A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Intolerable Chutzpah of the Anti-Circumcision Movement

The New York Times has an article here about anti-circumcision activists gaining ground in California.

As you might imagine, I have very strong feelings about this. My feelings are grounded not only in my belief in the centrality of brit milah (the covenant of circumcision) in Judaism but also in my political makeup. So, even if legislators contemplating a ban include an exception for religion, I'm am still strongly opposed to this foolish and offensive movement.

This is a very long post, so I'll present brief summaries of my major points up front.

1) The state must not interfere with rights of parents unless there is a significant danger to a child.
2) There are harmful things than circumcision that parents do to children that are widely accepted in our culture.
3) Circumcision does not harm the baby.
4) There is no analogy to female circumcision, which is something that is widely abhorred in the west.
5) The idea that there is no moral justification for making a choice like circumcision for a child before the age of consent is refuted by our common experience in the world.
6) The philosophical basis for the anti-circumcision movement is flawed.

Those involved with this movement are referred to as anti-circumcision activists, but they should be called value-imposers, and that's how they'll be referred to here until I think of a better phrase. The reason I'm changing the language is because what is really material in the debate is not circumcision and it's harm - they are welcome to try to persuade whomever wants to listen. What is significant about the movement is that these people seek to impose their own values on others.

Here's why the value-imposers are terribly wrong:

1) The state needs to be kept very, very far away from the relationship between parents and children. Are there limits? Obviously, there are. The state must intervene if a child is being abused, if parents are so neglectful that the child is in danger, etcetera. But there is no basis for making this argument about circumcision. The burden of proof must remain on those who want to dictate to other people what decisions they can make for their families - not on parents who are choosing a medically accepted practice that causes no harm.

2) There are far greater harms that a parent can do to a child - should the state prevent parents from piercing the ears of little boys and girls? Of course not, but ear piercing is a purely decorative practice, it does not have any health arguments on its side (as circumcision does), nor does it have thousands of years of cultural tradition behind it. Should the state make it illegal for parents to feed junk food to babies? I've seen babies that are clearly not eating healthfully and are way too fat at a very young age. Those parents are doing far more harm to their child than circumcision does. What would be the argument against state interference in the diet of the baby? What about the choice to expose children to the wildly materialistic values inculcated by television? While I don't judge it, nor would I ever have the chutzpah to seek to make the state prevent it, I believe that it is obviously and demonstrably true that parents who expose young children to television are doing far, far more damage to their children than I've done to my sons by circumcision. The logic of the value-imposers would dictate that children should be age 18 before they can watch.

3) Circumcision does not harm the baby. Those who are attempting to impose their personal beliefs on others like to call it male genital mutilation. It is not. It does not change the essential function of the sexual organ of the child. Yes, it does change the appearance, and what I find interesting about this is that if this is the basis of calling it mutilation - which it must be, since no harm to the function of the penis comes from circumcision - then it is quite tellingly a particularistic and biased movement. It is using the aesthetic standards of a particular culture, of North America, protestant/secular culture, in the 21st century, to make judgments about what is right.

Billions of healthy males have lived healthy lives - sexual and otherwise - for thousands of years with this practice. And yet the value-imposers would have us believe that suddenly this should be considered an intolerable harm imposed upon a child?

4) The value-imposers want to you associate circumcision with female genital mutilation, as though these two things are the same (When someone's argument depends on discrediting by association, you know they are on the losing side of the argument). Female genital mutilation falls in a different category - it is, in fact, mutilation. Here's why the two are essentially different. First, the female genital mutilation I have heard of (I believe there are other kinds) involves removal of the clitoris, permanently and drastically altering the future sexual function of the baby to whom it is done. The difference between the sexual life of a woman with a clitoris and without is fundamental and vast. There is no way to make the argument that anything similar happens with a male. Circumcised males lead full and complete sexual lives. Second, the practice of removing the clitoris takes place in patriarchal societies in which women have very little power and the most significant choices in life are determined for them by men. Male circumcision is practiced on males in cultures that are overwhelmingly patriarchal and come from patriarchal traditions in which men are the ones who have made the rules and norms. Patriarchy isn't something to be proud of, but the point is that we're talking about a (harmless) practice that affects the most powerful people within the society. Males in North America, whether secular, protestant, Muslim, or Christian, are at a power advantage in the society, and circumcision cannot be seen as an expression of oppression.

5) Finally, we hear all the time that we mustn't do something to a child until they are old enough to decide for themselves. If they want to circumcise themselves at age 18, they may. This argument is impossible for me to take seriously. It is revealingly blind and naive. Is there such a thing as an infant who makes choices for him or herself? Did they choose to grow up in families in North America? Might they not be better off somewhere else - a place with more balance between work and leisure? The United States is nowhere near the top of the happiness indices that have developed over the last few years, indices which compare the relative happiness of the populations. My sons did not choose to grow up in this culture in which happiness is a bit further out of reach than elsewhere. But their life here is just a fact.

Parents many all of the most significant choices in a child's life for the child, choices that will define the boundaries of the child's life, their intellectual environment, their values, etcetera. Raising a child in an environment in which it is normal to play video games, or only listen to Britney Spears without exposure to much more complex and beautiful art does more damage to a child than an essentially harmless snip.

There are of course, thousands of other examples of very significant aspects of life that are chosen for us, not by us. Circumcision is a slight ritual that simply affirms and recognizes this reality - a reality that, for me, has religious significance. That we are NOT essentially free to choose essential aspects of ourselves and our identity - whether our culture, our DNA, our religion, our secularism - is to me an essential feature of existence. Westerners are deeply uncomfortable with this existential fact. Our entire political philosophy, the entire idea of the social contract, is founded upon the notion that a person attains total freedom when they are left alone by all others, when no decision is made for them. This is a fantasy that exists only in theory.

I am not suggesting that there is an analogy here between choosing to circumcise your child and passing on your DNA, or raising your child in a given country. My point is to identify what I think is the philosophical foundation of the value-imposers. I believe that these people are beholden to a false notion about what constitutes freedom, and choice. They consider this falsity (that a person should choose everything that happens to them) to be a universal truth, and therefore they believe they have the right to impose it on others. My point is that the philosophical foundation for their outlooks is wrong. The world isn't like that.

Should we hand over to the state these acts that have a much greater impact (and greater harm) on the child? Why not? Is the answer 1) that there is some essential difference between circumcision and other forms of harm that we impose on children? Or is it 2) that banning these other commonly accepted practices just wouldn't be practical? That is, we'd like to create laws to ban all harm that a parent might do, but it isn't politically feasible. If the answer of the value-imposers is answer #1, they have an obligation to explain their reasoning - because it is hard to imagine what it would be. If it's #2, then we should all - regardless of our religious tradition, political affiliation, or cultural traditions - be very afraid of the value-imposers, because they would be speaking the language of dangerous fundamentalists.

More to come on this topic, for sure.


  1. Excellent points. Equating a medically approved procedure with child abuse is bizarre. In fact, medical benefits are documented and in some situations can be significant. Much information can be found here:


    Of note here is that the reference to the history of the procedure is written by Cox. Clearly an authoritative source.

  2. What a load of rubbish, its well known that circumcision removes most of the nerve endings in the penis, and babies DIE from this procedure. No one should habe the right to remove healthy body parts from another human being

  3. Female circumcision removes the clitoral hood...this "useless flap of skin" is the equivalent of the male foreskin. In the womb, before gender is defined in the fetus, the apparatus looks the same in males and females. As gender is established around the 20th week in the fetus, the male baby grows foreskin and a female baby grows a clitoris. It IS equivalent to female genital mutilation and it IS child abuse. Just because YOUR religion (and Islam) makes it a requirement doesnt make it necessary for the gentiles! Stop routine infant circumcision!!

  4. Circumcision has been imposed on many American male babies at the urging of Jewish doctors. Keep your yarmulke out of my life.

  5. This needs to be re-titled as the Chutzpah of a Rabbi Blogger. This is due to the arguments he presents against the movement and the facts regarding circumcision. The first issue is that the circumcisions done today (and it applies to both those done for medical reasons or religious ones) is not what was originally practiced by Abraham which was a partial removal of the foreskin - the very tip and not the entire foreskin as is done today. I should note there are a lot of people within this movement - even Jews. This is not anti-semitism but an interest in protecting children from a needless and harmful procedure that affects them for their entire lives. I will address each of his arguments in the same order:
    1) Actually the State has the duty to protect its future citizenry, the issue is at what point should they intervene. He says to stop abuse - but this could be defined as abuse. If you did anything else "down there" to a child you would certainly be considered an abuser. The people of this movement believe it should be considered abuse since the forceful removal of healthy tissue with no necessary medical condition present to justify it goes against many medical ethical standards.

  6. 2) Are you kidding me? One of your arguments for keeping circumcision around is that you could do worse things to your kids???? This is the kind of deranged logic that can be associated with the likes of Hitler. (Yes, I used that person on purpose for the impact - I in no way am condoning what he did)
    3) Circumcision does indeed harm the baby - in fact even if it is done 100% correctly with no complications at all (An impossibility), it removes healthy tissue which has a purpose. It protects the glans and has a functional role in sex. (All you have to do is look at Viagra sales and know it has a negative effect there - Viagra only sells a lot in areas where infant circumcision is a routine -like Isreal and the US. - where 75% of those suffering from erectile dysfunction are circumcised) There are other issues where a circ has harmed the patient so much that the boy lost his entire member or even death has occurred. So, yes circ is certainly harmful.

  7. 4) Actually there are varying forms of female circumcision. Some are more severe as you have described. Yet, other forms are even less invasive than what is done to boys. I might add that many of the exact same medical benefits are attributed to both male and female versions of circumcisions. Most have been absolutely dis-proven for both versions but the evidence tends to get ignored in the US when it comes to circumcision for boys while the same risk factors that are used to support the continued practice in boys was never as severe as in girls (example a 2.2% chance of developing a UTI is seen as not enough risk to circ a girl while a 1.1% is more than enough to circ a boy - both from the same study by Wiswell who was PRO circucision in boys). Also, your argument here - that many men have healthy reproductive lives being circumcised is like saying that the African Americans who were slaves was alright since they still lived. It does not mean that what was done was WRONG!
    5)This is more of a philosophical argument based on your belief that your religious ritual is right. However, there are religious theologians who would note that the original "pact with God" was only involving Abraham and his children. It was never meant to be a generational thing. But even keeping this as a religious symbol for your belief, then not allowing it until the boy turns 18 (which is considered the legal age of consent for most things) actually is a good idea since this would allow the boy to grow up and decide for himself which religion and which parts of a religion they wish to believe in. This is where the freedom of religion (which is intended to be an individual right and not one for the family, group, or community) comes in so that the individual has the ability to make the choice for themself. (But then maybe you are afraid that they would decide to say "NO" to give them that choice) Another factor here is that the circumcision is supposed to be a sign of the individual's belief in the religion (this applies to all of the religions which use it). Therefore waiting would have more meaning since the individual would truly make a sacrifice in the name of their faith. Also, since a man may not own anything else in this world yet he still owns his own body - Circumcising a baby is stealing his personal property (this goes against "Thou shalt not steal") and worse, since the intent of the circumcision is supposed to be a sacrifice for the sake of the individual's faith - you are stealing the ability of the child to make the sacrifice. Also, the child may grow up to not believe in any of these religions - and none of them say that a circ alone will save a person's soul. Therefore it should be delayed FOR religious reasons as well as it's lack of medical benefit and potential for harm.
    6) You don't really list your thoughts on this one specifically in the main blog but I feel the above shows it is not the philosophy of the anti-circumcision groups that is flawed - it is your understanding of it (or at least your lack of willingness to try to understand it since it goes against what you believe is correct based on your religion.