Circumcision: A Jewish Inquiry

Is the pain of the brit milah ceremony really necessary in welcoming Jewish male children?

Adapted from a piece that originally appeared in Midstream magazine. Used with the author's permission.

Outside the Jewish world, circumcision is the subject of fierce controversy. Its proponents say the practice is safe and painless, and that it dramatically reduces the risk of medical problems ranging from urinary tract infections to AIDS. Its opponents, on the other hand, have called circumcision a painful mutilation of the body; an unnecessary medical risk, and a violation of the child's rights.

More on Circumcision

News: Reform Rabbis Confront Circumcision Doubts

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The Cut That Almost Wasn't by Nancy Cahners

"Why I Perform Circumcisions" by mohelet Dorothy F. Greenbaum

Paul Got Christians Off the Hook by Thomas Lynch

Not surprisingly, many Jews find the arguments against circumcision exaggerated and inflammatory. Yet these arguments provide a useful springboard for Jewish inquiry into brit milah ("covenant of circumcision")--for all of them stem from Jewish principles. Concern about babies' pain echoes the Jewish prohibition against the causing of pain to living things. Opposition to bodily mutilation is based on the Torah's denunciation of such pagan practices as tattooing and cutting the flesh. Concern for medical risk, too, has roots in halakah (Jewish law). Any medical procedure that involves even the possibility of risk to life is halakically forbidden. And the idea of protecting children's rights brings to mind the Jewish principle that the poor and weak should be treated equally with the rich and mighty. If even the most inflammatory anti-circumcision arguments reflect ideas originating in Judaism, clearly we ought to address current concerns about the practice.

Risk Factors
The possibility of death and serious complications from circumcision appears to be relatively small. But the exact risk has not been established. In hospitals, circumcision death can occur from secondary causes such as liver failure, kidney failure, pneumonia, and blood poisoning; according to circumcision authority Edward Wallerstein, health professionals may fail to link these deaths to their original cause. It seems likely that nonfatal complications go unreported for similar reasons.

What about the risk of circumcision performed by mohels (ritual circumcisers)? No systematic data on deaths or serious complications from brit milah have ever been compiled. Of course, today's mohels provide much safer conditions than were available in Talmudic times, when brit milah deaths were common enough to warrant a law exempting a third infant son from circumcision if two of his brothers had already died from the rite.

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