|picture from www.brityy.org|
I am against infant circumcision. That said, I hasten to add that I don't think circumcising boys is the world's greatest crime. Many circumcised boys have lived to tell the story. They are not enormously deprived. Circumcising boys is nothing like "circumcising" girls. Still--I think the practice is wrong and should stop.
But what if you're Jewish? Don't you have to circumcise your baby boy? This is what some Jewish groups are saying in response to a German court's recent ruling against religion-based infant circumcision. You could respond with a general attack on religion, or an attack on religious rationales for suspicious childrearing practices (see Brian Earp for the latter). But I think it's interesting to approach this from a Jewish perspective. Does it really make sense for Jews to insist on infant circumcision?
You might say "of course," since in the bible God does demand circumcision on the 8th day. But let's have a look at the circumcision chapter of Genesis (17) and consider the meaning of circumcision. Liberal Jews, at least, ought to agree that it's the meaning that matters, as they are prepared to throw out hundreds and hundreds of biblical injunctions--the bits about banning lepers, stoning people for blasphemy, and the like. What (we) liberal Jews want to retain is what really matters, not every last line and edict.
The circumcision chapter starts with God making a covenant with Abram and offering him enormous success and prosperity (I got these passages from the Gateway Bible website
--they're from the New International translation).
17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God. ”
God offers great things, and demands something in return--namely, a sign that Abraham and his descendants will be faithful to the covenant.
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This
is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant
you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. ”
Yes, it does say "for the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised," but the very same sentence says "including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner--those who are not your offspring." You cannot say the first half of the sentence is sacred and unchallengeable, and then say the second half is barbaric. The second half presupposes there are slaves in a household and that the head of household is entitled to perform surgery on their genitals. This is obviously to be rejected by modern people who have a grip on the notion of individual rights and personal autonomy.
Any reasonable, modern approach to this chapter will focus on the main underlying meaning--the covenant--not the exact details as to who should circumcise whom, and when. The meaning becomes more clear a little later in the chapter. First there is this, which stresses the extraordinary generosity of God. He will even give a child to 90 year old Sarah!
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.”
Now it's Abraham's turn to "give back."
22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household , including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
This is an amazing passage, if you think about it vividly. Imagine the slicing (without anaesthia), the blood, the pain--all that, done to a sensitive, pleasure-giving organ. God gave richly, and these men gave back proportionally. That's the meaning of circumcision: thanking God and making a commitment to him through pain and sacrifice--of a body part, and the pleasure that it brings.
Now, I don't see how it's possible for circumcision to mean gratitude and commitment unless men undertake it themselves, voluntarily, and with full knowledge of how they will suffer and what they're giving up. Think about Abraham forcing circumcision on his slaves. That couldn't possibly have the same meaning as undergoing the procedure himself. ("No skin off my penis..." you can just about hear him say.) Likewise if adults try to express gratitude and commitment by tying down 8-day-old babies and cutting of their foreskins, there's no meaningful sacrifice being made. You cannot make a meaningful sacrifice by taking something away from someone else.
So I think Jews should make a modification to the circumcision ritual in just the way they've modified hundreds and hundreds of other biblical injunctions. They should become like Abraham and Ismael, and decide for themselves, at an adult age, whether or not they want to have their foreskins removed. At that point, I predict they will feel just as Abraham and Ismael must have--that a foreskin is kind of a nice thing. If it's more painful to be circumcised as an adult, then so be it. The pain was part of the meaning of the ritual for Abraham and Ismael. Adult circumcision would be a true sacrifice, a way to express dedication to God.
Now of course, if circumcision is done in the style of Abraham and Ismael--to adult males--there's a question whether it will continue. Jewish boys are happy with Bar Mitzvahs as a rite of passage, and are likely to be a lot less excited about circumcision. In fact, I think once they get to know their foreskins, many are not going to want to give them up. They're going to think "what a crazy, barbaric ritual!" That part of the bible will then be forgotten, like the parts about banishing lepers and stoning blasphemers.
That eventuality may make some Jews loathe to replace infant with adult circumcision. They'll want to get 'em while their helpless, to preempt adult males making "the wrong decision" later on. But that, clearly, is ethically suspect. We should do to babies what we think they would want us to do, if we could consult their later adult selves. That's why we give them vaccinations and force them to go to school, despite their protests. To perform circumcision on a baby boy just because we think he won't perform it on himself, later on, clearly violates the baby's rights.
So: adult circumcision. That's the way to go, especially if you're circumcising for Jewish reasons.