“If male, is he circumcised?” Covenant, community, compassion and conscience

[I am addressing the question of circumcision in Judaism by looking at Liberal Judaism UK. Please bear in mind as you read this article, that I believe that the Liberal Jewish movement plays a vital role in the ethical awareness of the Jewish people, and has done much good to challenge and update Judaism, not least through the remarkable and inspiring work of figures such as Rabbi John Rayner.]

Download a PDF of this article here.

God-wrestling

The application form for conversion through Liberal Judaism UK asks the sponsoring rabbi to answer for the applicant the question, “If male, is he circumcised?” If the answer is ‘yes’, a doctor’s letter is required as confirmation; in such an instance, Liberal Judaism allows a completely secular, medical circumcision to be an adequate alternative to the religious ritual. At the same time, the literature published by Liberal Judaism UK makes clear statements about its egalitarian position on gender, progressive views on updating ancient customs, and reassurance that no conscientiously objecting male proselyte would be required to undergo circumcision (brit milah) – or hatafat dam brit, the ritual drawing of blood for someone already circumcised – in order to be considered fully Jewish. The tensions here suggest that God-wrestling is alive and well within Liberal Judaism. Liberal Judaism is not in an easy position if it is to find ways to honour its roots in an ancient people and traditions, drawing on the best of that wisdom, at the same time as developing a meaningful post-modern Judaism, what ‘Affirmations of Liberal Judaism’ (2006, para 27) calls “a synthesis of Judaism and modernity”. How do we decide what to retain, what to release ourselves from, and what to transform?

To wrestle with the question of infant and proselyte circumcision, there are at least four areas to consider:

  • What is the nature of covenant with God?
  • What commitments can or should we make with the Jewish community across time (past, present and future) and space?
  • How do the promptings of one’s own conscience (as parent or proselyte) sit alongside the valid, compelling – but sometimes contrary – expectations of many in the Jewish community?
  • What is the compassionate response to those who, if able to choose, would refuse a knife on any part of their body, or a ritual that is required of only half the community, but who would in every other respect dedicate themselves to the Jewish life?

Covenant, Community, Compassion and Conscience – these are the four sides of the God-wrestling ring.

For reasons of conscience, a conversion applicant might choose not to provide his sponsoring rabbi with an answer to the question about whether he is circumcised. In abstaining from answering the question an applicant may fear or risk being rejected for conversion. The applicant may have no doubt in his heart about his true identity as Jewish. It may be his deep wish for this to be recognized and accepted by the Rabbinic Board, and it may break his heart were he to be turned away for his convictions about circumcision. If he was already circumcised, he could disclose the fact, and if he was not, he could consent to the ritual; either way, that would remove one possible obstacle to his being officially accepted. However, this would lack integrity, and that may well not be not how he would wish to ‘tie the marriage knot’ with Judaism. So he may feel compelled to take this harder route. This question can be considered by studying Jewish sources, clinical research on circumcision, and the innovations of Progressive Judaism, and discussing these rabbis and with Jewish friends.

Circumcision has been expected of infant boys and older proselytes for many centuries, and as such is deeply embedded in Jewish culture and psyche as ‘the Jewish way’. The attachment to this practice appears to come from a powerful interaction of ‘Traditional’ (as distinct from Progressive) halachah (Jewish law), minhag (long held custom), historical resistance to oppression, and beliefs that it does no harm and even does good (medically, and in terms of both identity and securing acceptance by others). Some people argue that no ‘good’ or ‘committed’ Jewish parent would countenance letting their boy grow up uncircumcised. And some would argue that any proselyte who was truly committed to the God of Israel, Torah, and the Jewish people would surely endorse infant brit milah (covenantal circumcision), and be willing to demonstrate this by consenting to the brit milah themselves, or if already circumcised, by consenting to a hatafat dam brit (drawing a symbolic drop of blood). There is no doubt that for many Jewish people – male and female – brit milah is a fundamental feature of Judaism that should be non-negotiable. We should take these points very seriously. While I disagree with the ritual of circumcision, I intend no disrespect to Jewish people or Jewish tradition in proposing alternative views.

I have six concerns about the requirement for circumcision (the order of which does not imply any hierarchy of importance). I believe that these concerns are supported by traditional Jewish teachings that provide a viable and compelling means by which Liberal – and UK Progressive – Judaism could make a powerful contribution to evolving Jewish belief and practice. I had thought of writing two separate articles, one on my objection to infant ritual circumcision, and one on my objection to proselyte circumcision. However, I have woven both themes into one article, because I believe the arguments for each intersect in many ways.

1. Guarding the interests of the Infant

From the principle of ‘not oppressing the stranger, the orphan or the widow’ (Deut 24:17) comes the deep Jewish value to ensure that the needs and rights of the most vulnerable are observed and promoted by the powerful. Circumcision of an unknowing minor overlooks the principle of informed consent, protection from harm (physical and emotional), and respect for the integrity of the child’s body and their sexual self. It is a decision about removal of a healthy, functional body part, a sexual organ (the prepuce that contributes to sexual enjoyment) that I believe a person should be allowed to make for themselves. Altering a minor’s body should be done only for health or pikuach nefesh (‘saving a life’) – extensive research has failed to show medical benefits outweighing costs.

A UK Jewish doctor’s researched article of clinical studies on circumcision is illuminating (Goodman, Jenny (1999) ‘Jewish circumcision: an alternative perspective’, in British Journal of Urology International, Vol 83 Sup 1, pp 22-27 – read online). For those who argue the procedure is only momentarily painful and has no lasting psychological impact on the infant being circumcised, Goodman writes the following:

“[T]he level of pain associated with the operation, whether judged by the babies screams or by objective physiologically indices such as heart rate and plasma cortisol levels, is severe. […] [N]ewborns lack the inhibitory or ‘damping down’ mechanisms of the more mature nervous system, so they cannot protect themselves from the experience of pain in the way they could at a later stage. […] [T]he raw surface of the glans may bleed and be painful for several days after the circumcision, so the pain is far from momentary. Further, there is ample evidence that newborns do have some memory of the event, which takes the form, not of conscious remembering, but of a permanent restructuring of the nervous system. The result is an intensification of the behavioural response to subsequent painful stimuli, as though the nervous system has been ‘sensitized’.”

In response to those who argue that circumcision brings significant health benefits, Goodman writes:

“According to the Jewish religion, circumcision should be carried out purely for reasons of faith, not for any real or imagined medical benefits. Nevertheless, in conversations with secular and non-orthodox Jewish people, ‘hygiene’ and ‘preventive medicine’ are frequently given as reasons for continuing the practice. Most Jewish people seem unaware that claims for the prevention of cervical cancer, penile cancer, UTI, etc., have been thoroughly discredited”.

In support of this, Goodman cites Warren JP. ‘NORM UK and the medical case against circumcision’, in Denniston GC, Milos MF, eds. Sexual Mutilations — A Human Tragedy. Chapt 7, New York: Plenum Press, 1997: 96–8.

Dr. Daniel Halperin, Harvard School of Public Health has said:

“The World Health Organization, United Nations, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institutes of Health have all agreed that circumcision is one of the most important ways to prevent HIV infection in heterosexual men.” (Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom)

However, sexual activity is associated with men, not infants or young boys, and a sexually active male is of an age to make a personal decision about his health and disease prevention. Moreover, it is a commonplace of ethical thinking and the making of law, that the protection of religious freedom and parental choice has to be balanced with other rights, values and priorities, and does equate to a licence for parents or religious communities to do whatever they like.

2. Expressing covenant and identity

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi, in the official Liberal Judaism pamphlet on circumcision (2009), cites several times that it is “an important mark of Jewish identity and a sign of the covenant”. But surely the human side of the covenant is discernible through the kind of commitment that is made to God? How consistently, how frequently, how intensely, over what time span of life, over what range of activities, situations, challenges and encounters, and with what quality of kavanah (sincere intention) does the person express the living Torah? The brit milah is a symbolic ritual of great power for many, but as Jacobi writes: “circumcision does not confer Jewish status”. It is through ‘Affirmations’ (Rayner’s pamphlet for Liberal Judaism, 1992/2006), and ‘Compelling Commitments’ (Sarah’s LJ pamphlet, 2007) that the ‘vertical relationship’ – an individual’s or a community’s unfolding covenant with God – is expressed.

As for identity – what I think of as including the ‘horizontal’ relationship with the Jewish people -, Jacobi writes: “Jewish identity is developed through experiencing and learning about Jewish life at home and in the synagogue and being part of a Jewish family and community.” I would add that Jewish identity also comes from dedication to Torah, avodah (service) and tzedakah (living an upright life, within a Jewish framework, committed to the welfare of all); feeling pride when a Jewish person does something good, sharing the responsibility for repair when a Jewish person falls wide of the mark, and recognizing the importance of the survival of the Jewish people; and surrendering to the God of Israel.

When considering “what God requires” (Micah 6:8) of a proselyte, I find it hard to believe it is circumcision. But insofar as being Jewish is not only allegiance to God, but also a commitment to identify with the Jewish people, it is also legitimate to ask what the Jewish community requires of a proselyte. In the case of children, Jacobi writes: “Should parents decide against, we would certainly respect their wishes, and would not treat the child any differently”. What of the proselyte? What will happen if the applicant …

  1. a) reveals that he is not circumcised and refuses the brit milah, or
  2. b) reveals that he is circumcised non-religiously and refuses a hatafat dam brit, or
  3. c) is circumcised but refuses to reveal the fact?

Will he be spiritually cut off from God? Will he really be cut off from the Jewish people (Gen 17:13) who he believes and feel to be his ‘kin’ spiritually, psychologically, culturally and in terms of deeply held values – the community with whom he aligns himself? Liberal Judaism affirms the dynamic developing character of our Jewish religious tradition” (para 23), and has the vision, courage and compassion to respect “conscientious options” (Affirmations para 25), and value “sincerity above conformity” (p.4). Is there a place, then, for Liberal Judaism to welcome an uncircumcised male as fully Jewish, even though other denominations may resist? It might not help Liberal Judaism’s relationship (or shalom bayit – the maintenance of peace in the ‘home’) with the wider Jewish family to do so. But then, perhaps it would demonstrate valuing the sincerity of Liberal Judaism’s affirmations above conformity with a practice that is not compatible with those affirmations. This can place Liberal Judaism in a difficult position in relation to the wider family of klal Yisrael.

3. Infant and proselyte circumcision cannot have the same meaning

Given that an infant is neither informed, nor consenting to a circumcision, the event represents an affirmation of covenant by the parents (and/or community) with God, and identification with Jewish history and culture through an ancient practice; there is no personal commitment by the infant being circumcised. The infant has yet to prove his level of Jewish commitment, sacrifice, and identification in later life.

The child is losing a part of himself (which he may regret when he reaches an age of reason and independence), but he cannot anticipate the moment of circumcision, or imagine the possible consequences. There is significant loss, but no willing surrender to a practice or a principle, because there is no choice. However, an adult circumcision is a statement by the consciously consenting individual being circumcised. It is their personal way to express covenant with God and with continuity of a tradition that is particular to some, but not all, Jews. At best, it is a knowing sacrifice. At worst, it is a deep personal loss, because an adult’s sense of self is inextricably connected to such a potent psychological and emotional part of the body. The two distinct acts – infant and proselyte (and therefore also adult) circumcision – therefore represent two types of covenant that are significantly different from one another.

Uncircumcised male proselytes are required to do something that very few Jewish adult males are asked; as Maimonides wrote in ‘Guide for the Perplexed’, it is a “very, very hard thing”. It can also be something extremely embarrassing to be asked about, and there is a Jewish teaching (derived from Lev 19:17) not to cause someone to be embarrassed.

We are reminded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:4 “Do not judge a person until you have stood in their place.” Can a Jewish man circumcised in infancy, or a Jewish woman never required to be circumcised, judge the quality of a proselyte’s Jewish commitment on the basis of whether or not that proselyte submits to circumcision? How can anyone who has not had their genitals cut as an adult know what it is like to have to go through such an experience?

There is research that indicates that some parents submit their infants for circumcision, and some proselytes submit to it, on the basis of fear of rejection if circumcision does not take place. If the circumcision is performed, but the kavanah is not there – rather the true dissension and resentment is hidden – is this not deception, and the semblance of covenant achieved through an act of betrayal of one’s deeper values? Should we be committing to “what we do not believe in our hearts” (Affirmations, para 30) for the sake of acceptance?

4. Requiring cuts and the drawing of blood from the Body of the Other

Infant circumcision is a commitment expressed by one person (the parent) through doing something to someone else’s body (the infant’s). First, the brit milah appears to be what Jewish adults require of infants but not of themselves. Second, the brit milah is what Jewish women require of Jewish males but not of themselves. And third, the brit milah is what Jewish people require of adult proselytes but not of themselves. Fundamentally, circumcision is what other people’s bodies are subjected to. In this respect the sign of the covenant appears to be what ‘other’ people have to go through on behalf of the Jewish people’s covenant with the God of Israel.

In Leviticus 19:18 we are told: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And in Leviticus 19:34 “The stranger who resides with you [that would include proselytes] … you shall love him as yourself.” Yet those who require brit milah of male infants and proselytes do not require it of themselves. A Jewish women, a Jewish man circumcised at birth – neither requires of themselves that they knowingly undergo the removal of a part of their body as a sign of covenant. And, as they are adults, it is too late for them to require it of themselves as infants. For me, requiring the cutting of the Body of the Other does not sit easily with the commandment in Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand by idly while your brother’s blood is shed.”

Proselyte circumcision – or even hatafat dam brit – is a commitment made by the person whose body it is. Proselytes are the only people (barring a tiny group of Jewish men who undergo these rituals late in life after to commit to Judaism after a non-Jewish upbringing) who make a personal, conscious commitment through ‘organ sacrifice’ – an act that seems to echo the blood sacrifices so central to Temple times that Progressive Judaism emphatically does not seek to return to. This seems both unmerciful and unjust.

5. Gender equality

We are all equal in the eyes of God, and Liberal Judaism has done much to try and ensure that we are equal in the eyes of each other, as evidenced, for example, in Rabbi Helen Freeman’s and Rabbi Marcia Plumb’s pamphlet on ‘The Role of Women’ (2005). They affirm:

  • “Liberal Judaism has always affirmed the equal role and participation of women in all areas of Jewish life”
  • “Liberal Judaism firmly believes that women can and should have access to all aspects of Jewish ritual life, both private and public.”
  • “We reject customs which have arisen to bar women from certain ritual acts”
  • “Throughout the life cycle, girls take an equal part in religious ritual. Both girls and boys have a service of baby naming in the synagogue.”
  • “Girls are completely integrated into the life of a Liberal Synagogue”
  • “Liberal Judaism empowers adult women to take a full part in the religious life of the community.”

Viewed through the lens of the circumcision question, to what extent does mainstream Judaism fulfill these aspirations? A woman proselyte is unable to undergo brit milah as an “aspect of Jewish ritual life” even if she wanted to choose this as her expression of a “mark of Jewish identity and a sign of the covenant” (Jacobi, ‘Circumcision’, 2009), or her contribution to Jewish continuity. She is not equal “throughout the life cycle”. A girl, because she is not circumcised, has no enduring mark on her body, or the same organ removed (the prepuce that is integral to sexual experience), as a symbol of her Jewishness. The World Health Organisation (Fact sheet N°241, Feb 2010) reports that female circumcision “is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women”, while UNICEF asserts that it is “discriminatory and violates the rights to equal opportunities”. It remains an open question why male circumcision is not considered so widely in the same light. “Baby naming” is not equivalent to having part of the body removed, and does not equalize boys and girls unless the brit milah is removed as even an optional ritual for baby boys.

Requiring the brit milah of just males places an extra responsibility on them not shared by women, which is both unfair on men, and relegates women to secondary status, suggesting that ‘covenant and identity’ can be carried by only males. Or is it that women can express covenant and identity, but without the need for a brit milah? In this case, it would be men who have secondary status, because they have to do something more than women to prove themselves.

It may be tempting for a conversion applicant to seek an easier passage through conversion by not raising any objections to the circumcision question, but Deut 16:20 urges “justice, justice shall you pursue”.

Liberal Judaism apparently has a deep respect for gender equality. Circumcision is fundamentally unavailable to women or girls, and even deemed unnecessary for women or girls. Rejecting circumcision may be a radical and authentic way for a proselyte to affirm covenant, Jewish identity, and allegiance to the Jewish people.

6. Halachah and minhag

The religious arguments used to justify circumcision as an appropriate act for a male infant or proselyte are based variously on either halachah (Jewish law) or minhag (Jewish custom). However, Progressive Judaism does not take either of these as sufficient justification for any given action.

Echoing many great leaders of Progressive Judaism, Jacobi (2009) writes that “Progressive Judaism … believes that individuals should make informed choices about whether, and to what extent, to follow halachah.” Progressive Judaism cherishes the view that halachah should guide, but not govern modern Jewish life. Circumcision, then, cannot be prescribed within Progressive Judaism purely on grounds of halachah.

Minhag – the adoption of practices over generations, or practices shared by many Jews at a particular time and place – is a crucial part of Jewish unity and continuity. But using the weight of numbers – either as an aggregate of all the occasions through history, or of tally of the range of current opinions – should not be how we decide what is right. To invoke the supremacy of minhag – and therefore the weight of numbers – for insisting on circumcision would be to disregard a cherished value of Judaism to prevent a minority suffer at the hands of a majority. To invoke minhag could risk oppressing a (current) minority who conscientiously object but who in every other respect are committed to Judaism, the Jewish people and living a Jewish life.

Requirements made by both halachah and minhag have to survive the Jewish tests of justice and mercy. And in the case of Progressive Judaism, they must be reassessed in the light of modern sensibilities, modern scientific understandings (e.g. about health, pain, long-term memory) that were unavailable in Biblical and Talmudic times, and also withstand the tests of gender equality, intellectual rigour and personal conscience. I am not convinced that the ritual of circumcision for male infants or prosleytes fares well under these conditions.

Part of the potency of circumcision appears to be that its regard it as beyond challenge. What gives it emotional and psychological force as a religious and cultural symbol is that it has long been held as absolute and non-negotiable for all whose health would not be threatened. But Progressive Judaism is precisely about saying nothing is beyond ethical challenge, conscience and review.

Conscientious objection as a sign of Jewish commitment

A conversion applicant can conscientiously object to the principle of brit milah for all the reasons given here, including solidarity with infants who cannot speak for themselves. Moreover, objecting to the principle of brit milah as an obligation leads logically to an applicant objecting to the principle of disclosing whether or not he is circumcised. Declining to answer can be his way of honouring his own body and sexual sanctity, of committing to gender equality, and the protection of a child not to be harmed, and his trust in the commitments of Progressive Judaism towards intellectual rigour and an ethical society. An applicant should be confident that he can join in Jewish covenant and identity in sincere, meaningful, sustained ways that do not need to include circumcision.

The Reform Rabbi Bamberger wrote: “In arriving at … judgments [about which mitzvot [commandments] to observe], [a person] may well be guided by the opinion of the informed and committed members of his own religious community, and he will not lightly disregard the consensus. But, as a free person, he must assume responsibility of the ultimate choice.” (‘The State of Jewish Belief’, Commentary, August, 1966) Eugene Borowitz wrote that Reform Judaism believes “that we serve God best by being true to our minds and consciences even where, in significant matters, they clash with our heritage.” (‘The Concept of the Covenant in Reform Judaism’, in Berit Milah in the Reform Context, ed. L. Barth, Berit Milah Board of Reform Judaism, 1990, p.155). Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah wrote: “Rather than dictating to individuals, Liberal Judaism is rooted in the principle of informed choice …” (‘Compelling Commitments’, 2007) Finally, Jacobi wrote: “if a candidate is otherwise committed to Judaism but for some strong reason feels unable to proceed with the operation, then we would nevertheless accept the candidate”. (‘Circumcision’, 2009)

Wrestling with both God and Jewish tradition is a very Jewish thing to do. An Orthodox Jewish position would be to bar conversion to any male applicant who would not submit to brit milah or hatafat dam brit. But what about other denominations? Historically, circumcision has been integral to the collective Jewish psyche’s identification with Judaism. It is deeply rooted emotionally and psychologically, quite apart from any religious arguments. However, I find myself arguing that, paradoxically, circumcision seems to go against both traditional and Progressive Jewish teachings. What is the way forward? As so often in Judaism, there are no easy answers. Sitting with the tension, I wrote this poem:

Tradition

Without Talmud
Tradition is nothing.
Without Tradition
There is no Judaism.
Ancient wisdom nurtures,
Custom teaches,
Discipline liberates,
Ritual transforms.

Without an open mind
Tradition lacks conscience.
Without conscience
There is no Judaism.
Wisdom honours both past
and present.
Discipline can imprison,
Custom lack compassion.
Ritual made fresh
renews the soul.

Without Tradition
I am nothing.
Without conscience
I am nothing.
Without you, Breath within the Breath,
Tradition and conscience
are nothing.
Hineni – here I am.

(For full commentary and footnotes on this poem, click here.)

And so we return to the God-wrestling ring of Covenant, Community, Compassion and Conscience. Without being circumcised, can a proselyte be committed to Covenant with the God of Israel and ethical monotheism, and to the Community and continuity of the Jewish people? Yes. I believe there needs to be a thorough review and new dispensation in relation to circumcision as a deciding factor for Jewish identity, continuity, commitment and conversion. Compassion and Conscience compel me to write this. The founders of Liberal Judaism committed “their successors to take up the challenges posed by an ever-changing society” (‘Affirmations’, back cover), and it has described itself as “always ready to reconsider, modify and innovate” (p.4). My hope is that Liberal Judaism will remove the question on the application form about circumcision, and any obligation or even pressure for infant and proselyte circumcision. By doing so, there is an exciting opportunity here for Liberal Judaism not to depart from Jewish values, but even to reaffirm and enliven traditional teachings in a radical and progressive way.

© Alexander Massey – 23 May 2011, revised October 2016

  • Download a PDF of this article here.
  • For further Jewish resources on objections to and alternatives to Jewish circumcision practices, see Brit shalom.
Posted in Brit Shalom Ceremonies, Jewish customs, Life Cycle Tagged with: , , , ,
One comment on ““If male, is he circumcised?” Covenant, community, compassion and conscience
  1. Anonymous says:

    10/10; I’m a jew, and not circumcised. I am a humanistic jew, and I will not be beholden to the customs of [a specific sub-group within the Jewish world (moderator’s edit)]. I’m not bound to a congregation, nor a rabbi’s opinions, nor to historical texts or folkways. I’m a thinking human being and a free jew.

    Our relationship with G-d should be one of our own making through thought and introspection, otherwise we would waste the highly evolved super computer we are gifted with.

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