Opinion

Ritual Circumcision as a Sign of Belonging

A genuine sense of belonging requires sacrifice, and alternatives such as the 'brit milim' (covenant of words) won’t do because they miss the essence of Judaism

File photo: A mohel prepares to perform a ritual circumcision.
Mario Wader / AP

Opposition to circumcision is not new, but seeing it as a children’s rights issue is a new approach. The Council of Europe and politicians and activists in Germany and Norway have focused on the potential for psychological harm to an infant, in addition of course to the physical injury, inflicted without his consent. This position also has supporters in Israel, as Rani Kasher noted in a recent op-ed.

Our understanding of childhood has changed over the course of history, and it could be that the claim of psychological harm, which currently sounds a bit odd, will be met in the future with understanding. But when we start debating potential psychological harm, one can also point to the emotional harm that an uncircumcised Jewish male could suffer when he grows up and realizes that he was severed, without his consent, from the tradition he chose to identify with.

At its core, the brit milah has theological, historical and sociological foundations. But the main reason it is still practiced, by secular as well as religious Jews, has to do with the right to a distinct identity on one hand and a sense of belonging on the other. The fact that most of the circumcised males around the world are non-Jews does not change the subjective awareness of millions of Jews, just as scientific proof that some Bible stories were borrowed from earlier cultures did not change how Jews view their heritage.

From the Jewish perspective, ritual circumcision is the first and most basic sign distinguishing Jewish males from non-Jewish males. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s determination that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” explains this well.

In this light, it seems that opponents of the brit milah have no cause to be encouraged by European efforts to outlaw circumcision. Just the opposite. As the trend spreads, as trends tend to do, a backlash can be expected. Even secular Jews are likely to insist on ritual circumcision if the law prohibits the practice. After all, it’s a good bet that Judaism would not have survived until now were it not for anti-Semites and other enemies.

It’s a fact that in the United States, where it’s easiest to be a Jew, or a member of any other faith (at least before U.S. President Donald Trump), assimilation rates are highest. Although the current opposition to circumcision is grounded in liberalism and humanism rather than anti-Semitism, it is nevertheless likely to spur an entrenchment around Jewish rituals.

From a different perspective, part of the attraction of the brit is the fact that it involves some sacrifice – rightly so, to a large extent. A genuine sense of belonging requires sacrifice, and alternatives such as the “brit milim” (covenant of words) won’t do because they miss the essence of Judaism. In contrast to Christianity, the core of Judaism is not faith but deeds.

It’s easy to understand those who oppose circumcision out of contempt for religious or national identities. It is difficult, however, to square the desire to remain Jewish while rejecting what is almost the only significant act that is asked of secular Jews today in the name of their Jewish identity.