American Jews are standing firm on their commitment to brit milah – Jewish ritual circumcision. They do so even though anti-circumcision groups protest and a German court has issued an anti-circumcision ruling. And they do so despite the deplorable practices of certain ultra-Orthodox groups that, when circumcising their children, violate basic standards of good health and common sense.
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Brit milah is Judaism’s most ancient ritual. From the time of Abraham, the people of Israel were commanded to circumcise their sons as a sign of their covenant with God. In our contentious Jewish world, circumcision remains one of the few points of agreement among virtually all elements of the community.
There is not much data on the subject, but non-Orthodox rabbis with whom I have spoken tell me that only a relative handful of their members oppose brit milah. Yes, rabbis get more questions than they once did, and they must be prepared with better explanations. But they see little evidence that Jews in significant number are heeding the critics who condemn circumcision as gruesome, dangerous, and unnecessary.
Challenges to circumcision are not new in Jewish history, but the most recent one – a decision by a court in Cologne, Germany, involving a Muslim child – was stunning and outrageous. The judge ruled that the circumcision of all children was impermissible, thus halting the practice in many hospitals throughout Germany. While the judgment led to an uproar in the Jewish world, its impact in America was minimal.
Most American Jews were barely aware of the decision, and in any case, the German courts are the last place that they will look to for guidance on religious matters. And Chancellor Merkel has already indicated that the decision will be reversed.
Far more important was the ballot initiative in San Francisco in 2011 to make performing circumcisions a crime, punishable by a fine or jail time. Opposed by Jewish communal and religious groups, the measure was proposed by anti-circumcision activists who succeeded in generating significant publicity for their cause until a judge removed the question from the ballot.
But the question remains: While opponents deplore the practice of “genital mutilation” that is “forced on children,” why do American Jews continue to support brit milah? For some, it is a mandate from Torah and therefore an obligation from God. But for most, I suspect, theology plays a secondary role. Brit milah is a rite that confers on a child membership in a people and promotes identification with a community. Most Jews want their sons to enter the Jewish people through the gates of circumcision, knowing that millions of others have walked through before them; somehow, the power of the ritual, its ancient lineage, and its tangible and physical character speak to even the most assimilated among us.
In addition, for most Jews the “human rights” arguments made by the German court seem downright silly. The judge, noting the baby’s lack of assent, called ritual circumcision “an assault on the rights of the child.” But children do not assent to most of the things we require of them, and the argument only works if there is conclusive evidence that the ritual causes irreparable physical harm.
Yet no such evidence exists, and authorities go back and forth endlessly on whether or not circumcision has medical benefits. Given its value in preventing HIV, it would seem that it does, but under any circumstances, there is not a compelling case to be made against it. And, the thinking goes, if after 3000 years there are weighty reasons not to do it, wouldn’t we know?
Jews, of course, are cautious about all medical procedures. Those who select a mohel (a ritual circumciser)check his credentials with care. And the Reform movement has trained its own mohelim, almost always physicians who then become expert in the traditions of brit milah. In addition, all the non-Orthodox movements have developed rituals to bring baby girls into the covenant, thus reassuring progressive parents that in choosing a brit milah for their sons they are not slighting their daughters.
Those who have done most to tarnish brit milah are not the anti-circumcision activists but the ultra-Orthodox practitioners of metzizah b’peh – the sucking of the blood from the baby’s penis with the mouth of the mohel. The purpose of this practice is to clean the wound, but the problem is that any sore on the mouth of the mohel will transmit an infection – often herpes – to the infant, who has an undeveloped immune system. And health officials in New York City estimate that a small number of babies have become very ill and a few have died from such infections, one last September.
Needless to say, the Jewish community of New York is horrified, and so too are most Orthodox authorities. Health officials in New York City are working to limit the practice, as is Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a prominent medical ethicist and a dean at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school. Tendler has argued for years that the direct suction procedure must be abandoned and that there is absolutely nothing in the halachah that requires it.
But even this scandal has not succeeded in discrediting brit milah in the eyes of mainstream Jewry. Because direct suction is practiced mostly by certain Hasidic groups in the ultra-Orthodox world, it is viewed as an extremist act by extremist elements—an example of what responsible, sensible, health-conscious Jews do not do.
And so we see that Judaism’s oldest ritual is triumphing over its detractors. If anything, as it is celebrated with new, creative liturgy, it may be undergoing something of a revival. In an age of assimilation, uncertainty, and endless talk, this visceral rite of identification and belonging manages somehow to touch the Jewish heart. Thank God.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.