Opinion

It’s 2017. Time to Talk About Circumcision

The battle over Brit Milah cannot be fought on the backs of helpless infants

A circumcision ceremony in the San Francisco area, in 2011.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

That’s it. It’s irreversible. The practice of Brit Milah (ritual circumcision) is no longer considered an observance about which secular and atheist Jews would rather die than transgress. They talk about it, deliberate and occasionally forgo it. If I had asked 20 years ago how much time it would take before secular people would wake up, the answer would surely have been, “At least another generation, if not two.” But the information revolution cannot be stopped – and when the information becomes accessible, the myths start to crumble at a dizzying pace.

Historians will say there have already been periods when the custom was questioned: 2,000 years ago, there were circumcised Jews (“Hellenists”) who “stretched their foreskins” to make it look as if they’d never been circumcised. And 200 years ago, the Reform movement sought to do away with Brit Milah and other commandments so they could integrate into European society. (Unfortunately for them, in their era one could no longer stretch one’s foreskin, since the rabbis had instituted the practice of priya, which removes the foreskin altogether).

It could be that what preserved the custom among secular Jews during the first half of Israel’s national revival was the fact that it was the last custom that still remained from the religious alte heim back in Europe, and the only connection with the ingathering exiles after the founding of the state.

The “army showers” myth, which to this day makes parents fear their uncut son may get mocking looks in the future, might have been suited to that melting pot era – though we cannot be sure it was valid even then. Young, uncircumcised men who came to Israel during the “Russian aliyah” in the early 1990s had difficulty adapting to the new culture, and were quick to get their foreskins removed so as to ease the hardships of absorption.

But even among these new immigrants, there were those who forwent the procedure and many others who bitterly regretted it later when they understood what they’d lost. In any case, until the army the educational system is careful to protect youngsters from unnecessary exposure: Whenever there is communal showering, pupils are supposed to wear bathing suits.

The imposition of “Jewish identity” on the penis greatly minimizes the richness and depth of Judaism, which is blessed with ancient and extensive literature; a long, documented history; a rich language; creativity; a tradition of mutual assistance; and many other qualities that go far beyond the shape of the male organ.

More importantly, the fact that half the Jewish people – namely, women – do not share in the custom does not allow us to relate to the custom today as a cornerstone of the Jewish people. Of course, being circumcised does not make us particularly unique when you consider that only 1 percent of the world’s circumcised men are Jews (around seven million out of 700 million), while the rest are mainly Muslims, as well as Americans (mostly older ones), South Koreans and Filipinos.

Today, it seems that secular Jews cling to the latest myth: the health/medical one, which assumes that removal of the foreskin does not cause any harm, and even protects against diseases. This is a 150-year-old falsehood that developed in the United States, when cutting the foreskin was seen as a “cure” for masturbation. But even there, for the past 40 years – as has always been the case in the medical world – there is no sweeping recommendation to circumcise babies for medical reasons.

Mohel Abraham Romi Cohn being handed a scalpel during the Brit Milah of Yosef Sananas in New York, February 2015.
Seth Wenig / AP

In European countries in recent years, there have been efforts to apply the abhorrence of female circumcision to male circumcision – but the Jewish and Muslim lobbies have managed to prevent a ban on circumcising those under the age of 18. It isn’t certain they will continue to succeed in the future.

The repression by Jewish men of the injury they suffered at the age of eight days is clear and logical. But logic, anatomy and recently also science agree that removing the foreskin from the penis changes the sexual experience and reduces the pleasure of the circumcised man and his partner. But this information is also being repressed.

Although there is no law requiring Jewish parents to circumcise their sons, there’s no doubt that the establishment in Israel is a partner to the serious problems that exist in this area. The judicial system ignores laws that are meant to protect a minor from physical harm. The Health Ministry declares that circumcision is not a medical procedure but a religious one, and thus takes no responsibility for overseeing the procedure – even though it carries risks, like any operation.

There are no binding regulations regarding anesthesia; the operation can take place at any location; the person performing the procedure (whether a mohel or a surgeon) isn’t subject to any scrutiny like other surgeons are; and bad outcomes are underreported because parents are reluctant to report their son’s penis has suffered even a minor injury. Therefore, only those who bother to seek the information will learn about the risks of Brit Milah and that there is no real supervision of the professionals in this field.

The only body that is supposed to supervise the procedure is the Supervisory Committee of Mohelim, affiliated with the Religious Services Ministry, and it acts more like a workers’ union than a regulatory body. It has no teeth, and its primary interest is in maintaining the custom as it has been observed from time immemorial.

Assertive and inquisitive people nowadays can easily learn about all aspects of Brit Milah. One can watch videos that show the role the foreskin plays; delve deeper into the discredited myths about it; and learn about its history in the world and in Judaism. (Did you know, for example, that there is no evidence they routinely circumcised children during the biblical era?)

As the information spreads on online forums and in the media, secular Jews understand that if they in any case don’t observe the commandments, this is the first mitzvah they should abandon. The excuse that “my son will be different from his friends” no longer holds water now that tens of thousands of children live happily in Israel with their foreskins.

One assumes that even if secular Jews give up Brit Milah, the observant will continue to circumcise their sons. Secular Jews will replace Brit Milah with a ceremony called “Brit Milim” (a covenant of words) – at which they can more precisely express their worldview regarding accepting their son (or daughter) into their family, the community and the people, and Brit Milah will join the many other mitzvahs and customs that divide religious and secular, like Shabbat, kashrut, marriage, niddah and more.

The divide that is emerging with regard to Brit Milah might deepen the rift between religious and secular, but it hasn’t created it. The rift already exists and the rearguard battle cannot be fought on the backs of helpless infants who cannot express their opinion.

Once Milah is no longer the last consensus that connects the tribes of Israel, there will be an opportunity to recalculate our course and examine what does connect us. It’s in our hands. We – the generation with all its diversity and Jewish outlooks, from ultra-Orthodox to atheist – must sit down and seriously discuss how to connect the tribes without ignoring those issues that divide us.

I’m throwing down the gauntlet and am prepared to start having this discussion now, if I can find interlocutors from all parts of the community who will join, without fear, and prepare us all for our joint future.

Rani Kasher is an atheist, a father of six, a social and environmental activist, and a lecturer on issues relating to nature and the environment, homeschooling and circumcision. He is the author of “Milah – A Second Thought on Brit Milah” and a founder of the Beofen-TV community.