The secularization of society and the popularity of “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, has increased the ongoing controversy over circumcision. This has given confidence to campaigners who see this as a purely medical procedure which should not be imposed without informed consent, leading to proposals to ban circumcision before the age of 15 in Denmark and a range of other challenges to this ancient rite.
There are organizations in Israel, the UK and the US campaigning against circumcision. From a rabbinic perspective, circumcision is central to Jewish identity. The roots of this practice lie in the tribal identity of the Children of Israel. The arguments regarding health are irrelevant and unhelpful – if this is indeed the healthiest option, why did God not legislate this for all men and not just Jews?
The religious imperative for Jewish parents is unequivocal. One of the most enigmatic stories of the Bible tells of Zipporah saving Moses’s life as God sought to kill him for neglecting to circumcise their son (Exodus 4:24-26), even though he was on his way to rescue the Children of Israel from slavery.
Circumcision ritual symbolizes social covenant that underlies our ethnic identity and solidarity
The Biblical command for circumcision had its scope extended by the rabbis to address the unacceptable practice of epispasm, or de-circumcision, motivated by the wish to assimilate into Greco-Roman society or possibly convert to Christianity. While the Biblical requirement is to remove the foreskin (orlah) only (Genesis 17:11), the rabbis introduced complete uncovering (peri’ah) of the corona. The urge to de-circumcise lives on, the US anti-circumcision movement includes an organization to “restore” men.
Circumcision can without doubt be a bloody ceremony. This graphic 16th century description from Montaigne’s Travel Journal will be familiar to anyone who has attended a modern day Jewish circumcision.
Deciding to circumcise one’s son is a difficult decision for most Jewish parents, and the angst was well expressed in Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament which is as much angry as it is funny. The parents’ dilemma has been a defining moment – this is when you decide if the next generation are in or out of the tribe and are the same as, or different from, the father.
Critics given plenty of ammunitionOne has to ask why this rite is more controversial than the many other irrevocable choices that a parent makes for their children, such as what stories they read or if they have a television? Anti-circumcision groups focus on the physical to the exclusion of the psychological. That the impact of other parental choices is not physical does not make them less profound, therapy being the only option to “undo” them.
Apart from the act itself, there are controversial rites around circumcision, such as "metzitza bepeh". The case of "metzitza bepeh" (sucking the wound with the mouth, graphically described by Montaigne’s Travel Journal mentioned above) is a classic example where modern and Talmudic medicine clash. Rav Pappa is cited in the Babylonian Talmud as saying “If a surgeon does not suck (the wound), it is dangerous and he is dismissed”.
Based on modern medical advice and recent halachic rulings, the practice is now widespread either to use a pipette, to protect both the "mohel" (circumciser) and the baby, or not to do it at all. Some rabbis still do not accept this, perhaps in part because the Reform movement has already banned this. This is one aspect of the dangers that a “fundamentalist” approach to Judaism can engender.
Arguments of this nature give the critics plenty of ammunition and help discourage people from performing this custom. In addition, secular Israelis are evidently losing interest in this rite, I’d suggest as much due to broader secular-religious tensions as anything else.
Nevertheless, circumcision lies at the heart of Jewish religious and cultural identity. To move away from this is of course every family’s choice and we have to learn to respect those whose choices are not our own, even when we feel they are deeply mistaken. However if such choices become widespread, it would have an impact in further fragmenting Jewish identity, especially between Israel and the Diaspora.