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Jewish Law, the Foreskin, and Human Rights | Part 3

The past century has been marked by the declaration and protection of universal human rights, as well as a marked increase in the quality of life, both in the United States and worldwide. With these improvements, higher expectations regarding a child’s right to bodily autonomy have become socially accepted and legally mandated. Many argue that since female children in the U.S. are protected by a 1996 law banning female circumcision, this law should be expanded to include the protection of male children as well.

There are a growing number of Jews who are becoming increasingly vocal in questioning both the ethics and the legality of circumcision. Jews in the Reform Judaism movement have already been advocating for an end to ritual circumcision for the past 180 years. An increasing number of courageous Jewish and Israeli scholars, historians, mothers, fathers, and activists have raised serious objections to circumcision surgery. The idea that an individual has the right to their own body, regardless of age, sex, gender, and religious affiliation is a recent notion in history. More and more Jews in America and worldwide are choosing not to circumcise their sons. These Jewish voices against circumcision are just starting to enter the mainstream conversation.

What follows is a collection of statements from Jews who question the ethics of forced, under-age circumcision.

 

“The practice of circumcision predates Judaism. Peoples as diverse as the Jews, Muslims, and South African Xhosas all practice it, but none of them invented it. The specific origins of circumcision are lost in antiquity, but the earliest records of the ritual are from Africa…. Circumcision was never universal in Judaism. Notable Jews from Moses to Theodore Herzl (the founder of Zionism) declined to circumcise their sons. Today in Sweden only 40% of Jewish boys are circumcised.”
- Norm Cohen, What About Religious Circumcision?, NOCIRC of Michigan

“I happen to agree with you that foreskin removal should be illegal. It is a mutilation… I agree with you that men should not be circumcised. . . I don’t know where this circumcision came from, some people feel it’s a religious thing, it’s about health, it’s about cutting off the foreskin makes your penis less likely to get cancer. There’s been all kinds of myths. I think it’s nonsense. That if you’re born that way, it seems to me it’s a mutilation to cut it off. The same way in Africa they sometimes cut off a woman’s clitoris and they think that’s justified. I think our foreskins were cut off in order to desensitize us, and I think it was a bunch of religious nudnicks who decided they didn’t want us going around fornicating so they cut off some of our penis skin.”
- Howard Stern, Talk Radio Host
Howard Stern, Jewish Intactivist by Rebecca Wald, J.D., BeyondTheBris.com, March 31, 2011

“In any other arena of medical or religious practice, such an activity as the willful removal of healthy, God-given, purposefully functioning tissue (without sufficient mitigation of the pain that it causes) from a fully conscious infant, would be immediately recognized, in both Jewish and American law, as the trespass it is.
Or, to put it another way: It's a mitzvah to fight to end circumcision!”
- Samuel Richmond, a Jewish Intactivist in southern California, The Case for Brit Without Milah, Circumstitions.com

“…It is accepted that he that is not circumcised, but is the son of a Jewish mother, is a Jew. Numerous scholars of Judaism have clearly pointed out that this damaging surgical ritual is inconsistent with all other tenets of the Jewish religion to protect the integrity of the individual and do no harm to another person. The Law Commission would be doing all Jews great service, in fact, to finally recognize the universal harm, the permanence, and the impossibility of informed consent of non-therapeutic circumcision on any infant boy, regardless of religion. To fail to do so, to create a "special exception" for Jewish boys, would be tantamount to governmental discrimination against infants born into the Jewish faith by assuming that their pain is less (it is not) and that they will simply learn to accept their harm. Our pain is real, we are part of the larger society, and we need and expect full protection under the law.”
- Brian Levitt, Statement to the United Kingdom Law Commission
Consultation Paper No. 139 20November 1996

  

“More and more Jews are choosing to not circumcise their boys.. (Thank God!) And just as we accept Jews who do not keep kosher or observe as we do, we recognize the amazing diversity of practice and belief that is part and parcel of our astounding heritage.
Genital cutting does not create a 'mensch' (a conscious-caring individual). Indeed it is more of an obstacle to our natural development and [a] source of anger and confusion. Coming from an Orthodox background and having lived in Jerusalem, i am very aware that the problems of domestic violence and sexual pathology are just as prevalent in the observant communities as in the secular. Deuteronomy 10:16 says: "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart..." In Hebrew, the word foreskin is 'orlah'... there is an 'orlah' covering the ear and the heart... What is preventing us from 'hearing the word of God and opening our hearts in love and compassion.. This is the real circumcision that needs to occur. and it is a life-time learning ceremony…. 'Brit Milah' is the hebrew for the covenant of 'circumcision'. 'Mila' also means 'word'.. We can welcome the child with songs and praises and holy words, gentle tones, and soft touches and smiles.”
- Rabbi Nathan Segal, Rabbi of Shabbos Shul
One Rabbis' Thoughts on Circumcision

“Of all the ancient customs still practiced, circumcision is the one we should be least proud of. I say this as a father who succumbed to communal pressure and had my son circumcised. He suffered not just a little, and despite the involvement of a doctor who applied topical anaesthetic. I then investigated the scientific record and was amazed to learn that a preponderance of experts worldwide consider circumcision medically unjustified, a painful, risky amputation of a functional body part….. Is this a price worth paying for a badge of identity hidden under men's pants, a badge shared with Muslims and Aboriginals? Few Jews would wish to resume animal sacrifices or polygamy, yet circumcision shares with these practices a tribal origin outside of Judaism, and fealty to it is distinctly in the realm of the irrational.
Thus the need for the emotional blackmail so many parents are subjected to; the myths of no pain and no risk; the hugely exaggerated claims of potential health benefits. Throughout Europe, health services abjure routine circumcisions because of the doctors' commitment to upholding the Hippocratic Oath not to do harm. Jewish parents should embrace that simple principle and take up welcoming ceremonies for our babies that are violence-free and egalitarian.
- Victor Schonfeld, Director of the documentary War Cries: It’s A Boy!
Jerusalem Report, November 22, 1999.

“I'm 37, and have been sitting on a mountain of grief and rage for 17 years, since I discovered what was stolen from me while reading a critique of circumcision in a hip, underground, alternative Jewish newspaper I found at a campus Hillel, of all places… In the Torah, God also commands us to stone people to death, burn animal sacrifices, and take slaves from neighboring nations. Jews have given up those unholy practices, why shouldn't we give this one up too? The majority of Swedish Jews are intact, and guess what? They're still Jewish! Judaism, whether a cultural, ethnic, or religious identity, does not require circumcision. Jewishness is solely defined by parental lineage or conversion, not by genital cutting. Today, there are Jewish baby welcoming ceremonies for all genders free from genital cutting… Maybe you'd get used to Brit Shaloms instead, I hear they're quite enjoyable for everyone involved - especially the baby.”
- Matthew Taylor, The case against circumcision, MondoWeiss​, August 4, 2011

“It's our responsibility as Jews to welcome new information and thoughtful inquiry on this or any other question. Because of the growing evidence of the harmful effects of circumcision, more Jews are trusting their feelings -- applying ethics, reason, and experience, and resolving their conflicts with a decision not to circumcise.”
- Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., The Other Side Of The Circumcision Debate
Huffington Post, July 12, 2011

"We have been Jewish Intactivists for many years, passionately working to educate people on the harms of circumcision. …we both realized that we too would like to see the circumcision of unconsenting minors actually OUTLAWED — yes, even for Jews (and Muslims etc).
- Brian Levitt and Tina Kimmel, co-founders of Jews for the Rights of the Child.

“MGM is a cruel, painful, mutilating, torturous, violative act without valid medical benefit that not only contravenes the UN Charter, but also violates every principle of human kindness and medical ethics in every civilized country in the world. It is a violation of torah commandments to physically assault or harm another person (Exodus 21:18-27). Yet that is exactly what circumcision is thus, it is against the most fundamental concept of Jewish law.”
- Gillian Flato, Director of Jews Against Circumcision

Related Links

 

Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity
Jews Against Circumcision
Jews for the Rights of the Child
Bris Shalom Officiants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.
Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D.

Jewish Intactivist Media
Beyond the Bris: Jewish Parenting Blog
Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision - A Film by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon