Religion News Service – June 25, 2001


MONTEREY, Calif. — When God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his son, Ishmael, there wasn’t an option for “No, I’d rather not.” The terms seemed pretty clear: “Thus shall my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact,” God tells Abraham in Genesis 17. “And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he was broken my covenant.”

But increasingly in Reform Judaism, families are questioning the historic ritual of circumcision, asking their rabbis if there is a way out. The physical mark of God’s covenant, some say, is cruel and unnecessary.

In many ways, it is not a new argument. There has always been a vocal minority within Judaism that shunned the mohel’s scalpel. Now, bolstered by the Internet, the anti-circumcision movement is gaining converts within Judaism and forcing rabbis to answer tough questions. During the annual convention of Reform rabbis here this week, a roundtable discussion spent hours on Sunday (June 24) pouring over ancient Hebrew texts and rabbinic arguments, looking for answers to help convince an increasingly skeptical audience.

“Now that regular circumcision has become less and less regular, we are facing new questions,” said Rabbi Brenner Glickman of Houston. Jews also want similar ceremonies for their baby daughters, even though none are provided for in scripture. If a boy is to be welcomed into Judaism eight days after his birth, why not girls, they ask.

There are two elements to the circumcision debate — one sacred, the other secular. On one side is the question of whether removing a male’s foreskin is medically necessary; on the other, whether it is still religiously mandated.

Medically speaking, doctors seem to agree that old concerns about health and hygiene were largely exaggerated, or even unfounded. In 1999, a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found no medical reasons “sufficient enough to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.”

According to opponents, only about 18 percent of men around the world are circumcised, most of them Muslims. The United States has one of the world’s highest percentages of circumcised men, currently at about 62 percent.
The circumcision debate has become a highly emotional one. Earlier this year, a man sued the New York hospital where he was born, claiming the circumcision performed there had reduced his sex life. Some men have taken to the Internet to explore the possibility of reversing their circumcisions.

Many opponents — even some Jews — say the ritual is a savage remnant of an ancient culture. Some compare it to female genital mutilation, which has been roundly condemned by Americans when it surfaces in foreign cultures.

“Any unwarranted medical procedure is abuse,” said Moshe Rothenberg, a self-professed “Jewish educator” from Brooklyn who performs alternative ceremonies for Jewish boys. “If you cut off somebody’s ear who does not need to have their ear cut off, medically speaking, it’s abuse.”

Reform Jews, especially, question whether there is a need for the ritual when liberal Judaism has dropped other observances of the faith, such as keeping kosher or avoiding work on the Sabbath. And they point to other ancient practices no longer embraced by the faith, such as multiple wives or animal sacrifices. “One’s Jewish identity is determined before the circumcision, not during or after,” said Ronald Goldman, director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Cambridge, Mass. He added that men can be uncircumcised and still be good Jews. “They’re already out there,” he said. “And according to all reports, they’re doing just fine, and not just sexually.”

While their arguments may sound tempting, most rabbis say they ring hollow when measured against the weight of a divine commandment. “When you cut through all the opposition, that’s the reason — God commanded it,” said Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of the Los Angeles campus of the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, who led the study here.

In a post-Holocaust era, many U.S. Jews are wary about doing anything to dilute the fragile chain of faith they inherited. They are dedicated to maintaining a Jewish culture, even if they do not embrace all the rituals and requirements of the faith. That leaves parents, even those who question the medical necessity of circumcision, reluctant to drop the ritual, known in Hebrew as “Berit Mila.”

Most would have a “hard time considering themselves a Jew — whatever that means — without circumcision,” said Neal Schuster, a rabbinical student and director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. “Such a deep-seated undamental part of being a Jew is not something they’re going to step away from, even if they have stepped away from other aspects of Judaism.”

With all the uncertainty, is it perhaps time for Reform rabbis to issue a sweeping defense of circumcision, just as they are expected to issue guidelines on conversion and keeping kosher? Schuster doesn’t see a need.

The health benefits of circumcision, he says, do not really matter. Neither do the sexual questions, or the societal pressures, or the historical uncertainties. What matters is the covenant established between God and the Jews — and circumcision is the physical sign of that covenant.

“The reason we do circumcision is not for medical reasons,” Schuster said. “The medical benefits, whatever they may be, are really secondary.”

Rank-and-file rabbis seem to agree. Despite all the questions, they have met few Jews who are willing to “break the chain” and deny a divinely mandated mark of the covenant.

“Most have a sense in their hearts, if not in their minds, that this is of fundamental importance for Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Neal Gold of New Brunswick, N.J.