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"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

To Cut or Not to Cut?

Posted by lchaimlover on June 28, 2007

hh0019s.jpg

18th century set of circumcision tools

According to a national poll, circumcision rates are dropping in the United States, down to 40% in the San Francisco area.
And this isn’t only among the non-Jewish population. According to recent AP article, Jewish families are celebrating “bloodless brit milahs”, no cuts, but keeping the party.

To be blunt, this is a shame, along the lines of a Bar Mitzvah with no synagogue or Torah. How does one reconcile keeping with the covenant, when they aren’t fulfilling one of the most important mitzvahs. In ancient Greece, when Hellenic culture was all the rage, Jews questioned circumcision. Some Jews even went through painful plastic surgery so as to appear uncircumcised. It didn’t help that the Greeks and Romans made circumcision illegal. But all that surgery still didn’t help the Jews when Chanukah time rolled around.

How important is circumcision to Hashem? According the story in Exodus, Hashem attempted to kill Moshe, his right hand man, because his son was not circumcised. Luckily clever Tzipporah figured out why Hashem was so mad, and performed the ceremony herself. One man in Oregon, who recently converted to Judaism, has gone all the way to the Supreme Court to defend his right to circumcise his 12 year old son. According to one of the previously mentioned articles, circumcision is still mostly popular among Jewish and Muslim communities, but with the ever decreasing popularity, will this hold out? Apparently only in the Midwest is it still very popular, with rates well above 80%. So it seems as if Chicago may be the new place to be…

 

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13 Responses to “To Cut or Not to Cut?”

  1. Squeedle said

    I’m solidly in agreement with you here.

    One thing a lot of the politically-correct, anti-circumcision folks never mention, is any health benefit to circumcision.

    I was going to list them but the Wikipedia article does a much better job of discussion and provides references:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumcision

    Personally I see no reason to ban the practice, there are perfectly sound reasons to do it, and ANYWAY, Jews are commanded to do so. As you stated, this is one of the most important signs of the Jewish covenant. This is an extremely ancient practice – which isn’t a sufficient argument but its persistence should argue to non-religious people (including goyim) for examination of its benefits.

  2. Oyster said

    “To be blunt, this is a shame” nice choice of words, LL!

    Anyways, everyone here knows that Jews are a ‘cut above the rest’… :-p

    Oh, and Squeedle: when you say ‘goyim’, you mean both sheygetzes & shiksas, right? j/k

  3. Squeedle said

    I should have said, “non-religious people (**as well as** goyim)” Sorry, that was plain old brain glitch rather than actually thinking that non-Jews aren’t religious, which would be a very silly thing to say, especially since I myself actually used to be quite a devout Christian.

  4. Oyster said

    Complaints against circimcision: Jews want them to ‘cut it out’.

    [ducks]

  5. khia said

    wait, judaism isn’t about just doing what you want and then throwing a party? dang

  6. Friar Yid said

    I seem to be the Devil’s Advocate again (I wonder if this is the start of a trend). Sorry challahbackgirl, but I don’t see the harm here, particularly since the parents’ decision to not circumcise in no way prevents their children from deciding to circumcise at a later date (whereas the converse is not true).

    As for it being one of the most important mitzvahs, isn’t the traditional view that they’re all important? It’s not like plenty of modern Jews don’t pick and choose on so many other issues. Why not this one as well?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-circumcision, and I find some of those groups to be quite concerning in regards to their rhetoric. But I’m surprised and disappointed that every time the issue seems to come up, circumcision defenders seem to be so quick to disparage folks who opt out of this mitzvah.

    Comparisons to the bad old Hellenistic days aside, the issue as I see it is whether circumcision continues to mean anything to American Jews. Obviously for some, it does, and I suspect that for many people, the question transcends mere religious observance. But the challenge is to see non-circumcision, like intermarriage, like a lack of Jewish education, as part of a larger process, and as symptoms of Jewish disinterest and disengagement from Jewish practice, particularly when it comes to mitzvot. That is the real issue, not circumcision alone. Furthermore, until that gap is addressed, there can be no common ground between pro-circs and anti-circs. Telling someone, “but Exodus says it’s important” isn’t going to have any effect on them unless that argument actually MEANS something to them. Within the context of a post-modern Judaism, where God may or may not exist and the Torah was written by men and everything is coming down to personal choice and tailoring one’s personal observance to what is personally resonant or fulfilling to the individual, I can understand how, for some people, there simply are not enough good reasons to circumcise their kids, particularly if the parents believe it to be potentially harmful. It doesn’t make them bad people, or unintelligent, or even necessarily ignorant of Judaism. But it does signify that they’re coming from a very different place in terms of how they conceive of Judaism, Jewish identity, and mitzvot.

    I will agree, however, that the “bloodless brit” ceremony is ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with welcoming your child into the world, but a brit is a specific practice. If you’re choosing not to have one, go for it. (I didn’t have a (religious) brit, or a bar mitzvah. We didn’t have alternate parties, they just didn’t happen, period.) But I’m not sure how appropriate the co-option of the ceremony is absent the ritual itself.

    More on the subject here.

  7. lchaimlover said

    it is LchaimLover actually, not challahbackgirl, first point against you.

    “particularly since the parents’ decision to not circumcise in no way prevents their children from deciding to circumcise at a later date (whereas the converse is not true).”
    while this is true, it is specifically the parents’ obligation to do this mitzvah. Therefore it is there sin if they do not (i.e. Moshe).

    It is true that all the mitzvahs are important, but it all starts “in the beginning” and if you don’t start your child’s life of in the way of Mitzvahs, don’t act all shocked and shaken when the child grown up does not act in the way of mitzvahs. All education starts at home, and if you want your child to value Judaism in anyway, how do you do that when you have to start the conversation with “Well kinderlach we only do some mitvahs, not all of them.” And the little kinderlach say “So I can do some and not all too, right?”

    As for being quick to disparage, I am an equal opportunity disaparager, and therefore I disparage people who opt out of any mitzvah, because as you said, they are all equally important.

    Obviously Exodus means something if they want to have a “bloodless bris” ceremony. They obviously want to establish there child’s life (in some way) in the way of the Torah, so that argument doesn’t hold much water with me.

    “It doesn’t make them bad people, or unintelligent, or even necessarily ignorant of Judaism. But it does signify that they’re coming from a very different place in terms of how they conceive of Judaism, Jewish identity, and mitzvot.”

    I didn’t say any of those things, I said, as any good grandmother would “It’s a shame”. Not in the shameful way, but in the tsk tsk kind of way. Again, for my previous point, if they are conceiving Judaism in any way, they will one day have to reconcile, whether to themself of their children, what it says in Exodus and why Ima and Abba didn’t see it the same way.

  8. Friar Yid said

    it is LchaimLover actually, not challahbackgirl, first point against you.

    My apologies.

    It is true that all the mitzvahs are important, but it all starts “in the beginning” and if you don’t start your child’s life of in the way of Mitzvahs, don’t act all shocked and shaken when the child grown up does not act in the way of mitzvahs.

    Somehow I don’t think these folks are going to be that surprised. If the parents are already opting out of what even more liberal streams of Judaism consider usual practice, they’re probably already somewhat disaffected with Judaism (or just from a very, very, liberal subsect). As I said, I don’t think this impulse comes from nothing, but is rather the result of a larger process. And of course, it probably has a great deal to do with what the parents consider “the way of mitzvahs,” specifically halacha vs. cultural practices vs., say, “good deeds.”

    All education starts at home, and if you want your child to value Judaism in anyway, how do you do that when you have to start the conversation with “Well kinderlach we only do some mitvahs, not all of them.” And the little kinderlach say “So I can do some and not all too, right?”

    I don’t buy that at all. You say, “we do this, we don’t do this, and this is why.” If you’re able to express yourself and your decisions at all intelligently, the children should be able to appreciate your reasons. Plenty of people drive to shul, an act which, under Orthodox halacha, is a strict no-no. I doubt they view this as disqualifying themselves or their progeny from “valuing Judaism.” It’s a question of where you draw the line. I for one am not convinced that the brit is as big a defining mitzvah as some other folks seem to be.

    As for being quick to disparage, I am an equal opportunity disaparager, and therefore I disparage people who opt out of any mitzvah, because as you said, they are all equally important.

    I applaud you for your consistency. I wish it was as commonplace among other pro-circ advocates. However from my experiences, particularly in print and online, people seem to react with particular intensity when it comes to thinks like the brit. I can’t help wondering if this is truly because “all mitzvot are important,” or whether it’s more of an emotional response. Would the reactions (or disparagement, etc) be as forceful if we were talking about parents not making their kids wear tallit katan, for example?

    Obviously Exodus means something if they want to have a “bloodless bris” ceremony. They obviously want to establish there child’s life (in some way) in the way of the Torah, so that argument doesn’t hold much water with me.

    I don’t know if we’re using these words in exactly the same way. Wanting to have your child to have some connection to Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, and identity is by no means the same thing as, “I take Exodus as Gospel.” A bloodless brit, to me, says the parents want to include themselves and their child in some element of Jewish community and continuity. It does not necessarily follow, however, that they are at all observant, to say nothing of whether they hold halacha to be binding or the Torah to be divine. In a case such as that, where you are essentially dealing with secular, post-modern, cultural Jews, using a religious argument based on “how much God cares about circumcision” is, in all likelihood, not going to be resonant or effective.

    I didn’t say any of those things

    I didn’t say you did. I said I am concerned that some of the rhetoric regarding parents that opt out of circumcision seems to be so quick to condemn and judge.

    Again, for my previous point, if they are conceiving Judaism in any way, they will one day have to reconcile, whether to themself of their children, what it says in Exodus and why Ima and Abba didn’t see it the same way.

    Maybe they can get some tips from the Orthodox. How do they explain to their kids that Exodus says to build altars and tabernacles and Leviticus tells us about all the sacrifices we have to do, but Abba and Ima don’t?

  9. Oyster said

    FY, everyone knows that all Brits are bloody. Just ask any Indian, Irishman, etc.

    First off, all mizvot are important, but it is acknowledged that the differ in severity or importance. The most famous systematic description of this priority scale is from Rambam.

    LchaimLover: It ain’t as easy as ‘Exodus says so’. As R3 argued to Reb Nachum many moons ago, Moshe Rabbeinu was never circumcised (at least, not explicitly so in the Written Torah). So that is a strong blow to pro-circ arguments. I am pro-circ, btw, just to be clear. OTOH, the incident with Tzipporah and Moshe’s children gives us an explicit pretext for **FEMALE** mohels.

    That only gets messy when you factor in Metzitzah b’Peh (oral suction of the incision)… :-D. But I transgress digress…

    Circumcision is one of the first mitzvot; a covenant between HaShem and all of Israel as related to Avraham Avinu. In Egypt, in the Greek empire, in Spain, and in Germany Jews risked death, or died trying, to have their sons circumcised. I’m not about to end that just because it’s out of fashion.

    Plus, circumcision dramatically reduces one’s risk of developing PENILE CANCER. Case-&-point for me!

  10. Friar Yid said

    Hi Oyster,

    The most famous systematic description of this priority scale is from Rambam.

    I poked around on the net looking for this but couldn’t find much. Where does he place the brit?

    Circumcision is one of the first mitzvot; a covenant between HaShem and all of Israel as related to Avraham Avinu. In Egypt, in the Greek empire, in Spain, and in Germany Jews risked death, or died trying, to have their sons circumcised. I’m not about to end that just because it’s out of fashion.

    And I get that, but I also understand why other Jews, especially those that don’t care about halacha, pick and choose their mitzvot and practices in regards to almost everything else, and for whatever reason, are particularly squicked about circumcision, might opt out. That’s all I’m saying. Sometimes for some people, tradition (cue the Fiddler score) just isn’t enough. And the challenge is to figure out what the appropriate response to that should be, both on an individual and family level (no bris? no grandson!) as well as on a larger community scale- what does the bloodless brit indicate about where young Jews are these days? What does the sometimes hostile response, both from older Jews but also young Jewish peers, say about the levels of communication and understanding between Jews who observe and understand Judaism differently?

  11. […] To Cut or Not to Cut? […]

  12. […] on October 14th, 2007 Back in June, I wrote an article regarding circumcision called “To Cut or Not To Cut” regarding the decline in circumcision by anti-traditionalists. Well look who just picked up […]

  13. Hugh7 said

    Oyster: “Plus, circumcision dramatically reduces one’s risk of developing PENILE CANCER. Case-&-point for me!” That’s actually quite debatable – the rate is markedly lower in Denmark, where hardly anyone is circumcised, than the US. And penile cancer is so rare it’s hard to get good figures. The lifetime risk is about 1 in 1000, rarer than male breast cancer. Smoking is a much better-substantiated risk-factor.

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