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The Sacred Rite of Circumcision

Germany’s challenge to Jewish tradition focuses on individual rights, but what about our bodies’ sanctity?

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After a German court criminalized infant circumcision as “grievous bodily harm” in a June 26 ruling, Jewish as well as Muslim and Christian protests convinced the country’s government to present legislation to protect this most fundamental Jewish practice. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to Jewish concerns was sympathetic—including her July 17 declaration that a ban on circumcision would make Germany “a laughingstock of a country.” But these measures mark a truce rather than a victory for Jewish communities in Europe.

Even if the government passes legislation to protect circumcision on the grounds of religious freedom, the Cologne state court’s decision has let an evil genie out of the bottle: a concerted campaign to banish the sacred from European public life.

Merkel has the backing of the leadership of all of the country’s political parties, but her defense of circumcision met a groundswell of protest from German medical and child welfare organizations. Germany’s Child Protection Society (Kinderhilfe) denounced the ritual as “a blank check for religiously motivated child abuse.” The head of the German Academy for Pediatric Medicine, Wolfram Hartmann, warned on July 17, in response to Merkel’s statement, that circumcision causes “lifelong bodily and above spiritual [sic] injury.” Two days later, a spokesman for Germany’s Humanist Association dismissed circumcision as “a relic of times long gone” and demanded that Jews consign the practice to the dust-heap of history, along with corporal punishment of children. Six-hundred German physicians and lawyers signed an open letter to Merkel published July 21, proclaiming that “religious freedom cannot be a charter for violence,” and asserting that circumcision violates the “right of children to bodily integrity and sexual self-determination.”

It is hard to recall an issue that has called forth such fury from German civil society in recent years. And it is far from over. The effect of the court’s ruling can already be felt beyond Germany’s borders; copycat bans on brit milah have emerged in neighboring countries, including Switzerland and Austria. On July 23, two Swiss hospitals announced that they would abstain from performing circumcisions because they were “evaluating the legal and ethical stance in Switzerland,” a spokesman for a Zurich hospital said. A day later, the chief executive of Austria’s Vorarlberg province, Markus Wallner, told regional hospitals to refrain from circumcision for religious reasons “until the legal situation had been clarified” following the Cologne court’s decision. (Wallner backtracked a week later, after Austria’s justice minister declared that parents could not be punished for circumcising infants.)

The uproar over circumcision barely conceals a revulsion at the concept of the sacred in all its forms. The German court replaces the Jewish and Christian belief in sanctity of human life and the human body with a perverse concept of rights deriving from bodily proprietorship. In this brave new world, it is legal to bring your grandmother to a Zurich hospital to be euthanized but criminal to bring a newborn boy to be circumcised. It is doubly perverse because the West first learned of human rights, and the rights of newborns in particular, from the Jews. Banish the source of these rights and the notion of rights will eventually turn into a twisted mockery.


Remarkably, the recent wave of attacks on circumcision occurred after the leaders of all German political parties as well as all mainstream religious associations expressed support for infant circumcision as a matter of religious freedom. Germany’s Catholic bishops denounced the Cologne court ban as “an attack on religious freedom” and declared their “solidarity with Jews,” while the German Evangelical Church argued that the right of parents to raise children in their religious community should outweigh the court’s concern about the putative rights of children. Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, wrote July 6 that the issue of children’s rights was a pretext for resurgent anti-Semitism:

Since Hiroshima and the Holocaust, science no longer holds its pristine place as the highest moral authority. Instead that role is taken by human rights. It follows that any assault on Jewish life—on Jews or Judaism or the Jewish state—must be cast in the language of human rights. Hence the by-now routine accusation that Israel has committed the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide, and crimes against humanity. This is not because the people making these accusations seriously believe them—some do, some don’t. It is because this is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today.

Except it has been said before. Hartmann’s claim that brit milah inflicts “lifelong spiritual injury” retreads anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi period. As Jewish historian Robin Judd reported in the 2007 book Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, the Nazis claimed that “circumcision had a metamorphosing effect. Supposedly the removal of the foreskin transformed the individual, a claim they emphasized in their use of the terms deform or disfigure when describing the rite.” Unlike Hartmann and his Academy for Pediatric Medicine, though, the Nazis never sought to ban circumcision. The Catholic Church was still powerful during the 1930s, and Catholic doctrine, then as now, could not countenance the notion that Jesus, a circumcised Jew, was “deformed” or “degraded.” Today’s campaign against circumcision reflects the decline of Christian influence in Germany as much as it does latent German anti-Semitism, whose proponents have been only too eager to associate Jews with a supposedly barbaric or primitive rite.

Germany will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz, as the Israeli psychiatrist Zvi Rex remarked, and I would add that it assuages German guilt to depict Jews as deformed and disfigured. But something deeper, and uglier, is at work. The proponents of a ban argue for the right to self-determination—bodily and otherwise. It is perfectly consistent to permit euthanasia, provided that it is voluntary, while banning infant circumcision. The body, in this view, is the property of its owner, who has the right to dispose of it at whim. This argument seems reasonable at first blush, but it crumples with a slight shove.

Doctors in Zurich—where euthanasia has been legal since 2006—don’t ask too many questions when you bring your senile grandmother in for euthanasia; first of all, she signed the release form, and second, she isn’t capable of self-determination in the first place. But neither are the severely retarded, who were once the first victims of the Nazi killing machine. If we euthanize the senile elderly, why not the retarded as well? It can’t be hard to get them to sign the waiver.

A German fetus, for that matter, does not have the right to bodily integrity; not only its foreskin, but the whole fetus can be removed up to 12 weeks after conception. Why does the mother have the right to destroy it at 12 weeks, but not at 13 weeks? That has nothing to do with “fundamental rights,” but rather with political compromises struck after Germany was reunified. Of course, a fetus does not have the capacity for self-determination, but a newborn has no more capacity for self-determination than a fetus. Infanticide is not yet legal in Germany or in any civilized country, but prominent medical ethicists writing in respectable journals contend that a newborn could be killed with as few qualms as a fetus.

These may seem like extreme cases, but that is only because there is something that inhibits us—or should inhibit us—from crossing the line to take life. That is our sense of the sanctity of life. But it never occurred to any human society to attribute rights to individuals—let alone to infants—before ancient Israel. Excepting Israel, every ancient civilization killed infants as a matter of routine, including the enlightened Greeks. Aristotle wrote in Politics (VII.16): “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed.” Individual rights had no place in the pagan order, nor in the neo-pagan order the Nazis sought to construct.

Inalienable rights, as the Declaration of Independence insists, derive from an eternal God. The absolute right to live—for the retarded and senile and the newborn as well as the strong and healthy—rests on the mortal human’s share in something eternal. That is the premise of the sacred: The human body whose “physical integrity” so concerns the German court is flawed from the outset, because it will die.

To say that life is sacred means in plain English that our lives belong not to us, but to God, so that it is not within our purview to stifle newborns or expose our senile grandmothers. We make something sacred by giving it to God and receiving it back from him, as Abraham gave and received his son Isaac. Circumcision of Jewish infants reenacts Abraham’s sacrifice: The infant boy is given to God and enters into covenant with God, by which we affirm the sanctity of his life.

That is the origin of the sanctity of life in human history. The Jewish people have upheld it for nearly 4,000 years. Christianity emulates circumcision through baptism, which the early church instituted in opposition to infanticide. In this case, Jesus’ blood substitutes for the blood of the circumcised infant. As noted, Germans who believe in the covenant of Jesus’ blood stand together with Jews who practice brit milah, against the neo-pagans of the Cologne court.

God’s love for Abraham extends to his descendants, and circumcision denotes the transformation of Jewish flesh to a holy vessel for God’s presence in the world. As theologian Michael Wyschogrod wrote in The Body of Faith: God and the People Israel:

The God of Israel confirms man as he created him to live in the material cosmos. … There is a requirement for the sanctification of human existence in all of its aspects. Israel’s symbol of the covenant is circumcision, a searing of the covenant into the flesh of Israel and not only, or perhaps not even primarily, into its spirit. And that is why God’s election is of a carnal people. By electing the seed of Abraham, God creates a people that is in his service in the totality of its human being and not just in its moral and spiritual existence.

It is sad and empty to think of a human being simply as a lump of flesh seeking pleasure (“sexual self-determination”) and avoiding pain (e.g., through euthanasia) at the behest of its owner. Erase the line between what is sacred and what is merely utilitarian, and there is nothing in principle to prevent us from subjecting low-value (minderwertig) life to the cost-benefit analysis of the killers. That German physicians and attorneys campaign with such bitter determination to uproot the source of the sacred—the Jewish concept of covenant—from German society is downright chilling. Don’t they remember?


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superantifascist says:

These bans stem from the pornographization of the body in the internet age and its excessive preoccupation with the minutae of sexual preferences and fetishes. To say that the body is sacred in this day and age is tantamount to calling a keyboard or a wrench sacred. It is a tool to be used and abused, modified and distorted, glorified and even worshipped — but in no way sanctified and directed toward no higher purpose.

    Liquid_a says:

    And who shall decide how a body is to be “sanctified”?

      superantifascist says:

      Apparently the state would deny groups the right to decide that very question.

        heirofsalazar says:

        Apparently groups would deny individuals the right to decide that very question.

          superantifascist says:

          I see what you did there.
          But banning the circumcision of minors would in no way help individuals decide how to make themselves sacred. The presence of a foreskin has no such magical properties. People would still have to find ways to sanctify themselves, and they would be senselessly deprived of inclusion in the traditions of their ancestors. This question amounts to nothing more than whether freedom of religion will continue to be respected in the Western hemisphere.

          heirofsalazar says:

          In arguing for “freedom of religion”, you have argued against yourself! You cannot defend freedom of religion by trespassing on freedom of religion.

          What if your son rejects Judaism?

          Let’s say he desires to follow Sikhism, which celebrates the entire body as holy and therefore discourages body modifications of all sorts. By circumcising your son, you have trespassed upon his freedom of religion.

          Let’s say he becomes an atheist. By circumcising your son, you have trespassed upon his freedom FROM religion.

          You are NOT your son.

          Doctor Bucephalus says:

          Salazar that’s ridiculous. everyone raises their kids according to their beliefs, and that’s all we can expect of anyone. A completely open and agnostic education might severly affect some kid who radicalizes into an extremist and hamper his path. A secer atheist upbringing might make a child with sincere religious feelings feel so much cognitive dissonance it’ll make him miserable. These scenarios are no reason to blame any parent for their choices in raising their kids. Crminalizing a group for raising kids according to their beliefs has the taint of a blood libel, and equating male circumcision with real abuse and mutilation does the exact same thing. They are not morally equivalent, and if you continue to say so I’ll have to ask you get back to making horcruxes.

          heirofsalazar says:

          is ridiculous is equating “raising kids according to their beliefs” with
          “cutting hunks of flesh out of kids’ penises”. That is not raising
          children; that is EXPLOITING children.

          superantifascist says:

          All of what you’re saying would only make sense if a child
          grows up and for some reason decides he is adamantly opposed to being
          circumcised. But if he grows up and
          decides he does want it, and it’s reasonable to assume that a majority who grow
          up within a Jewish religious tradition would, you have done him a great injury
          by not having done the procedure earlier.
          Will he feel his rights protected for the unnecessary pain he now

          You just assume that this boy would grow up not wanting to
          be circumcised, and the whole culture after thousands of years will change and
          conform to these ideas simply because you and people who think like you support
          them. This is naïve and ahistorical, not
          to mention amoral when you factor in the senseless pain you are causing and the
          theft of one’s sense of identity and belonging.

          A boy who is uncircumcised cannot have a bar mitzvah
          either. I suppose again you expect the
          culture to just change to accept and conform to your ideas, and abolish bar
          mitzvah too or change the rules as to who is eligible to be a member of the
          community. In effect, your agenda doesn’t
          stop until the entire essence of the tradition is lost.

          heirofsalazar says:

          The only ritual religious consequence of being a Jewish male with a complete body is that you’re not allowed to eat from the Paschal Lamb, which was a sacrifice that was brought when the Temple was around, and hasn’t been brought since the Temple was destroyed—and we don’t know when the Temple is going to be rebuilt. That’s it!

          Judaism and Jewish tradition are far more than a genital cutting ritual perpetrated against infants. In short, you have no idea what you’re talking about.

          superantifascist says:

          Maybe if you’re a Karaite that’s the only one.

          superantifascist says:

          You’re also seemingly forgetting the “ritual religious consequence” of spiritual excision that applies to people who are voluntarily uncircumcised. And not being included as a full member of the congregation.

          If you attempt a Jewish tradition minus circumcision alone, you have already espoused a more radical agenda than all the reform movements ever dreamed up.

          @google-6e260df615c8bd82c32d84e07f31e8dc:disqus : That is not true; not performing milah on one’s son is punishable by karais. Not getting milah as an adult is also punishable by karais.

herbcaen says:

The opposition to circumcision is another manifestation of anti-Semitism. How can I prove this? Easy- Most of those who oppose circumcision would have no ethical problem aborting this child two week prior to its circumcision, ie a 38 week old viable fetus. Their problem with circumcision is that it is a ritual vital to Judaism. The German people are sending a message to the Jews who live in Germany that is very simple-Juden rous (get out). And the Jews should listen. The last time that Jews didnt listen to Juden rous, a great deal of harm to Jews followed

    Liquid_a says:

    You have no idea what you’re talking about.
    The people who are opposed to circumcision are appalled that this happens to children. Most of them are men who are furious their bodies were violated. Many are mothers who are disgusted at learning what they have done to their children or almost did. Circumcision in America is medical fraud and they want it to end. They really don’t give a hoot about Jews, but they do want genital cutting of defenseless children to end.
    By the way, the anti-circumcision movement (“intactivists”) come in all stripes, some being pro-life, etc.

      herbcaen says:

      Those who are opposed to circumcision dont have to circumcize their children, but stop imposing your beliefs on others. The fact that a few mentally ill individuals blame all their problems on circumcision is no reason to outlaw Judaism

        heirofsalazar says:

        Oh, the irony! What is circumcision if not an imposition of your beliefs on another? You are literally carving your beliefs into somebody else’s penis.

        Also, Judaism is far more than a genital cutting ritual.

41953 says:

In the Torah, God threatens to kill Moses because he forgot to circumcize his son Gershon, so Zipporah grabs a sharp stone and does the job on the spot.
I would call this child abuse, wouldn’t you?
If you want to defend circumcision, you are better off leaving God out of it, because His violent deeds are manifold and manifest in our “sacred” texts.
I think circumcision is a very minor operation and that parents have the right to decide whether to subject their child to it. But it once involved even less cutting and I can see how one could argue that any cutting that is not medically necessary should be avoided.
David Goldman is making too big of a deal here. So what if the Nazis opposed circumcision. They also opposed alcoholism.

    To quote the Torah and equate that to a Brit is ridiculous. Are you saying that the Nazis opposing circumcision was a good thing? They did so because it is a Jewish rite…..Please think before you write.

stannadel says:

Turning the attack on circumcision into an occasion to attack abortion rights and a carefully regulated right to assisted suicide is perverse and suggests that the author has an agenda that has nothing to do with circumcision. I want to defend our right to circumcise our sons without giving up my right to check out if faced with a very painful death from cancer. As for abortion, as I remember it is allowed by Jewish tradition before quickening and anytime it is needed to save the mother.

I found this piece deeply disturbing and the author’s thought process jumbled. To say that something is “sacred” does make it okay by modern standards of human rights. Female circumcision, honor killings, throwing a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, foot binding–all have or have had their proponents argue that religious beliefs justify the cruelty. I would put male circumcision in this category–a relic of times when things were done that we would not tolerate now. But if you want to argue for it, you will have to address the issues it raises, and not just hide behind the cloak of calling it “sacred”. That’s just not enough. And as the comment below says, it has nothing at all to do with abortion or “death with dignity”. I’m surprised that such a mess of an article was published on this site which usually has much higher standards.

    rightcoaster says:

    Ruth, perhaps your own thoughts are at least as badly jumbled. Equating male circumcision with female circumcision is not valid: the latter
    involves “…partial or total removal of the external female
    genitalia…”, and is not at all equivalent in its purpose or in its
    effect to foreskin removal. Honor killings are murders and “suttee” is
    suicide. Yet you would equate them to male ritual circumcision?
    Whether or not brit milah is a relic is a separate question which some
    may wish to debate. But it is your thinking that is far more jumbled, I
    think, than the author’s, if you are unable to make these obvious
    distinctions such that you lump all into the same category. Your
    category is more than mere semantics. Indeed, you are clearly

      Minami says:

      Anti-Semantic? No, my definition of “antisemitic” is to not protect Jewish children from genital mutilation simply because they’re Jewish. Jewish children deserve to have their entire penis. Parents shouldn’t be able to cut part of their son’s penis off.

        @MinamiKamenashi:disqus You don’t know what you’re talking about. Most studies show that the foreskin is not significant to either increase or decrease sexual pleasure.

        Additionally, most of the recent, verifiable studies show that removal of the foreskin is of great benefit in cutting down on STDs.

        You don’t understand what anti-Semitism is. Please go away and deal with making your own country a little better.

          Pam Green says:

          I agree. And I wrote a rather long post to this article, citing a medical website that discussed the lifelong benefits of newborn circumcision – unfortunately, my comment disappeared three times! As did many other comments I saw posted after mine! What is going on with this website?

          In addition to protecting against STDs, circumcision also protects against permanent kidney damage, penile cancer in midlife and old age, cervical cancer in women, and a variety of other serious conditions.

        rightcoaster says:

        I wrote “Anti-Semantic”, and I meant it; there’s no need for you to play the Jew-card.

        Jewish (and I guess Muslim) male circumcision by foreskin removal is not “mutilation”, which is a loaded word. You might consider “unloading” your rhetoric to keep the discussion rational. There is no damage to function, I can assure you. “Mutilation” implies either esthetic disfigurement or functional impairment. As I am not a visual esthete in matters penile, I leave that judgment to others — perhaps you are an expert, I welcome your statistically significant comparative observations. But there is no Lorena Bobbitt procedure done, partial or otherwise.

          Well, if you ever read texts from the philosopher and rabbi Maimonides, you should know that circumcision limits the sexual pleasure and function of the penis. I tell you that being with an intact man is far more pleasurable and they don’t take so darn long. So all you pro-circumcision fellows, you all live in denial. You don’t know what you are missing.
          Circumcision was practiced way before the Jews thought of it by the ancient tribes and the Egyptians 6,000 before Christ as a right of passage. Abraham is a mythical figure. Jews did circumcisions in the old days but never on infants, only adults. Once the Monarchy was gone, the temple priests during the 2nd temple period wanted to control the male population. Also at that time, all the women were then kicked off from the temple because they were impure. Such chauvinists. Genesis 17, during this time was created and added. It never was part of the original bible. That is all a lie. All there was originally in the bible was the Genesis 15 text where it talks about being fruitful and spread your seed, blah blah. First of all, there is no God who believes in suffering of children. Any God who believes in blood-letting of kids is no God of mine. We were born perfect and God did not make a mistake when he created us. Messing with perfection is in itself blasphemy. Circumcision does not make you Jewish. You are Jewish because your mother is Jewish. Only 10% of American Jews have a Brit Milah performed by a mohel. Most Jews abandoned the kosher laws, etc. but even when they are not at all religious and have their son done in the hospital, just so they can say that their son is circumcised and part of the clan. Come on, according to Jewish rules, it is then invalid when it is done without a mohel and ceremony. So why put your baby through this archaic practice which should have no presence here in the 21st century. All the lame excuses for anti-semitism. Some of the best anti-circumcision books are written by Jews. There are plenty young Jews who go through with their Bar Mitzwah and are not circumcised. Many young couples in Jewish neighborhoods or in Israel only do it due to peer pressure from family and friends. Even in Israel, Tel Aviv, there are 100’s of families who do not practice circumcision. That movement started several decades ago. I read this article in the Jerusalem Post. Many young Jews, artists, musicians, actors, designers are moving to Germany to be free of the restrictions and religious pressure from the ultra-orthodox whose numbers there are increasing. In the next decade, things will change dramatically, so get ready.

          rightcoaster says:

          “…you ever read texts from the philosopher and rabbi Maimonides, you should know …” Thanks, Gabby (and you do go on and on!), but please provide “chapter and verse” to these references to Maimonides, in English translation. While Dr. M. left us some writings, my Arabic is too weak to deal with the originals.

          “…I tell you that being with an intact man is far more pleasurable and they don’t take so darn long. …” This is very interesting. Never before have I heard a woman complain about a man “taking too long”, always it’s been the opposite complaint. So, while this, if true, is a negative for you, it is a positive for every other woman on the planet who has expressed an opinion that has reached my eyes (never my ears!) on this subject. Nevertheless, I wish you and I could have met under more suitable “circum”stances.

          As for rites of passage, I am glad mine was imposed on me at eight days … if I were to have been “put to the test” at, say, puberty or 13 or whatever, I would have cried a lot longer….

    I agree wholeheartedly. This is a strange article with a pretense to Rabbinical wisdom but is just a jumble of nada. This practice is a religious relic of the past. A vestigial organ of Jewish, Muslim and Christian culture. Male circumcision occupies the same status as does female circumcision where it takes place. It has NO medical purpose by the way. Public health was how it was introduced into western society. Turns out that was not quite true. Yanah, ya,nah……

      N. Friedman says:

      This is simply untrue. Circumcision has been shown to have health
      benefits. It is routinely performed in the US, and not just by Jews and

        AriShavit says:

        It’s also encouraged and promoted by the UN (and various health organizations) in Africa.

      John Michael go stuff your anti Jewish head in the blender. It’ll improve your thinking.

    rightcoaster says:

    Uncalled-for. Don’t do this; you come across as an angry jerk and add zero to the conversation. Ruth is entitled to be wrong, and to have her error explained to her. Who knows? She may come to change her position.

    As Jews, we must believe in the improve-ability of mankind (that includes Ruth), or our annual chest-beating “al khayt she-khatanu” is meaningless.

    barryjohns says:

    You’re wrong. This article is not jumbled and follows a consistent strain of thought. I think that you are probably deeply opposed to circumcision and so are seeing the article coloured by that perspective.

    The essence of the article states that Judaism was tr initial teacher to the world of the sacredness of human life. That life is not to be taken away at will and all peoples lives have value regardless of the persons mental or physical faculty. Those who oppose circumcision argue that the value of life stems from owner of that life i.e. the person living it. Since a baby is too young to decide on circumcision it is opposed whereas euthanasia is supported since it is assumed that the owners of those lives has decided to die. As he demonstrated relying on a persons authority to decide to end their life is fraught with danger and tne concept itself that we have the right to decide which lives can live and which others can’t is already being discussed by some philosophers.

    The sacredness of life stems from Judaism’s belief that God created life and we don’t have the right to choose who lives and who dies.

    It is ironic that people oppose Jewish circumcision when it is Judaism itself that first introduced the inherent value of human life inthe world and continues to support that value today when it is under attack.

‎”As Jewish historian Robin Judd […] barbaric or primitive rite.”

I am not that sure, that this black and white drawing reflects the very different attitudes of the catholic church toward circumcision throughout its history. Weren’t the blood libel and several other anti-Jewish legends all deeply connected to the traditions and doctrines of the catholic church and the church fathers? Were all those legends non-existent during the Nazi rule in Germany that one can portray the catholic church as protector of circumcision? Is the decline of the influence of the catholic church the only reason for the rise of the anti-circumcision movement and latent German anti-Semitism?

    Liquid_a says:

    The anti-circumcision movement comes from conscientious objectors who thought for themselves and recognized circumcision as barbaric. The movement gained prominence thanks to the internet and effective capabilities to disseminate this information.

    The German decision has nothing to do with anti-semitism. The judges in cologne carefully weighed the competing interests (parents’ religious rights vs. child’s right to bodily integrity) and concluded that the child’s bodily rights take precedence. Their judgment is correct. Their judgment will be repeated in other countries. The logic is just as valid in any Western country; we’ve simply been avoiding taking an honest look at the issue.
    Incidentally, judges in Finland ruled the same thing recently. They ruled that circumcision without medical reasons violates the European convention on biomedicine and essentially declared it illegal. Are they anti-semitic, too?

    The Church persecuted the Jewish people, but never to my knowledge proposed a ban on circumcision.

Liquid_a says:

So, the court violated the “sanctity of human life and the human body” by asserting “the right of children to bodily integrity and sexual self-determination”?

You have to be absolutely crazy for this logic to make any sense. That’s the root of the problem: there simply is no logic to justify circumcision, only irrational hand-waving and appeal to tradition.

> “A perverse concept of rights deriving from bodily proprietorship.”
So if an individual doesn’t have rights over his own body, then who should? I think anything other then owning your own body is perverse.

    rightcoaster says:

    You may own your body when you come to majority, but your parents have an obligation until then, and their decisions have to hold within sensible limits. They cut your hair and nails (medically unnecessary), and keep you clean (ditto unnecessary, in fact they appear to be keeping kids excessively clean, viz. the increase in allergies and autoimmune diseases). They can pierce the earlobes of little girls (and I suppose of little boys) — medically unnecessary. In most cases orthodontia is medically unnecessary, purely esthetic. I’d bet they can even have their kiddies tattooed, not to mention putting them on a diet or failing to do so. None of these is harmful, and neither is male ritual circumcision, it is parents acting as they feel it is right to do for their children’s general welfare within their social group. When you become 18 or whatever it is where you are, you need not bathe nor cut hair or nails, of course; your body is now entirely yours. Your social group may need to change, however, to others like-minded.

    Suicide and murder are still not allowed, and the state does properly intervene to protect children from genuine abuse or endangerment by their parents. The issue here is not about “owning your body”, I think, nor about its inviolability, but about the proper limits of state intervention in private parent-child matters. Seems to me “no harm, no foul” is the correct guide. Since male circumcision does no harm, there should be no foul.

Minami says:

Circumcision is not beautiful. It’s genital mutilation disguised by religion. Legalizing circumcision is a loss for Jewish children. Torture of Jews is okay as long as Jews are the ones performing the torture? Antisemitic, much? Protect Jewish children and outlaw circumcision of children!

    Minami says:

    Would you rather perform oral sex on an uncircumcised woman or a circumcised woman?

    I prefer an uncircumcised man the same way you prefer an uncircumcised woman.

Doctor Bucephalus says:

What a failure in clear moral thinking here. The slippery slope arguments, the equation of issues which are in no way equal. And the suggestion that morality and ethics are only possible with God in the picture, without actually saying so outright. As a religious Jew this guy’s on my side technically, but I don’t feel comfortable with that.

    No-one should feel comfortable with this. If you feel comfortable, read the Rav, or Kierkegaard for that matter. I did not say that morality and ethics are only possible with God in the picture. I made the factual observation that the sanctification of life that ruled out infanticide, human sacrifice, and so forth in the ancient world had the specific meaning of giving our lives to God and receiving them back from God. This idea remains at the foundation of Jewish practice (not only b’rit milah, but pidon haben, for example. The West owes the idea of inalienable (= sacred) rights to the Jews, whether it acknowledges it or not. Those who set out with the explicit objective of criminalizing the sacrificial practice which stands at the foundation of the notion of sanctity of life do so with the conscious intent of erasing the bright line that protects life. There are plenty of people who adhere to something like our ethics and morality without explicitly bringing God into the picture, but it is no coincidence that our strongest ally against this terrible new persecution is the Catholic Church. The secular liberals for the most part have joined our persecutors.

      heirofsalazar says:

      So, let me get this straight. You give YOUR life to G-d by subjecting SOMEONE ELSE to a genital cutting ritual. Gotcha.

      Doctor Bucephalus says:

      You make reference to the Rav, Kierkegaard, and all that existential depth of the religious experience. I agree with the assertion that the religious experience is profound and an incredibly valuable part of human experience as well as human culture. I feel as well that as society that turns against such a fundamentally and uniquely human experience in the name of a kind of humanism is terribly mistaken and the results can even be terrible injustice. But what can I do to make other people see things that way? Nothing, except maybe respectful dialogue if that’s at all possible. Their choice to not see what seems plain to me happens to be just as human a decision as my own.

      On the other hand I don’t see that same degree of depth and confrontation with reality in your argument. Is that really the only moral reasoning that exists in the world? Is that even the only viewpoint of Judaism with a capital J? It’s one thing to have a thesis, but to state a moral theory and call it a “factual observation” while invoking the Rav’s name takes incredible gall. As if the Rav’s main existential themes had nothing to do with the individual coming to terms with ethics on his own! To imply that the Western concept of individual rights had nothing to owe to Greece or Rome? To assign a moral position to your opponents which some wacky guys in Australia said like the connection is remotely justified logically, or in any way whatsoever? To imply that all Western ethical codes are mock-ups of our own religious tradition and will inevitably fall apart when they divorce that tradition also implies that ethics as a thing of itself DOES NOT EXIST. Much as I don’t subscribe to many of those tenuous points, that last point is one I cannot believe in. Do you?

        The concept of rights in America’s founding is biblical (and to some extent rabbinical, if we follow Eric Nelson in The Hebrew Republic). What do you think “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” means? Western civilization drew on the great marvels of classical civilization in many respects, but the American concept of rights comes from Israel. I did not cite the Rav in support of a general moral conclusion, but a much narrower point regarding the reenactment of the Akedah (see
        Community, Covenant and Commitment, section 60). What can we do to make others see things our way? The hard fact is that our allies are people of faith: the Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons in the US in particular. Our allies in Europe are the Christians, who sadly are too weak to be of much help. That’s why secular liberalism feels free to persecute us. And that is why we need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Church against HHS, for example. Our longstanding alliance with secular liberalism is coming to a horrible end, not just on the security of Israel, but on fundamental issues of freedom of religious practice. As for “ethics as a thing of itself” — what philosopher provides a convincing system of ethics after Nietzsche (or after Richard Rorty, for that matter)? Who do you think you are, Kant?

          Doctor Bucephalus says:

          Lots of secular people live perfectly ethical lives. They confront the ethical as individuals weighing what’s right, what’s wrong, and discussing the issues in a way much similar to what we’re doing here. Nobody needs to make a Copernican revolution in philosophy to be ethical, and the idea that you have to is a reductio ad absurdum argument i hear the the necessity of belief in God. Maybe I’m old fashioned but I more *want* to believe in something like that than be forced to via exhaustion.

          Philosophical inquiry is familiar with the notion that error is the means by which we eventually learn the truth; why is it that for ethics some people say we can either only accept a completely resolved system or we have no ethics at all? I’ve heard this kind of argument before, and the issue can be simply addressed by pointing out that people who have completely resolved moral systems are quite often less ethical than people who are less certain of what’s right and wrong. Confronting the ethical in an open-ended way isn’t the long slouch towards Gomorrah, nor does it preclude the idea that ethics exist. For one thing if it didn’t, us talking about it wouldn’t be very useful, would it?

          Now, I’m a bit too proud of the Hebraicist tendency in American thinking, but citing one bit of word choice as definitive proof doesn’t even qualify for sloppy. You could probably cite a dozen views of different founding fathers upholding the secular nature of the government using nothing but Internet memes as sources. Romans had rights! Greeks had rights! Hell, Englishmen had rights! Jews had an ethical idea, a call to responsible action and respect for life, and I guess a lot more which I hesitate to say because doing so tends to diminish it. But to you, the notion of individual rights come from one place and one place only. You seriously are going to resolve one of the greatest ambiguities in the American idea by pointing to a few opening words in the Declaration? And somehow this conflates with anti-Israel stuff, appellations of persecutors and allies… you’re all over the place, friend. Maybe these things connect and maybe they don’t, but the only way I see you connecting the dots is to say they’re all manifestations of secular antisemitism, and yet since you’re arguing secular antisemitism can be seen through these manifestations of it, well that’s circular.

          The movement you’re describing in Germany is radical, antireligious, and it’s doing great harm. Much can be said on how the suggestion that religious life is a kind of child abuse is itself a kind of blood libel. The same idea might be applied to the ban on Shchitah and chalal. The idea that they should make decisions on what counts as legitimate religion and what doesn’t, that they can force us to “modernize” on their terms, is in some ways even more disturbing. To make a moral argument, though, you need to provide moral and intellectual clarity and integrity. I shouldn’t have to tell you why.

          Greeks and Romans did not have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Englishmen sometimes did, but they were founded on Christianity (and hence Israel). Of course secular people can lead ethical lives (and religious people can be dirt bags). That doesn’t obviate the point that the world first heard of the sanctity of life from the Jews.

          AriShavit says:

          (1) The concept of ‘rights,’ at least as embodied in the United States Constitution, stems from the social contract theories of Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Read them.

          (2) Attempting to stretch the concept of rights to find parallel anywhere in the ancient world is a fairly ludicrous task. ‘Rights’ as we know them simply didn’t exist. All you’re doing is reading modern concepts/sensibilities into ancient texts. (likely with a considerable bias – e.g. “look how great we are, we gave the world human rights!”). Now, you can interpret those ancient texts to be in line with the modern conception of human rights, but it’s simply bad, dishonest history to suggest the Israelites were the forefathers of human rights.

          The Constitution is the architecture of a government, and of course draws on Locke and Montesquieu (Rousseau is debatable). The Declaration is a statement of rights, and it is explicitly biblical. It says that men are endowed by their Creator with such rights. Whether or not inalienable ALWAYS means given from a higher power, we can argue, but the Declaration says specifically that they are given by a higher power.

          Doctor Bucephalus says:

          “inalienable” means you can’t separate the right from the individual. Does that mean sacred? That’s a creative read, but the denotative meaning isn’t that at all. Choosing that reading you should remember that ancient Roman government had much more religion mixed into it than the American government does–including those who believed Rome itself was divine. The declarati

          AriShavit says:

          No, the Declaration is not “explicitly” biblical. That should be evident in the fact that you have to stretch your argument around the presence of a single term. (i.e. if it were explicitly biblical, they would have simply cited chapter and verse or actually referenced more than a vague conception of a higher power.) Look up Deism, consider who wrote that particular document, and try again. To be blunt, “Creator” doesn’t mean “G-d as conceived by ancient Israelites.”

          Come on David. As another person has already pointed out, the range of views found in the old white men who founded this country is diverse and plentiful. If you want to argue that religious views influenced the development of rights at the founding of American law that’s fine – there is ample and honest scholarship to suggest Locke and the boys relied to a good extent on Christian theology. Similarly, there is little doubt that a great many of the men who signed the Declaration and formed the constitution were heavily influenced by Christian beliefs. But no honest, educated historical argument can be made that the “concept of rights in America’s founding is biblical (and to some extent rabbinical […].”

          Again, you can undeniably read the Tanakh as consistent with modern ideals (Reform Judaism has been doing it for 150 years now), but you are performing dishonest and poor scholarship if you suggest that the biblical text is a blueprint for human rights. Doing so muddles the vast distinctions in thought between the ancient israelites and 18th century Christians, then reduces everyone in the interim a historical footnote. Worse still, it grossly ignores any rational conception of Hermeneutics and casts aside any thought of historical context.

          But David, consider that none of this matters. That the founders justified their conception of rights in a certain way means little to those of us in the present. We are not bound by their understanding, nor limited in the creation of our own. It is truly a pathetic mind that cannot rationalize the existence of inalienable rights without resort to a higher power.

          Read Eric Nelson’s “The Hebrew Republic.”

          AriShavit says:

          David, I have read it.

          There are a great many things to appreciate about the book, but ultimately it does nothing more than show that a few christians gained an infantile knowledge of Jewish texts and used what they read to justify their own fantasies about politics in Israel.

          What the book absolutely does not do is justify your statement that the “concept of rights in America’s founding is biblical (and to some extent rabbinical […].” [to be fair, from my reading, it does not attempt to do so]. Christians interpreting Jewish texts interpreting texts from ancient Israel does not equal “the concept comes from israel.” It only equates to Christians interpreting Jewish texts interpreting ancient texts about Israel.

          If you’re willing to grant a superficial knowledge of rabbinical texts held by Christians (who didn’t really talk to any Jews) as a major influence, so be it. The only way you can equate that to “Jewish” or “Rabbinical” influence is to deny the postmodern critique and a rational conception of hermeneutics.

          Your turn. Read “Theorizing Myth” by Bruce Lincoln.

          It seems a stretch to qualify as “infantile” the Christian understanding of covenant that informed the most powerful and influential political theory in modern history. America is not a “fantasy” but the most successful political project of which we know. On this topic I recommend Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s recent Commentary article:

          The founders understood the term “inalienable” in its plain sense, namely that no human agency could remove from individuals rights granted them by a superman grantor, namely “their Creator.” Here the peshat is sufficient. Nor does it seem to me a controversial point that the Christian concept of sanctity of life (as opposed to Greek and Roman practices such as infanticide) derives from Christianity’s Jewish foundation.

          corey949 says:

          “Our longstanding alliance with secular liberalism is coming to a horrible end…’ Ah ha! The real “issue” makes an appearance. Rush Limbaugh’s and Glen Beck’s virus: “Secular liberals (like Obama) are actually Nazi Fascist Storm Troopers!” has found another host.

          To lump all “People of faith” together implies willful ignorance of the vast multiplicity of forms, practices and beliefs sheltered under that massive category. But you seem to reduce it to “the Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons in the US in particular. Our allies in Europe are the Christians, who sadly are too weak to be of much help.” If I were to make my own list of “allies” who would be least likely to express or act on anti-Semitic rhetoric — according to religious identification — I’d choose Buddhists, Sufis, Jains and Baha’i over your guys with their closets full of burning crosses, forced conversions and endless recipes for torture.

        corey949 says:

        Thank you, Dr. B., for your considered understanding of the implications of the author’s arguments and a refreshingly large perspective informed by actual scholarship.

          Doctor Bucephalus says:

          Aw, thanks Corey, but I’m no scholar (one day maybe). This conversation is good. Educated people talking out ideas informed by what they read is a good thing.

41953 says:

Why not argue the issue of circumcision on its merits and leave God and anti-Semitism out of it? How can the movement to ban circumcision be directed at Jews? In the European context, far more Muslims would be effected.
Here are two pro-circumcision arguments:
(1) the procedure is minor. It takes a few seconds and the baby boy rarely cries for much more than a few seconds.
(2) In places where it is hard to keep clean, circumcision has definite health benefits.
(3) True, the baby boy has no choice in the matter, but parents make all kinds of medical decisions for their children, e.g. vaccinations, which some people consider unnecessary or even dangerous.
Any responses?

    heirofsalazar says:

    (1) The procedure is decidely NOT minor; circumcision removes upwards of half of the shaft tissue of the penis, including the most protective and sexually pleasing parts. Circumcision completely changes the way that a penis functions because it destroys (in many) and greatly diminishes (in the rest) the mechanical gliding/rolling/stretching/compressing mechanism of the shaft tissue that aids the smoothness of the sexual act and provides the proper kinds of stimulation (read what histologist Ken McGrath says).

    It takes more than “a few seconds” to peform a circumcision, even on a child. In a young boy, the penis is not yet fully developed; unlike in an adult, the foreskin is attached to the glans similarly to how the fingernail is attached to a finger. This connection must be ripped apart by forcibly running a metal instrument between them. Then the foreskin is crushed, slit, clamped, and cut away. When boys are reported as going to sleep during or after a circumcision, it is actually because they are going into neurogenic shock, as evidenced by the documented rise in stress hormones and other indicators of severe trauma.

    (2) Keeping a penis with a foreskin clean is incredibly easy. Your argument is the kind that one can expect only from people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Women have much more trouble with hygiene than any man (regardless of whether he has a foreskin or not), and yet we don’t see people fretting about sand and what not when it comes to their health.

    Are you really going to cut up your son’s penis in case he falls in a time vortex and finds himself transported back into a WWI-style trench? Heck, even after TWO world wars, nobody picked up circumcision except for the English speaking countries (now only the U.S. and some of Canada) where the practice was ALREADY introduced by puritanical Victorian countries to curb masturbation and reduce the pleasure of sex (and where most Jews live are overrepresented in the medical fields, incidentally).

    (3) Vaccinations are studied in an entire field of scientific inquiry devoted to understanding them: Immunology. Vaccination does not remove tissue or alter physiology in any obvious way; the only discernible difference between a child who has been vaccinated and a child who has not been vaccinated is that one of them has a superior immune system—they are otherwise indistinguishable in form and function in every day life. It is insulting to Jewish intelligence to compare something like a simple shot/jab to surgery that removes a proportionally huge swath of tissue from a person’s sexual organs—tissue that a great many men and their partners ENJOY both sexually and otherwise.

      N. Friedman says:

      This argument is nonsense.

      1. Pleasure is in the mind of the beholder. Circumcised males are not complaining – or, at least, I have yet to hear of one complain. Were the practice so detrimental to health and opposed to sexual pleasure, those impacted would complain – as do many women who have had female circumcision, which is quite a different thing.

      2. Circumcision is very, very common in the US – likely the vast majority of the male population. The US population is growing. So, circumcision could not be so terrible a thing, as it does not negatively impact on the ability or desire to procreate. It does, however, make it easier to keep clean, although no doubt the difference is trivial. And, it does help prevent STD’s, which is not a trivial thing.

      3. Germany’s population is declining – and pretty rapidly. While this is not likely due to the lack of circumcision, it does suggest a different valuation of values than in the US; it suggests a valuation of values in which the things that make it worth perpetuating the species are not as highly ranked. It is in this environment, where the perpetuation of the species is not valued the same as it is valued in the, say, the US, where circumcision is under attack. That, to me, seems a pretty reasonable supposition for what drives the attack on circumcision.

        yidishkind says:

        The internet is full of tens of thousands of men complaining, even going on hunger strikes, organizing rallies and regrowing their foreskins using a variety of methods. There are a dozen different national anti-circumcision groups founded by men who consider themselves damaged and are resentful about being circumcised. You can think whatever you want about this information but pretending these people don’t exist does not eliminate them or invalidate their concerns.

          N. Friedman says:

          I have been alive more than five decades and have never met a single man who complained in the least.

          yidishkind says:

          Must be a generational thing. I’m three decades younger and heard lots of complaints from friends growing up (mostly Jews in fact) because circumcision is a lot less common than it used to be in general American society. Men my age are more knowledgeable about it and grew up around intact men and as such know the differences. It’s a pretty private thing so I doubt you’ll be hearing about it anytime soon, especially as you’re so dismissive of it you’d kind of be the last one to hear no?

          herbcaen says:

          Sounds like yidishkind got circumcized twice. first the usual circumcision and second a large chunk of cerebral cortex was removed. The misspelling of Yiddish is a dead giveaway

          yidishkind says:

          In standard Yiddish transliteration the word Yiddish is spelled with one D as it has one daled in Hebrew letters. Hence a Jewish children written out in Latin letters is “a yidish kind”…..But apparently I had a really cruel Mohel who removed part of my brain…Tragic.

          rightcoaster says:

          How is it possible for a man to know the difference? Exactly how does one who is circed compare notes with an uncirced guy? I go to the Y and if you will explain this to me, I can open a rational dialogue with the next naked, uncirced guy I see in the dressing room (not the shower or sauna, I think, nor with anyone who looks like he could flatten me). I have never complained about absence or diminution of pleasure, and (reaching way, way back to my unmarried days) none of my sexual partners, one or more of whom might have had the vast breadth of experience to comment with authority, ever told me that I was really missing something fantastic by my lack. Please explain.

          yidishkind says:

          I don’t understand this comment. People talk to their friends about their lives and their preferences, about their experiences. That’s how one trades notes, just like with anything else in life. But apparently some people may spy on others at the Y but that’s new to me…

          rightcoaster says:

          OK, I’m eager to learn from the younger generation: Please explain to me how you can compare sexual sensation of your penis with that of an uncirced friend. That is what really mystifies me, the mechanism of comparison, or measure of relative sensation, via discussion. I will be breakfasting with some guys over the weekend, We will all be fully clothed, so I’d just have to ask which of them has been disfigured like me, and which is “peno intacto”. Then I’d need to know how I could compare my sensations with theirs via conversation. Please elucidate.

          yidishkind says:

          Same way people describe food to one another or describe a smell or a problem with their back. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, this isn’t the appropriate forum. If you google “function of foreskin” you’ll find more discussion of this topic than anyone could possible read through or watch.

          rightcoaster says:

          Well, thanks for the google suggestion. All it does is recite the controversies and hypotheses. There appears to be no objective evidence supporting your position, only unproven (and probably impossibly hard to test) hypotheses. This would definitely not equate to the way people describe smell (there is a reference all the smellers can sample equally, which is clearly not the case here; I had some training long ago as a taster), nor back problems (except for the location and on a pain scale that is totally subjective, which is the case here — totally subjective and personally dependent). I think we’ve exhausted the subject.

          yidishkind says:

          My position responding to you was just that there are people who are upset about having been circumcised. It’s not one of my major concerns in life by any means but I have a close friend who is very distraught about having been circumcised and having just seen one person like that and knowing others who have told me the same thing I see that it’s not something I’d want to do to my own kids down the road. Kids are good at finding things to blame their parents for and this is one thing that for me at least is worth avoiding. Obviously I have other more important concerns with the procedure but that’s what’s relevant to our conversation.

          If you’re curious about what functions the foreskin plays in male sexuality (i.e. why some people are so upset that it was removed) there’s a film on Youtube with the title “Functions of the Foreskin.” It has nudity, still pictures, very simply and scientifically made like a health class video. I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea that the foreskin wasn’t a vestigial structure because that’s what I had been taught, even in health class and obviously I don’t have one…

          As far as proving anything, nobody can, except that the penis functions differently after circumcision. Everyone wants proof that circumcision harms sexual response, I think that since it’s there in the first place the onus is on those who support circumcision to show that it doesn’t harm it. I’m not for banning it, I just think people really need to do a lot more thinking about this.

          mouskatel says:

          Your friend who is very upset about his circumcision needs a good therapist and to stop reading crazy anti-circ sites.

          The proof that it doesn’t harm sexual function is that the large majority of men who undergo it report no sexual deficiencies and enjoyable sex lives ( I live with one of these guys). I’m sure there are circumcised men who suffer sexual dysfunction, but SD can have many causes. Therefore, it’s very difficult to pin it on a lack of foreskin.

          Here’s what a couple of eminent Jewish scholars from the past had to say regarding circumcision (emphasis added in caps).

          Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE –50 CE) , Of the Special Laws:

          To these [reasons for circumcision] I would add that I consider
          circumcision to be a symbol of two things necessary to our well being.

          One is the EXCISION OF PLEASURES which bewitch the mind. For since among the love-lures of pleasure the prize is held by the mating of man and woman, the legislators thought good to dock the organ which ministers to such intercourse…

          The other reason is that a man should know himself and banish from the soul the grievous malady of conceit.

          Moses Maimonides (1135 CE – 1204 CE), Guide for the Perplexed:

          With regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my
          opinion, the wish to bring about a DECREASE IN SEXUAL INTERCOURSE AND A WEAKENING OF THE ORGAN IN QUESTION, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible….

          The sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: “It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him.” In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision.

          superantifascist says:

          The internet is full of all kinds of nonsense, and is a notoriously unreliable method for gaining perspective on the size of any movement. This reminds me of when they made a lot of noise about there being a protest outside the anti-internet rally, so much so that one would have believed 1000 people would show up. Actual attendance: 20. 20 people really good at making noise on the internet.
          Now what method did you use to calculate this “tens of thousands”?

      mouskatel says:

      Really, after 11 years of marriage and 4 kids, my circ’d husband has been faking all those orgasms and sexual enjoyment? He really had me going there.

41953 says:


Anti-Semitism and hatred of the sacred are in most cases indistinguishable. The practice of Judaism (as Michael Wyschogrod explains so well in The Body of Faith) centers on the sanctification of the body, that is, making the people Israel a fit vessel for God’s presence on earth. Our existence is not only witness to God’s presence, the rabbis taught, but the dwelling-place of the Shekihnah, which went into exile with the Jewish people after the fall of the Second Temple. Whoever wants to arrogate unto himself the prerogatives of God, hates us. The neo-pagans want control of their own lives (and dependent lives, certainly fetuses and helpless elderly and perhaps newborns). Their concern is “self-determination.” Infant circumcision is a statement that our lives depend not only on ourselves but from God. Never mind that it has medical benefits, and so forth: It is this physical statement that mocks “self-determination” and elicits all the rage against us. Of course it is anti-Semitism. But anti-Semitism is not an accident, a quirk, an arbitrary hated that just as easily might be directed at Laplanders or Basques.
If you find it disturbing, you are on the right track. There is nothing more disturbing than the Aqedah, which the rabbis require us to read every morning.

EDBWeber says:

Thank you for this article. I found it clear and insightful. What a warning for us! I’d like to use it as a basis for discussion in my Anglican fellowship. Thank you!!!

I abhor female circumcision, honor killings..etc. But to put the Jewish rite of a Brit in the same category is ignorant. The beautiful rites and laws in Judaism is what has kept us as a people from disappearing even though we did not have a country and so many wanted and tried repeatedly to do just that.

    yidishkind says:

    Um so when parents do it to their daughter in Africa it’s evil but when
    you do it to your son in America it’s “beautiful”? Think about that
    one. Female circumcision in much of the world removes just the female
    prepuce, the hood of the clitoris. Male circumcision removes the exact
    same thing, the male prepuce. It’s the same procedure done for the same
    reason, as a form of institutionalized violence to reduce sexual
    function. Esther, I whole-hardheartedly agreed with you until around
    two years ago when I did some research into the issue and met some women
    who were enthusiastic about circumcising their own daughters for the
    same exact reasons that Jewish women are enthusiastic about circumcising
    their sons. It took a while for me to abandon the cultural biases I
    grew up with being Jewish but when I did I came to see both practices as
    forms of the same violence. Female circumcision is most famous in the
    west in more extreme forms than what I’m referring to but the most
    common form is identical to male circumcision.

      Do you have any idea what is involved with female circumcision? Are you even able to compare and contrast that with what occurs during a bris?

        yidishkind says:

        Reread what I wrote. There are about 6 different kinds of female circumcision. I’m referring to the kind that’s most common in Indonesia and North Africa, not the kind that’s much more destructive and much more famous in the West (The Congo, Somalia etc). Female circumcision ranges from things that are the same as male circumcision to practices that are hundreds of times worse. All are illegal in the US and considered disgusting barbaric. But it’s the same ritual done for the same reasons and it’s often the same procedure (removal of the prepuce). When I traveled around and met women from Morocco and Indonesia who were college educated and planning on doing this to their daughters I interrogated them about it and found that their reasoning was identical to what I had grown up hearing about male circumcision, i.e. it’s healthier, it’s cleaner, it looks better, G-d says we must do it, men like it better, who will marry her otherwise? That really opened my eyes. Please do some research before accusing me of ignorance.

          You are right about that. Well, female circumcision was not banned in the U.S. till 1997. It took decades to make it illegal. Only about 50% of Americans do this to their boys. To pay for a circumcision has been dropped by 18 states under Medicaid and every year there are more states joining. In those states in the West who are not paying for this procedure any more since it is purely a cosmetic operation, the circumcision rate is 20% or less. No Organization, not even the Academy of Pediatrics and dozens others recommend circumcision. Within the next 10 years, there will be a huge decline in the procedure.

          Very well put!

          It’s hard to see how anyone can fail to see the logic of this, yet they still do.

So the Jews will leave Germany and Switzerland and Austria and they can forbid the Muslims to circumcize. No more Nobel prizes and of course every country that loses it’s Jews becomes economically impoverished. The only reason Germany held up after the second WW was that America bolstered it and 60,000 Jews returned to live there. This law is actually aimed at the Muslims to get them to leave but it has deeper consequences. The north of Germany is economically depressed but I am certain that if the Jews all leave the south will also tank.

Email Me says:

American men are such wimps to let their sons be subjected to this absurd surgery. If it were women tied down & cut, the Feminists would be howling all over the world. The male genitals are a cheap commodity. There is no argument too absurd for the circumcisers. They insult the appearance of the intact penis, claim that circumcision heals everything from body warts to HIV, and draw an illogical distinction between female & male genitals.

Email Me says:

Thank you, sir, please cut me again!

corey949 says:

Clearly, this topic has touched a (sorry) nerve. I can see the “Keep the government’s hands off my shlong!” bumper stickers. This one obviously has no easy answers and becomes a rorshach blot for our deepest beliefs. Logic is beside the point as are medical theories. As far as I know, female circumcision makes future gential sexual pleasure impossible (if anyone has personal experience, please correct me). While, arguably, male circumcision might diminish some male enjoyment, I know from experience that it does not prevent orgasm, sensation, etc etc.

On the other hand, I recently met a young man who, in fact, does resent the fact that his parents had him circumcized at a time when he could not have a say in the decision.

We Jews, like adherents to all religions, have had to adjust or modify our outward practices over the millenia for all sorts of reasons. We no longer practice temple sacrifice or polygamy to mention only a couple of examples. The Mormons avail themselves of up-to-the-minute revelations whenever there’s need (ex: polygamy; African Americans as priests.) Papal rulings come and go. Protestants form schismatic sub-denominations. Does all this “policy” come from a divine being? From a certain perspective it’s all divine. Some Buddhists might say that the very distinction between “divine/sacred” and “secular/profane” is unreal, just a habit of the human mind. Of course, in our tradition, we praise G-d for making distinctions at least once a week at the end of Shabbes.

We’ll never know what male babies experience when circumcized. One can parse the issue anthropologically (ritual scarring to indicate tribal membership), halakhically, politically, medically and come up with dozens of contradictory positions.

But, really, folks (on all sides of the debate,) given the sad state of the human condition and of our home planet, might there not be more pressing issues toward which we might direct our passions?

    Do you really think that the possible extinction of Jewish life in several European countries is not a pressing issue?

      corey949 says:

      Frankly, i’m more concerned about the extinction of human life on several continents and about the extinction of forests, coral reefs, and millions of other life-forms. In the context of all that Jewish life has endured in most European countries — expulsions, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and more — I see nothing in the current landscape that’s comparable.

I was circumcised at seven days and I have a certificate to prove it while keeping my pants on. My parents’ faith obliged them to do this as did theirs’ (where applicable) and so it has been for thousands of years. And I’m fine with it. Have two kids, a wonderful wife and a sex life that’s better now than ever before.
What I am not fine with are governments, crusaders and others in positions of influence telling me how to practice my faith. It’s not one of some new-found sighting of Jesus in a piece or burnt toast or a belief that mannequins at Macy’s posses the power to heal.
I am a Jew – a first generation son of survivors. I practice my beliefs according time-honored, debated and distilled beliefs. I obey the laws of the land in which I live which affords me the opportunity to be a Jew, lets my beliefs flow through to my children and eventually theirs.
Great strides have been taken by many to make the actual process potentially less painful while following halachic guidelines. Judaism is not blind to the culture(s) that surround it.
Please don’t assault my beliefs or practices as “primitive” simply because they stem from writings and practices that have kept our people together since those “primitive” times.

Steve Wruble M.D. says:

Sure, there may be political and even anti-semitic reasons for these governmental decisions but just because Judaism introduced incredible things to society doesn’t mean that improvement on what was the best choice at an earlier time isn’t in order. And just because something is changed doesn’t mean that sacred has to be thrown out the window. We know from trauma research that children are affected by early traumatic experiences. Of course, it’s hard to know the exact impact of a circumcision on a child’s emotional health but saying that it is insignificant, if wrong, is significant in itself. Pain from a circumcision, albeit brief and minimal compared to vaginal circumcision is still induced pain, and we know that infants (and human being in general) respond to painful stimuli by crying in order to alert those listening to help relieve the source as soon as possible. A few of the many important questions include…are we listening to them at all and if so, are we giving enough significance to those cries? In addition, are we avoiding our own discomfort with change or our sense of powerlessness when we consider challenging our forefathers??

The issue here, I think, is that the attack on circumcision has occasioned a stark and direct confrontation between a supernatural view of the sanctity of rights and the utilitarian notion of individual rights. That is due to the choice of circumcision as a wedge issue by secular liberals.
As Rabbi Sacks observed, the liberal argument is couched in terms of rights. I don’t think natural law is at issue. There are some like Dr. Hartmann of the German Academy of Pediatric Medicine who insist that milah causes long-term physical and psychic harm. The German court acknowledged that circumcision is prevalent for health reasons in “Anglo-Saxon countries” (actually, in America but not England), but the brunt of the argument is that the individual has the right to determine what happens to his own body when a permanent change is involved. There is no objection to adult circumcision. The issue, as the petition of 600 German physicians and lawyers put it, is “sexual self-determination.” The legal premise is that the body is an object owned by its proprietor. Logically, individuals should be free to euthanize themselves (as they are in Switzerland and Holland), prostitute themselves (as they are almost everywhere in continental Europe), sell kidneys (which is not yet legal), stifle newborns (who can’t yet exercise self-determination), amputate limbs for fetishistic reasons, and so forth. The state is there to protect the individual from harm, including child abuse, and infant circumcision is defined as child abuse. This purely hedonistic theory of rights owes a great deal to Peter Singer, e.g. here from 1994 (!).
“the fundamental principle in our society (is) that what people want for themselves takes precedence over what others think is best for them. This belief is the basis of the right of self-determination that underlies the doctrine of informed consent to medical treatment.” This doctrine applies to proxy decision-makers, including parents who consent to procedures on their child. A decision to circumcise must be made in the best interests and must not be based upon the preference of others. It has already been demonstrated that circumcisions requested by parents deny the right to self-determination to which every child in Canada is entitled. Such circumcisions are not a medical procedure. Circumcision is an issue of self-determination and autonomy.
If utilitarian hedonism of Singer et. al. is valid, then infant circumcision violates “self determination and autonomy.” If the utilitarian view prevails, then unspeakable things ensue, just as Singer has proposed (e.g. infanticide). The obstacle to hedonistic utilitarianism is the implicit or explicit concept of the sacred.
Most of the posters on this thread abhor the idea that it has come down to this. But it is hard to read the confrontation otherwise. Like it or not, this is where the line has been drawn.

I think most people (including this article) have missed the issue here. The question is not whether male circumcision is right or wrong but whether the state should intervene in the parental decision to circumcise male children.

Its like banning parents from piercing their daughter’s ears but its also a gross intervention in freedom of religion like banning parents from dousing their children with cold water in Churches or banning candle lighting as a fire hazard.

Its better to work for agreement with the community, say to set requirements for how it is performed and for licensing of practitioners.

spostol says:

I’m exhausted. I tried to read all the comments, but gave up when I hit the bottom of my page. David Goldman’s well-written and intelligent review of the circumcision debate seems to have stirred up all the nut cases, anti-semites, sexual warriors, doubters, believers, scholars, historians, and even some very bright folks(by my view.) I suppose I fall into a class of simple Jews. I never gave a second thought about brit milah. I believe there’s just too much concern about the process. No average man really worries about a ritual that occurred soon after his birth. Some of the controversy may have moved out into the open since we are more understanding of sexual preferences, but gee guys don’t make the rest of us ignore Judaism so that you can look cute in the shower room.

    surfer_dad says:

    Well said.
    I too have NEVER given two thoughts to to my “missing” piece of skin, just as I’ve never given a moment’s thought to the scars on my arm from inoculations.
    It’s simply a non-issue.
    I performed the small, mostly insignificant (although admittedly not completely) “ritual mutilation” on my male child and I hope he does the same to his. On a small level, to get something real and significant in your life, you have to give-up something real and significant (and no, if it was TRULY harmful I wouldn’t do it!).

    The issue is two-fold – I think the author does a great job of exploring the roots of the political/philosophical perspective.
    I think the other related perspective is simply the “me generation” perspective. I (emphasis there) decide what’s best, what I am, what I will be, what tribe I decide to belong to. YOU can’t do that for me.
    To complain about lack of pleasure is complete nonsense. Sure you can find some “experts” who twist the facts to their strong POV (on both sides), but I’ve NEVER seen any peer reviewed study that suggest otherwise. From my pov, I don’t think I could handle any “more” pleasure during sex, thank you very much.

    No, the fundamental issue is that they were “marked” for tribehood in a tribe they don’t respect without their consent and they resent it. See the comments about how it’s “ancient” and old-fashioned — that enlightened people (like ME, look at ME, I get it, I figured it out and I KNOW what YOU are doing wrong) reject it.

doudie kay says:

Sieg heil Deutchland,,, again . you have done it. You just keep showing us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yes we gave you Aschwitz and you showed the world just how good you can be at genocide and destruction of a culture. Blame the Jews for your behaviour, nothing changes. merkl is an exception to the culture, just as there were always a few exceptions. But it is still Deutchland uber die Judens

person63 says:

I can’t speak to why some governments or individuals object to circumcision. Often it does seem like a thinly veiled antisemitic stance, because circumcision is routinely thought of as a Jewish practice, despite the fact that Muslims also do it, and Christians in the United States as well – in fact, the vast majority of adult males in the United States have been circumcised, although this has slowly been changing over the past twenty years. If everyone’s doing it, why is that big of a deal?

I disagree with the author that banning circumcision would be a “rejection of the sacred” on the part of the German government. If they have different values, perhaps to them it’s preservation of the sacred. Who knows? There are probably as many reasons for or against as there are parents of sons.

The central issue, for me, with regard to circumcision is one of consent. An infant cannot give informed consent for an unnecessary cosmetic procedure. There is no medical reason to have it done. The foreskin is healthy tissue, a natural part of the male body. I think an argument could be made that there is no particularly good reason for circumcision OTHER than a religious one.

Yet the whole topic is so emotionally highly charged ithat when we talk about circumcision, it seems we are not really talking about a foreskin but about a whole hosts of other social, cultural, and religious ideas, fears, histories, and reactions, at the core of which is, possibly, a question of ownership and autonomy. But I’m not sure.

There’s an in-depth article in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper that I
recommend everyone read, titled “Even in Israel, more and more parents
choose not to circumcise their sons”.

This article can be viewed at

Great. Rather than an attempt at valid points this article advances a mix of self-serving caricatures, straw men, slippery slopes, and disregard for history. Just a few:

The right to physical integrity somehow mutates to include a “right to self-harm”, as if entirely unbound by medical ethics, as if deliberations on personhood and dilemmas (abortion) were entirely non-existent, a total disregard for even just the notion that *oneself* could ever dare to consent a dignified death in view of eg. perpetual pain or loss of consciousness (euthanasia).

In stroke of guilt by association and pseudo-psychology, today’s Germans become some sort of obsessed, bloody-minded “Eternal Antisemite”, forever incapable of reaching decisions and views otherwise.

No mention at all that even the Torah itself already contains the association of circumcision with mutilation (eg. David killing 200 Philistines for their foreskins, or how Dinah’s brothers trick the Hivites to subsequently murder them). Or the various other abhorrent parts (like in many other religions’ holy texts), such as the misogyny displayed all throughout, the godly atrocities of Moses (plus the deity itself) and explicit death penalties for victimless “crimes”. To say nothing of all the times the supposed deity stood by and watched genocide throughout the ages — but of course, it can only ever be responsible of “good deeds”, like an incompetent idiot.

The usual arrogant claim that modern law is sourced from and forever depends on the Bible, as if historical criticism thereof doesn’t exist, nor the contributions by Romans, Greeks or Babylonians, let alone modern developments that frequently ran explicitly against religion, particularly during the Enlightenment.

Like one could not value life without referring to some external father figure, and as if opinions from the Dark Ages and even sooner were the final words. All of that to pretend that parents may amputate healthy body parts of infants.

For the sake of argument, I grant Mr. Goldman that Judaism has contributed much toward the sanctity of life and individual rights, but he quickly resorts to slippery slope fallacies and confuses the intention of genital preservation laws. Child genital mutilation is finally being called out for what it is, and the rational justifications are evaporating.

Children of religious parents- Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others- often change their religious beliefs as adults. They may marry people from other religions. How do parents know that their sons will make their parents’ covenant their own?
As a non-Jew, I can understand one’s desire to honor the commands of the Torah, but it seems wrong that in the modern world someone would force his religion on a child’s body, especially because informed consent cannot be given. If the circumcision goes poorly, the son has to live with that. His parents, for the most part, don’t.

Baptists and many other Christians reject infant baptism on those very grounds- that understanding is required in order to choose to assent to teachings first and then make a “credible profession of faith”, and no infant can do so. Last time I checked, most Baptists are opposed to abortion. Refusing to impose one’s religion on a child’s body has no bearing on the sanctity of life or disdaining the human body.

Stefan says:

Man as contrived all these obstacles in life and continues with this crazy practice of laws…yet God gave us only ten….why does man think he is God…remember Religions are man made….and all the fallout that they litter over the earth cause wars….just be a human….that’s how he made us…you are all chained to the earth by your laws that are passed…yet Jesus said follow me and I will set you free…

superantifascist says:

Scars? Really?
I think it’s safe to say you have never witnessed a proper circumcision nor gazed upon the results of one.

How many of those who oppose circumcision are religious, practicing Jews? Opposing religious circumcision is anti-Semitic, nothing less than wanting to force Jews to live as Christians and to deny that Jews who circumcise their sons are carrying out a commandment from God that binds all generations of Jews to Him. It is to reduce religious faith to the status of “lifestyle choice,” as if there is no effect on the anyone but the person being circumcised when, in fact, it jeopardized the immortality of God’s Chosen – and Eternal – People. If that makes gentiles and atheists jealous, too bad.

heirofsalazar says:

What an absurd response.

yidishkind says:

Wait? You didn’t know that circumcised men have scars on their penises? Really? What world are you living in? That’s what the part that changes color before the head is, a scar. Did you think that’s how nature made it?

superantifascist says:

Sorry, what I meant to say is that you people spend way too much time gazing at your penises.

superantifascist says:

I have an idea, let’s wait until they grow up and make sure there’s a scar. I’ve never seen one though.

spostol says:

You enumerate sexual misconduct with such glee and enthusiasm —-
first of all this has nothing to do with the discussion ; secondly why try to tarnish all of us with this; I still respect rabbis and priests.
By the way, are you jealous?

rightcoaster says:

21. Case
of Rabbi Jacob Frank (AKA: Yaakov Frank) and the Frankist Movement (Convicted
of cultic type practices and sexual offenses.)

You have a very long memory.
Jacob Frank died in 1791. So does this list consist of all the examples you have been able to collect (and you are an avid collector indeed) since 1791?

What is your point? That there are some rabbis and canotrs who are scoundrels, pedophiles, pederasts, adulterers, sexual wrong-dooers of all sorts? What does that have to do with either the subject, which is circumcision, or with anything else other than that among any population some succumb to their “inclination to do wrong”, their “yetzer ha’rah”? Rabbis are not inherently saintly — they study to become rabbis or cantors, that is a career choice, and their appointment to whatever position allows them to be predators is not an assurance of their “purity”.

spostol says:

Any discussion of religion and religious practices and beliefs is, at best, difficult and rarely productive. I regret any insulting language or reference that I may have included in my remarks, particularly at this time of year. I apologize.

surfer_dad says:

You can copy and paste … very nice for you.

Like so many “debates” it all boils down to 1 issue. Do YOU think it’s “child abuse” or not. Assuming not, do you think it’s pain (and there IS some pain involved) is worth it. I do.

Your copy and paste ‘diatribe’ seems to imply that it isn’t THAT important from a halachic pov. OK, I’ll buy that.
So what.
It exists and continues to be a powerful part of almost all Jewish families (from VERY Ortho to barely Jewish folks) because WE, the vast majority of the men who had it done to us, simply don’t see the big deal and because it serves a real and powerful purpose. If WE, the men who make so many of the rules in Judaism, thought it was so bad, so ‘injured’ us, then it would have fallen out of fashion like slaughter in the temples and taking more than one wife. We don’t so it it still happens.

I don’t think it’s an accident that rituals, real rituals like bar/bat mitvah, brit milah, chuppas at weddings even breaking the glass survive and thrive in spite of so much else going wrong on the ‘Reformative’ end of Judaism … because they MEAN something.

Simply claiming it’s ‘child abuse’ and not REALLY needed is not a convincing argument to counteract that need especially with the facts that I WATCHED my son get circumcised, watched him WAIL for maybe 5 minutes, watched him whimper for another 10 or so then simply never, ever deal with it again. (About the same as when my infant daughter had her ears pierced.) I can’t get into his head, but I myself have never, ever given the missing skin ANY thought until this frenzy started. Ever.

Like the abortion debate, the two sides simply can’t ever really agree. If you feel a 4 week fetus is a “human being,” then it’s murder, plain and simple. I don’t. You think it’s “child abuse?” I don’t and I’ve never seen ANY real scientific proof otherwise.

>Jews who circumcise their sons are carrying out a commandment from God that binds all generations of Jews to Him.

Do you really believe that, as a literal truth?

Very few Jews I know would agree. It seems more like a cultural thing that is perpetuated through force of habit and longstanding custom.

And apparently many are learning to do without it. See “Even in Israel, more and more parents choose not to circumcise their sons” at


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The Sacred Rite of Circumcision

Germany’s challenge to Jewish tradition focuses on individual rights, but what about our bodies’ sanctity?