By denying or ignoring any merit in questions and arguments critical of circumcision, Jewish circumcision advocates are left with suspecting a hidden motivation for those who would question circumcision.1 They need to make sense of what they perceive. How could Jews and others question a divine commandment? One advocate believes that the views of circumcision critics are affected by “Jewish self-hate” and “anti-Semitism.”2
The indiscriminate use of these terms by more than a few Jewish writers calls for examination and response. Jewish self-hate is a generalized feeling. If a Jew feels self-hate (A), then he is likely to dislike specific Jewish things (B). However, questioning a specific Jewish thing does not necessarily equate with generalized Jewish self-hate. As we learned in high school logic, if A then B does not equal if B then A. To further illustrate in a parallel example, some Catholics disagree with certain Catholic ideas and rituals, but they are not accused of being “self-hating Catholics.” Furthermore, hate is a very strong and easily identifiable feeling. The published writing of leading Jewish critics of circumcision are generally either scholarly, factual analyses or compassionate statements that reveal intellectual, emotional, and ethical conflicts with the practice. Typically, they include expressions of appreciation for Judaism and a desire to contribute to the community, hardly the feelings of self-hating Jews.3-6
If one is anti-Semitic, then by definition one is hostile to Jews. The content of the writing of circumcision critics conflicts with this characterization. Published critiques of circumcision are uniformly rational investigations and/or personal explorations of a challenging subject.7-9 If someone is anti-Semitic (A), then he is likely to dislike specific Jewish things (B). However, assuming that a critic of circumcision is anti-Semitic makes an over-generalized assumption. Again, elementary logic tells us that this reverse relationship does not follow. (Historically, some anti-Semites have been anti-circumcision, but that association does not mean that all circumcision critics are anti-Semitic.) An example does not prove a generality. Circumcision advocates fail to differentiate between reasonable criticism of a specific practice and a more general unjustified hostile attitude. It is possible to question the actions of a person or group without being categorically opposed to the person or group. Are those who question an American government policy anti-American? In fact, questioning an action that one believes to cause harm is more likely to be motivated by good will rather than ill will. If circumcision is harmful, then acting on awareness and knowledge of this harm is appropriate.
Simply the belief of some Jews or even the majority of Jews, that circumcision critics are anti-Semitic does not necessarily make critics anti-Semitic. Because of the nature of the topic, it may be that a majority of Jews judge that a position critical of circumcision is anti-Semitic. However, it may also be that this majority shrinks to a minority when the critical position is presented in a coherent, detailed, rational form. Some Jews may be so rigid in their advocacy of circumcision that they do not consider the details of opposing arguments.
More generally, minority positions may initially be judged to be anti-group by the majority of a group. However, individuals and groups can have various psychological, social, and political reasons for opposing change, and these reasons often have nothing to do with the merits of the proposed change. If the minority position later becomes the majority position, the “anti” label is not used. It seems that the “anti” label is often applied to marginalize those who have unpopular views.
Other factors can explain accusations of Jewish self-hate and anti-Semitism. For example, circumcision advocates may use these terms to exaggerate the challenge to their views in order to encourage a stronger Jewish response, to “rally the troops” to defend circumcision. Perhaps some Jewish leaders also invoke anti-Semitism in an effort to intimidate critics and suppress further debate. Virtually nobody wants to be called anti-Semitic. People may also falsely attribute their own feelings or traits to others, an act called projection. The perceived hostility by circumcision advocates may be a projection of their own hostility toward those who express an opposing view. Overreaction may also be associated with underlying fear and hypersensitivity associated with their own circumcision.
Given the symbolic religious and cultural meaning of circumcision to Jews and the repressed feelings associated with circumcision, it is understandable that some Jews may overreact to circumcision critics. Certainly, it is extremely uncomfortable for some Jews to consider what it means for circumcision to be a very serious mistake. People are more likely to focus on what other people have done to them, rather than to acknowledge what they have done to themselves. In addition, because of the long history of oppression against Jews in general and the Holocaust in particular, there is understandable protectiveness and distrust felt among Jews in response to criticism. For some Jews, even the slightest perceived criticism must be defended against and reciprocated. Of course, in the case of circumcision, the criticism concerns a central Jewish practice. Therefore, although being attacked as an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew may be inappropriate, it is understandable, and circumcision critics are urged to show compassion for circumcision advocates while knowing that they have the advantage of responding directly and specifically with various options.
In our view, the proper response for Jews is to support each other in airing these feelings within the Jewish community. Opportunities to meet, learn, and express thoughts and feelings about circumcision in a safe and supportive environment would be helpful. Respectful and compassionate talking and listening would assist healing. Tolerance and openness are needed. A popular moderated online newsgroup for Jewish parents supports tolerance by rejecting any judgmental messages “that criticize a parent for ANY circumcision decision made for their son.”10 Those in leadership positions in the Jewish community have a special obligation to facilitate discussion of this issue. This is more likely to happen with community encouragement and support.
The growing Jewish circumcision debate will certainly stir repressed feelings about circumcision, and discomfort is inevitable. However, this discomfort may be interpreted as a positive development. It is a sign of progress to feel and express discomfort about circumcision rather than continuing to avoid new information and pretend that the procedure is harmless. In any case, as we know from other experiences, avoiding discomfort in ourselves or others often serves only to perpetuate a problem.
- Kunin S, Miller R. The penis becomes a scapegoat, letter to the editor. Moment December, 1992: 75, 77. See also letters to the editor, Moment April 1993: 10-13.
- Levenson J. The new enemies of circumcision. Commentary March 2000: 29-36. [here, p. 34.].
- Bivas N. Letter to our son’s grandparents: Why we decided against circumcision. Humanistic Judaism. Summer, 1988: 11-13.
- Moss L. Circumcision: a Jewish inquiry. Midstream. January 1992: 20-23.
- Pollack M. Circumcision: a Jewish feminist perspective. In: Weiner K, Moon A, eds. Jewish Women Speak Out. Seattle, WA: Canopy Press. 1995: 171-88.
- Wallerstein E. Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy. New York: Springer Publishing. 1980.
- Romberg R. Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey. 1985.
- Whitfield H, ed. BJU International 1999;83(suppl. 1).
- Denniston G, Hodges F, Milos M, eds. Male and Female Circumcision: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Considerations in Pediatric Practice. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. 1999.
- Soc.culture.jewish.parenting FAQ: Newsgroup Policies and Procedures, http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/scjp-admin/. Accessed May 24, 2001.