Reform Rabbis Confront Growing Doubts on Circumcision

'Abuse' or divine decree? Though most favor continuing the ancient rite, a growing number hope to see it abandoned.

BY: Kevin Eckstrom


MONTEREY, Calif. (RNS)--When God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his son, Ishmael, there wasn't an option for "No, I'd rather not." The terms seemed pretty clear:

"Thus shall my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact," God tells Abraham in Genesis 17. "And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he was broken my covenant."

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But increasingly in Reform Judaism, families are questioning the historic ritual of circumcision, asking their rabbis if there is a way out. The physical mark of God's covenant, some say, is cruel and unnecessary.

In many ways, it is not a new argument. There has always been a vocal minority within Judaism that shunned the mohel's scalpel. Now, bolstered by the Internet, the anti-circumcision movement is gaining converts within Judaism and forcing rabbis to answer tough questions.

During the annual convention of Reform rabbis here this week, a roundtable discussion spent hours on Sunday (June 24) poring over ancient Hebrew texts and rabbinic arguments, looking for answers to help convince an increasingly skeptical audience.

"Now that regular circumcision has become less and less regular, we are facing new questions," said Rabbi Brenner Glickman of Houston.

Jews also want similar ceremonies for their baby daughters, even though none are provided for in scripture. If a boy is to be welcomed into Judaism eight days after his birth, why not girls, they ask.

There are two elements to the circumcision debate--one sacred, the other secular. On one side is the question of whether removing a male's foreskin is medically necessary; on the other, whether it is still religiously mandated.

Medically speaking, doctors seem to agree that old concerns about health and hygiene were largely exaggerated, or even unfounded. In 1999, a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found no medical reasons "sufficient enough to recommend routine neonatal circumcision."

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