THE RELIGION QUESTION
We asked if we should let ourselves be moved from an anticircumcision position to a pro-circumcision position by considerations of conformity, and now we’ll ask the same question about religion. If there were no solid health rationale, would Jewish parents nevertheless have an impeccable religious rationale? (I’m going to frame the question this way because of my own Jewish identity and because of the roots of American circumcision in Judaism; the religious question can certainly be raised in the context of other religious traditions.)
To some extent the religion question is a special form of the conformity question. Like the parents who want their son to be able to blend in in a school locker room, Jewish parents want their Jewish sons to feel comfortable in other social settings. But there is more to it. Being uncircumcised may make a Jewish boy feel different, but the religious rationale is not simply that. The argument, rather, is that it can’t be wrong to meet the prerequisites of your own religion and religious identity. And many Jews agree on the centrality of circumcision. In Genesis 17, God does say an uncircumcised boy "shall be cut off from his kin" Throughout Jewish history, the Jews were known as a group who circumcised, and endured endless hostility and ridicule because of it. The popular Jewish writer Anita Diamant says this about circumcision in her book How to Raise a Jewish Child: "The most compelling answer to the question of why we do this to our sons is that if we stop doing brit milah we stop being Jews.”
The Reform Movement within Judaism has at least been open to changing the "how,” if not the "that.” At a Reform brit milah, the circumciser can be a physician mohel instead of a traditional mohel. Some physician mohels use lidocaine injections, just like in the Stanford video, so the debate about religiously motivated circumcision doesn’t have to be primarily about subjecting babies to pain for religious reasons. However, the pain issue can’t be completely avoided. Orthodox Judaism rejects the use of physician mohels. Orthodox mohels can’t use lidocaine injections and don’t use other types of pain relief either (except as aftercare). The procedure they use is much faster than the one involving the Gomco clamp in the Stanford video, but it has to be painful. (An Orthodox circumcision can be seen close-up in the movie Cut—a critique of religious circumcision by Eliahu Ungar-Sargon, who was raised in an Orthodox family.) As the AAP says, the young age of a newborn shouldn’t make us think otherwise.
Would Jews stop being Jews if they abandoned brit milah, as Anita Diamant claims? There are Jews who find this unconvincing, including Leonard Glick, the Jewish author of the fascinating book I mentioned earlier. Glick asks how it can be that Jews must circumcise to remain Jews, but (according to most Jews in the United States) they may violate so many other biblical commands and ignore so many of the traditions maintained throughout Jewish history. What is it about circumcision that makes it more essential than keeping the Sabbath or complying with the Torah’s hundreds of dietary laws—practices dropped by most non-Orthodox Jews? Glick speculates that the perception of circumcision as being more essential has to do with the fact that brit milah is a one-day event, easily incorporated into a modern, assimilated lifestyle. Were the
Sabbath or a kosher diet given that centrality, Jews couldn’t thrive in many modern occupations and couldn’t live lives fully integrated with the lives of non-Jews. This may explain the perception that circumcision is critical for Jewish identity, but of course doesn’t actually validate it. In Glick’s view, circumcision really isn’t central to Jewish identity.
There’s one especially compelling reason to think circumcision isn’t critical to Jews remaining Jews. Girls, of course, don’t have foreskins, and so aren’t circumcised. The covenant isn’t marked in their flesh. I invite you to think once again about Mixed World, where half of all boys have foreskins and half, by nature, do not. In that world I think it’s impossible to imagine Genesis 17 being taken seriously, much less written. The covenant couldn’t be marked in the flesh of half of all Israelite men, but not the other half—assuming all of them do matter equally. Likewise, were women regarded as equal members of the community, it would seem preposterous to suppose the seal of the covenant had to be inscribed in the male half of the community, even though it couldn’t be inscribed in the foreskinless female half. The implicit sexism of the Genesis 17 passage is one reason we should not treat it as sacrosanct, let alone as singularly sacrosanct.
There are Jewish skeptics about circumcision who are already raising sons who see themselves as Jewish, but haven’t been circumcised. Then again, there aren’t many, so the conformity issues become pressing again. A cultural tradition this deeply entrenched, but also this questionable, certainly puts parents in a bind. Circumcision has for centuries been the way boys are inducted into the Jewish community from the very beginning of their lives. One Israeli woman I talked to at my children’s Jewish preschool long ago felt the bind so acutely that she expressed a wish about the child she was trying hard to conceive: just let it be a girl. But would it really be impossible to develop a successor method of induction, a ritual more symbolic and less surgical—and one that applies to both baby boys and baby girls?
The arguments of the Orthodox—that brit milah must not only continue but continue without anesthesia—are particularly unconvincing. If the argument is that Abraham didn’t use anesthesia when he circumcised himself and his son, even the Orthodox have already adapted Genesis 17 to the modern world. Genesis 17 says that Abraham must circumcise his son, but modern fathers don’t do the job themselves; they make mohels their representatives. In Genesis 17, it is written that all the slaves of the house must also be circumcised, but modern people, Orthodox or not, abhor slavery and would find it cruel and senseless if a Jewish slave-owner in the antebellum South had forced circumcision on his non-Jewish slaves. Pain relief is just another modernization, and not antithetical to the meaning of Genesis 17, as some interpret it. Even if we take seriously the interpretation of Maimonides, on which it’s the parent’s willingness to do a "very, very hard thing” that gives circumcision its significance, it’s hard enough watching a newborn baby get cut with a knife, without having to see him suffer.
Putting the three considerations—health, conformity, religion— together, some parents will think three bad arguments combined just make a bigger bad argument. They will leave their boys intact. Others will think just one of the considerations is weighty enough, freeing them to ignore the other two. Still others will find enough weight only when two or three of the considerations are combined. While alone each consideration provides a weak reason to circumcise, together—these people think—they yield a strong reason.
In the final analysis, we probably need to agree to disagree when we do disagree about circumcision, but perhaps not too hastily. Discussing and debating the issue can help us clarify which considerations matter to us and which don’t. We can become aware of reasons both for and against that may not have been apparent at the outset. Another parent’s decision may seem alien at first, but can seem much less so after a full and frank discussion. Here as elsewhere, it pays to be a philosophical parent.
So you had a boy, I’ve been assuming. In fact, you may have had a girl. Do you care which it is? Does it matter to you? Will you do many things differently, depending on your child’s sex? Our approach to a child’s sex and gender is the subject of chapter 12. A more basic issue comes first. Who’s going to take care of your newborn baby?