Groups at the fringe of culture and medicine have long questioned the practice of male circumcision without reference to religion. After all, in the U.S. it has been pretty routine --regardless of the religion of the parents -- to circumcise boys in the hospital at the time of birth. The “no to circumcision” groups have claimed the practice is painful and medically unnecessary.
As questions of gender equity have become matters of justice, the practice has been compared to efforts to ban female genital cutting, a traditional practice in some cultures. Advocates of ending male infant circumcision have equated it with FGC and called for its banning.
For the most part, these efforts have gone on outside of prejudice or bias based on religion. Health benefits to circumcision are often cited indicating that it significantly helps to prevent the transmission of HIV and other STI’s. While there is some marginal dissent from these conclusions, the evidence is so strong that it would actually be irresponsible to implement a ban. Also cited are the risks of male circumcision including death. In 2001 Sweden passed a law requiring that all circumcisions be conducted under medical circumstances with an anesthetist present. This followed the circumcision related death of a young Muslim boy. In the U.S., the movement has drawn on growing evidence of infant ability to experience pain. For most of the 20th century, doctors believed that newborns had almost no capacity to experience pain and many simple procedures such as circumcision were done without any anesthetics. A healthy cry was seen as no big deal. Now, we take a different view of consciousness of infants and seek to prevent any trauma to infants that pain might cause.
We also take more seriously the rights of children – and even fetuses as subjects of research or as recipients of medical care. Wherever possible, we seek to limit parental decisions about the medical care of their children, if that treatment carries risks to their health – physical and mental or to their lives.
Unfortunately a proposed referendum to ban male infant circumcision in San Francisco has somehow turned almost exclusively on the question of whether such a ban would violate the religious freedom of Jews who considered infant circumcision an outward sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Muslims also circumcise boys, in deference to the common Abrahamic tradition they share with Jews, but it is not mandatory.
Significant issues of freedom of religion are at stake in banning the procedure and it is probably unwise, and certainly unnecessary for the protection of male infants, to initiate such a ban. At the same time, the pro forma lobby against the measure within the Jewish community – claiming anti-Semitism - is an insufficient response to the many valid ethical concerns that are raised about the procedure.
Religious practices change over time – or do not. Often the historic meaning of the ritual gets lost and the community views the ritual as simply an occasion for celebration. Many rituals are patriarchal in their origins and particularly those related to sexuality and reproduction reflect older understandings about sexuality and the roles of men and women in religion.
Circumcision from a feminist religious perspective is one of those rituals. Why only a ritual for men and focused on genitalia to symbolize the covenant between God and the Jewish people? Are girl infants not part of that covenant? Why focus on male virility as the important element in the continuation of the Jewish people? Is not woman’s gestation capacity along with her contribution of the ova much more significant to the survival of the Jewish people than the mere contribution of sperm that comes from the man?
Are historic Jewish rituals of female cleansing after menstruation and childbirth not in need of reform as well?
It may be time for Jews to look more closely at circumcision in the context of their own modern view of sexuality, gender and reproduction. Just as we now have Bat Mitzvahs as well as Bar Mitzvahs could not the entire ritual of circumcision be transformed to honor both boys and girls, to eliminate pain and move from the pelvic zone into a more spiritual and holistic understanding of our sexuality?
The San Francisco referendum is silly. But the core issue of our relationship to God and its applicability to both men and women is very serious.
Note: this post has been updated
Frances Kissling | Jun 8, 2011 9:40 AM