Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Taboo
The modern Jewish community is an extremely introspective group that is seemingly willing to question everything.
Want to question the Bible? What took you so long?! Want to question God? Join the club. Israel? Get in line!
However, there are still a few questions that seem to be somewhat taboo within the Jewish public sphere and near the top of this list is circumcision. Not only is this topic extremely fraught and potentially divisive, but it is also an absolutely fascinating one as it lies at the intersection of religion, medicine, law and moral philosophy.
If we imagine explaining circumcision to someone who has never heard to the concept, we could imagine the sheer look of horror that would arise on their face.
When questioned about this, new Jewish parents could respond in a couple of ways. They could, of course, quote the relevant passages throughout the Bible which command circumcision and talk about how they believe that God has commanded this action.
However the majority of Jews in America who will circumcise their son this year do not actually believe this. Chances are (according to recent Pew studies) that these parents probably drive on Shabbat, eat non-kosher, are pro gay marriage and view most of the laws in the Bible as archaic and irrelevant regarding their day to day lives. Why should circumcision be any different?
Many others will immediately retort that circumcision has a whole host of positive medical effects. Now before discussing the relevant science behind this claim, it is important to put this answer in perspective. There is a long tradition of Jewish thinkers defending Jewish practices by claiming that it has positive medical effects. Perhaps the most well-known example is Maimonides when he tried to defend the laws of kashrut by saying that they are for general health, a longtime discounted position that some surprisingly still advocate for.
However, defending religious practice via health is a difficult, irresponsible and misleading argumentative route to go down. If one’s end goal is simply health, there are a myriad of better routes to go down than relying on religious rituals.
Back to the science. For now it seems like the positive effects of circumcising a baby outweigh the negative ones. According to an array of recent studies, there does seem to be a slightly lower risk of contracting certain infections, diseases, and according to one study even penile cancer.
However, as critics like to point out, since most of these diseases appear in less than 1% of men, it is difficult to formally conclude that circumcision helps. Furthermore, a whole host of potential errors can occur during the circumcision itself - especially if it is done outside a proper medical facility. Although most medical professionals agree that circumcision is probably not detrimental and may even help in certain cases, very few advocate for it to become standard medical practice.
Within the modern legal realm, some people may remember the attempted circumcision ban in San Francisco in 2011. While this created quite the national stir, the conclusion was the State of California officially passing a bill to stymie local cities and towns from attempting to ban the practice in the near future. As long as the medical community remains somewhat neutral on the effects of circumcision, it will probably remain legal in America.
As I continue to think about this topic, a fundamental question persists in my head. If, like the majority of American Jews, one does not believe in the divinity of the Torah, how can we defend circumcision, with all of the risks involved, from a moral perspective, assuming that the medical benefits are inconclusive?
Now for full disclaimer. I will almost certainly circumcise my son(s.) Furthermore, I am happy that my parents circumcised me. But there are plenty of individuals who do not feel the same way. A quick Google search will reveal thousands of men, along with support groups, who feel that they were “genitally mutilated” against their will. This does not even count the small number of men who were actually permanently harmed from a circumcision gone wrong. What could one possibly say to their child if they grow up and are unhappy about being circumcised in their youth?
One side of me wants to simply wave these people off. It is such a minuscule number of men who are actually upset at having been circumcised as a baby and, especially as a Jew, it is almost a prerequisite to fitting in within the community. Surly these benefits outweigh the tiny chance of risk or the even tinier chance that your child will be unhappy with his successful circumcision.
On the other hand, in its grimmest form, it is an irreversible act with potential determinants that one forces on another autonomy-less human for no other reason than tradition. And if one does not believe that this tradition is divine in any way, there is definitely a conversation to be had.
So, for cultural or traditional Jews who do not believe in the divinity of the Torah but would never consider leaving your son uncircumcised, how do you think about this question?
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