The religious origin of the Jewish practice of circumcision is written in the Torah where God promised Abraham,
Over the centuries there has been much written by Jewish scholars about the importance of circumcision. Support for circumcision in the Jewish community today is widespread. There is another perspective on circumcision that is not openly discussed. Contrary to common belief, circumcision has not always been practiced. Moses failed to circumcise his son (Exodus 4:25), and circumcision was totally neglected during the forty-year period in the wilderness (Joshua 5:5). Some Jews in the Hellenistic period (circa 300 b.c.e.-100 c.e.) chose not to circumcise their sons in an attempt to gain public acceptance.1 During the Reform movement in Germany in the 1840s, some parents did not circumcise their sons. Theodor Herzl was one of the most prominent figures who did not circumcise his son, who was born in 1891.2
Currently, circumcision is not universal among Jews either inside or outside the United States. The Circumcision Resource Center, a nonprofit educational organization, knows of hundreds of Jews in Europe, South America, and in the United States who either have not or would not circumcise a son. Even in Israel some Jews do not circumcise, and there is an organization that publicly opposes circumcision.3 The purpose of this article is to coherently explain a few of the contemporary reasons for the increasing doubts some Jews have about circumcision. Then I will apply Torah law and Jewish values to these reasons.
According to the Council of Jewish Federations 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, “ninety percent define being Jewish as being a member of a cultural or ethnic group.”4 Only thirteen percent believe “the Torah is the actual word of God.”5 Therefore, I address my comments particularly to those who reform Jewish practice in a way that is meaningful to them. Non-traditional Jews generally evaluate an idea by its agreement with reason and experience. Reform Jews comprise a large proportion of this group. Eugene Borowitz, noted theologian and scholar, states that Reform Jews “believe that we serve God best by being true to our minds and consciences even where, in significant matters, they clash with our heritage.”6 Based on the survey, a high proportion of American Jews have this perspective.
Because most Jews are non-traditional and are not aware of the religious meaning of circumcision, most Jewish circumcisions are done for cultural not religious reasons. These cultural reasons often tend to be related to beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about Jewish survival and identity. (Jewish circumcision was never intended as a health measure, and there is no proven health benefit from circumcision.7) For example, an argument for Jewish circumcision is that it ensures the survival of the Jewish people. This contention is especially compelling because of our long history of having to fight to survive. But the biggest threat to survival today is assimilation, and there is no evidence that circumcision prevents or slows it. According to the National Jewish Population Survey, more than half of all Jews who marry choose a non-Jewish spouse.8
Associated with the desire for survival is the idea of identity. Many Jews believe that males must be circumcised to be Jewish. This is not true. As stated in the Encyclopedia Judaica, “Any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not.”9 Alan Altmann, an uncircumcised son of Holocaust survivors, personally addresses the issue of Jewish identity:
HARM CAUSED BY CIRCUMCISION
The increasing doubts about Jewish circumcision are based on the understanding that it causes harm. Anatomical, neurochemical, physiological, and behavioral studies confirm what mothers already know: infants feel pain. Drs. Anand and Hickey, in a comprehensive review of recent medical literature on newborn pain, conclude that newborn responses to pain are “similar to but greater than those in adult subjects.”11 This study is accepted by virtually all medical authorities and is often cited in the literature whenever there is a discussion of infant pain. As a surgical procedure, circumcision has been described as “among the most painful performed in neonatal medicine.”12 Studies of infant responses show that the pain of circumcision is not like that of a mere pin prick. It is severe and overwhelming.
The relationship between infant pain and vocal response needs explanation. The cry may be reduced by the effect of anesthetics given to the mother during labor.13 These anesthetics enter the infant’s body and, according to pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, it can take over a week to leave.14 Other factors can also account for minimal vocal response. Justin Call, infant psychologist and professor-in-chief of child and adolescent psychology at the University of California, reports that “sometimes babies who are being circumcised . . . . lapse into a semi-coma.”15 Tonya Brooks, president of the International Association for Childbirth at Home and a midwife, observes, “In four of the nine circumcisions that I have seen, the baby didn’t cry. He just seemed to be suddenly in a state of shock!”16 Studies demonstrate that even though an infant may not cry during circumcision, the stress hormone level in the blood still increases dramatically, and medical researchers consider this change to be the most reliable indicator of pain response.17 Therefore, lack of crying does not mean that the infant feels no pain. It could mean that he is withdrawing from unbearable pain.
Circumcision has other harmful effects. Anand and Hickey write that
Psychiatrist Rima Laibow agrees that circumcision significantly impairs mother-infant bonding.19 Other researchers conclude that circumcision has “behavioral and psychological consequences.”20 The American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Circumcision notes increased irritability, varying sleep patterns, and changes in infant-maternal interaction after circumcision.21 Canadian investigators report that during vaccinations at age four to six months, circumcised boys had increased behavioral pain response and cried for significantly longer periods than did uncircumcised boys, a possible indication of post-traumatic stress disorder.22 Other long-term effects have not been studied.
Whether an infant is circumcised in the hospital by medical staff or in the home by a mohel, there are risks as with any surgery. There are more than twenty different potential circumcision complications including hemorrhage, infection, and surgical injury.23 The rate of complications occurring during the first year has been documented as high as thirty-eight percent.24 On rare occasions death has resulted. For this reason Jewish law allows for exemptions when other children in the family have died from the effects of circumcision.25
Concerning the sexual impact, Maimonides wrote, “Circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement.”26 Contemporary research supports the view that circumcision diminishes sexual pleasure. In order to appreciate the sexual impact of circumcision on adults, it is helpful to know that the adult foreskin has an area of about twelve square inches,27 and it has several functions. In the relaxed or flaccid state it protects the glans (head of the penis) from abrasion and contact with clothes. Without the foreskin, the glans “skin,” which is normally mucous membrane, becomes dry and thickens considerably in response to continued exposure, and consequently its sensitivity is reduced.28 The foreskin itself is a very sensitive part of the penis and improves the experience of sexual intercourse.29 According to a study published in the British Journal of Urology, it has “specialized nerve endings”30 and represents about a third of the penile skin.31 The foreskin increases sexual pleasure by sliding up and down on the shaft, stimulating the glans by alternately covering and exposing it. This can occur during masturbation or intercourse. Friction is minimized, and supplementary lubrication is not needed.32
Only men circumcised as adults can know the difference a foreskin makes. In the Journal of Sex Research, investigators reported on men who experienced this difference.33 Changes included diminished penile sensitivity and less penile gratification. The researchers concluded, “Erotosexually and cosmetically, the operation is, for the most part, contraindicated.”34
Men circumcised as adults regret being circumcised:
The reduced penile sensitivity resulting from circumcision may affect male sexual behavior without awareness of the connection. In a national study reported this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, circumcised men were more likely to engage in alternative methods of stimulation (e.g., oral sex and masturbation) than uncircumcised men.38 Some men who are aware of the effects of circumcision are dissatisfied.
Circumcision also has hidden effects on the Jewish community. The generalized emotional repression around circumcision and the pressure to conform to accepted practice can undermine community integrity. Lisa Braver Moss relates her experience:
Witnessing circumcision can cause further discomfort and anxiety, yet typically few express such feelings. Instead we sometimes disguise them with humor. Furthermore, the feelings of the infant, the one who is presumably being welcomed into the community, are generally ignored. Upon closer inspection, these behaviors may limit the depth of our connection to each other.
With all these factors to consider, no wonder some Jewish parents are reconsidering the decision to circumcise their sons, and calls to rabbis about circumcision are increasing.40 One mother wrote, “I spent most of my pregnancy crying, vomiting, ruminating, and reading about circumcision.”41 Pregnant mothers sometimes reveal that they hope for a girl to avoid circumcision.
In many cases parents feel resigned to the fact that their son will be circumcised. While most Jews have their son circumcised in a hospital where it is done behind closed doors away from the mother, many Jewish circumcisions are done in the home of the parents in a ritual observed by family and friends. Although some parents may report this as a positive experience, there is another view. Witnessing the circumcision and the infant’s response can shock the parents, particularly the mother. Only recently have some Jewish mothers been willing to describe their agonizingly painful experiences at their son’s circumcision. Miriam Pollack reported, “The screams of my baby remain embedded in my bones and haunt my mind.”42 She added later, “His cry sounded like he was being butchered. I lost my milk.”43
Elizabeth Pickard-Ginsburg confronted her pain from her son’s circumcision:
Another mother recalled,
The lack of such responses from other parents may be due to two reasons. First, because they are so painful and are not generally supported by the community, these feelings may be suppressed. Second, as mentioned earlier, if the infant goes into traumatic shock, he does not cry, and parents tend to interpret lack of crying to mean that circumcision is not painful. There is even a feeling of relief from some parents and guests if the infant does not cry.
Suppressed feelings regarding circumcision have also been expressed by rabbis. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman tells of a discussion about circumcision with fifteen young male and female rabbis. Each spoke personally.
APPLICATION OF JEWISH LAWS AND VALUES
Judaism values ethics above both doctrine and reason. The growing awareness of pain and harm connected with circumcision leads to questions about ethical considerations. How do we begin to justify the practice of circumcision on ethical grounds? It is significant relative to this question that, according to an authoritative book on Judaism, “the Torah prohibits the torture or causing of pain to any living creature.”47 Now that we know some of the consequences of circumcision, Jewish law (Lev. 19:11; Exodus 23:1) obligates us to be open and honest about it. In addition, we may ask if, given a choice, we would consent to being circumcised. If not, then considering Hillel’s encapsulation of Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow-creature” (Sab. 31a), should we force circumcision on another?
Significantly, virtually all that has been written about circumcision over the centuries ignores the infant’s experience. An infant being circumcised is restrained while having part of his body cut off. Imagine yourself in the same situation. From the infant’s perspective, this is a physical attack. His physical struggle to escape and his piercing screams are evidence of an appropriate response to attack. It is a violation of Torah law to physically assault or harm another person (Exodus 21:18-27). Jewish law recognizes a newborn infant as a person if the infant has been born after a full-term pregnancy.48 With circumcision, we generally overlook the humanity of the newborn infant and his awareness, perception, sensitivity, and meaningful responsiveness, though these abilities have been thoroughly documented by the latest research.49
It is appropriate to ask, Whose foreskin is it? There can be only one answer – it’s the infant’s foreskin. Taking it from him by force would cause him a loss. Viewed this way, we might consider the commandment that prohibits stealing (Exodus 20:13). Furthermore, Jews have a moral obligation to help those who are helpless. Newborn infants are helpless. They need us to protect them from pain and loss. (Feeling empathy for the infant makes it easier to consider these issues. This can be difficult for some men.) Furthermore, according to Jewish law, the human body must not be cut or marked (Lev. 19:28). By removing a part of the penis, circumcision involves the cutting and marking of natural male genitals. It appears that in some ways circumcision is not consistent with Jewish laws and values.
If one accepts circumcision as a divine commandment, Jews, as partners with God, still reserve the right to question and argue with God. Regarding the Covenant, Eugene Borowitz states that “each partner participates in it in full integrity; neither one is master, neither one is slave; both can make their demands, each partner saying, if necessary, a painful but self-respecting ‘No.’ “50 Even among traditionalists, religious laws and practices have changed because of reconsideration and the evolving social environment. Here are a few examples:
In the Torah, adultery (Lev. 20:10), fornication by women (Deut 22:21), homosexual acts (Lev. 20:13), blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), insulting one’s parents (Exodus 21:17), and stubbornly disobeying one’s parents (Deut. 21:18-21) are all punishable by death. Obviously, these laws are no longer enforced by traditionalists. In addition, according to Torah law, only a man can divorce his spouse (Deut. 24:1). This law was changed by rabbis to allow a woman to terminate a marriage. The Torah law which restricted inheritance to sons (Deut. 21:15-17) was also changed to allow transfer of property to daughters. Awareness of this precedent for change helps us to view circumcision with openness and flexibility.
ALTERNATIVES TO CIRCUMCISION
Despite the pressure to conform, an increasing number of Jewish parents are finding the courage to say no to circumcision. These parents listened to their inner voice, a voice that does not necessarily conflict with the voice of God. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner states, “The voice, if it be truly the voice of the Holy One of Being, speaks from both without and within. And it is the same voice.”51 If human beings are created in God’s image and God is spiritual, then we and God have a common spiritual essence. We cannot trust the nature of God and mistrust ourselves. When we act on our deepest, purest impulses, God is acting through us.
Some Jews who choose not to circumcise but still want a ritual, change the ritual to omit the circumcision. Instead, they include other ceremonial elements that are sensitive to the infant and the community. Such an alternative ritual, sometimes referred to as a naming ceremony or “bris shalom,” has all the joy of the usual ritual without the pain of the circumcision.
The alternative ritual has other advantages. Rabbi Joel Roth reminds us that to have meaning, religious ritual should be performed with the “appropriate mindset.”52 This cannot be forced. Some Jews, particularly mothers, circumcise their sons with great emotional conflict, reluctance, and regret. The alternative ritual allows for congruence of intention, attitude, feeling, and action. In addition, it can be used for both male and female infants. Employing an equivalent ceremony for girls illustrates how Judaism can change to be compatible with evolving values. Judaism, as a patriarchal religion, has been influenced by the modern women’s movement. Rather than perform some kind of genital surgery on females, an idea that is repugnant and rejected by virtually all Jews, a ceremony without surgery for both sexes is the egalitarian solution.
Those considering circumcision for their child may want to consider the following points:
1. Your child’s welfare is the primary consideration.
2. The fact that a father is not aware of any negative effects from circumcision does not necessarily mean there are none or that there will be none for his son.53 Long-term sexual and psychological harm from circumcision has been reported by hundreds of men in a national survey.54
3. Circumcision is irrevocable, while an uncircumcised male still has options. If in doubt, the conservative choice is not to circumcise.
4. Would you circumcise your son if most Jews did not?
5. Attend a circumcision and empathize with the infant. Stand up close so that you can see the procedure. If you feel averse to doing this, what does that tell you?
It is a strength of Judaism that some of the ideas and approaches used to question circumcision are associated with traditional Jewish values. Recognizing and sharing these values can give us the connection to others and to the past that we seek. For some Jews, this connection may well be more meaningful than the connection sought from circumcision, because it is genuinely felt and freely experienced, rather than forced by conformity.
Questioning circumcision is not threatening to Judaism; it is threatening to the defenses surrounding circumcision pain. Honest questioning about circumcision will strengthen Judaism and provide opportunities for deeper communication.
- Hall, R., “Epispasm: Circumcision in Reverse,” Moment, February 1992, 34-7; Jubilees 15: 33-4.
- Stewart, D., Theordor Herzl (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 202.
- Eichner, I., “Every Circumcision is Unnecessary,” Yediot, 6 May 1997, 23.
- Kosmin, B. et al., Highlights of the CJF 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (New York: Council of Jewish Federations, 1991), 28.
- Ibid., 30.
- Borowitz, E., “The Concept of the Covenant in Reform Judaism,” in Berit Milah in the Reform Context, ed. L. Barth (Berit Milah Board of Reform Judaism, 1990), 155.
- Wallerstein, E., Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy (New York: Springer Publishing, 1980), 163. A current comprehensive medical review is available from Robert Van Howe, M.D., P.O. Box 1390, Minoqua, WI 54548.
- Kosmin, B. et al., Jewish Population Survey, 14.
- Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1971), s.v. “Circumcision.”
- Altmann, A., “Circumcision Questions,” Letter to the editor, Northern California Jewish Bulletin, 31 May 1985, 12.
- Anand, K. and Hickey, P., “Pain and Its Effects in the Human Neonate and Fetus,” New England Journal of Medicine 317 (1987): 1326.
- Ryan, C. and Finer, N., “Changing Attitudes and Practices Regarding Local Analgesia for Newborn Circumcision,” Pediatrics 94 (1994): 232.
- Oswald, P. and Peltzman, P., “The Cry of the Human Infant,” Scientific American 230 (1974): 89.
- Brazelton, T., Doctor and Child (New York: Delacorte Press, 1976), 31.
- Call, J., quoted in R. Romberg, Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1985), 321.
- Ibid., 325.
- Gunnar, M., Fisch, R., and Malone, S. “The Effects of a Pacifying Stimulus on Behavioral and Adrenocortical Responses to Circumcision in the Newborn,” Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 23 (1984): 34.
- Anand and Hickey, “Pain and Its Effects,” 1325
- Laibow, R., “Circumcision and Its Relationship to Attachment Impairment,” In Syllabus of Abstracts, Second International Symposium on Circumcision, April 30-May 3, 1991, San Francisco, 14.
- Richards, M., Bernal, J., and Brackbill, Y., “Early Behavioral Differences: Gender or Circumcision?”Developmental Psychology 21 (1976): 310.
- Schoen, E. et al., “Report of the Task Force on Circumcision,” Pediatrics 84 (1989): 389.
- Taddio, A. et al., “Effect of Neonatal Circumcision on Pain Response during Subsequent Routine Vaccination,” The Lancet 349 (1997): 599.
- Ritter, T., Say No to Circumcision (Aptos, CA: Hourglass, 1992): 5-1.
- Kaplan, G., “Complications of Circumcision,” Urologic Clinics of North America 10 (1983): 545.
- Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v. “Circumcision.”
- Maimonides, M., Guide for the Perplexed (1190: reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 378.
- Ritter, Say No to Circumcision, 18-1.
- Ibid., 11; Morgan, W., “The Rape of the Phallus,” Journal of the American Medical Association 193 (1965): 223.
- Denniston, G., “Unnecessary Circumcision,” The Female Patient 17 (1992): 13.
- Taylor, J., Lockwood, A., and Taylor, A., “The Prepuce: Specialized Mucosa of the Penis and Its Loss to Circumcision,” British Journal of Urology, 77 (1996): 294.
- Ritter, Say No to Circumcision, 18-1.
- Bigelow, J., The Joy of Uncircumcising (Aptos, CA: Hourglass, 1992): 17.
- Money, J. and Davison, J., “Adult Penile Circumcision: Erotosexual and Cosmetic Sequelae,” Journal of Sex Research 19 (1983): 289.
- Ibid., 291.
- Personal communication with the writer, 1993.
- Milos, M. and Macris, D., “Circumcision: A Medical of a Human Rights Issue?” Journal of Nurse-Midwifery 37 (March/April, 1992): (supplement) 93S.
- Edell, D., Circumcision report for television news, KGO, San Francisco, 1984.
- Laumann, E., Masi, C., and Zuckerman, E., “Circumcision in the United States: Prevalence, Prophylactic Effects, and Sexual Practice,” Journal of the American Medical Association 277 (1997): 1052.
- Moss, L., “Circumcision: A Jewish Inquiry,” Midstream, January 1992, 20-21.
- Silverman, J., “Circumcision: The Delicate Dilemma,” The Jewish Monthly, November 1991, 31.
- Personal communication with the writer, 1991.
- Pollack, M., “Jewish Feminist Perspective,” Presented at the Third International Symposium on Circumcision, College Park, MD, May 22-25, 1994.
- Personal communication with the writer, 1994.
- Romberg, Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma, 81.
- Viola, M., Letter to the editor, in Circumcision: The Rest of the Story, ed. P. O’Mara (Santa Fe: Mothering, 1993), 76.
- Hoffman, L., Covenant of Blood (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1996), 218.
- Donin, H., To Be a Jew (New York: Basic Books, 1972), 56.
- Maimonides, M., Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotze’ach 2:6.
- Chamberlain, D., “Babies Are Not What We Thought: Call for a New Paradigm,” International Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Studies 4 (1992): 1.
- Borowitz, E., “The Concept of the Covenant in Reform Judaism,” in L. Barth, ed., Berit Mila in the Reform Context (Berit Milah Board of Reform Judaism, 1990), 160.
- Kushner, L., The River of Light (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 60.
- Roth, J., “The Meaning for Today,” Moment, February 1992, 43.
- Goldman, R., Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma (Boston: Vanguard Publications, 1997).
- Hammond, T., “Long-Term Consequences of Neonatal Circumcision: A Preliminary Poll of Circumcised Males,” in G. Denniston and M. Milos, eds., Sexual Mutilations: A Human Tragedy (Plenum Press, 1997), 125-130.