I recently read a series of articles (read them all) that resurfaced an issue in Judaism that is troubling to me: that of brit milah, circumcision. I honestly do not know where I stand on the issue, but I am compelled by both sides, and so I want to briefly sketch out the basic pro and con arguments to spark further thought and discussion.
First, the arguments for abolishing the practice of male circumcision in Judaism (not necessarily tied to attempts to enshrine such a ban in secular law). The arguments in this category that I find most compelling center around the autonomy — and the lack of it in current practice — of the eight-day old boy to make choices regarding his own body. While we may never know just how much a brit milah hurts for the baby himself, it is clearly not a positive experience at the time, even if the baby forgets all about it in the span of a few minutes. Why is it alright to impose some level of bodily harm (and the consequential emotional harm, again, even if very brief) on a non-consenting agent? Given how highly we value personal autonomy in modern Western culture, it is no surprise to see this issue arise now. Further, why do we, as religious people freely choosing to be practicing Jews in the 21st century, need such an antiquated marker of group membership? Religion should not ask of its adherents something so irreversible and harmful, especially not at a stage in their lives when they cannot possibly be expected to accept it consensually.
Next come disputed medical advantages or disadvantages to having a circumcision, depending on the side of the argument you are listening to. According to those against circumcision, medical experts agree that circumcision stunts sexual pleasure for men by many orders of magnitude (though no one can dispute that it hasn’t slowed down birth rates in the Jewish community) and that, while it was initially thought that circumcision helped lower instance of various STD’s, that hypothesis has been firmly debunked. According to those in favour of brit milah, however, medical experts are in anything but solid agreement about the various sexual ramifications of circumcision, and agree across the board that risk of STD’s is drastically lower for men who are circumcised. While the medical ramifications are of interest, because of how biased the results seem to be based on who is giving them, I tend to leave them out of the considerations of the argument pro and con.
Turning to the other side, I will now look briefly at the Jewish case for brit milah. I will not, however, be considering the hardline traditionalist stance that brit milah must be performed simply because God said so, and thus all males must partake in the commandment like all other halakhot (Jewish laws), with this one carrying the punishment of excommunication for not fulfilling it. Rather, I want to consider a more modern take on why one would want to circumcise their son(s), even in the face of the above arguments. To raise a child Jewishly is to implicitly pass on to that child the values and lifestyle within Judaism that you (and your partner) found, not only to be the best that Judaism had to offer, but arguably one of the best ways to lead a life in this world. That is to say, raising a child as a Jew means that you are telling them that in your life experience you have no reason to believe that another way of life is more beneficial, on the whole, than Judaism is. Given this picture, what would be lost by removing brit milah from how one raises their male children in a Jewish world? A topic not explicitly addressed in the articles I linked to is one of extreme ostracism. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to be a Jewish male and not be circumcised, but yet wishing to include myself in the community (even if the topic wouldn’t be broached too often in public). I grant that this is not an argument for circumcision, since if it is really a ritual that must be discarded then whoever begins this transformation will inevitably face serious backlash, as accompanies any change. Why, though, is it so central to being Jewish, and why has it remained so throughout history? Circumcision represents an extremely personal expression of one’s connection to the tradition. While most affirmations of one’s Jewishness require both external, often time-specific actions, as well as the presence of other Jews, circumcision affirms one’s Jewishness at all times, and is completely individual. At base, circumcision is one of the most basic ways Jews have ever had of connecting themselves to the larger community (and, for those whom this language speaks to, to God). All of this, however, does not cement the need for circumcision to occur at the eight day mark, upon an infant with no ability to consent to including himself in the ‘covenant.’
I want to end by bringing up an important implication of the argument against circumcision. That implication is as follows: if circumcision is wrong because it is being imposed upon a child that can have no say in the matter, then how about Judaism as a whole, which is also imposed on the child without any consent (even if it doesn’t include the physical discomfort associated with a brit milah)? I believe that one who is staking their position against circumcision on the consent issue would have to take Dawkins’ position and argue that religion should not be taught to children under a certain age (that is determined) at which time they can offer consent to receive such education. The immediate response to this is: but any education a child receives below some age of consent is education imposed upon that child (or ‘brainwashing’ depending on who you talk to) that will have a lasting impact on them. Dawkins’, and other New Athiests’, argument is that religion is different, largely because it is predicated up demonstratively false beliefs. This is another argument that I am in no position to offer a resolution to.
For various reasons, brit milah is one of the few Jewish rituals that really clashes with the surrounding Western culture that we live in, and so is a hot-button topic among those who wish to integrate both cultures into their lives. I hope that by further discussing the issues, and understanding where both sides are coming from, that we can come to realize the most ethically sensitive and meaningful religious experience possible in these times.
For another, more expansive approach to this issue, see this piece by a teacher and mentor of mine.