Genital Mutilation Unites The Faiths

Reform Jews are making cause with Haredim!  Muslims are embracing the concerns of rabbis!  What’s going on here? Did the messiah come?

No.  They’re all up in arms because a German court has ruled against religious circumcision.  Nothing like ritual genital mutilation to unite the faiths.

So that I can avoid the pitchforks and torches, let me be clear that I’m generally opposed to anti-circumcision laws.  With a custom as old as male circumcision, no ordinance or ruling will bring about its end.  For that we need to employ reason and persuasion.  We must also be willing to practice some patience.  People have to be allowed to come to their own conclusions about it.  Statutory prohibitions are actually counter-productive, blocking reasoned discourse and providing a sympathetic platform for religious leaders to rouse emotions.

One element blocking such discourse is that this decision came from a German court.  Accusations of antisemitism were inevitable.  It will also not stand.  The Bundestag will undoubtedly clarify that the procedure is permitted for religious reasons and the hubbub will die down.

But let’s remember that this decision was based upon a case involving a four year-old Muslim boy.  Performing the procedure on a four year-old is even more incomprehensible to me than doing it to an infant.  It seems to me that when we’re talking about four year-olds we are already well into a kind of child abuse that we can all agree upon.

So here’s a modest suggestion.  If legislators or judges seek to minimize suffering, they should perhaps turn their attention to placing some reasonable restrictions on the practice such as imposing age limits.  Clearly, the pain and suffering associated with this unnecessary surgery increases with age.

And far be it from me to bust up the great spirit of interfaith cooperation that the court has engendered, but since Jews favor infant circumcision, maybe they could be convinced to get on board with such age restrictions.  Muslims, whose customs range from infant to puberty-aged circumcisions, should at least be compelled to practice the somewhat less complicated custom of infant circumcision.

Of course, even this modest reform would do little to address the core issue that is the madness of 21st century people engaging in barbaric Bronze Age genital mutilation.  But given that this injudicious practice is widespread and deeply rooted in tradition, only education and awareness can lead to its eventual – and much hoped for – demise.

9 thoughts on “Genital Mutilation Unites The Faiths

  1. 4 year old boy?! Aghast!
    Our form of genital mutilation is far better than yours!

    “Clearly, the pain and suffering associated with this unnecessary surgery increases with age.”

    Totally false. The pain and suffering of the procedure comes from having your penis’ sensitivity nullified to the lowest amount required for orgasm and procreation. Or rather, it comes when people do the research and finally found out what actually happened to them.
    Only an adult can make this decision. That much should be clear. Only the owner of the body should make irreversible decisions to amputate part of their body–especially their reproductive organs! It’s simply medically unethical and more broadly immoral as well.
    My, body. My rights!

  2. The Bundestag can’t do anything to legislate on this because the Cologne judge ruled it was against the Basic Law (constitution) of Germany to circumcise, because it violated a boy’s right to physical integrity and that the parents’ religious “rights” to do this were superceded by this interest because they weren’t seriously harmed by it.

    “The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised,” said the court in its ruling.

    The only thing right now is to wait for the supreme court to rule on the matter. After that is done, the ball might be tossed to Parliament for legislation, in case they want to clarify. My hope and guess is that the supreme court will uphold the principle of an age limit of some sort and might give some wiggle room to the parliament. It’s pretty hard to justify this procedure legally, because it’s obviously harmful and it takes away a boy’s right to choose for himself what kind of penis he will have. It’s irreversible, harmful and pointless; satisfying the emotional needs of parents is just not sufficient excuse to justify this kind of harm.

  3. I am seriously impressed by your level of maturity in being able to say something like that, and so quickly and effortlessly. I am very accustomed to religious/cultural resistance on this topic. It’s so very hard for us to get over our cultural assumptions and attachments to circumcision. I lived the first half of my life assuming nothing was wrong with circumcision at all. How could there be? Overcoming cultural acceptance is so hard that even secular Americans are some of the most ardent supporters of circumcision.

    I myself was circumcised at age 5, in a Muslim ceremony. Yeah, it was horrifically painful, but it was just physical pain and once it’s over and life goes on. The reason I didn’t feel emotional trauma or resentment was that the ceremony itself was a grand party. As a kid you are surrounded by a festive environment where everyone gives you gifts and congratulations, and it’s your special day. The psychological trauma just isn’t there. It’s just like a hurdle of life that everyone in your culture goes through, an initiation into full adult status, so you don’t feel abused or wronged. (I can’t speak for every Muslim, though). I just accepted it as normal and rarely ever thought about it after.

    But I was terribly traumatized when I read as a teenager that circumcision harms a man’s ability to experience pleasure and can even reduce his woman’s sexual enjoyment. That made me cry. Now I’m older I actually observed how it has directly affected parts of my sex life (masturbation, intercourse, …) it’s something that bothers me almost daily. That is the real trauma I experienced from circumcision: once I was relieve of my ignorance of what circumcision actually is. The age at which I was circumcised is a distant runner-up in trauma significance. I’m pretty sure that I’ve been traumatized by countless things in my life that I perceived as far, far worse than my circumcision day.

  4. I agree that court rulings will not bring about an end to circumcision by themselves. Continuing education is also necessary. There will also always be a hard core of fundamentalists who will do it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes 1,000+ years for the last slivers of the practice to be completely eliminated.
    However, I still think a ban is a good idea. One simple reason is this: have you ever heard expectant Jewish parents agonizing over the upcoming “decision” of whether to circumcise once they learn they’re having a boy? It’s sounds absurd though, because we all know that almost no one will refuse to circumcise. There’s too much social pressure. And yet there is nevertheless this reluctance because on a visceral level they know they are doing harm to their child, which goes against their natural protective instincts. A ban would give such families the excuse they need to not go ahead with it. With a ban, no one has to fear having their status as a “Good Jew” or a “Real Jew” questioned. (this blog posting is a great example of what I mean http://ow.ly/bWcmt ).
    Besides that, simply put, I think a ban will work. Not completely, but it will basically reduce the circumcision greatly. That’s good enough for now. It also takes away the medical legitimacy of the act. Besides that, it’s simply the moral thing to do to protect children now, and not tolerate it any longer. If Germany were to accept circumcision again, it would mean doctors would be the ones doing it (to “reduce harm” from kitchen table circumcisions). This is unacceptable.

    In practice, those who are adament to circumcise can still go to other jurisdictions and do it. Ultra-orthodox brises will forever continue in secret. The general custom will slowly fade away though, because I think most Jews are secular and this ritual is not borne out of religious devotion so much as being a cultural/ethnic identity custom. I think that once the immediate reaction of fear of persecution dies down, people will not actually mind having sons with intact penises. And future generations will not really mind losing circumcision in the long run. And of course, any religious male old enough can still get circumcised if he wants perpetuate the practice.

    I agree that there will always be an underground practice. So of course we need other solutions besides legal enforcement. However I don’t think this is a good argument for not having an age limit now. Keep in mind that female genital mutilation continues despite a legal prohibition. So ya, education and other solutions will be required.
    Cheers, and thanks for listening.

  5. I think that there should be separate laws for Orthodox and non-Orthidox Jews. Orthodox Jews who want to circumcise their babies should be allowed to do so as a religious exemption. Since their religion mandates it, they are bound by their laws to circumcise their boys.

    Non-Orthodox Jews, who pick and choose which parts of the religion they want to follow or believe in, should be imprisoned. How sick is it that the one time they decide to follow the laws of a book they believe was man-made, it happens to be the law that mandates that they chop off part of their child’s body!?

  6. Jeff- I’m shocked you’re writing this. Really? It’s been a while since I met you at UIUC’s Hillel. I can’t believe you wrote that this custom would hopefully end.

  7. Hi Anonymous:

    Since you posted anonymously, I don’t have any way of knowing the exact nature of our acquaintance when I served as University of Illinois Hillel director in the early to mid-90s. Most people familiar with me or this blog know that I have undergone a significant personal and philosophical transformation since those days. I have written about it here and, if you have the time or interest, you can read more about it.

    I stand by my repeated and emphatic statements that ritual circumcision is unwarranted and should be discontinued. I believe that most secular humanists are in agreement with this position even if we may differ a little over how to achieve this. Thanks for commenting.

  8. By “ritual circumcision”, are you making a differentiation from medical circumcision, for which the American Pediatric Association has stated (August 2012),

    “Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure’s benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it.”
    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/08/22/peds.2012-1989.full.pdf+html

    ?

  9. I take as given that all readers of this blog know that a large majority of American and Canadian adult men, regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents, were circumcised in the maternity ward very shortly after being born. 30-50 years ago, this fact was very seldom mentioned, much less justified. Circumcision in North America is a widespread obsession, not an archaic Jewish peculiarity.

    I do not support making infant circumcision illegal. I warmly support an evolution of our sexual and parenting culture, such that circumcision comes to be seen as significantly detracting from the full sexual pleasure to which both genders are entitled.

    The objective is not to abolish brit milah, but to delay it until a man attains his majority and can give informed consent to the ritual. It is not true that adult circumcision is either more painful or more dangerous. What is true is that an adult is more cognisant of going through the ordeal, and will remember it. Every case of a circumcision that has been botched or has ended tragedy, was done to an infant of young child. It is much more difficult to operate on a squirming baby than on an anesthetised adult.

    David: The Circumcision Task Force of the American Academy of Pediatrics is sadly mistaken for a host of reasons I won’t go into here except for this. To assert that the benefits outweigh the risks requires that the benefits and risks be known. The important risks are not known, because there never has been a large sample study of the adult penis in North America, with a focus on the consequences of infant circumcision on adult sexuality. All the claimed benefits of infant circumcision can be attained with certainty by leading a chaste life, or by using condoms. The medical rationales for infant circumcision tacitly assume that many boys will grow up to be irresponsible manwhores, and that altering their genitalia at birth is a valid way of limiting the damage they can do to themselves and others. I cannot support any irreversible action that makes it easier to lead a sexually irresponsible life. I remained celibate into my 30s, when I married and began a very satisfying marital sex life. Unlike most white American women of her generation, my wife gets to experience intercourse made more gentle by my moving foreskin and the way it interacts with natural lubrication.

    Rabbi Falick: there are thoughtful American Jews who deplore infant circumcision.
    http://www.beyondthebris.com/

    Since 1850 or so, brit milah has been on a collision course with the Jewish sophistication about healthy sexuality, and with the growing demand for gender equality in Judaism. I submit that the collision has begun.

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