The circumcision debate in the Jewish community is visible and growing, articles questioning circumcision have appeared in National Jewish newspapers and online, and an increasing number of Jews are choosing not to circumcise their sons. Some Jewish thinkers have been openly critical of circumcision. Educator and author Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has written, “Whatever we say that circumcision means, I no longer believe such a wounding is defensible.”1
Milah: Symbolic Circumcision of Covenant
The original Biblical circumcision of Abraham’s time was a relatively minor ritual circumcision procedure in which only the end of the foreskin extending beyond the tip of the glans was removed. This was called “Milah”. It is from this term that the Jewish Religious Covenant circumcision ritual Bris Milah or Brit Milah got its name.
Following “Milah”, a penis so circumcised would still contain a considerable portion of the foreskin and the penis would have continued to go through its natural development since most of the foreskin would have remained intact. Protection of the glans would still have occurred. The foreskin would not be stripped back off the glans and would naturally separate from the glans gradually as the child matures, much as it would had the child not been circumcised. The sensitive frenulum would not have been disturbed or removed, and the foreskin remaining would continue to cover and protect the glans, especially when flaccid, the glans would appear as not circumcised. There would be minimal loss of sensitivity or intended protection. This type of circumcision continued throughout the ages and during the time of Christ. The circumcision of Christ would have been this type as referred to in the bible.
Periah: The laying bare of the glans
A second step was introduced to the religious ritual about 140 AD when Periah was performed. Periah consists of tearing and stripping back the remaining inner mucosal lining of the foreskin from the glans and then, by use of a sharp finger nail or implement, removing all of the inner mucosal tissue, including the excising and removal of the frenulum from the underside of the glans. The objective was to ensure that no part of the remaining penile skin would rest against the glans corona.
This is a much more radical form of circumcision. It was dictated by man and is not the biblical commanded circumcision rite. Its introduction has a bizarre history. The rabbinate sought to put an end to the practice of youths desiring to appear uncircumcised by stretching the remaining foreskin for social economic benefits and for sports competitions. By introducing the painful and debilitating “Periah” they would obliterate the foreskin completely such that a proper circumcised Jew could not disguise “the seal of the covenant”. From this point in Jewish history, the male’s glans is directly affected by the circumcision procedure, and the denuded glans and traumatized infant will heal with considerable nerve damage and loss of sensitivity. Again, it is important to note that this is not the covenant circumcision of Abraham defined in the bible.2
Pressure to Conform
Jewish circumcision (bris or brit malah) is dependent on the acceptance of cultural myths, the one that is paramount is the belief that all Jews circumcise. With this belief, the Jewish community puts itself under tremendous pressure to conform.
Bound by this burden to comply with social expectations, most Jewish parents do not recognize that circumcision is a choice. Since open communication about circumcision is discouraged, there is virtually no awareness of others who feel similar conflicts and doubts about the practice. Many parents are not made aware of other Jewish parents who have decided not to circumcise their sons, and as a result, submit to the pressure only to discover too late, that they wish they had chosen differently. Some parents report that if they could take back one decision, it would be their son’s circumcision.
Fear is another emotion motivating the decision to circumcise. For example, those who have been afraid to question or even talk about circumcision have the illusion that they are alone with their thoughts. The decision to circumcise is also fuelled by a fear of rejection. Some parents fear their son will not be accepted if they choose not to circumcise. There is no evidence to support this fear. To the contrary, reports from Jewish intact males indicate that their circumcision status has not been an issue for them, their friends or their parents. There are rabbis who would accept an intact boy as a Jew and lead a bar mitzvah for him.
Evolution of Jewish Practices
People evolve and change with the times, Jews today live with the moral beliefs that have developed and evolved for four thousand years. Jews today don’t practice what was done four thousand years ago. Stoning people to death for not observing Shabbat has been abandoned along with many other barbaric practices and it is time for Jews and Judaism to progress and understand that moral beliefs have developed for thousands of years and when you inflict a wound and violate the human rights of the child, then you have a conflict between freedom of religion and the human rights of the child, and you have to respect the child and let him decide.
The argument that Jewish babies have a right to have part of their penis cut off before they are old enough to give or withhold consent, because to do otherwise would deprive them of their heritage, is irrational. Heritage here means doing what has always been done and many Jews feel that it is an insult to their intelligence to cling blindly to customs of the past.
To be meaningful, a covenant must be entered into by a consenting adult who intellectually understands the covenant. A newborn baby is incapable of this understanding. Therefore, if a man decides to be circumcised later in life, based on his adult understanding of the covenant, only then is the covenant valid. If a person reaches an age of consent where he can understand and be informed of the consequences of amputating the foreskin, an important part of the penis, then he can make a covenant with god if he wants to. Only if he wants to change his own body after he is well informed then it is his decision. You cannot permanently alter another human being’s body without their consent; the body of the child is not yours.
Circumcision is not a requirement to be considered a Jew, if one is born of a Jewish mother, according to Jewish law, the boy takes the status of his mother; if the mother is Jewish, he is Jewish.3
Maimonides says that the main purpose of circumcision is to inflict damage on the penis and to diminish sexual pleasure in the man. The foreskin is a vital organ, a vital part of the penis and is highly innervated; it is the main sensory part of the penis. Once cut off, the sexual capacity of the penis is reduced.
Today, many Jewish parents are deciding not to circumcise their sons and instead are welcoming their newborn son peacefully into the world by conducting a Brit Shalom ceremony. Brit Shalom is a non-cutting, non-violent naming ceremony for newborn Jewish boys. It may be performed by a Rabbi or an experienced lay leader. If desired, providers can aid parents in devising their own ceremony. It is similar to the naming ceremony for girls.
Among the great strengths of Judaism are its rationality, its commitment to learning and scholarship, the tradition of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness and the prohibition on deliberately causing pain. Cutting off part of a baby’s penis violates all of these traditions and strengths.4
1 Questioning Circumcision – A Jewish Perspective by Ronald Goldman, Ph.D.
Picture Source- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GerrerRebbe.JPG