Understanding the Decision Not to Circumcise
Most Jews regard circumcision as a given. For the devout, it’s the fulfilment of a divine commandment, an act of faith. For many others, regardless of their beliefs, circumcision remains a powerful statement among the Jewish people.
Jewish thinkers throughout the ages have reflected on the benefits. Moses Maimonides felt it kept sexual desire in check, binding married couples together while keeping men, in particular, focused on Torah study. Philo of Alexandria, writing in mid-first century C.E., felt circumcision had been handed down from wise ancestors and conferred hygienic advantages for desert dwellers, as well as moral and procreative benefits.
Today Jews cite many reasons for keeping the tradition: They say it’s the right thing for Jews to do. It’s a tribal marking. It’s viewed as healthier and generally more appealing.
But for some, infant circumcision presents insurmountable ethical and spiritual difficulties. Within the Jewish “tent,” there’s a diversity of experience with regard to this ancient tradition.
Why Not Circumcise?
Why do some Jews choose not to circumcise? Some don’t want to subject the baby to unnecessary pain. Some are concerned about the loss of healthy tissue whose function may be erogenous as well as protective. Some feel circumcision represents a gendered approach to parenting which they’d rather avoid. Some see it as body modification that should be a matter of personal, not parental, choice. Some have loved ones who’ve experienced complications. Some feel they’ve been harmed.
It’s Also a Jewish Thing
Jewish people who question or reject circumcision often view their feelings as an extension of their Jewishness. Wrestling with God and tradition is at the heart of Jewish thinking. It’s acceptable, and even expected, for Jews to question, debate and challenge firmly established ideas. Rabbis will often say: Of course you question circumcision! Questioning is part of our tradition. To question is to take Judaism seriously.
But what about when questioning becomes outright refusal? Inherent in the notion of God-wrestling is the idea that as human beings, we can choose. We can choose to say no to circumcision, and we can choose to reimagine the covenant in ways that are meaningful to us.
The following are some Jewish laws, values, and expressions that non-circumcising Jews have connected with their stance:
- It’s forbidden to cause pain to living creatures.
- Man is never nearer the divine than in his compassionate moments.
- We must bring our spiritual intent (kavanah) to all commandments.
- What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.
- Lovingkindness (chesed) and compassion are core ethical virtues.
- All humankind is made in the likeness of God.
- All of the Torah’s paths are peace (shalom).
- Let justice pierce the mountain.
- Judaism affirms the sanctity of human life.
- One is not obligated to undergo a dangerous medical procedure.
- Harmony between spouses has special importance.
- Human dignity may trump biblical law.
- It is our responsibility to repair the world (tikkun olam).
- Jewish law can change as we learn more.
Jewish institutions have made great strides to welcome and include diverse participants. This makes for inviting and vibrant communities to which people can bring their authentic selves. We typically don’t think of ritual diversity in the same way that we think of other kinds of diversity — and there are important distinctions. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to recognize that although we are one people, we come from diverse ritual backgrounds and can experience ritual differently.
When Not Circumcising Becomes Tradition
In some cases, not circumcising is a new tradition; other times it can go back three — or even four — generations. Here is how it can happen:
- Parents and/or grandparents may have disfavored circumcision.
- Children may have been born in a country where circumcision wasn’t the norm, and parents chose to follow that country’s practices.
- One parent may have come from a non-circumcising culture, and that parent’s tradition was followed.
- One parent might have had strong feelings against, and the choice was made to honor that parent’s feelings.
- Illness might have prevented circumcision in infancy and parents never followed up.
- Children may have been born with genitals that had some male and some female characteristics, and circumcision did not take place for this reason.
- Children may have been born with a medical contraindication to circumcision, such as hemophilia.
- Circumcision may have been legally prohibited, unavailable, or dangerous due to political upheaval, war, etc.
Same Ritual, Different Experiences
As Jews, we can experience ritual very differently from one another. For example, some Jewish women feel empowered and renewed by monthly visits to the mikvah, while others may regard the custom as degrading or sexist. It’s the same with circumcision. Some feel brit milah on the eighth day after birth expresses their spirituality, some avoid religious observance by having a hospital circumcision, and some experience the sacred by having a brit shalom. We are all not inspired to do the same thing — and we don’t have to.