Jewish Law, the Foreskin, and Human Rights | Part 2

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.

“Coming from a European background… where many Jews reject a brit milah as an archaic and barbaric ritual… This author grew up in France in a traditional Jewish family. Not a single male of her generation or her children’s generation within her large family (or in her circle of Jewish friends) was ever circumcised.” 
- Nelly Karsenty, Humanistic Judaism, 1988.

“Judaism has always been a core piece of my identity, even though my practice and understanding have evolved over the years. I have great reverence for what we hold as spiritual. When the authorities of my tradition define the sacred in a way that violates the most elemental and life-giving forces, mothers and babies, then something is very wrong. That which is not ethical, cannot be spiritual. That is a basic Jewish tenet… It is Judaism that has taught me that reverence for life, the principle of pikuah nefesh, and the mandate incumbant upon all of us to distinguish (l’havdeel) between what is holy and what is profane. It is precisely these fundamental tenets of Judaism that have led me to conclude that circumcision is not holy in terms of Jewish ethics.… What is most satisfying to me is knowing that I have helped a number of parents, particularly Jewish parents, come to the conclusion that they can be good Jews and leave their baby intact.”
- Miriam Pollack, Defying Convention: An Interview With Miriam Pollack, Beyond the Bris, July 27, 2011

"Circumcision is child abuse...It is a poor way to introduce a newborn male into the world and into the Jewish community. This presentation will focus on my experience as an active Jew living in an observant Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, who chose not to have his son circumcised. I will present the brit (literally "covenant") b'lee milah (without circumcision) ceremony that my wife, a full participant in the decision, and I held on the eighth day of our son Sammy's life." 
- Moshe Rothenberg, Ending Circumcision in the Jewish Community.

“Mutilation of the divinely made human body is as far from Judaism as anything could be… Torah mentions circumcision only cursorily. Circumcision is conspicuously absent from the Sinai commandments, and from the subsequent listings of rules… Deut30:6 mentions circumcision metaphorically at most, “circumcise your heart.” No less likely is the meaning, “tame your pride.” 
- Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny, How Judaic is the circumcision?

“Laurie Evans is the director of the New York Hudson Valley Chapter of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers. She said that as a Jewish woman, it was difficult to stand up to her family. 
“Once I witnessed a bris (ritual Jewish circumcision), understood the function of the foreskin and the long, lasting harm of circumcision, I had to follow my conscience and leave my son intact,” Evans testified. 
“My son is now 20, is grateful, as he understands just what he was spared,” Evans said. “When I realized how many parents were uninformed about this surgery, I founded and became director of the New York Hudson Valley Chapter of NOCIRC.” 
- WND, March 05, 2010

"I believe circumcision is a major mistake (male or female)...  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

“Jewish parents are known for our devotion to our kids, so questioning circumcision comes naturally. Jewish practice has evolved over the millennia to keep up with modern ethics and scientific understanding. We now know that infants feel pain and that traumatic experiences in infancy can have lasting consequences. We also have an understanding of the function and purpose of the foreskin. Given these and other factors, I feel that the time has come for the covenant to evolve into a symbolic welcoming ceremony.” 
- Rebecca Wald, host of, a blog for Jewish parents.


“BUT CHOOSING TO LEAVE A SON INTACT IS NOT JUST a choice being made by American Jews. Increasingly, Israeli Jews are making this choice. Kahal was established in June 2000 by parents in the Tel Aviv area who decided not to circumcise their sons. The community is not a formal organization and includes only parents with intact sons. Raquel Lazar-Paley is a parent who chose not to circumcise her son and she says she has several friends in the Haifa area who made the same decision.” 

"According to modern scholars, circumcision is not even mentioned in either the earliest, "J", version of Bereshth ("Genesis") nor the next three rewrites by other authors. Most importantly, the story of Abram is there in its entirety, except the part about the Covenant being "sealed" with circumcision. The parallel Covenant story of "a smoking kiln and its blazing torch" passing between the halves of animals and birds sacrificed by Abram is in J. Many biblical scholars agree on this point, and it is in accord with the mitzvot against desecrating the body.... It has even been suggested that early Judaism forbad circumcision!" 
- Case for Bris without Milah.

"The issue of circumcision, in my view, is whether we want submission and wounding, as a symbolic act, to mark a man's relationship to God and to the community in general. I no longer believe such a wounding is defensible." 
"There is more emotion about eliminating circumcision than perhaps any other traditional practice. But it is time to find a different symbol of a boy's entrance into the community. Instead of cutting our sons, we might celebrate their masculinity. A more appropriate symbol would be a nurturing act, one that would affirm a boy's relationship to a loving father, both his own and that of his God. We might, for example, feed our sons, since a meal is also a traditional symbol of covenant. Indeed, in one text, Moses and Aaron and the elders go up to the top of the mountain, and when they see God, they eat and drink. Feeding our sons, rather than wounding them, would be a symbol of our nurturing relationship to them." 
- Professor Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, A Masculine Critique of a Father God 
Tikkun Magazine, September/October 1995
Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, Ph.D., was trained as a Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has taught Jewish Studies for ten years, and helped to launch the Jewish studies program at San Francisco State University, where he was the head of the Jewish Studies department.

As someone who was raised in the ways of traditional Orthodox Jewish life, I recognize that circumcision cannot be compatible with Judaism, or any belief system, that treasures the sanctity of human life.” 
- Jonathan Friedman, founder of

" can be found from many Jewish sources for the view that circumcision of infants is unethical and should therefore be the final analysis, circumcision is not symbolic for the baby: it is horribly real. Now is the time to lay the knife aside and to move forward into the 21st century with a form of ritual that is truly welcoming and that is truly purely symbolic." 
- J. Goodman, MA, MBChB, Jewish circumcision: an alternative perspective. BJU Int 1999; 83 Suppl 1:22-27.

“When all is said and done, circumcision is really a human rights issue. What right do any of us have to permanently remove a normal, healthy, sensitive part of another person's body without their consent? I have no problem with an adult male who chooses to be circumcised. I do have a problem with an adult who makes that decision for a child. I have known too many men, both Jewish and Christian, who resent the fact that they were circumcised." 
- Laura Shanley, A Jewish Woman Denounces Circumcision

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