A San Francisco ballot initiative that, if passed, will make it a misdemeanor to circumcise male children within that city has been drawing international attention. While there is a medical exemption, there is no religious one. A similar proposal is being considered in Santa Monica.
The prospect of a circumcision ban sits poorly with many in America where parents enjoy relatively broad rights to raise their children as they choose. Jewish people are understandably concerned, fearing such restrictions would be discriminatory, hurtful, and violate religious freedom. However, as a Jewish person who opposes the genital cutting of all children absent medical necessity, I’m glad these measures are being considered. What’s best for children deserves continual assessment and, thanks to these proposals, that’s happening.
My husband and I are both Jewish. We’re both American. Yet deciding to leave our son with the penis he was born with was not difficult. Causing pain to our beautiful child and forever changing his body didn’t seem right. We considered infant circumcision from different angles and concluded the surgery wasn’t in his best interest, either as a tender newborn or as the man he will become.
I realize that for very religious Jews circumcision is viewed as a direct mandate from God, an act of pure faith requiring no logical explanation. I feel strongly connected to Judaism but don’t view infant circumcision this way. My faith is aligned with what I feel in my heart to be right. God, as I conceive Him, would never require me to purposefully cause a helpless newborn pain or have him undergo a surgery of any kind absent clear medical need.
Even before I had a son the idea of circumcision didn’t sit well. I did, however, think it was essentially cosmetic. If it could be carried out with minimal pain, then it seemed to me like an acceptable practice for those who felt compelled to honor their Jewish heritage in this way. Once I took the time to really learn about the anatomy of the natural penis and the protective function of the foreskin and its role during intercourse, it became clear to me that circumcision does more than alter the appearance of the penis. At this point I felt the need to step-up the dialogue within the Jewish community about the harmful consequences of this procedure.
In December I launched Beyond the Bris, a web-based project that is putting real faces and voices to the Jewish movement against infant circumcision. It is an open and dynamic forum where likeminded Jewish people can come together. We share our ideas with one another and visitors to the project in whatever ways feel right to us. This includes original music, poetry and art. I couldn’t be happier with the terrific response I’ve been getting from Jews in America, Israel and elsewhere who agree that children are entitled to keep their whole sex organs.
Skim the recent headlines and you will likely read stories of Jewish outrage over the proposed circumcision bans in California. However this isn’t the full story.
I recently spoke with Lloyd Schofield, the San Franciscan who spearheaded the effort to place the ban on the November ballot. He expressed to me his amazement about how open, interested and positive many members of the Jewish community have been about his efforts. He told me that when he was gathering signatures, many people self-identified as Jews and some signed his petition on the spot. Others declined, but even within this group he said all were respectful and many seemed genuinely happy to take educational handbills and learn more about the subject.
I think the positive Jewish response to the Beyond the Bris project and to the efforts in California speaks tremendously of the Jewish people; that we are willing to seriously consider this issue even when it means challenging thousands of years of tradition. I can’t say I’m surprised. Jewish people have been integral in every rights movement in this country and this is no exception.
Parents agreeing to cut their children’s healthy sex organs has occurred throughout history among diverse cultures. Groups that cut rationalize their behavior yet are quick to criticize other groups who modify the sex organs differently.
Female genital cutting, or FGC, is a cultural norm in many societies. A first reaction might be to say, “Hey, that’s completely different from infant male circumcision.” Is it?
I would encourage anyone who thinks along these lines to look into the anatomy of the natural versus the circumcised penis and what foreskin removal really is and does from an anatomical perspective. FGC is done for many of the same reasons as male infant circumcision including perceived cleanliness, preferred appearance, cultural and religious tradition and the prevention of disease. In recent years, FGC has even moved to modern hospitals, for those families who can afford it, and is performed by trained physicians. Medical studies have even “proved” FGC prevents sexually transmitted disease.
It’s difficult to step outside of one’s culture and see it with perspective. For Jews in America and Israel I think it’s doubly hard to recognize our own brand of cutting as being harmful because it is both a cultural and a religious norm. But if you do the research and look at this issue in an openminded and intellectually honest way, it just might “click” that there’s something not right about infant circumcision.
For me, once this shift happened, my perspective changed forever and I could no longer see it as just another parenting choice.
Rebecca Wald, J.D., is the founder of the Beyond the Bris project. She lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Freedom of religion, enshrined over two centuries ago by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is now subject to a vote with the certification in San Francisco of the referendum on circumcision for the November ballot. The vote will empower a secular majority to impose its will, and ban one of the oldest religious traditions known to humanity. When religious belief and practice become subject to vote by the majority of a city council, government agency or referendum, it endangers all of our rights and freedoms.
The proposal’s backers are trying to deceive the voters by labeling it a “ban on genital mutilation.” Honesty would have demanded they called it a ban on circumcision. By using such a toxic term as mutilation, they hope to garner support from an unsuspecting public. As written, the measure would make circumcision on anyone under 18 a misdemeanor and punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
The Hebrew word for ritual circumcision, bris, literally means “a covenant.” It is a covenantal act that Jews have practiced since the time of the Patriarch Abraham more than three-and-a-half millennia ago. It reflects a commitment to monotheism that reaches back to the dawn of observance practiced even under religious oppression. The holiday of Chanukah emerged after the Greeks banned circumcision, which led to a bloody revolt. The Romans banned circumcision after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Defying death, Jews secretly followed their tradition.
Circumcision is based on a Biblical commandment that required that Jewish males be circumcised eight days after birth. Jews, from the most observant to the most secular, follow this tradition.
Circumcision may provide certain medical benefits. It represents a surgical vaccine against a wide variety of infections, adverse medical conditions and potentially fatal diseases, and also protects their sexual partners. Public health benefits include some protection from urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted HIV. For women, circumcision of the male partner provides some protection from cervical cancer, genital herpes, bacterial and other infections.
The United States was the first country in history to guarantee all faiths religious freedom. Now, two centuries later, this cherished freedom is being put up to a popular vote. The framers of the Constitution were concerned that the tyranny of the majority would infringe on the rights of minorities. It is not just the tradition of circumcision that is being voted on in November in San Francisco, but the right for any person to follow the religious faith they treasure and the right of a parent to educate a child in the values they hold dear.
If the backers succeed in banning ritual circumcision, then the city will be compelled to defend this unconstitutional measure in a long, expensive court battle. Hopefully the voters of San Francisco will stand up for religious freedom, see beyond the phony labeling of the proposal and defeat it at the ballot box.
Rabbi Gil Leeds is a certified mohel, that is, he is trained in the medical procedure and religious practice of circumcision. He is the campus rabbi at the Chabad Center at UC Berkley. His website is bayareamohel.com.