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Jewish Law, the Foreskin, and Human Rights | Part 1

The current San Francisco circumcision referendum has made the public aware of the severe physical consequences of the controversial surgery. The idea that an individual has the right to their own body is recent by historical standards. For many years, a number of courageous Jewish and Israeli scholars, historians, activists, and parents have raised serious objections to circumcision surgery. More and more Jews are choosing not to circumcise their sons. These Jewish voices against circumcision are just starting to enter the mainstream conversation.

Here are some of these pioneers in their own words.

“Mutilation of the divinely made human body is as far from Judaism as anything could be. Even criminals are not mutilated, and the law limits the number of lashes to avoid permanent damage. Judaism objects to cuts made in grievance, and loathe spilling human blood.”
- Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny,
How Judaic is the circumcision?

"The code of the Jewish law is called "halacha" (the way). Within the Code, there is a provision that if a mother loses a son because of circumcision, she is NOT obligated to circumcise her next son. I extrapolate from this, the inter-connection of my human family, that enough deaths and maiming have occurred because of circumcision. Therefore - circumcision is no longer a requisite! Just as we no longer practice the animal sacrifices in the traditional temple, so let us not sacrifice an important piece of our mammal in the temple of tradition." 
- Rabbi Nathan Segal, Rabbi of Shabbos Shul 
One Rabbis' Thoughts on Circumcision

“There are many abandoned practices that are widely considered unethical nowadays, even though they are ordained in the Torah. These include slavery, polygamy, and corporal punishment for working on the Sabbath. Just like slavery, polygamy, and corporal punishment, the practice of circumcision is a cultural practice that predates Judaism. If Judaism is to survive, then we must accept circumcision for what it is, a form of torture and sexual mutilation, and stop it. There are other ways we can teach our children to respect women and sustain a happy marriage and family life.” 
- Jonathan Friedman, founder of IntactNews.org

“AS AN INCREASING NUMBER OF AMERICANS – including a sizable number of American Jews – question the act of male circumcision, a group of San Francisco activists are advocating to ban circumcision… Many of the leading activists against circumcision around the country are Jewish.” 
- JERUSALEM POST, Challenging the Circumcision Myth [PDF], (Israel) 04/10/2011

“All attempts to justify a custom such as this by means of one or another symbolic explanation collapse in the presence of the baby, in agony under the mohel’s knife.… there is enough of worth in Judaism to guarantee its survival, even after it rids itself of this disturbing custom. It may even be strengthened this way.” 
- Professor Hanoch Ben-Yami, Central European University 
Letters, Azure, Summer 5767 / 2007, no. 29

"Without compromising either our children’s identity or the survival of our people, we can invite all of our Jewish children, our baby girls and our baby boys, into a brit b’lee milah, a covenant without circumcision, and school them in the wisdom, love, and beauty of the Jewish tradition. Unlike Christianity, which teaches that a child is born into original sin and must be redeemed, Judaism teaches that the soul is pure — only the penis needs “redemption.” The truth is that the whole baby is pure, body and soul, including his tender genitals, and it is both a mitzvah and our most sacred duty to protect him." 
- Miriam Pollack, Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power 
Tikkun 26(3), 2011.

  

“In Israel, opposition to circumcision has happened in just two decades, and now these “rebels” number in the tens of thousands, according to Ronit Tamir, founder of Kahal, a support group for parents who choose not to circumcise their children.” 
- JEWISH WORLD, 3/11/10.

“It seems to me that for liberal Jews the choice comes down to this. Do we want to in some way circumscribe the sexual possibilities of our sons by performing a body modification when they are infants so as to bear witness to the covenant? Are there not other ways to bear witness? Are there not other ways to maintain our distinctiveness from the society around us? Despite having circumcised my two sons, the more I think about the issue, the more likely – were I a resident of San Francisco – I would support the referendum.” 
- Sandford Borins, Ph.D., The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective
Sandford Borins, Ph.D., is a professor of Management at the University of Toronto.

“…as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, in Eastern Europe and Russia there was a widespread move to stop [circumcision]… Led by women–what a surprise!–who thought the practice barbaric and patriarchal, the movement eventually even convinced Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who refused to allow his own son to be circumcised.” 
- Michael S. Kimmel, Professor, SUNY Stony Brook 
TIKKUN, Volume 16, May/June, 2001.

“So it’s quite obvious that to question any aspect of Judaism, including circumcision is not anti-Semitic. It is very much in keeping with Judaism’s rich tradition of discussion and debate…So what if parents don’t want the milah, but still want the brit? Several different alternative rituals have been created by parents and rabbis of all branches of Judaism. They’re typically called a Brit Shalom, so rather than covenant of cutting, it’s a covenant of peace. They tend to involve all the traditional aspects of a traditional bris, including all the same participants and blessings, just without the actual circumcision. Some will simply use the same naming ceremony used for girls. It’s not particularly common, but it is being used more often now than in the past. Support groups exist for parents of intact Jewish boys. Cars now bear bumper stickers which read, “Jews embracing wholeness. Saying no to circumcision”. Even in Israel, there are Jewish organizations that oppose brit milah. One non-profit organization in Israel working to stop circumcision took its case to the High Court of Justice in 1998 and maintained in its petition that “in a modern democratic society there is no place for the ‘barbaric’ ceremony which mauls a child who does not have any say in the matter." The movement is largely made up of Reform parents, but it is visible in other areas as well. Moshe Rothenberg is a Conservative Jew living in an observant Jewish community in Brooklyn, yet he did not circumcise his son. (Rothenberg).  The Af-milah newsletter is an Israeli newsletter dedicated to ending brit milah.  Those who question and refuse to have a brit milah aren’t necessarily doing it because they have assimilated or because they’re anti-Semitic. Some feel this way after careful study of Jewish texts and observances.” 
- D.A. Huffman-Parent, Brit Milah : Inconsistent with Jewish Ethics?

  

“Good afternoon. My name is Brian Levitt… I am Jewish, the eldest of 3 children and the son of a doctor… I feel deeply harmed by circumcision, and this view has only been confirmed over time. I do not feel closer to Judaism because of my circumcision. On the contrary, I deeply wish one thing had nothing to do with the other. The genital cutting of infants has driven me away from my religion, and I'm far from alone in this view. Eventually my father understood these issues, and even apologized for having allowed my brother and I to be circumcised at birth… There are hundreds of thousands of men who resent their infant circumcision. There are tens of thousands of intact Jewish boys and men around the world who thank their lucky stars they were not circumcised.”
- Brian Levitt, Jewish Intactivist, co-founder of Jews for the Rights of the Child
Testimony at the California Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearing on Circumcision.

I was raised as a Jew and yet I never even considered circumcising my sons. Reason told me that God or nature doesn't make mistakes. Obviously there is a vast intelligence behind all of life, and just as our eyes have eyelids to protect them, foreskins must serve a similar purpose.” 
- Laura Shanley, A Jewish Woman Denounces Circumcision

“We each hold our own ideas about life and our Jewish heritage. We won't always agree. But we're united by this principle: the genital cutting of infants and children is wrong and must stop, no matter their religion or gender.” 
- Rebecca Wald, host of BeyondtheBris.com, a blog for Jewish parents.

"I am confident that my people have such an abundance of life-enhancing, life-affirming and mind-opening traditions, that our identity and sense of cultural self-heed will happily survive our outgrowing of circumcision, a cruel relic which has always felt to me like an aberration at the heart of my religion." 
- Dr. Jenny Goodman, Challenging Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective

“Another American Jew who works against circumcision is Laurie Evans, the director of the New York Hudson Valley chapter of NOCIRC. “I went to a brit and couldn’t believe I was standing in a room of people who usually question so much, but didn’t think of the baby. It was one of the worst days of my life. I feel our religion is in our heart and soul, not in our genitals.” 
When Evans’s children were born, she wanted to be more involved Jewishly, despite not being brought up to be practicing. She still maintains some of the Jewish customs, but her difficulty with circumcision has created a fissure between her and Judaism. “It’s hard for me to accept that we don’t accept tattooing and we like questioning, but this can’t be talked about. I see it like foot-binding in China.” 
- THE JERUSALEM REPORT APRIL 25, 2011