Jewish voices against circumcision getting stronger

Over the last hundred years or so, a remarkably strong movement against circumcision among Jewish people has emerged. This development may surprise people, but it is a logical development of the modernisation and integration that began in the early nineteenth century, as European Jews were freed from the ghettos and joined the mainstream of modern life. In the process they naturally questioned many ancient observances and practices. Such questioning is also an expression of commitment to human rights, going back to the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen), strengthened by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights just after the Second World War. The principles developed here asserted an individual’s right to freedom, autonomy, and personal rights, of which the most basic was control over his or her own body. Given their own sad history of discrimination and persecution Jewish people have naturally been at the forefront of campaigns for human rights in many areas other than freedom of religion. This critical trend also derives from new historical information about the origin of circumcision (male and female) in Egypt and Africa, scientific discoveries about the damage caused by circumcision, and a desire on the part of individuals to observe a higher level of spiritual ethics.

This movement to question and often reject circumcision includes Jewish Rabbis, scholars, parents, intellectuals and educators, both in the United States and in Israel itself. In the United States, especially, Jewish people are so prominent in the general anti-circumcision and child protection movements that the controversy over circumcision is sometimes seen as a debate internal to the Jewish community. That would be a mistake: human rights are enjoyed by all humans, simply by virtue of their birth. The Jewish people’s long experience of, and heroic resistance to, persecution and discrimination has naturally made them particularly sensitive to human rights issues, so it comes as no surprise to see the most thoughtful members of the community having doubts about a practice that is increasingly seen as unconscionable denial of individual autonomy and personal choice - in short, a violation of those same rights that Jewish people invoke when defending their own religious freedom and cultural/personal identity.

Increasing opposition to circumcision in Israel

As worldwide opposition to routine circumcision grows, increasing numbers of Jewish people in Israel are deciding not to circumcise their sons. A well-researched article in the newspaper Haaretz (June 2013) reports the results of a survey conducted in 2006 which found that while nearly 5 per cent of respondents had not circumcised, fully a third (33 per cent) of parents would have preferred not to circumcise; they were persuaded by fear of social pressure. The greatest anxiety is about the reaction of relatives, especially grandparents - who usually get over their shock once they see their grandson and realise how beautiful he is. For example, Ido (an uncircumcised Jerusalem resident) told Haaretz that his paternal grandmother “did not stop crying from the moment she heard that her grandson was not going to be circumcised − until the first time she saw him and was enchanted by him. After that, he says, the subject never came up again.”

Further evidence of the changing tide of sentiment are the increasing numbers of opinion pieces in Israeli newspapers criticising and rejecting circumcision, such as Uri Misgiv, who challenges the connection between circumcision and Judaism, declares his opposition to the cutting of children’s genitals on ethical and human rights grounds, and wonders why “people without any religious faith anxiously keep track of every heartbeat of their infant in the womb, run with him to the monitor, sonogram and every possible pregnancy test, guard him carefully from the moment of his birth – and then hasten to cut his sexual organ.” Also of significance is an editorial in Haaretz which stated firmly that “individual rights take precedence over religious customs”. The editorial was referring to a case in which an Israeli religious (rabbinical) court ordered a woman to have her boy circumcised and fined her for refusing; criticising the court’s decision, the editorial rejected forced circumcision and asserted the primacy of personal autonomy.

Israeli writer challenges link between Judaism and circumcision

The idea that Judaism is inextricably linked to circumcision must be challenged and corrected.

When my beloved son was born I didn’t circumcise him. It was an easy and natural step, which I saw as an expression of my existence as a free man. I’m opposed to circumcision, and also have reservations about the use of the term “brit milah” (“covenant of circumcision”). It involves cutting the infant’s sexual organ, and I am opposed to the cutting of the sexual organs of boys and girls. Until now, I have naturally focused my efforts at persuasion on the population of secular parents. After all, it’s quite strange that people without any religious faith anxiously keep track of every heartbeat of their infant in the womb, run with him to the monitor, sonogram and every possible pregnancy test, guard him carefully from the moment of his birth – and then hasten to cut his sexual organ.

It is relatively easy to reject the two reasons for continuing to practice circumcision that are common among the secular community. First, the health-related hygienic reason is relevant for other times or other continents, and in any case it should be confronted by a medical reason which is usually not reported: The percentage of accidents and mishaps in circumcisions is significant. Quite a large percentage of newborns who are hospitalized arrive with injuries and infections resulting from circumcision. Also, as opposed to refraining from making the cut, circumcision is an irreversible process, liable to cause irreversible damage. Second, the “social” reason is gradually declining on its own with the welcome spread of refraining from circumcision – and in any case is quite hard to understand. (Recently I encountered two separate cases of lesbian couples who brought a baby into the world together and decided to cut his sexual organ in order to “prevent him from being different.”)

Recently, though, I realized that maybe the secular community should be left in peace. After all, at least the “secular circumcision” is frequently performed by a surgeon, with anesthesia. The “Jewish circumcision,” however, is performed by a mohel who is not necessarily a doctor, and always without anesthesia. This is an invasive and brutal act – abuse of a helpless infant, which I am certain will be outlawed in the future. In effect, there are two acts: Cutting the foreskin, and retracting it from the membrane that separates it from the glans, sometimes with a knife and sometimes with a fingernail. These are tissues that are full of nerves; it’s no wonder the victims scream. Sometimes, traditional circumcision also includes a third act by the mohel – sucking the injured organ until blood is drawn.

Regarding this primitive ritual, Avi Shilon wrote in Haaretz ("Circumcision: A good trick for preserving Jewish identity," Dec. 25) that “a society cannot exist without symbols.” Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein wrote on Ynet that “parents who refrained from this small operation forced their children to be uprooted from the most basic symbol of their identity.” And Naftali Bennett, the economy and religious services minister, rejected the very existence of the discussion, declaring: “Friends, since the circumcision of our forefather Abraham, this is the strongest tie connecting the Jewish people to its Creator and itself … Make no mistake, this campaign is not motivated by compassion or enlightenment … only the desire to see a state of all its citizens, neutered of Judaism.”

Strange. According to Jewish law, a Jew is someone born to a Jewish mother and, according to a more progressive approach, anyone who sees himself as belonging to the Jewish people. There were periods and communities in Jewish history in which circumcision was not practiced – from the days of ancient Egypt up to the Communist bloc. Moses was opposed to circumcision and didn’t circumcise his son, and the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan into Canaan uncircumcised.

Circumcision does not determine that a person is Jewish, and non-circumcision does not determine that a person is not Jewish. So to come and claim that the preservation of Jewish identity rises and falls with the cutting of the sexual organs of infants? That this is the most basic symbol that guarantees the survival of Jewish society? That this is the strongest tie connecting the Jewish people to itself and its God? More than faith? More than the Torah and the Ten Commandments? More than the State of Israel and the Land of Israel? In light of such groundless claims, both religious and nonreligious Jews should start asking themselves questions.

Source: Uri Misgav, Let’s talk about circumcision. Haaretz, 2 January 2014.

Israel newspaper rejects forced circumcision, asserts primacy of individual rights

Civil courts need to send an important message that individual rights take precedence over religious customs, however widespread they are.

Elinor's baby son was born with a medical problem, so he couldn’t be circumcised after eight days. During the time that elapsed, Elinor learned what the circumcision procedure actually entails, “and I realized that I couldn’t do that to my son. He’s perfect just as he is.” She claims the baby’s father was a party to this decision. But when the two began discussing their divorce in a rabbinical court, the father demanded that the mother be forced to have their son circumcised, as reported by Netta Ahituv on November 26.

In an unprecedented decision, the rabbinical court ordered Elinor to circumcise her son against her will, and ruled that for every day for which she refuses to carry out the procedure, she will have to pay a fine of NIS 500. In response to the appeal she submitted to the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, the rabbinical judges wrote that “Removing the foreskin prepares the spiritual soul to receive the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and to learn God’s Torah and His commandments.”

Another explanation they gave for rejecting the appeal related to the public battles against circumcision in Europe and the United States. “The Israeli public sees this as another expression of anti-Semitism, which must be fought,” they wrote. Alongside these embarrassing arguments, they claimed that “The commandment of circumcision is the covenant God made with His chosen people.” But circumcision is first and foremost a surgical operation performed on the body of a baby who is under his parents’ care. The fact that this operation is “performed on every Jewish boy,” to quote the rabbinical judges, doesn’t justify their conclusion that “When one parent demands this, the other parent cannot stay his hand.”

The question of whether a baby should be circumcised should not be decided by a rabbinical court at all, but by his parents. If the parents cannot resolve their disagreement, reason actually mandates refraining from this irreversible operation, and letting the child decide for himself when he grows up. It is hoped that the High Court of Justice, which will soon be asked to decide this case, will overturn the rabbinical court’s decision. The justices will thereby send an important message that in Israel, individual rights take precedence over religious customs, however widespread they are.

Source: No to forced circumcision. Haaretz Editorial, 29 November 2013

More Israeli parents decide not to circumcise

When their first child, a son, was born 11 years ago, it was clear to Eran Sadeh, now 42, and his partner, Maya, 40, that he would be circumcised. “We arranged it with a mohel [ritual circumciser] and then I started to look for information and references about the man on the Internet,” says Eran, a former lawyer-turned-computer instructor in a software company. But while surfing the Web, he came across a world of information about circumcision. “For the first time in my life I learned what’s cut, how it’s cut and what the risks are. I didn’t have a clue until then. The word was just another check mark on the list of tasks related to the birth. I treated it almost as a bureaucratic process. But the new information I came across shook me, and I knew I wasn’t capable of inflicting that on my son.”

Eran Sadeh is not alone. In the past decade, increasing numbers of Jewish parents in Israel have decided not to have their sons circumcised. They hardly constitute a majority, but today, in contrast to the past, many Israelis are considering this idea.

An informal online survey conducted in 2006 by the Israeli parenting portal Mamy found that of 1,418 parents of boys, 4.8 percent did not have them circumcised. The reasons given: 1.6 percent were not Jews; 2 percent objected to disfiguring the body; and 1.2 percent refrained because the act is painful. The survey also found that nearly a third of the parents would prefer to forgo circumcision but nevertheless have it done for social reasons (16.6 per cent), health reasons (10.4 per cent) and because it is important for the grandparents (2.1 per cent)‏. ...

Among those in the latter group are Eran and Maya Sadeh, who live in the north of the country. They say that the most shocking piece of information they came across about circumcision, and the one that influenced them most deeply was the view of Maimonides on the subject ‏(see Circumcision in Judaism below‏). The great 13th century physician and philosopher “accorded emasculating justification to circumcision,” Eran Sadeh says. “He maintained explicitly that it is done in order to affect male sexuality and reduce the pleasure of the sex act. For me, that connected with female circumcision and shocked me. I immediately read up on the physiological aspects and understood that what Maimonides said is correct: Circumcision affects the functioning of the genital organ in sexual relations.

“I connected that with my legal knowledge about human rights and understood that it’s wrong from that point of view as well. You take a person in the most vulnerable and helpless condition and amputate part of his body. Maimonides talks about that, too. Circumcision is performed when the infant is eight days old, because the bond between the parent and the child is not yet very strong and the parent is capable of inflicting this on his son. It is a gross violation of human rights, perpetrated by none other than the child’s parents, those who are responsible for protecting him.”

Source: Netta Ahiuv, Even in Israel, more and more parents choose not to circumcise their sons. Haaretz Weekend Magazine, 14 June 2013.

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Circumcision – defending the indefensible

By screening my TV documentary 'It’s a Boy!' for European parliamentarians I aim to help shore up their commitment to protection of children’s right to physical integrity.

I am a Jewish filmmaker and I have been invited by the Council of Europe to its Parliamentary Assembly next week. By screening my television documentary It’s a Boy! for European parliamentarians I aim to help shore up their commitment to protection of children’s right to physical integrity – a key step toward ending ritual circumcision of boys. Yet there is a struggle underway.

Israeli Knesset members have orchestrated moves to reverse progress and protect the ancient custom instead of protecting children from harm. That’s why remarks quoted by MK Nachman Shai defamed me in this newspaper this week. Shai insinuated that the documentary, celebrated for its depiction of parental remorse over circumcision, was made by an enemy of the Jewish state. Never mind that I have lifelong deep ties to Israel evidenced in several acclaimed films, an ad hominem attack has been levelled without a shred of evidence for it. But will thinking people therefore shun an authoritative film? Those who would hope so demonstrate the poverty of their argument in favor of a cruel birth rite.

In Strasbourg, my film will show the hidden casualties of circumcision – bleeding infants rushed into hospital, infected babies in intensive care, permanent deformities of young boys, and deaths. It will show mothers and fathers, Jewish, Muslim and African, full of sorrow and remorse for what they inflicted on their offspring. And I will refer to my experience as a Jewish father, the story I tell here.

From a very young age attending Jewish schools my personal preoccupation was the Jewish thirst for justice and our empathy for suffering. Tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the Jewish injunction to heed the distress of living beings, became the wellspring of the filmmaking I’m most proud of, including films about Israeli society, its past, present and future. When my wife and I were trying for our first baby, for a worryingly long time it wasn’t happening. But eventually we brought into our home a tiny lad with a wide-eyed look, a soft gurgling presence, and he brought out more gentleness than I knew I had in me. Until the calls started coming through. Have you fixed who will do the deed? When is the circumcision? But slicing away a body part from a healthy baby seemed to me neither natural nor inevitable, and I worried about him suffering. After several weeks of ignoring the messages, they became insistent. You do know your mother is dying of cancer? Get it done.

The counsel from relatives was it’s harmless, it’s healthy, it’s just a few seconds. The doctor assured us the liquid anaesthetic he applied to the foreskin would make the procedure pain-free. The nurse spread our boy’s limbs and gripped them tightly. He started bawling. A frenzy of bawling.

No-one had ever restrained him like this. There was a shriek. High-pitched, prolonged, unlike any sound I’d heard from him before. An instrument was attached to our son’s penis, and with each manipulation our child let out more shrieks. And then when the cutting edge was pressed through his flesh we heard a twisting, animal-like groaning and he writhed and grimaced as though something truly awful was being done to him. And then it was over.

But it wasn’t over. The instruments were wielded again for “neatening the cut” and then “dressing the wound” – steps usually done out of sight of parents and celebrants. Our boy had a new kind of voice which rose up hoarsely at each contact with his genitals. At home, the wide-eyed look and soft gurgling were gone. Instead there was a helpless being with a raw wound to be re-bandaged repeatedly. For two days and nights he was writhing and crying. It had not been pain-free. It had not been a few seconds. It had been a betrayal of our son, and of ourselves. Only much later did I learn from a consultant paediatric anaesthetist how a baby’s pain is likely to be greater than an adult’s with the same procedure.

If anaesthetics are injected, the procedure can be almost pain-free, but anaesthetic injections entail risks for a baby, and afterward while the wound heals protracted pain is inevitable. I learned that no matter who performs circumcisions, significant complications can threaten a child’s survival or his future experience of life; bleeding, infection and deformities are one-in-50 events by conservative estimates. And each year there are deaths. How many? It’s impossible to know because no-one is counting, and such deaths are sometimes attributed to heart failure or other causes less controversial than circumcision. Had I known such facts earlier, my son would have remained intact, as is the case with increasing numbers of Jewish boys today, including thousands in Israel.

What of the health benefits claimed? A very slight reduction in the extremely rare condition of penile cancer is cited. The circumcision of grown men in Africa is credited with a reduction in HIV transmission in that region, but is not a serious justification for circumcising babies and young boys in Europe or Israel. A decrease in frequency of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in babies – that is vaunted as the statistically significant benefit from circumcision. But the same result can be achieved by soap and water, and in any case UTIs are readily treatable with antibiotics.

Parents like me know from our remorse that it was wrong to make such an irreversible, painful and dangerous decision for our children. We owed our children protection, and we owe it to our communities not to be silenced when we have erred as parents. But the fear of being cast out from our tribes remains an intense pressure. Fear cows individuals who wish to dissent publicly. Fear cows parents who want to reject circumcision. That’s why boys from all backgrounds need the protection of the rule of law – secular law – wherever they may live. The necessity for this now in Israel is obvious.

To deprive children of Jewish and Muslim descent in any country of full legal protection because of their lineage amounts to a most perverse kind of prejudice against those children. As for any attempt by real anti-Semites to latch onto this issue, that would be denounced publicly. But then real anti-Semites are not usually the people keen to protect Jewish children from harm, and real anti-Semites would probably like nothing better than continuance of a practice that stokes anti-Jewish feelings and for generation after generation inflicts suffering on Jewish boys. Children’s right to physical integrity should be what Israeli parliamentarians defend – rather than a brutal anachronism.

The author produced and directed It’s a Boy!

Source: Victor S. Schonfeld, Circumcision – defending the indefensible. Jerusalem Post, 22 January 2014.

Jewish anti-circumcision resources

Jewish Voices – Many Jews Question Circumcision

Jewish Voices: The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

Jewish Voices: The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2

Jewish Voices: The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 3

Jewish Parents are Trading Circumcision for Peaceful Covenant Ceremonies

Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors

Peaceful Ceremonies: Brit B’lee Milah, Bris Shalom, Brit Hyiam, Brit Chayim, Brit Ben

Brit B’lee Milah (Covenant Without Cutting) Ceremony

Bris Shalom Ceremony by Norm Cohen

Sample Non-Cutting Naming Ceremony #1

Sample Non-Cutting Naming Ceremony #2

The Naming at Very, Very Fine

Brit Shalom: An Alternative Naming Ceremony by Mark D. Reiss, MD

Jewish Religious and Historical Perspectives

Being rational about circumcision and Jewish observance by Moshe Rothenberg, MSW

Defying Convention: An Interview With Miriam Pollack

One Rabbis’ Thoughts on Circumcision by Rabbi Nathan Segal

Eli Ungar-Sargon Debates Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the Moral Problems of Circumcision

Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny: How Judaic is circumcision?

Brit Milah : Inconsistent with Jewish Ethics? By D.A. Huffman-Parent

A Case for Bris without Milah

An Alternative Perspective by Jenny Goodman, MD

Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision – A Film by Eli Ungar-Sargon

Jerusalem Post: Challenging the Circumcision Myth by Jan Jaben-Eilon [PDF]

Jewish Parents – Mothers Voices

Laura Shanley: A Jewish Woman Rejects Circumcision

My Son: The Little Jew with a Foreskin by Stacey Greenberg, Mothering Magazine

Lucking Into Bris Shalom by Sarah Rockwell

How “Cut” Saved My Son’s Foreskin: A Movie Review by Diane Targovnik

Jewish mom: Circumcision spiritually wounds, breaks bonds and trust

Jewish Parents – Fathers Voices

The Kindest Un-Cut Feminism, Judaism, and My Son’s Foreskin, by Professor Michael S. Kimmel

Ending Circumcision in the Jewish Community? by Moshe Rothenberg, MSW

Men’s Voices

To the Mohel Who Cut Me by Shea Levy

On Circumcision, Authority, and the Perpetuation of Abuse by Jonathan Friedman

Howard Stern: Jewish Intactivist by Rebecca Wald, JD

Women’s Voices

Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective by Miriam Pollack

Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power by Miriam Pollack

Circumcision Referendums and Legal Issues

Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews? by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Jews Speak in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors

Questioning Circumcision: Op/Ed by Rebecca Wald, JD., The Jewish Reporter

The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective by Sandford Borins, PhD

Jewish Journal: Circumcision critic has Board links

Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

Beyond the Bris: Jewish Parenting Blog

Jews Against Circumcision

Jews for the Rights of the Child

Bris Shalom Officiants by Mark D. Reiss, MD

Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, PhD

Israeli Groups for Genital Integrity

Kahal: Giving Up Brit Milah

Intact Son: the Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation

Gonnen: Protect the Child

Af-Mila: Israeli Intactivist

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