MONTEREY, Calif. (RNS)--When God commanded Abraham to circumcise himselfand 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 everlastingpact," God tells Abraham in Genesis 17. "And if any male who isuncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that personshall be cut off from his kin; he was broken my covenant."But increasingly in Reform Judaism, families are questioning thehistoric ritual of circumcision, asking their rabbis if there is a wayout. The physical mark of God's covenant, some say, is cruel andunnecessary. In many ways, it is not a new argument. There has always been avocal minority within Judaism that shunned the mohel's scalpel. Now,bolstered by the Internet, the anti-circumcision movement is gainingconverts within Judaism and forcing rabbis to answer tough questions. During the annual convention of Reform rabbis here this week, aroundtable discussion spent hours on Sunday (June 24) poring overancient Hebrew texts and rabbinic arguments, looking for answers to helpconvince an increasingly skeptical audience. "Now that regular circumcision has become less and less regular, weare facing new questions," said Rabbi Brenner Glickman of Houston. Jews also want similar ceremonies for their baby daughters, eventhough none are provided for in scripture. If a boy is to be welcomedinto Judaism eight days after his birth, why not girls, they ask. There are two elements to the circumcision debate--one sacred, theother secular. On one side is the question of whether removing a male'sforeskin is medically necessary; on the other, whether it is stillreligiously mandated. Medically speaking, doctors seem to agree that old concerns abouthealth 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."
According to opponents, only about 18% of men around theworld are circumcised, most of them Muslims. The United States has oneof the world's highest percentages of circumcised men, currently atabout 62%. The circumcision debate has become a highly emotional one. Earlierthis year, a man sued the New York hospital where he was born, claimingthe circumcision performed there had reduced his sex life. Some men havetaken to the Internet to explore the possibility of reversing theircircumcisions. Many opponents--even some Jews--say the ritual is a savageremnant of an ancient culture. Some compare it to female genitalmutilation, which has been roundly condemned by Americans when itsurfaces in foreign cultures. "Any unwarranted medical procedure is abuse," said Moshe Rothenberg,a self-professed "Jewish educator" from Brooklyn who performsalternative ceremonies for Jewish boys. "If you cut off somebody's earwho does not need to have their ear cut off, medically speaking, it'sabuse." Reform Jews, especially, question whether there is a need for theritual when liberal Judaism has dropped other observances of the faith,such as keeping kosher or avoiding work on the Sabbath. And they pointto other ancient practices no longer embraced by the faith, such asmultiple wives or animal sacrifices. "One's Jewish identity is determined before the circumcision, notduring or after," said Ronald Goldman, director of the CircumcisionResource Center in Cambridge, Mass. He added that men can beuncircumcised and still be good Jews. "They're already out there," hesaid. "And according to all reports, they're doing just fine, and notjust sexually." While their arguments may sound tempting, most rabbis say they ringhollow when measured against the weight of a divine commandment. "When you cut through all the opposition, that's the reason--Godcommanded it," said Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of the Los Angeles campus ofthe Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, who led the study here.