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The Case for Brit
without Milah
Lamah Brit B'li Milah

"A voice from heaven should be ignored if it is not on the side of justice."

- Isaac Bashevis Singer

"...the wise men who wrote the Talmud believed it was okay to argue with God, be angry with God, wrestle with God."

- Barbra Streisand

Policy Statement

For the record, the author of these pages is firmly opposed to all infant circumcision, the Jewish variety no more or less than any other, and has no issue with any other aspect of Judaism. The Jewish traditions of rationality and compassion will ultimately prevail over physical circumcision.

- HY

 

Contents
Different from others?
A special case?
Literalism
Identity
Habit
History
Loving Kindness
Healing the World
Other claims
(medical, that it's trivial, as a "right")

Brit Shalom/Shalem: Covenant of Peace/Wholeness
   Celebrants


Resources

 

Different from others?

Pie chart: who circumcises

Strange Company

Numerically, Jewish circumcision is a very small part of circumcision worldwide. About 500,000,000 male Muslims, more than 100,000,000 gentile USAmerican boys and men, and some scores of millions of Filipini, South Koreans, older men of England and the Commonwealth, African tribesmen, Polynesians, Australian aboriginals and others are circumcised, but only about seven million Jews - so that circumcision completely fails to set Jews apart today. (That would still be true, to a lesser extent, even if the total number of Jews had not been so savagely curtailed by the Holocaust.)

Psychologically, Jewish circumcision pushes its way to the forefront of the Western imagination, though, and even where Routine Infant Circumcision (RIC) is still commonplace, circumcision is presented as uniquely Jewish. This is very much the case on US TV Sitcoms and dramas. The misperception is widespread, even among goyim who are themselves circumcised, that only Jews circumcise (with jokes like, "His pants were so tight you could tell his religion.").

 

A special case?

It might seem that those who condemn infant circumcision in general should make a special exemption for Brit Milah, because of its relatively long history (but see the Chronology for its novelty in the long term) and its immense significance within the religion and community. Some do. Some want to make a special exemption to avoid even the appearance of antisemitism. Yet a small but growing number of Jews are opposed to it. This page is written to support them.


"Giving Up Brit Milah" - Kahal stand at a Tel Aviv baby fair, March 2007.

A small but growing number... A recent internet survey of Israeli Jews found 3% had not or would not circumcise their sons.

The most compelling argument against treating Brit Milah differently from other infant circumcision is that since genital modification is a human rights issue (as it clearly is for girls), to oppose circumcision only for non-Jews would be to say that "Jewish babies have fewer human rights than other babies." From this point of view, it is clearly making an exception that would be anti-Semitic.

 

Literalism

To people who believe that the Creator of the Universe literally commanded that Abraham circumcise himself, his family and their heirs forever, there is not much one can say, except that it is an extraordinary belief from any point of view.

  • Would the Almighty (and All-wise) really ask such a thing?
  • The commandment to Abraham to circumcise clearly runs parallel to the commandment to sacrifice Isaac – just a test of his faith: the willingness was all.
  • The story has the same historical credentials as a literal Adam and Eve or Noah's Ark.
  • Modern Jewish scholars doubt that Abraham was even an historical person – and if he was, the story that he nearly butchered his son Isaac, again because he "heard voices", hardly inspires confidence in his authority. Perhaps we should respect and revere the ideal that Abraham represents, rather than particulars attributed, perhaps erroneously, to him.
  • What kind of covenant is it that is marked on the body of a third party, who has no choice in the matter?
  • Modern perceptions of human rights, within the framework of Jewish thought, supercede any demand to override the bodily autonomy of another person.

According to modern scholars, circumcision is not even mentioned in the either the earliest, "J", version of Bereshith ("Genesis") nor the next three rewrites by other authors. Most importantly, the story of Abram is there in its entirety, except the part about the Covenant being "sealed" with circumcision. The parallel Covenant story of "a smoking kiln and its blazing torch" passing between the halves of animals and birds sacrificed by Abram is in J. Many biblical scholars agree on this point, and it is in accord with the mitzvot against desecrating the body.

N 41 Not imprinting any marks on our bodies
N 45 Not making cuttings in our flesh

- 613 Mitzvos according to Sefer Hamitzvos of Rambam

It has even been suggested that early Judaism forbad circumcision!

See The Book of J by David Rosenberg (ed. Harold Bloom) and Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism by Lawrence A. Hoffman.

Jeremiah 31:31-3 suggests that the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision was not forever:

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah,
Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.

 

Identity

If you have circumcision being the thing that defines you as being Jewish, then you've missed what being Jewish is really about.

Brenda Birch in the Vancouver Courier, July 5, 2004

It is generally agreed that being circumcised is not a condition of being Jewish. Girls obviously do not need to be circumcised. A boy is Jewish if his mother (and/or his father in the Reform tradition) is Jewish, from the moment he is born. In fact,

  • A boy may be excused circumcision permanently if his health would be endangered by it, for example if he has haemophilia.
  • Jewish boys in countries where routine circumcision is not common, such as the Netherlands, may be left intact and yet remain Jews in good standing;
  • In Sweden, only 40% of Jewish boys are circumcised.
  • Reportedly many babies born in Germany in the 1930s were left intact to protect them from the Nazis. One at least remained proudly Jewish and intact life-long.
  • Many Soviet Jews, left intact for fear of communist persecution, have chosen to remain so; and
  • (contrary to some opinions) an intact boy may have a Bar Mitzvah. As one rabbi simply put it, "We don't check."

The claim that circumcision is essential for the survival of the Jewish people therefore can not stand. Unfortunately the magnitude of the consequence overshadows its lack of substance - who dares risk the fate of the whole community by leaving his son intact? This fear needs to be faced and conquered.

 

Habit

Many people invoke the power of "tradition". Yet no-one would deny that some traditions, such as slavery, segregation and female circumcision, are bad traditions, that traditions can change*, and that bad ones should. (And a literal reading of the Torah by Christians was used to justify slavery only 150 years ago, and segregation only a few decades ago. A literal reading of the Greek scriptures / 'New Testament' is also one of the roots of the tradition of antsemitism, of course.)
*There is some evidence that radical circumcision - periah - was not instituted until the second century CE, to prevent Hellenised Jews from concealing their status. Some say prior to that, Milah was much milder, only the removal of a sliver of foreskin from the tip of the penis. (Others say that periah was the custom from the beginning, and it was only codified in writing in the second century.) Metzitzah – sucking the baby's blood from the wound by mouth – was a long-standing and essential part of the ceremony until about the end of the 19th century, when it became clear that mohels with TB or STDs were transmitting them to the babies.

To break such an old habit may seem like "wasting" all the circumcisions of the past, but that is not so: what value they had was to the people of their day. It is not inherited or bequeathed.

It is much harder to break a communal habit than an individual one, but there is a first time for everything, and it seems that for many, the custom has been carried on solely because it has been carried on - no reason at all. For others it has been carried on out of fear, specifically fear of disinheritance, but also a more general fear of deviation from a community norm. No-one knows how great the opposition to circumcision within Jewry is, but it is certainly much greater than is made public, because its opponents stay silent and so fail to communicate with each other.

 

History

The fact that Jews have resisted enforced attempts to stamp out circumcision can always be a source of pride. (That they did so to the point of death is more problematical, and that they thereby brought death to their children is very much more so.) In those days, circumcision was not conspicuously inhumane among all the other inhumanities that were then prevalent. That is no longer the case.

Some think that the traditions of Chanukah, remembering resistance to the persecution by Antiochus IV, mean Jews must maintain circumcision too, in memory of that resistence. That is a fallacy. People everywhere honour and remember their war dead by dedicating themselves to peace, not war. Voluntarily renouncing something (especially in the face of considerable pressure to maintain it) is itself an act of courage and strength, quite distinct from renouncing it by way of submitting to oppression. It is cruelly paradoxical to honour those who resisted enforced non-circumcision by enforcing circumcision on baby boys.

An article by a Jewish woman doctor concludes:

...I suggest that our tremendous historical suffering does not negate or justify the continuing pain of our baby boys. Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, interviewed on the BBC [Radio 4, 19 Sept, 1992], stated that the purpose of circumcision was to 'sanctify sexuality'. When asked how it could do so, he replied, 'It's not causal, it's symbolic'. However, in the final analysis, circumcision is not symbolic for the baby; it is horribly real.

- J. Goodman
Jewish circumcision: an alternative perspective
British Journal of Urology Intenational
(1999) 83, Suppl. 1, 22-27

 

Loving kindness

Two of the great strengths of Judaism are its rationality and its commitment to learning and scholarship. Another is the tradition of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness, and the prohibition on deliberately causing pain. (There are also the mitzvot against imprinting any marks on one's body or making cuttings in one's flesh.) Cutting part of a baby's genitals off flies in the face of all of these. (A sop of wine or even modern anaesthesia during the operation is no solution to the pain problem. The wound continues to sting whenever urine enters it, until it heals, 10 to 14 days later.) The claim that Brit Milah is quicker and more painless than surgical circumcision is comforting but has no basis in fact.

 

Healing the World

A central purpose of Judaism is tikkun olam, repairing the world. Much of the pain in the world is a result of repeating old harmful patterns of behaviors. By breaking a chain of pain, forgoing circumcision contributes to our healing. As we heal from this pain, we will be better able to heal others and reach our ethical and spiritual potential.

- Goldman, p11

 

Other claims

Many Jews, especially the less religious, circumcise their sons - sometimes without ceremony, soon after birth - in part for the usual (but ever-changing) "medical reasons". These, such as urinary tract infections, penile cancer and HIV, are dealt with - and disposed of - elsewhere on this site. The great sage Maimonides (Rambam) condemned mixing motives - hedging your bets - like this: "No one ... should circumcise himself or his son for any other reason but pure faith; for circumcision is not like an incision on the leg, or a burning in the arm, but a very difficult operation."

The argument that Jewish babies have a "right" to have part of their penises cut off before they are old enough to give or withhold consent, because to do otherwise would deprive them of their heritage, is unimpressive. It may seem at first to insult one's ancestors to do other than what they did, but it is equally an insult to our own intelligence, and to the intelligence of our descendents, to cling blindly to customs of the past. "Heritage" here means no more than "doing what we have done." If the boys decide to be circumcised later, that is said to be fully efficacious in marking the Covenant, just as it is with converts, or babies whose circumcision had to be delayed for health reasons.

Equally, halacha provides the ceremony of hatifat dam berit (shedding of a token drop of blood) for babies who can not be circumcised at all. This is deemed to be fully efficacious in marking the Covenant.

The Talmud itself admits that circumcision can be fatal.

Other ill-effects are listed in Reasons Not to Circumcise on this site.

At the Jewish Museum in Melbourne, guides say:

  • "It's not as if we're doing it to someone else: we do it to ourselves." But the baby is someone else. He is an individual, his own person. This is a relatively new concept in Western thought, but in every other context it is well understood.
  • "We do it to welcome him into the community." A strange welcome, to cut off part of his genitals.
  • "The foreskin is lifted and a drop of blood is taken." That is a description of hatifat dam berit, not Milah. Here are pictures of what is really involved.
  • "A little brandy in his mouth and he doesn't feel it." (As someone said, "Sex, violence and drugs!") At least some mohelim "prepare" the baby in private, slitting the foreskin and/or tearing the synechia. This puts the baby into shock: he only seems to be relaxed.
  • "It's very quick." To a seven-day old baby, it must seem an eternity.
  • "We do it with love, that makes it quite different." The baby has no way of knowing the state of mind of the people who are doing it. All he can feel is the knife.
  • "It protects his partner against cervical cancer." Quite false.

An extraordinary development within Reform has been the appearance of mohelot (circumcisoresses). If equality of the sexes is applicable here, it is hard to see why it does not apply equally to the babies, either by circumcising both boys and girls (Shudder!) or by circumcising neither (Yes!).

The Rambam was well aware of the ill-effects of circumcision:

"As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate.

"...How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the foreskin to that organ is evident?

"The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired...there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment; the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning.

"Our sages (Bereshit Rabba, c.80) say distinctly: It is hard for a woman, with whom an uncircumcised man had sexual intercourse, to separate from him. This is, as I believe, the best reason for the commandment concerning it."

- Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed)
p.378 of the Dover edition
1956.

[With respect, the last, by ensuring her fidelity, would seem an even better reason for not circumcising him - HY]

The full text, from a more recent translation.

 

Samuel Richmond, a Jewish Intactivist in southern California writes:

Modern Jews, striving to live their lives on the fulcrum of abiding ethics and accruing knowledge, are continually challenged to examine their faith. Thus when the claim is made that the practice of circumcision bespeaks the high value classical Judaism places on suffering pain for worthy causes, we may be obliged to reflect on the critical distinction between acknowledging life's inevitable pains to oneself and choosing to inflict pain upon another.

And when the similarly tendentious claim is made that circumcision, by necessarily impairing sexual experience for both men and women, instills the behavioral restraints that once informed America's moral and cultural consensus, we likewise have the opportunity and obligation to ask: Does it work? Here again the empirical support fails as we witness the escalating sexual depravity of our public lives and the increasingly unabashed license of our preponderantly adulterous (and predominantly circumcised) political elite.

For many Jews, the liberation from bondage we celebrate at Passover represents a profound marriage of human rights and human duties. The tradition of cherishing freedom for service, not from it, resonates boldly in the history of Jewish participation in America's signal human rights struggles. And informing the heart of these struggles are Talmudic precepts that most adherents of ritual circumcision choose to disregard - the conviction, reaffirmed by sages from Nachmanides to the Kushners, that the human body is a neutral vessel equally predisposed to vice or virtue; the belief in the Mishnah Ketubot that the failure to experience God-ordained pleasures equals a disobedience of God's command; and moreover the simple eloquence of Tsar ba'alei chaim, the moral prohibition against causing pain to living things.

In any other arena of medical or religious practice, such an activity as the willful removal of healthy, God-given, purposefully functioning tissue (without sufficient mitigation of the pain that it causes) from a fully conscious infant, would be immediately recognized, in both Jewish and American law, as the trespass it is.

Or, to put it another way:

It's a mitzvah to fight to end circumcision!

An enormous amount of pressure may be put on Jewish parents to circumcise their sons. For more about opposition within Judaism to circumcision, go to the Circumcision Resource Center.

Many Jews outside Israel and the USA are foregoing circumcision:

Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, president of the Dutch Association of Rabbis, said only about 50 male Jewish babies are circumcised in the Netherlands each year.

- "Dutch doctors urge end to circumcision" Ynet.news, September 27, 2011

Today the Dutch Jewish population numbers about 30,000...

- Jewish webindex

Netherlands birth rate: 10.23 births/1,000 population (2011 est.)

- Index Mundi

If the Jewish birth rate is the same as the national average, 307 Jewish children are born annually, 157 of them boys, so the circumcision rate is less than 32%

 

Brit Shalom/Shalem/Milim: Covenant of Peace/Wholeness/Words

 

Brit Shalom (Brit Rechitzah)

At this Brit Shalom, the parents washed their son's feet (Brit Rechitzah) instead of circumcising him, as a sign of the Jewish covenant and welcoming, and gave him his Hebrew name.

 

Welcoming ceremonies for Jewish babies without cutting have shown three strands:

  1. The original ceremony is reinterpreted in the light of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac; as in that case, a substitute cutting (not of the baby - of his clothing, for example) may be made.
  2. The ceremony is reinterpreted in the light of the Holocaust. That was suffering (and marking*) enough.
    * It was a terrible thing for adult Jews to be marked by having a number tattooed on their arms; how then can it be a good thing for baby Jews to be marked by having part of their penises cut off?
  3. No reference to the original ceremony: the parents promise the baby that, among other things, they will never hurt him.

As well as the physical advantages to the boy, Britot Shalom/Shalem/Milim

  • are equally suitable for welcoming girl babies.
  • can be performed without causing heartache to parents, especially mothers.

Here are links to other sites about Brit Shalom ceremonies:

Celebrants
A list of celebrants of Brit Shalom (Brit B'li Milah) (opens in a new window)

 

Resources

Books

Marked in Your Flesh
by Leonard B. Glick

This important book traces the history of circumcision from the ancient Middle East to the modern US and its transformation, from a blood ritual to a surgical procedure with extraordinary cultural power, weaving history and analysis together in a very readable way.

You can hear an interview with Dr. Glick from Station WFCR by clicking the MP3 button here.

cover
Read reviews and order
Marked in Your Flesh
from Amazon.com


Two other good books from a Jewish perspective, available through this site, are Covenant of Blood by Lawrence Hoffman and Questioning Circumcision by Ronald Goldman.

Circumcision Exposed by Billy Ray Boyd, though he is not Jewish, has an extensive and sensitive commentary on Brit Milah.

Laura Shanley is a Jewish woman who has written a book about natural childbirth and an essay against Milah.

Discussion groups
There is a Jews Against Circumcision group on Yahoo.

Kahal maintains a discussion in Hebrew on the Tapuz website.

Video

The 8th Day
A documentary video about two Jewish couples wrestling with the decision whether to circumcise their sons.

Articles

"The most Jewish decision I could make" - A mother finds the agony of not cutting is visceral and deep

A thoughtful article in the Jerusalem Post

"My Son: the Little Jew with a Foreskin" - a thoughtful mother's story

"Live and Uncut", a feature on Brit Shalom in New York Magazine

A more equivocal questioning of the custom

The May/June 2001 issue of "Tikkun" has an article by Michael S. Kimmel (author of "Manhood in America" and "The Gendered Society"), "The Kindest Un-Cut: Feminism, Judaism, and My Son's Foreskin" about why he left his son intact. It is paired with an article defending circumcision on mystical grounds.

Intact and Jewish on Natural Parents Network, July 11, 2011

Progressive Rabbis On Creating A Jewish Covenant Without Circumcision, in Intact News, January 27, 2012

Ending Circumcision in the Jewish Community? by Moshe Rothenberg, presented to the Second International Symposium on Circumcision, 1991

Websites
A Jewish mother of twin girls has a webpage "Brit Milah: Inconsistent with Jewish Ethics?" which has many links to related sites

The Jewish Circumcision Resource Center

Israel
The Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation is at
P.O. Box 56178,
Tel Aviv 61561,
Israel
E-mail .

A community of families with intact sons, Kahal.

 

A summary of this page is downloadable
as a leaflet in .pdf format
(requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)
Get Acrobat Reader

 

Petition
Thomas Wolfe, a Reform Jew, has opened an online petition calling on the Leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis "to demonstrate leadership by now educating its Rabbis to recognize the medical and ethical shortcomings of religious circumcision, and to both sanction and promote alternative ceremonies, like the Brit Shalom, [and] to support those that do so."

Other Jewish commentary

What the Rambam says about Milah
Chapel Hill News, January 10, 2001: A delicate ritual
New York Magazine, May 21, 2001: Live and Uncut
North Jersey.com, June 9, 2002: Sacred practice or unnecessary procedure?
Kahal
Sechum, The newsletter of Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, March 2001
Official policy statement on Circumcision of Secular and Humanistic Judaism

Jerusalem Post, 21 November 2002: A cut above the rest
The Guardian, January 19, 2003: British editor boasted of being an intact Jew
Mothering Magazine, August 20, 2005: My Son: The Little Jew with a Foreskin
October 3, 2005: A New Year's gift
Toronto Globe and Mail, May 22, 2007 : Jewish, and uncircumcised
Chicago Tribune, May 22, 2007: Some Jewish parents break ranks over circumcision
Times Online / Jewish Chronicle September 1, 2007: The real logic of circumcision by David Aaronovitch

Related pages

Back to the Intactivism index page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mishnah Ketubot: the section of the Talmud commenting on contracts, in particular the contract of marriage.

 

 

 

 

Yebamot 64B {p. 150}

III.3. G. "If a woman was married to a first husband who died, to a second who died, to a third she should not be wed," the words of Rabbi.

H. Raban Simeon b. Gamaliel says, "To a third she may be married, but to a fourth she should not be married. [If she produces males and they were circumcised and died, if the first was circumcised and died, the second and he died, the third may be circumcised, but the fourth should not be circumcised]" [T. Shab. 15:8A-C].

The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation. Translated by Jacob Neusner. Number 251. Volume XIII.B: Tractate Yebamot, Chapters 4-6. Program in Judaic Studies Brown University. Atlanta: Scholars Press. 1992.