Monday, June 20, 2011

Circumcision is Incompatible with the 21st Century: An Orthodox Rabbi Agrees

It’s easy to dismiss the supporters of a November ballot initiative in San Francisco to make it “unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years.” Like all true believers, these “intactivists” engage in junk science and exaggerated rhetoric about “male genital mutilation”. Further discrediting the anti-circumcision cause is the fact that the movement’s leadership peddles propaganda that borders on the anti-Semitic, such as the anti-circumcision comic book “Foreskin Man”, which reads like a sophomoric plagiary of a superhero cartoon, a racy Penthouse fantasy and Der Sturmer. One could imagine that after November the intactivist movement will quickly pass from center stage. But that would be a mistake.

Circumcision is unsettling. As the actor Russell Crowe wrote on Twitter: "I love my Jewish friends, I love the apples and the honey and the funny little hats but stop cutting yr babies.". Despite the politically incorrect tone, Crowe makes it clear why the anti-circumcision movement is here to stay: circumcisions are bloody and make babies cry. Even the committed among us are uncomfortable, and most of us look down nervously when the mohel begins the ceremony. It’s painful to enter the Covenant of Abraham.

In the past, circumcision was considered attractive because of its health benefits, and even many non-Jews were routinely circumcised. Today, it’s debatable if circumcision’s health benefits warrant it being a standard procedure. Without a clear medical rationale, non-Jews will stop circumcising their children, and marginally affiliated Jews are sure to follow. The Jewish community can no longer rely on doctors to do the mohel’s job, and regardless of the outcome in San Francisco, it will be a lot harder to convince apathetic Jewish parents to perform circumcisions. Why would any parent want to endure the blood, pain and tears of their baby’s circumcision for no reason?

In short, circumcision is a marketing nightmare; outside of a deep commitment to Judaism, there’s no good reason to do them. This point is significant, because the Jewish community is intoxicated with marketing. Federations commission countless surveys to find out what young Jews want. Jewish professionals search for ways to make their programs “hipper”. The almighty “social media” must be deployed in the battle for the hearts of the younger members of the tribe. Grant money flows liberally to market driven, cutting edge, jargon laden programs with a social media presence.

I can’t argue against good marketing; representatives of a religion that has prized ideas should be able to communicate well. But there’s a thin line between marketing well and being “market driven”. The market driven vision believes that the customer is always right. So if it’s Yiddish or yoga or Jewish jokes that turn young Jews on, let’s pour community resources into a Yiddish Yoga Yuckfest. (With bagels, lox and cream cheese, of course). Instead of challenging young Jews, a market driven vision of Judaism seeks to produce a 21st century Judaism that will make our customers happy.

But here comes the problem. Aspects of Judaism like circumcision will always be unpopular in customer surveys. If we leave the future of Judaism in the hands of marketing experts, challenging rituals like circumcision or Passover or Yom Kippur will be ignored, and we will end up with a smooth syncretistic mumbo jumbo that has no resemblance to our 3,000 year old tradition.

I’m a modern Orthodox rabbi who talks a great deal about the place of Judaism in the 21st century. But increasingly I’ve come to realize that circumcision is incompatible with the times, as is much of Judaism. But Jews should be proud of how different we are. In an era of unprecedented individualism and hedonism, Jews declare that community is critical, even for an eight day old baby. We take pride in a ritual that affirms that sexual desire is not meant to be left unrestrained, but must be shaped by values of fidelity and devotion. When others seek endless comfort, we are willing to say that doing the right thing might be painful, but it’s still worthwhile.

Over the years, I’ve met inspiring people from the Former Soviet Union who performed circumcisions under heroic circumstances. Defying the Communist dictatorship, they would huddle surreptitiously and perform the covenant of Abraham on children of varying ages. The amazing thing is that these Jews in the FSU had no Jewish education whatsoever. But even with only a rudimentary knowledge of Judaism, they understood that being Jewish means going against the current, and being Jewish requires personal sacrifice.

Even though North American Jews enjoy freedom and prosperity, we need to explain to young Jews that they too have to be willing to defy the spirit of the times to be Jewish. After all, Judaism is more than apples, honey and funny little hats.


Jeffrey R. Woolf said...

Gut Gesogt!!!

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

a groyse dank!

E. Fink said...

I too can completely understand a non-believer's position on circumcision. In fact, I can understand the non-believer's apprehension to any Jewish practice.

The issue has somewhat shifted with the comic book taking the conversation from intellectual debate about religious freedoms to an epithetic diatribe about stereotypes and anti-semitism.

Rabbi Jonathan Gerard said...

This heartfelt column fails to convince the reader that circumcision has any value. If "pain," as he says, has value, then why not just punch the baby in the stomach on the eighth day?

Circumcision does seems to have value. It may be correlated with lower rates of cervical cancer in Jewish wives. It reduces sexual sensitivity, making Jewish husbands more likely to fulfill a Talmudic value of helping their wives to come first to orgasm. And it seems significantly to diminish the likelihood of contracting AIDS. Jewish law exempts from circumcision any boy born to a family where two consecutive generations of sons were "bleeders." Halacha seems to say that, where circumcision produces a risk to life or health, it should be proscribed. So a rabbi seeking to understand how Judaism will be viable in the 21st century ought, according to the very Jewish principles he embraces, consider that circumcision might be as wrong as polygamy, or as detrimental as forgiving all loans in the sabbatical year, or as erroneous as prohibiting for all time any fire on the Sabbath. (Today we recite a blessing thanking God for the commandment to light Sabbath candles--when there is no such commandment; the commandment is NOT to kindle a fire on Shabbat.) But, having engaged in such an honest evaluation of circumcision, most of us will come to agree, I believe, that the ritual continues to have value beyond just doing it because we always have.

Judaism has nothing to fear from honesty or from truth. God is truth and must be pursued as conscientiously as justice.

Anonymous said...

Nice article, but please,leave out the 'racy Penthouse'. It was well expressed how today the focus is on marketing. Thank you!

Barry said...

I agree with Rabbi Jonathan Gerrad's
This heartfelt column fails to convince the reader that circumcision has any value.

What should be noted is the fact that Israeli mohels have been sent to South Africa to perform circumcisions among the native population, and to train people there, in the fight to reduce the spread of HIV.

What must be appreciated is that one's roots and ritual go hand in hand.
Americans are already throwing out G0d, who to many is just as unpopular as circumcision, dumping family values and the cohesion a well functioning society depends on.

Anonymous said...

Well said to Rabbi Gerard's comment but let's counter the SF initiative with other ideas that "make sense". Medicaid and social security costs us a fortune. So any senior citizen who has dementia or is totally unproductive should be put to death. That will free up enormous resources. Makes perfect sense like banning milah.

Why don't we do it, because G'd says so. That is also why we do not comit murder because otherwise, why should I not kill the SF anti-milah initiators.

Judaism operates because G'd commands. It is eternal not like the whim of a marketing guru or a misguided individual

Anonymous said...

The Rabbi stated, this----"We take pride in a ritual that affirms that sexual desire is not meant to be left unrestrained, but must be shaped by values of fidelity and devotion." -----------

I wish he would explain how the Bris Ritual accomplishes what he mentioned, above. Thank you.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...


thank you for your careful reading and comment. in terms of your remarks about history of halacha, I will leave aside, because that is an old debate between traditionalists and non-traditionalists, and there's no need for us to go off on that tangent.

but regarding the first sentence in your comment, I need to ask you to reconsider.

please re-read the third to last paragraph.certainly, I didn't say that the value of circumcision is pain. In fact, I wrote that the values expressed in circumcision of devotion, community, identity and sexual restraint make it worthwhile to endure the pain. or to quote the article "When others seek endless comfort, we are willing to say that doing the right thing might be painful, but it’s still worthwhile."

the problem with all of the reasons you have given for circumcision is that they focus on benefits (that are far from certain!) to the person who is circumcised - health, mutual orgasms etc.. and that's the very problem. Judaism isn't a medical handbook, and about finding selfish benefits for the individual. And your explanations beg the question: will you circumcise your children if it will at some point be shown that there are no health benefits?

Judaism is a spiritual heritage that offers man a higher calling of devotion to God and mankind. To paraphrase John Kennedy - ask not what Judaism can do for you, ask what you can do Judaism.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

n response to the comment by anonymous about how does circumcision affirm that sexual desire is meant to be shaped by the values of fidelity and devotion. - That comment is absolutely correct - my focus was primarily on the perils of market driven Judaism. i apologize for writing in short hints, but my time is quite limited today - but just two sources to note - the idea that circumcision is related to sexual restraint and or marital fidelity - may be hinted at in the narrative of the rape of Dinah, where the "remedy" for Shechem is circumcision - and that Shechem's barbaric behaviour is the opposite of circumcision. similarly, fidelity may be hinted at when Abraham is commanded to circumcise himself, and both Abraham and Sarah are told at that time to change their names, as both of them will share in the blessing of children. in any case, circumcision acts as a symbol, not an agent of physical change. it's worth ultimately lies in the the community taking these values to heart

A.J. KRAVTIN said...

Having read the many comments on circumcision, I find so much exaggeration and misinformation. Having performed many circumcisions I know that the pain in newborns in just momentary. Putting a sugar teat in the baby's mouth usually calms them down immediately. also in using a nerve block the baby feels no pain. Using the Mogen clamp there is relatively minimal bleeding. In fact, with a ritual circumcision you are required to have at least a drop of blood for the Metzitza. Also, I have never heard of any circumcized male complain of not being able to reach a climax because of circumcision. In caring for many newborns I have found that it is easier for mothers to keep their babies clean. I have seen cases of Balanitis in uncircumcized penises. Studies have even shown a diminution of urinary tract infections in an uncovered head of the penis.
Besides all that, to deny the Jewish people the opportunity and privilege of exercising their right to establish their traditional covenant through Milah is interfering with the exercise of religion and if the bottom line is anti-semitism then it is indeed discrimination.
A.J. Kravtin, M.D.

Dan Rosen said...

Rabbi -
I believe that circumcision has inherent value in that it reminds us that our goal is not uniformly to be in step with the 21st century. It reminds us what it means to be part of something larger than ourselves. And as for the pain, I try to explain to people that children cry from inoculations and heel sticks as well, but because we have put our faith in the medical establishment and its concern for the body, we relent. If we can accept the notion of a soul, then why is it any more strange to allow a bit of crying for the sake of the health of the soul?

Dan Rosen

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

well said dan!!

ML said...

While I totally agree with the your primary argument, that it is hard to justify circumsion without the larger context of religious commitment, I think it is a very dangerous argument to make.

Unfortunately, so many people on all levels of religious observance lead religiously unexamined lives. People live lives of contradiction of what they do and don't observe. There are "religious" people who might be unethical in business. There's a whole generation of Jews who discarded observance but would never dream of intermarriage. I think that this is inherent to being human.

So, by arguing that beyond a greater religious commitment circumcision is impossible to defend, aren't you pushing away the large masses of people who maintain some tenuous connection to tradition?

Also, I think other religious polemecists, like Rav Hirsch, did try to make arguments for observance of specific mitzvos beyond the necessity to live a fully devoted religious life , perhaps for this reason.

Anonymous said...

this article borders on kefira. you should seek a proper kabbalist such as rabbi kimmel

Anonymous said...

My husband is circumcised. Trust me, he has a very healthy sex drive and sex gives him great pleasure. He does not suffer a lack of feeling. Our sons are circumcised. I could have done without the party however, they seemed to feel less pain than the mother. They began to cry as soon as the diaper was removed (cold) and they stopped as soon as the milk was flowing into their mouths. I have friends with sons who have had emergency circumcisions at older ages due to infection. That is pain.