Religious Circumcision

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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[a]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram[b]; your name will be Abraham,[c] for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 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. 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.
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.[d] 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.


  1. Great blog. Biblical scholar from both the Jewish and Christian tradition note that there are two covenants being laid out. The first in the first passage you cite and the second in the second passage you cite. Most believe that the circumcision covenant was added during the Babylonian exile (about 500 BC) when Jewish identity was being challenged through massive dislocation.

    I agree the importance of the ritual is its meaning. Being accepted into the Chosen Race and perpetuating the covenant that began with Abraham. There are now more and more Jews (as defined as having a Jewish mother) who are not circumcised who consider themselves and are considered by other as Jews. There are Jews who immigrated to Israel from Russia who were not circumcised, no one considered them not to be Jewish.

    Abraham was a man of great faith. He demonstrated this by having himself circumcised and later going so far as to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice (Kierkegaard has a great book on this).

    These were acts he chose for himself by himself. To cut a child is not an act of faith for the child, it is assault.

  2. If I may, I'll do this in two parts to fit posting parameters.

    * * * * *

    This is really a complex issue, far more nuanced than the outraged Jewish leaders in Germany imply.

    First, as the previous poster notes, there's the question of when infant circumcision actually began in Judaism. One can take the Pentateuch at face value and say that the chain of circumcision has been unbroken since Abraham. This requires us to believe that for over 1000 years fathers performed surgery on their sons in unsanitary conditions with crude instruments. Logically, there were no mohels; we now that they didn't come along until about 130 AD. Also logically, this would have put many children at mortal risk. It makes no sense.

    More and more biblical scholars believe that the Hebrews instituted infant circumcision at the behest of their priests around 500 BC, and the story of circumcision being the seal of the covenant was woven back through the Pentateuch -- and not terribly gracefully. Genesis 17 largely replicates Genesis 15, but adds the circumcision story. And there are some hair-raising stories about foreskin and circumcision in other books of the bible.

    Hebrew circumcision started off as the removal of the acroposthion, or skin that overhangs the glans. This type of circumcision was safer, in that it did not tear the adherent infant foreskin from the glans, and healed more quickly. It also resulted in the unique half-cut look among Jewish men at the time, which is what allowed young Jewish athletes to practice epispasm, or skin stretching. WIth half a foreskin to work with, these young men could eventually cover the glans so they could participate in Hellenic games in the nude, as was the norm. Greek culture at the time accepted nudity but strongly objected to the glans being revealed in public.

    Even cutting the acroposthion and epispasm carried risks. But they were safer than what the rabbinical council ordered up next around 130 AD: a ban on epispasm, likening it to never having been circumcised in the first place, and replacement with today's "radical" circumcision that tears apart the synechia binding the foreskin and glans. Two more steps the rabbis demanded were much more skin taken off, enough such that the wound would not even come in contact with the glans, and metzitzah, or oral contact with the wound.

    * * * * *

    more in next post

  3. Part 2

    * * * * *

    These dramatic, manmade changes partly form the basis for the talmudic instruction that if parents lose 2 sons from circumcision, they can skip circumcising the third. (The other logical reason is hemophilia in the family, but that doesn't quite explain why you still have to cut sons 4 & 5.) They also made it all but impossible for fathers to safely cut their sons, so this led to the introduction of the new job of ritual circumciser: mohel.

    The New Testament tells us that Joseph circumcised the infant Jesus, so it's probable that Hebrews at that time practiced only the removal of the acroposthion. The timing of the rabbinical council more than 100 years later suggests it, too.

    Over the centuries there has been considerable debate among Jews of the appropriateness of brit milah. Some prominent German Jews of the mid-1800's wanted to eliminate it altogether as being inconsistent with modern health practices. Freud spoke against it, saying it could create psychological harm. And today, only about 70% of Jews outside of Israel or English-speaking countries consistently practice infant circumcision in their families. Even within the very compliant Anglo world, 70% of American Jews choose to have their sons circumcised at birth (not day 8) in the hospital (not by a mohel), thus not fulfilling any Jewish obligation. Somehow they've confused "having a bris" with "not having a foreskin", or have rationalized to themselves that just following the American custom also fulfills their religious duty.

    Given this historical dog's breakfast of ritual circumcision within Judaism, it's a bit rich for Jewish leaders today to be trying to sell the story that infant circumcision is a cherished, consistent, unbroken tradition for 4,000 years. That version isn't even close to the truth.

    Disclaimer: yes, I'm Jewish (at least my parents are)

  4. Does your argument not apply to religion in general (that it should be an adult choice , not one made for children?)

  5. going so far as to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice ...

    These were acts he chose for himself by himself.
    Scratches head. Surely you see the problem in making both of these statements

  6. Eric, Thanks for the great history--really fascinating. And thanks everyone else, too, for comments.

    Deepak, Do people implant religious ideas in impressionable children precisely because they think that as secularly raised adults, they woud not embrace the ideas? That seems nefarious, but I don't think that's always the reasoning behind childhood religious education. Some people actually convert as adults, so don't have this thought that inclucation has to occur at a young age.

    (That said, I've always been puzzled by adult conversion. How does it happen? But it does....quite a bit. I guess a topic for another day.)

  7. @Jean
    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.
    Similarly how is it possible for a child to "accept Jesus as his savior" ?

    But I don't think that's always the reasoning behind childhood religious education.
    There are probably multiple reasons behind it - but yes certainly one of the reasons is that it's easier for the children to make the "right" choice if brought up religiously. Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man..or so they say.

  8. Is it possible that the passage in question is not a reference to slavery, but rather, a reference to adoption? Was adoption practiced in biblical times? I honestly don't know. but this is how I first interpreted Genesis 17.

  9. The post by Jean Kazez, and the long comment thereon by Eric Stone, are excellent and a breath of fresh air. You two think and write in the manner of Leonard Glick, Hampshire College prof and author of a powerful scholarly analysis of brit milah, published in 2005. He is not much talked about in intactivist circles.

  10. Thanks very much, I'll look him up.


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