I’ve spent some amount of time thinking about (male) circumcision. It’s a fraught topic; some regard it as barbaric, some as hygienic, some as a sacred sign, and still others as a foolish impairment of sexual pleasure. I’m not well-informed enough to sort out the validity of the various back-and-forth claims about the hygienic aspects of circumcision, nor capable of investigating the sexual health perspective. What is “barbaric” largely depends on the culture that issues the judgment, though a circumcision performed by a clinician seems a bit different from one performed with metzitzah be-peh (a practice where upon circumcision by a mohel, the mohel draws the blood off orally).
But I can evaluate it from a Jewish perspective, and from a Secular Humanistic Jewish perspective, at that. And sitting down and thinking that out led me to a new view on the subject of male circumcision.
My result: “it’s just a commandment.” And that conclusion is interesting to me.
I’ll state up front that you won’t find me condemning male circumcision per se here. Again–I’m really not sure about the various claimed merits or detriments, and pointing to a practice among haredi Jews like metzitzah be-peh as exemplifying the whole thing’s barbarity is bad reasoning. So if you were looking for condemnation or endorsement, well, look elsewhere.
To start, here’s the position presented on the web by the Association for Humanistic Rabbis (disclosure: I’m a student member of this organization) on traditional b’rit milah:
A Secular Humanistic birth celebration has two functions: to name and to welcome. In celebrating the birth of a child, Secular Humanistic Jews recognize several underlying assumptions: 1) male and female children ought to be treated equally; 2) children of all intermarried couples should have equal status, regardless of whether the mother or father is Jewish; 3) medical or moral decisions about circumcision should be considered separately from decisions about birth and baby-naming celebrations; 4) the birth celebration should affirm the family’s connection to the Jewish people and to the human community in a philosophically consistent, meaningful way. Participating in a traditional b’rit milah negates our commitment to treating male and female children equally and also is inconsistent with our human-centered philosophy of life.
Some within the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement are intactivists (involved in advocacy for not circumcising children) to one or another extent.
I’m not in the policy activist business, so I’m not going to stake a claim here on either side of the issue. I do, however, take an interest in how Jews can make these decisions for themselves and their families. And it’s on that point that I’m going to talk about the topic of male circumcision.
There are problems with b’rit milah from an equality standpoint. Setting aside basic biological differences (I’m sometimes not sure we aren’t always dealing with some kind of incommensurability when it comes to the human form), there’s the difference in how a bris is treated from a baby-naming ceremony. In a Conservative, Orthodox, or even Reform synagogue, note what happens: a boy is circumcised publicly within eight days of birth (give or take–depending on precise times of day in certain circumstances, and depending on whether the birth was natural or by caesarian section). This is a significant schedule disruption: baby boy born on Wednesday? The bris is on Wednesday. Does that mess up your work schedule? Tough.
A girl’s baby naming in those environments? A Shabbat service, generally. Often, not within 8 or even 14 days. Sometimes, it’s 30 days. Sometimes, it’s 80 days. 80 days to recognize a female member of the community, but 8 for a male!
For liberal Jewish traditions that pride themselves (or at least attempt to pride themselves) on egalitarianism, that’s not terribly fair.
This taps into one of the concerns I have with how modern liberal Judaism works; there is an adherence to traditional forms and practices that borders on cargo cult-like conduct. The traditional view of commandedness and sin has long since passed away. Too often, we do things because “tradition!” Yet the true challenge of liberal Judaism is to think before reverting to tradition.
My point? The bris as we know it is one of the few things most Jews do publicly, uncritically, as it is has been understood at least as long as anyone has been watching. From a humanistic and, indeed, simply a liberal Jewish perspective, we should be looking at this anew.
After all, it’s just a commandment.