By Neal Schindler and Hyphen Parent
What questions do you have about Judaism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below.
Do modern Jewish men still follow the ancient practice of circumcision and why?
Response by Reconstructionist Jewish Writer, Neal Schindler
Genesis 17:10-11 is pretty clear on the commandment to circumcise: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Genesis 17:14 goes one step further: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Ouch! (Pun intended.)
Back when I was a wide-eyed, impressionable undergraduate student, I heard a non-Jewish friend describe circumcision as “genital mutilation.” That moment stayed with me. Years later, I had another non-Jewish friend who was passionately opposed to circumcision, as she considered it a human rights violation. Babies can’t give consent, so removing a baby’s foreskin with a knife seemed to her like something that simply shouldn’t be done, for any reason. Not a crazy perspective, from my point of view.
An endless debate rages online about whether circumcision confers health benefits. To those who steadfastly oppose circumcision as a brutal violation of a child’s rights, no health benefit could justify the barbarism. Why do so many modern Jews still circumcise? Likely because they see circumcision as a rite that ushers a baby boy into the start of his Jewish life. Baby girls get a naming ceremony instead; lucky them!
Full disclosure: I have seriously mixed feelings about circumcision, leaning against. A few years ago, the CDC reported that circumcision rates dropped in the U.S. during the ‘00s. One possible explanation: “In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that there was not enough data to recommend the routine circumcision of baby boys. They reaffirmed their position in 2005.” A few years ago, some folks even tried to ban the practice in San Francisco. At the time, American Jewish Committee attorney Marc Stern called the attempted ban “the most direct assault on Jewish religious practice in the United States.”
Regarding the question of why, from a Jewish perspective, circumcision is important to God, Jewish author S.R. Hewitt wrote: “The plain fact of the matter is that we do not know. While numerous explanations for the ritual have been suggested by different sages throughout the generations, circumcision is a chok, a law that is performed as God’s decree, and according to traditional Judaism, no further explanation is needed.” There are Jews for whom such a non-explanation suffices. I happen not to be one of them.
Response by Conservative Jewish Writer, Hyphen Parent
The majority of Jews circumcise their sons at a ceremony called a bris when the baby is 8 days old.
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