A Case for Jewish Circumcision

Religion aside, there are plenty of scientific arguments in favor of circumcision, and decent ethical ones too.

In her article “It cuts both ways: A Jew argues for child rights over religious circumcision,” Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld raises a question over the propriety of circumcising baby boys for religious reasons. In response, I hope to offer a different perspective.

This perspective does not bring forth the obvious religious counterargument that God commands us to circumcise our male offspring. Rather, it puts God aside to explore whether it is possible for parents to justify the ritualistic mutilation of their male babies’ genitals, asking: Can a secular and liberal argument for circumcision be found?

We might start by looking to the scientifically proven medical advantages.

Robust research has shown that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV in men by approximately 60 percent (and protects against other sexually transmitted diseases, too). But, if we’re looking to protect our new-borns from the risks of sexually transmitted disease, a surgical option would seem like overkill given that we could, instead, teach them about responsible sexual behaviour.

Some experts in public policy recommend universal circumcision in the United States because their estimates indicate that every 298 circumcisions would prevent one case of HIV, and, on their estimates, this is a cost- and pain-effective option. But, when you’re looking at your own baby, are you willing to inflict such pain in the knowledge that, as a public policy, circumcision might be a good idea? You trust that good sex education is going to help your son, so why should he be one of the 297 sacrifices made in the name of the ill-fated one?

Looking beyond the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, there is some evidence that circumcision offers defence against urinary tract infection in young boys. But, given that there’s only a 1 percent risk, or less, of children developing such an infection in the first place, circumcision once again looks like a radical route to take.

Similarly, child circumcision is probably an effective defence against penile cancer (adult circumcision doesn’t seem to help, and may even increase the risk of acquiring it). About one in 100,000 men develop penile cancer. Looking into your innocent baby’s eyes, is that a statistic that moves you to reach for the scalpel?

We give our toddlers injections to protect against all sorts of maladies, sometimes only to help the immunity of the general population. Our children are old enough to remember those injections. Perhaps circumcision is no different – or better, since it leaves no trace of a memory. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’re yet to be convinced. The benefits are, after all is said and done, slight.

Given the unconvincing nature of the scientific advantages, perhaps we should assess the scientific evidence compelling us against circumcision?

Some try to argue that the trauma of circumcision has devastating effects as we grow up. What researchers describe as the “involuntary genital cutting” of male babies apparently gives rise to post-traumatic stress disorder, to castration anxiety, and to other psychological maladies. Of course, this research is bound to be met with sceptical glares by most Jews, Muslims, and Americans (the majority of whom are circumcised). Are we all more psychologically damaged than our non-Jewish, non-Muslim and non-American friends? Is mental ill-health much more prevalent among those of us without a foreskin? The so-called “findings” beggar belief, and speak more to the poor methodology of the research than to the damaging effects of circumcision.

There is an argument that circumcision reduces sexual pleasure. But, the most convincing studies to demonstrate this concentrate on adult circumcision. Sexually active men report better sexual performance and stimulation before circumcision than after. But this really doesn’t prove anything about child circumcision. Who’s to say that a baby penis after circumcision can’t develop the full sexual functioning of a non-circumcised penis? Nobody. It isn’t the sort of thing that can be tested, at least not straightforwardly.

We can of course raise scientific worries around the risk of the procedure. Infection, bleeding and/or the cutting of too much skin beset around 1 percent of circumcisions. And, 1 in 500,000 circumcisions are estimated to have fatal complications (Dr. Steinfeld cites other evidence, I am here trusting the American Academy of Family Physicians).

Indeed, when medical practitioners weigh up the evidence, they tend to favor circumcision, but only mildly. The most recent statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics states that, “After a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence, the AAP found the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, but the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision.”

So, the science doesn’t help.

Science might give a little nudge in favor of circumcision, but before you put your baby through pain, and a body altering procedure, you may want more. Here is a consideration that might help you:

What are the chances that your Jewish baby will grow up to be religious or in some other way affiliated to mainstream Jewish identity? Perhaps you’re already quite religious yourself (after all, you are at least considering a ritual circumcision for your son). What are the chances your child will regret not having been circumcised as a baby?

Research shows that 63 percent of American Jews belong to denominations that, in one sense or another, demand circumcision. It also shows that there is a good chance your son will inherit a Jewish identity similar to yours. So if you consider circumcision religiously important, there’s a fair chance he will, too.

There’s also a chance he’ll move to the right of you on the Jewish-identity spectrum. According to the recent Pew Report, 7 percent of children raised Reform make a rightward shift toward Conservatism, and 4 percent of children raised Conservative make a rightward shift toward Orthodoxy. What these statistics don’t measure is the growth of the Baal Teshuva movement, the movement of Jews who view themselves as having become religious, irrespective of their denominational background (that is, those who become more religious without necessarily switching denominations). What is the chance that your son will be a Baal Teshuva? What is the chance that he will be more passionately Zionist, and more Jewishly nationalistic than you?

All of the major denominations still require circumcision, and if your child ends up belonging to any such movement, or grows up wanting an attachment to Judaism, they are overwhelming likely to be grateful to you for having circumcised them before they were old enough to remember it.

The real question, then, is not whether you are forcing a medical procedure on your infant son, but whether you might be saving him from undergoing a painful procedure as a grown adult.

Converts to Judaism are circumcised as adults. I’ve seen what they go through: the pain, the discomfort, the humiliation. I’m humbled by them, and, as a religious Jew, I’d like to think that I would have made the same choice. Thankfully, however, my parents saved me from any memory of pain, and from any memory of discomfort.

For most Jewish men, it seems, a foreskin is something that they’re not supposed to have; an aberration that they would have been happier to have had removed as a baby. Surely this has to inform our interpretation of the right to bodily integrity. We don’t attack parents for removing unsightly birth marks or deformities from their children.

Responsible parents have to engage in a cost-benefit analysis. The medical evidence is finely balanced, with a slight tilt in favor of circumcision. What is the likelihood that your child will be grateful to you for having removed their foreskin before they had to do it as adults? How does this compare to the likelihood that your son will belong to the vanishingly small minority of in-tacters?

My wife and I had our son circumcised because God told us that this was the way to enter into his covenant with Abraham. But, even without this religious argument, circumcising our Jewish baby boy seemed like good decision theory in practice – following a decent wager in the spirit of Pascal.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.