Circumcision: Not A San Francisco Treat

You may have heard that San Francisco is considering a ban on male circumcision.  My colleague, Rabbi Adam Chalom, has posted an excellent column about this in his regular contribution to the Chicago Tribune’s “The Seeker” section.  He lays out the pros and cons:

On one side, circumcision is non-consensual, irreversible, and painful.

On the other, “our commitment to Jewish history, culture and civilization pulls us toward continuing an ancient and deeply-rooted Jewish tradition. Individuals may have any number of reasons for choosing to circumcise or not to circumcise their male infants: family tradition, cultural identity, community acceptance, father-son identity, ethical or medical concerns, and so on.”

His quote is from a statement by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews (LCSHJ) which has a thorough discussion of the issue.

This is all crucial background information.  I also agree with Rabbi Chalom’s conclusion:

Every parent makes choices for their children – in what language and culture to rear them, how to educate them, what is best for their health and well-being. Male circumcision, for me, does not rise to the level to demand intervention or prohibition. In this case, let parents make the choice for themselves.

I believe that the San Franciscans who proposed banning male circumcision are well-intentioned.  But this law is an over-reach and it will cause nothing but strife and accusations of antisemitism.  It’s probably also unconstitutional, at least based on centuries of precedent.

But do not mistake my opposition to this law as support for male circumcision.

I feel “deeply pulled” to many things in Jewish tradition, including many that I know are simply wrong-headed.  My inner moral voice forces me to confront these matters and to determine whether they are really in keeping with an ethical life-stance.

I have struggled with this over many Jewish traditions and it is this struggle that led me to reject traditional versions of Judaism, to abandon my commitment to Reform Judaism and to identify with the humanists.

I can come to no other determination for myself – and I readily share this with those who seek my opinion – that when we consider it rationally, there is no reasonable, non-superstitious justification for circumcision.  To my mind it is a barbaric remnant of ancient time.  It is always painful and sometimes dangerous.  Stripped of its legendary roots in a covenant made between two fictional characters, it is completely meaningless.

So while I oppose San Francisco’s proposed statute and agree with the overall conclusions of the LCSHJ, I will never conduct a “bris” service or be present for a male ritual circumcision.

There has to be a line that we humanists do not cross and for me that line is clearly drawn at unnecessary, non-consensual, potentially dangerous and certainly painful surgery on an infant.

4 thoughts on “Circumcision: Not A San Francisco Treat

  1. We in the Western world all condemn female circumcision as barbaric. Why do we hesitate to condemn male circumcision?

    The Reform Deist

  2. While it is certainly true that circumcised men “enjoy sex” they describe it in much more restricted terms than intact men, terms of “reaching orgasm” and “having a good time”, rather than the pleasures of the journey and being taken out of themselsves in transcendental ecstacies, as intact men and women do. Circumcised men (but not intact men) are also very prone to say “if I had any more sensitivity, [my pleasure would be reduced, by pain or premature ejaculation]” suggesting that circumcision does have a deleterious effect on sensation.

    The analogies Rabbi Chalom draws are not good. Vaccination offers strong protection against deadly contagious diseases of children, now rare precisely because of vaccination. Circumcision debatably offers some reduction in already-rare diseases of late onset that can be prevented or treated by other means, as and when they arise. A foreskin is not a birth defect, and it is illegal to pierce a child’s genitals, though piercing is reversible, removing no tissue.

    Circumcision is unlike any other decision parents make for children, and is only legal because of its traditions.

  3. What was mooted in San Francisco and Koln was not an outright ban, but a minimum age: 18 in SF and 14 in Kolm. Banning circumcision before puberty is very different from a total ban (which is what the Third Reich and the USSR did).

    Rabbi Falick and I grew up in places and times when the tip of the penis was not a topic of polite conversation. In a time when people did not share what they felt during sex, especially in writing. Many American women of my generation do not truly know what a natural penis looks like. If they do, it is only thanks to the internet. I am confident that a large majority of baby boom American women have never been intimate with an intact man. Before the internet, the only way to for Americans to learn about the natural penis was to look at gay porn, and I fully agree that most straight men and women would refuse to walk down that path. A large majority of American women over 30 are still a demure lot.

    The 21st century is different, and the game changer is the internet. Google images turns up hundreds of closeups of the intact penis. There are short video clips revealing foreskin retractability. There are Tumblr blogs devoted to women fascinated by intact men. Hundreds of women have blogged and commented on having been intimate with both kinds. Some do this in Facebook, using their real names. These women are not all hedonistic free spirits. Over the past 30 years, the circumcision rate among white middle class Americans has declined from maybe 95% to 55%. Intact is now the norm west of the continental divide. These facts dramatically increase the chances that a Jewish young woman will have an intact lover during part of her university days. It is inevitable that in the future, fewer Jews will view the natural penis with disgust, and that more Jews will become aware of its sexual virtues, by lived experience as well as reading. The only way to prevent this evolution is for Jews to retreat into a Chabad-like ghetto.

    Brit milah is on a collision course with the technology driven evolution of our sexual mores.

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