for some, the horrible specter of adult female genital mutilation (cliterodectomy). 

But, of course, the analogy is not at all apt.  I’m aware of no evidence suggesting that infant circumcision causes any ill-effects beyond brief pain. (Sucking on a sugar-water dampened cloth, my grandson complained at the moment of truth but quickly quieted down and thereafter had nothing to say!).  I’ve never felt – nor indeed heard of any Jewish man expressing feelings of being -- “mutilated,” sexually impaired, psychologically traumatized, or harmed in any way by having undergone the procedure. Nor have I heard that critics of circumcision seek to outlaw other non-medically necessary “mutilations,” including ear, nose, and tongue piercing.

The selective criticism against circumcision, and the absence of any evidence that it is harmful, leads me to conclude that the real objection is the “involuntarily imposition” of circumcision.  That is, By what right do parents do this to their baby?

It’s often revealing to ask the proponent of any strongly-held opinion or position: “What is the paramount value implicit in that opinion/position?”  The implicit value judgment in By what right do parents do this to their baby? is: “Nothing trumps individual choice.”  

In another context, Rabbi Mark Miller has recently called this value the “adoration of autonomy.”  In the context of circumcision, it means, “each of us owns our bodies, and no one has the right to trespass on that ownership.” 

But personal autonomy is not Judaism’s paramount value.  Rather, Judaism’s paramount value is recognizing and meeting our responsibilities – to G-d – who ultimately owns our body and all other property -- to the Jewish people, to one’s parents and children, to family, to the community, etc.  This certainly does not mean that Judaism discourages personal development and expression; our failure to do so would waste G-d’s gifts of individuality and talent.  But individualism does not trump responsibility.  One seldom hears proponents of “rights” acknowledge their “responsibility” to anything … except the protection of rights! 

So, the critics of circumcision proceed from a different primary value than Judaism does.    

How, then, does circumcision reflect paramount Jewish values?   Of course, it is first and foremost a physical sign of the covenant between G-d and Abraham and his descendants.  (Genesis 17:11) That is, it is a sign of membership in the Jewish people.  But, girls and women are equally in the covenant, fully members of the Jewish people.  Moreover, liberal, fully egalitarian streams of Judaism have not abandoned circumcision, whereas they have abrogated other longstanding traditions of gender distinction.  (Liberal Judaism has also introduced parallel covenant ceremonies for girls).

So, what is the “context” that justifies continuing the practice of circumcision?  I suggest these three:

  1. Morality.  The Hebrew word for foreskin is “orlah” – the same word as the fruit that may not be eaten during a tree’s first three years of production after the Jews entered the land of Israel.  “Orlah” implies restraint.  The removal of the "orlah," the foreskin, is to be a conspicuous, lifelong reminder to every male that he must restrain his urges and actions.  His body does not belong entirely to him, to do with (and to whom) he pleases.  His sexual conduct – indeed, all of his conduct (according to Freud, sexuality stands for all drives and appetites) – must be moral.  Menstruation and related “purity laws” provide this same reminder to women.
  2. Membership Affinity.  Most Jewish parents choose not to circumcize in the hospital -- even though they would thereby save the cost of a mohel and a party!  No, they insist on a public, religious ceremony, accompanied by appropriate blessings and ritual, specifically on the eighth day.  This is an expression of their membership in the Jewish people and their deep hope that their son(s) will also feel that connection.  
  3. Defiance of Our Enemies and Resistance of Assimilation.  I did not accuse "intactivists" of being anti-Semites, but some clearly are.  More to the point, we cannot ignore the tremendous significance of circumcision in Jewish history.  Our opponents and mortal enemies have repeatedly ridiculed and/or banned circumcision in attempts to suppress or exterminate us.   Christianity’s early growth was greatly aided by its exempting male converts from circumcision.   The Greeks and the Romans outlawed circumcision on pain of death, and many others have identified Jews through circumcision and then persecuted them.   Further, throughout our history, as Jews have assimilated they have neglected circumcision.  I would even say that in light of Jewish history as well as Jewish “religion,” a parental decision not to circumcise represents, in most cases, a rejection of Judaism.  Conversely, insistence on continuing this rite is a statement of faith, of will to survive as Jews, and a conviction that our enemies will never defeat us.

Adherents of traditional ("Orthodox") Judaism need no other reason to circumcize their sons than that G-d commanded it.  For others, circumcision is still practiced as the most visceral, permanent affirmation of Judaism, Jewish values, and inclusion in the Jewish people’s covenant.  May it always continue. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb